Twenty-five years ago this week, The Clash released their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope.
Artistic sophomore efforts always threaten to over-promise and under-deliver.
Inevitably, then, reaction to Rope was decidedly mixed.
Critics were mostly enthralled. Rolling Stone and Time hailed Give ‘Em Enough Rope as 1978’s album of the year.
On The Clash’s home turf, a writer at Sounds (who probably never lived this down) declared it one of the best records in history.
For many fans, however, such critical acclaim bolstered their own disdain.
The iconoclastic punk band had promised their loyal followers that signing their six-figure contract with CBS Records would never turn them into commercial, corporate puppets. One zine famously declared that “punk died” the day that deal was done.
So as far as longtime loyalists were concerned, Give ‘Em Enough Rope represented a blatant betrayal. They called the record slick and overproduced — by the guy behind Blue Oyster Cult, no less!
For less rabid music lovers, Rope simply got lost between the band’s epochal self-titled debut and their third release, the mainstream masterpiece London Calling.
Heck, Fred Armisen even forgot to make fun of it:
With the passage of time, though, most Clash fans will admit that Rope is, at the very least, half a great album.
For those of us who remember when albums had such things, that undisputed “half” is the record’s A-side.
Recently hired drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon introduces himself with his smashing intro to the album’s first song, “Safe European Home.”
It’s immediately obvious that the group has evolved at a stunningly brisk pace in the year and a half since their first album.
Compared to the monosyllabic juvenilia of “Hate and War,” “Cheat” and “What’s My Name,” “Safe European Home” sounds like Sondheim.
Back story: Mick Jones and Joe Strummer had traveled to Jamaica to
party with Rastas write the songs for this very album.
In the video below, it’s clear that decades on, the group’s original dub & reggae champion, bassist Paul Simonon, is still pretending not to be hurt that he wasn’t invited along. That, even though the trip was a disaster.
Ironically, the best song to come out of this would-be songwriting jaunt was written after Jones and Strummer fled the island, vowing in this call-and-response ditty that they’d never “go back there again”:
Would-be soul brothers Strummer and Jones report back from “a place where every white face was an invitation to robbery,” where Natty Dread is drinking at the bar in the Sheraton Hotel. (…)
The feeling of displacement is hilarious, but what makes the song more than a good joke on the Clash, what tosses you right into the middle of it, is the pure power of the performance (…)
The music pushes harder and harder, and finally the two Englishmen flee — right back to their safe European home, to the safety of a land where Jamaicans are treated with the same scorn Strummer and Jones were offered in Jamaica.
So if you watched that Audio Ammunition video about the making of Give ‘Em Enough Rope on the previous page (and you should), you met the album’s producer, a now rather palsied Sandy Pearlman.
Although he’d worked with a few punk pioneers, Pearlman was best known as the producer for Blue Oyster Cult, a band that represented everything punks hated, right down to that pretentious, expendable umlaut over the “O.”
(Pearlman inspired Christopher Walken’s “Bruce ‘More Cowbell’ Dickinson” character on SNL, seen above. Meanwhile, in the video below, note that The Clash are using BOC equipment. More on that here.)
CBC hired Pearlman to help them earn back their investment in The Clash by making their sound more agreeable to American ears.
To that end, Pearlman traveled to England to attend a secret gig put on for his benefit, to get a better sense of the group he’d soon be working with.
His first encounter with The Clash, or rather, the band’s inner circle, went badly…
The Clash always took their pre-gig warm-up time extremely seriously, psyching themselves for performance in much the same way as a football teem. To this end, [road manager] Johnny Green would seal off their dressing room for the period immediately before they took the stage. Unfortunately, at the first show he attended, Pearlman made the mistake of trying to push his way in past Robin Crocker, who had no idea who he was and had already refused him entry once. Drunk, and paying no heed to Mick’s recent promise to [rock critic] Lester Bangs regarding unprovoked assaults, Robin lost his temper and hit Sandy on the nose.
Robin Crocker was one of Mick Jones’ oldest and closest friends. (He’s better known by his nickname, “Robin Banks,” an allusion to his compulsive criminality.)
Anxious to look hard and sound serious and “political,” The Clash hewed to a strict “no love songs” rule, but Jones wasn’t entirely happy about that.
Strummer mocked his collaborator for always wanting to write about “that lovely girl [he] saw.” With Jones mostly tasked with setting Strummer’s words to music, however, he rarely got the chance.
So Jones ingeniously broke the rule by writing, all on his own, a “love song” of a different kind: a valentine to Crocker.
There aren’t many pop songs about male friendships to begin with, but even if there were, “Stay Free” would still be in the top three, if not number one.
It’s been known to make grown men cry. (Maybe not Pearlman, though…)
The song is appropriately cinematic, reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, with Robin “playing” Robert De Niro’s unpredictable, unrepentant delinquent to Jones’ Harvey Keitel, who’s trying (although not very hard) to go straight.
While Crocker served time for bank robbery, Jones enjoyed the first flowerings of success with The Clash. “Stay Free” charts the different paths their lives had taken.
Listeners may detect “notes” of The Rolling Stones and Mott the Hoople in “Stay Free,” especially given the “Sweet Black Angel” lift at the very end. All those “flavors” reflect the music Jones and Crocker embraced in their teens while following their favorite bands, vagabond style, around England.
While the music and lyrics are already perfectly matched, Jones’ reedy voice lends the finished recording an appropriately Neil Young-esque poignancy.
Cuz years have passed and things have changed
And I move anyway I wanna go
I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home
An’ I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cos I knew where you would be
An’ if you’re in The Crown tonight
Have a drink on me
But go easy
Alas, in case you’re wondering, he didn’t.
Music had less power, both political and personal, than The Clash hoped it did.