It’s rebellion you can dance to.
With all due respect to my colleague Jeremy and to the eternal legions of high school kids who will inevitably stumble upon London Calling and start wearing jean jackets until the earth is swallowed by the sun, there is an argument to be made that Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the last punk record that The Clash ever made. If one of the genre’s core concepts is a rejection of the bloat that came to define rock of the ‘70s, what is to be made of a band that followed up its 10-song album with a double, then a triple, LP? Rope is the explosion before the explosion – the shape of punk to come.
The great irony is that Rope was more a product of major label pressure than a statement of intention. Columbia hoped the album would help The Clash break in America. It’s short, punchier and less harried than the debut, its production (by Blue Oyster Cult’s Sandy Pearlman) is cleaner, its songs less exuberant and its focus narrower. History suggests that the band didn’t like the recording process. Rope is not nearly as ambitious as London Calling or Sandinista!, but what it lacks in genre experiments, it more than makes up for in its stark, clean definition of what punk music could be. What it lacks in creative freedom, it makes up for in focused anger.
At 10 tracks, the album allows its sense of righteous anger to shine through more completely, as the band is much more defined in its moves. The Clash maintains the tongue-in-cheek quality that it possessed on its debut, manifesting itself on Rope most clearly in the first track, “Safe European Home.” Looking at lyrics alone, it would be easy to cast the song as white-fear anthem; listening to it paired next to Mick Jones’ riffs and through Joe Strummer’s sneer, and it plays as a call-to-arms against small-minded living. Almost 40 years later, the opening moments of the song still feel like running down a hill.
When Rope was first released, many respected critics saw “English Civil War” as the album’s obvious weak point. On an album that’s brimming with political music and the spirit of protest, taking up valuable space with a cover of an English folk song feels like a bit of a waste. Then again, one could argue that the track is an amuse-bouche meant to prepare the pallet for the conscious anger the rest of the album delivers. Hell, there’s even an argument to be made for the song acting as a buffer between the album’s firecracker, would-be hit single and the rest of the record, something to bridge the speed rock of “Safe European Home” and the spitfire percussion of the mid-tempo “Tommy Gun.” Maybe it’s meant to clarify for the listener what the band stands for, here and now and forever: that there is a war between the haves and the have-nots, between uniters and dividers, between people who see the world and people who see only themselves. Of course, “English Civil War” is the track I still skip when I listen to Rope, so maybe the critics got it right.
The dichotomy between Strummer’s revolutionary-focused lyric-writing and Jones’ stadium aspirations is never clearer than it is on Rope. “Last Gang in Town” wraps Strummer’s youth-angst, anti-war message in a swinging rock riff that cascades into Thin Lizzy-levels of melody, making the old sound new and vice versa. There is a sense on this record that the band can do no wrong, that all its experiments are good: ‘50s pop about the biggest LSD bust in the country’s history? Why, yes, I’d love some, “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad.” A sweet pop song about a friend getting out of prison? Sure, that’d be great, “Stay Free.” This record feels like it could anything, and more than that, it has the ineffable quality to actually be anything; whatever you need from the Clash, they give it to you here in just over half an hour.
If Rope is a continued crystallization of The Clash as punk’s consciousness, it should also be remembered for setting reasonable guidelines for what the genre could deliver and how it could be done. The Clash broke in the same era as The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, two bands that rejected the bloated song craft of the pop landscape out of both ideology and ability. The Clash, right on their heels, displays a comparative complexity that suggests you’re allowed to rebel even if you know your scales. Sure, any motherfucker with a guitar and a few minutes could probably rip through “Drug-Stabbing Time” or “Guns on the Roof,” but tracks like “Stay Free” and “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” are small universes that suggest deep, studied musical lives distilled through a populist anger. Rope’s real legacy might be the band’s insistence that, if you’re with them, you’re with them, no matter where you came from.
The Clash would go on to bigger and better things, for sure. There is no disputing that its next album is what made the Clash a household name. The pressure of making a major-label hit didn’t result in a diamond for the Clash, but dismissing its sophomore album as a middle child between would be a disservice. The Clash is the favorite band of both my 60-year-old mother and my 15-year-old nephew. The reason that happens is because of what they perfected here. It’s why it can open for The Who at Shea Stadium and still stand for upturning everything. It’s why those teenagers who come into the band through “Train in Vain” and “Lost in the Supermarket” stick around after the thrill is gone. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the sound of sticking it to your captors even as you perform for them. It’s rebellion you can dance to.