We unpack Beto O’Rourke’s Clash allusion, so you don’t have to
Wait…did Representative Beto O’Rourke make a surprisingly hip rock reference, or was he subtly implying that Senator Ted Cruz was a white supremacist who would end up slaughtered by rebels?
On September 20, 2018 Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz met at the University of Houston for the first of their three debates. During the event, Congressman O’Rourke perked up the ears of former college radio DJ’s all over America when he said that Senator Cruz was “…working for the clampdown and the corporations and the special interests. He’s not working for the people of Texas.”
“Working for the Clampdown” is a reference to a key lyric from “Clampdown,” a well-known song from London Calling, the third album by the legendary English punk band, The Clash. Was O’Rourke trying to score credibility points, or was there a deeper meaning to his allusion?
(Quick note: Some sources state that London Calling was released in 1979, others say 1980. Both are correct. The album was released in the U.K. in late 1979, and in the U.S. in early 1980. This has created the peculiar phenomenon that London Calling appears on ‘Best of The Decade’ lists for both the 1970s and the 1980s.)
The “Clampdown” reference certainly underlined Representative O’Rourke’s nearly unique position as a Punk Rock Politician, one who skated, played in cool bands, and might actually know who Bruce Foxton or Captain Sensible is. See, people like that don’t normally go into politics. They become TV executives and newspaper editors, they direct Sundance-lauded documentaries, or they continue to DJ at college radio stations even though they have their AARP cards. They never, ever get mentioned as potential Presidential candidates…not until now, anyway (by the way if Beto can name three or more Damned bass players – not including Lemmy, who was merely a transitional bassist in early 1979 – I will drop everything and go work for him).
But there’s a big, fat question: Was O’Rourke merely dispensing a familiar catch phrase that he knew would prick up the ears of a certain demographic, or was he using “Clampdown” to make a devastating comment on Ted Cruz, his policies, and the world he imagines we would inherit if Cruz and his cronies retain power?
On the surface, by accusing Senator Cruz of “Working for the Clampdown, ” Rep. O’Rourke could have been positioning Cruz as “The Man” and Beto as the young buck who will never work for the man, maaaan. That’s the obvious interpretation.
But the lyrics of “Clampdown” are fairly detailed and nuanced, and if O’Rourke was truly familiar with them he may have been making a raw and specific attack on Cruz.
Let’s start here, with the second half of the first verse of “Clampdown”:
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers
There’s no mistaking what’s going on here: This is a reference to The Third Reich (or a similar white power organization or apartheid government) indoctrinating young “blue-eyed men” via hate speech and lies. Since it is entirely likely that the reference in the debate to “Clampdown” was planned/planted in advance, was O’Rourke using “Clampdown” as a subtle way to tag Cruz as a white supremacist eager to use falsehoods to spread a gospel of hate?
True, some of the other lyrics in “Clampdown” deal “merely” with a personal response to the frustration of dead-end jobs: “The men at the factory are old and cunning/You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running/It’s the best years of your life they want to steal.” But those Springsteen-esque lines are sung by guitarist Mick Jones (traditionally the less rebellious, more romantic lyricist in the Clash), and not primary vocalist/guitarist Joe Strummer. A few seconds later when Strummer reclaims the microphone, he moves away from the empathetic perspective and once again levels a clear and direct indictment of a system that keeps honest men under an unnamed oppressors’ thumb:
In these days of evil presidentés
Working for the clampdown
But lately one or two has fully paid their due
For working for the clampdown
The 1970s was rife with revolution, frequently resulting in the violent overthrow of sitting heads of state. Significantly, the Shah of Iran was dramatically deposed only six months before “Clampdown” was recorded. Strummer was well aware of these events, and it is clear what side he takes: We note that throughout much of the Clash’s full-length film, Rude Boy — released just weeks after London Calling — Strummer can be seen wearing a T-shirt of the Brigade Rossi, an Italian far-left terrorist/activist group. In other words, Strummer does not play dice with his lyrics, and when you quote him, you are choosing to cite an avid student and supporter of radical left causes and aggressive solutions.
Is O’Rourke suggesting that Cruz – or the President he serves – is “evil,” and in due time he will be violently overthrown, like the “presidentés” alluded to in “Clampdown”?
In this context, the lines that follow shortly thereafter – “Working hard in Harrisburg/Working Hard in Petersburg” – take on a powerful meaning. Strummer appears to be saying that when greedy corporate interests (i.e. the Clampdown) precipitate events like the near-catastrophic accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant (near Harrisburg), they are potentially inviting a reaction like the violent worker’s revolts in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905 and 1917 (keep in mind that the Three Mile Island disaster happened just months before the recording of London Calling).
Cause and effect: The Clampdown oppresses, so the people revolt. This is a very powerful statement, and almost surely Joe Strummer’s intent. But was it O’Rourke’s?
When Beto O’Rourke cites “Clampdown,” is he inferring that Ted Cruz is a white supremacist intent on using lies to recruit an army, yet one day The People will triumph and he will be overthrown, just as the evil Shahs and Tsars was toppled? Or is O’Rourke merely saying, “Mister Cruz, you’re the establishment, and boy oh boy will my base will love this reference”?
If Representative O’Rourke can name three Clash drummers (without Googling), I will assume he means the former, not the latter. The third one is the tough one, by the way, but I think Beto is the kind of guy who can nail it.
Now, Having dealt with the political stuff, let us address some of the fascinating shit about the song itself.
First: Spike Milligan (1918 – 2002) was one of the greatest cultural forces of his era. Milligan was a British author, actor, and comedian who virtually singlehandedly invented the sort of comedy we associate with Monty Python (and all their children). He was also a profound influence on the absurdist wordplay and punnery of John Lennon (something Lennon was happy to admit; he wrote a piece about it for the New York Times in 1975).
