Give ‘Em Enough Rope
A common assessment of Give ‘Em Enough Rope usually goes something like this: after the fury and righteous anger of the Clash’s landmark debut album, hot shot producer Sandy Pearlman got his AOR hooks into the band. Either overwhelmed by Pearlman, or cynically taking its first major crack at breaking into the mainstream (especially in the United States), or simply unable to match the focused aggression of their first release, the band eventually delivered a slick, meandering, and ultimately disappointing, sophomore effort.
There’s only one problem with this evaluation of Give ‘Em Enough Rope: it misses the point. Looking back on the band’s career, the album should be seen as a stepping stone for the synthesis of musical styles that would be most fully realized on London Calling. It showed the Clash moving far beyond the narrow stylistic confines of punk, and serves as a bridge between their one-dimensional debut album and the epic sprawl of London Calling.
Though it might sound like heresy, 30 years after its release the band’s self-titled and much revered debut album sounds dated and irrelevant. Whatever the album’s merits, most of its songs are heavy on punk posturing and macho threats, circa 1976-1977. The various rants and screeds evoked on songs like “White Riot,” “I’m So Bored with the USA” and “London’s Burning” started a tradition of oversimplified (and, it could be argued, careless) political sloganeering that would plague the band throughout their career. Other songs now play as unrelentingly repetitive and tedious; punk ethos be damned, songs like “Janie Jones,” “What’s My Name,” and “Career Opportunities” all sound like the work of a band trying to religiously adhere to the Year Zero concept that was fashionable at the time.
Now that I’ve probably lost whatever little credibility I have left among the Clash faithful by blasting a supposedly classic album, I’ll at least try to explain why I consider Give ‘Em Enough Rope a far more interesting and engaging album. I’ll be the first to admit that this album has its share of dead weight: songs like “Guns On the Roof,” “Last Gang In Town,” and “Cheapskates” all take a silly badass stance and come across as innocuous and forced chest thumping.
Still, Give ‘Em Enough Rope is far more musically experimental than their debut and has much in common with London Calling. With its keyboards and laid-back rhythm, “Julie’s In the Drug Squad” sounds like an early version of “Jimmy Jazz”, while “Drug-Stabbing Time” and “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” wouldn’t sound out of place on London Calling. Overtly political songs like “Safe European Home,” “English Civil War,” and “Tommy Gun” are more textured and developed than the majority of the songs from the debut album, where the band’s social outrage was usually expressed through Joe Strummer’s oh-so-punk snarling vocals.
There’s a diversity of style, arrangements, and lyrical concepts here that are mostly absent from the Us Vs. Them mantras on The Clash. To astute listeners who weren’t busy gobbing on their punk heroes, Give ‘Em Enough Rope was a sign of things to come for the Clash. While many of their peers would remain mired in the punk maelstrom and never move past a musical vision that insisted musical proficiency and artistic expression couldn’t co-exist (at least in UK punk), every one of the band’s subsequent releases incorporated various genres and musical concepts.
Give ‘Em Enough Rope isn’t a perfect album; it displays some of the band’s lack of self-editing that would later make Sandinista such a frustrating and bloated affair. Yet knowing the trajectory the band’s career and later albums would take, it offers the first real hints of the Clash’s ability to successfully meld disparate musical styles. If The Clash tried to create the impression of four British punks who couldn’t play their instruments (only accurate in Paul Simonon’s case), on Give ‘Em Enough Rope the Clash took their initial steps in moving past the homogeneous sound that defined both that album and early UK punk.
by Eric Whelchel