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Friday, February 28, 2003
Who defanged "London Calling"?
Sunday, for the first time in my life, I watched the Grammy Awards. O.k. I didn't watch the whole telecast. I consider awards for artistic endeavors that have more than one judge to be pointless since tastes are so different between people. And I certainly didn't watch it to see the likes of Eminem or Kid Rock perform. Instead I watched a few minutes of it for the expected tribute to the late great Clash frontman Joey Strummer.
Near the end of the show, the screen was filled with the names and pictures of important people in the music business who passed away in the last year. The very last fallen individual was Strummer, which cued nicely to the unmistakable opening riffs of the Mick Jones/Strummer classic "London Calling."
"This one's for Joe," said Bruce Springsteen before he, Elvis Costello, David Grohl and Steven Van Zandt traded verses on a ferocious version of "London Calling" that also featured Tony Kanal of No Doubt on bass and drummer Pete Thomas. This wasn’t a time for a reworking and this version was true to the original, which wasn't a given due to the undeniable temptation for sentiment over anger. Yet the song here had all of the power of the original. Van Zandt's sloppy snarling of the line "An' you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!" perfectly conveyed the message. In a better world, this performance would have sparked far more discussion than the Michael Jackson freak and joke show.
But in this world the song barely registered. If Matt Drudge is to be believed, CBS -the television network broadcasting the Grammys- was worried that that ceremony would turn into a festival of artists condemning the escalation of the U.S.’ war with Iraq and Sheryl Crow says she was warned by the Grammys to not make anti-war statements. All of this and yet the an anti-militarist song like "London Calling" didn't register as such. Robert A. George of The National Review, for instance, covered the ceremony and noted the performance of "London Calling" yet didn't include it in his round-up of the anti-war sentiments expressed on the show.
It would be easy to blame this on the fact that "London Calling" was, with Strummer's permission, recently farmed out for automobile commercials where the context was hardly clear. How, after all, is it possible to take a political message seriously from an artist shilling a product unrelated to their art? "You do a commercial, you're off the artistic roll call forever," Bill Hicks, who passed away nine years ago Wednesday, once said. "If you do a commercial, there's a price on your head, everything you say is suspect."
I was tempted to go along with this explanation until I remembered reading another Clash song, "Rock The Casbah," being interpreted as pro-U.S. military intervention in the Middle East merely because it was critical of the policies of Arab governments. The public often does not grapple with the obvious meanings of the songs they like. The most notable example where this happened is Springsteen's "Born in the USA." Perhaps it is possible that those who didn't see anything political about the performance of "London Calling" at the Grammys just didn't understand what the song was about.
But the more I think about this matter, the more I have to believe a third explanation is most accurate. Despite the politics involved with Strummer's public persona, he was still very much a musician and that is how the public reacted to his death this past December. It wasn't seen as a loss from the world of politics but rather from the world of music. It thus should come as not surprise that this performance of "London Calling" was not viewed as tribute to a musical figure, which of course does not necessarily bring up the issue of politics.
Still, this fate is more than a touch tad. Music surely can't spur revolution but it should at least be able to convey a specific message. If it doesn't do that, it is nothing but mere "entertainment."
(For another look at the "London Calling" Strummer tribute, read this post by Steven Rubio.)