Milligan found art among the rubble of atrocity and constructed extraordinary achievements out of anarchy and frustration. Again and again (but most visibly in The Goon Show, the 1950s BBC radio series he scripted and acted in), Milligan took weariness of war, class division and conformity and turned it into soul-soaring poetry and the kind of art that actually changes people’s lives.
It is no accident whatsoever that the first (sung) line of Clampdown is an homage to Milligan.
“What Are We Gonna Do Now?” was one of Milligan’s catchphrases, from his proto-Python TV series, Q. The phrase was used in much the same way that Python used “And now for something completely different”.
n September 20, 1979, I was exactly 17-and-a-half-years old. Naturally, I did what pretty much any 17-and-a-half-year old would do when they were living in New York City during the waning months of the Carter administration: I snuck into the Palladium to watch the Clash soundcheck. The Clash did great soundchecks, by the way; over the years I was fortunate enough to see about half a dozen of them. They would always play full-out and jump around and do all sorts of groovy old rock ‘n’ roll covers.
During this particular soundcheck, the Clash did an instrumental version of a song I was not familiar with. It was very different then any Clash song I had ever heard: Rather than being a short, sharp bulletin, a collection of snapping riffs, or a brittle take on reggae, it was a roaring, windmilling, big rock song, reminiscent of the Who or Cheap Trick. Later that day when I saw my friend Ira Robbins I said to him, “I think the Clash have written a Cheap Trick song.”
That song, of course, was “Clampdown.”
See, “Clampdown” was a very different Clash song. From the very beginning of their career, the Clash had written songs around guitar riffs that borrowed heavily from the most familiar riffs of the British invasion. For instance, “1977,” a song that appeared on the B-side the Clash’s very first 45, featured a riff that was virtually identical to the Kinks “All the Day and All of the Night.” “White Riot” borrows heavily from the two/three chord stomp of early Kinks, Pretty Things, Who, or the more caveman end of Led Zeppelin. Both “Clash City Rockers” and “Safe European Homes” borrow, almost litigiously, from one of the most famous riffs in rock history, the Who’s “Can’t Explain.” But all these Clash riffs have one thing in common: They are clipped riffs, meaning the player (Jones and Strummer) mutes each chord cold before moving onto the next one.
But “Clampdown,” virtually uniquely in the Clash’s songwriting arsenal, has (what I will call) an open riff. The guitarist(s) do not “clip” the riff, but let it resonate and ring. “Safe European Homes,” the opening track on the Clash’s second album, Give ‘em Enough Rope, partially uses an open riff; and the Clash used it very sparingly later in the career, most notably on the “Clampdown”-esque “Somebody Got Murdered.” But it wasn’t a “standard” tool of the Clash, by any means, which makes its use on “Clampdown” worth noting.
So why is this a big deal?
The Clash’s use of an “open” riff on “Clampdown” reveals something very interesting: They were thinking a helluva lot about Mott the Hoople.
Not only is the “open” riff technique very common to the work of Mott the Hoople (a band the Clash idolized, and they hired Mott the Hoople’s legendary producer, Guy Stevens, to work on London Calling), but the guitar riff at the core of “Clampdown” also owes a great deal to one specific Mott the Hoople song, “One of the Boys.” You will also notice a more-than-passing similarity between “Clampdown” and “Can’t Get Enough” by Bad Company, the band led by former Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs.
Let us also note two other curious aspects of “Clampdown”: The last minute of this powerful, roaring rock song is given over to what is essentially meaningless vamping. The only other legendary rock song I can think of that ends in such a deflated fashion is “Smoke on the Water.” True, Strummer scats some interesting lyrical content over this vamp section (it’s where the Harrisburg/Petersburg line occurs), but this floppy, loosey-goosey end to one of the Clash’s most impactful songs has always perplexed me.
Theory: I strongly suspect that the last minute of vamping may be influenced by the presence in the studio of organist Mickey Gallagher. The hoppy, funky, faux-Meters-ish feel of this section resembles the work of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the band that made Gallagher famous.
Another peculiar aspect of the “Clampdown” vamp section is Strummer’s repeated barking of the phrase “Gitalong! Gitalong!” As you may know, “Gitalong” (or “git-along” or “git along”) is cutesy cowboy slang, an archaic term associated with the American old west. But it has no conceivable connection to anything else that’s going on in “Clampdown,” so what’s the deal?
Here’s what I think: In July of 1979 (a few months before the Clash recorded “Clampdown”) English punk band Sham 69 released a single called “Hersham Boys,” which attempted –quite successfully, actually — to morph a cowboy hop/stomp/swing into a punk rock song. “Hersham Boys” is one of the best and most engaging punk rock songs of the era, and it also includes a “vamp” section – well, maybe it’s more of a hoe-down break-down — likewise accompanied by similar faux-Western hollering. The Clash would have definitely been familiar with Sham 69 and “Hersham Boys” (both bands allied themselves with the Rock Against Racism movement, and Sham vocalist Jimmy Pursey sometimes joined the Clash onstage), so it is not inconceivable that Strummer’s out-of-context hollers of “Git Along!” on “Clampdown” could have been a salute to Pursey and “Hersham Boys.” At the very least, I think “Hersham Boys” was somewhere in the back of Strummer’s consciousness.
Now, if Beto quotes “Hersham Boys” in any future debate (“Council estates or tower blocks/Wherever you live you get the knocks” might be applicable when discussing housing for the economically underprivileged), I will know that the guy really knows his punk rock.