Monday, March 16, 2009

Song of the Week: "Safe European Home", The Clash

Brargwahhh! That's my written primal scream. (I'm not sure one can legitimately write a primal scream, but that is not really germane to our conversation.) It's the primal scream I often want to make when I am listening to The Clash, one of my all time favorite bands.

Sometime around 1981, JBC-15 and I were hitting the downtrodden record stores of Sacramento, California (some of the same ones he mentions in his must-read tribute to Sacramento-ish band, The Cramps) when I picked up the UK pressing of the first Clash album, The Clash. I didn't know anything about them other than some word of mouth banter and the occasional Rolling Stone article about their exploits. It was love at first listen. So the next time we hit the dust bins in Sacramento which masqueraded as used record stores, I very logically pulled the next Clash album, Give 'Em Enough Rope. Man, oh man, was I ever disappointed. The album had a much more rigid, even, dare I say?, heavy metal feel to it. It sounded little like the first brilliant album. The songs were weak and Sandy Pearlman's production was awful, slick and totally wrong for the garage band. I filed it away and quickly moved on to their flawless magnum opus, London Calling and never went back to Rope. 

Fast forward to about 18 months ago when a friend of mine named his third child Rudy. I of course immediately emailed back to him with some probably-not-so-clever quip about the wonderful London Calling song, Rudie Can't Fail. (he had no idea what I was talking about). As I listened to that song 834 times in a row something kept nagging at me in the back of my head...didn't The Clash have an earlier song that incorporated a line about how some rudie couldn't fail? The search was on. Nothing on the first UK pressing of The Clash. Nothing on the much different and equally good US pressing. A handful of singles? Black Market Clash 10" ep? (I know, technically it was released after London Calling, but the songs pre-dated Calling.) Nope. That left Give 'Em Enough Rope. I dreaded putting it on as the sting of disappointment was still throbbing in my psyche. Vwalah! Rudie was right at the end of the first song on the album. And dang, that first song is a stunner (sadly, I continue to think the album as a whole is still lacking).

That opening number of their 1978 album is our Song of the Week.  Safe European Home is a bullet train ride about an eye opening trip to Jamaica that the band undertook earlier that year. The idealistic young Londoners went to Jamaica to record and pay tribute to their dub-Reggae idols. But instead they were met with antipathy, racial prejudice and were subjected to a robbery at gunpoint inside the studio at which they were preparing to record. Feeling like carrion on a desert road, the lads quickly retreated back to their safe European homes, took stock of their ambitions, licked their wounds, picked up some new equipment and went to writing. 

The song features the Pictures of Lily power chord attack, a nice little upbeat ska-riff at the end of the song (under the "Rudie, Can't Fail" refrain) and some wonderful call and response between Joe and Mick: "Whoa, the harder they come in the home of the old bluebeat (mick: where'd you go?) Yeah, I'd stay and be a tourist but I can't take that gun play (where'd you go?)." Each an elemental component of what would become the standard in modern punk as practiced by bands like RancidGreen Day, and Offspring.

If nothing else, this is a tantalizing  hint at what the trailblazing band would do musically and lyrically with the Rudie, Can't Fail refrain and back and forth vocals on London Calling. The two songs are wonderful to play next to each other to chart the growth of the band. Enjoy and have a wonderful week.


  1. I cannot be the only person who never had a negative impression of the production on "Give 'Em Enough Rope", but mine certainly seems to be the minority opinion. I've usually written off the most of the criticism as a philosophical, rather than musical, issue--the expected, and often deserved, sniping at a band who allegedly has lost their original sound/energy/aesthetic for the sake of "appealing to the masses". But I'm sure there are many folks like you Morgan, who listened to the album and simply didn't like the sound. Fair enough. I guess I have a greater tolerance for so-called "heavy metal" production than other listeners. Though maybe the fact that I was introduced to this record, as well as the Clash's eponymous debut (American pressing), via a home-recorded cassette given to me by my buddy Mitch. I generally listened to it on either a crappy car stereo or a crappy Walkman, so perhaps the compromised audio fidelity is to be blamed or credited for obscuring the nuances of the production on these two albums. To my teenage ears, the two albums sounded of a piece, and I loved both albums pretty much equally.

    Production niggling aside, I think you made a great pick for the SOTW. I definitely think that "Safe European Home" is one of the standout tracks on "Give 'Em Enough Rope". I am particularly smitten by the 'breakdown' in the second half of the song where the multiple guitars and vocal tracks are bouncing around from all sides. And when the drums triumphantly return after the dub-like fade/drop-out, I get a tingle in my undercarriage.

  2. Brilliant Clash track that is not always mentioned as often as their more signature songs, but just as good.

    The song was written following a "songwriting holiday" that Mick Jones and Joe Strummer took to Kingston,Jamaica in late 1977. Two white Englishmen smack dab in middle of a third world city rife with poverty and violence. Not too smart a move. As Joe Strummer would recall,'I tell you,we was like two punk tourists on a package tour. Completely naive. We knew Lee Perry, sort of, but we couldn't find him, so we were on our own'. While out hunting for marijuana to buy, they were openly called 'white pigs' and they soon retreated to their hotel where they basically spent the entire two weeks of their vacation. "Safe European Home" was a product of this mis-adventure.

    I find 'Give Em Enough Rope'to be my least loved Clash album. Well, let me re-state that, I love about half of it, but the other half never really connected with me. Sandy Pearlman was totally the wrong producer for them, and it does get a little slick at times, but that never really bothered me. 'Safe European Home' is fantastic and should have been a single, rather than the passable but not great'English Civil War'which was released as a 45 in the UK. 'Tommy Gun' also shines, as does 'Julie's Been Working for the Drug Squad'and particularly 'Stay Free', a Mick Jones'sung and penned,Ian Hunter-style,poignant song about a wayward pal who is about to be released from prison.

    However, 'Drug Stabbing Time','Guns on the Roof', 'All the Young Punks'and'Cheapskates' don't do much for me and 'Last Gang in Town' and 'English Civil War' are only ok. This leaves you with a so-so second album. This could have been made much better if tracks recorded and released around the same time had been included, such as 'Groovy Times','Gates of the West','I Fought the Law' and 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais'. This, however is just a boring parlor game, and the Clash's (and punk's) m.o. at the time was to keep cranking out material, often on stand alone singles.

    I should dig out 'Rope' give it another try. Sometimes ones opinions can change drastically over time.

  3. Okay. Next time I am going to just list the SOTW and have the two of you write the entire article since you have both done a better job bringing the song to life than I did.

    Cheers on both of you,


  4. Let me see. 1981? You must have caught the bus.

    Not too familiar with these guys, but I know enough to declare that that's a great tune, charging right out the gate. With a cool refrain that, like your earlier Undertones post, does not hesitate to jump back into the next verse. In fact the next verse cuts off the refrain. It's an effect I gravitate towards.

    Not sure I see the 'Pictures of Lily' ness of the chordal action, but since we are on the subject, I have to say that Pictures of Lily is one of the sweetest Who tunes, in every sense of the word, as evidenced by your clip. Have you ever notice the lone passage in that song (at 1:48 in the clip)?

    And since we have the Who and the Clash in the same sentence, the thought occurs to me that each was the ultimate culmination of that mod / rocker rift. Any thoughts?

  5. Caught the bus at the Davis Little League Fields by the overpass and took it to Sacramento to K street stop in front of Macys. Walked the gauntlet of homeless and drugged out the rest of the way.

    I didn't mean to say the riff was taken from Lily, I was, more hinting at what you observed in your Mod/Rocker comment. But I think they are more alike than not. In fact Clash City Rockers and another song from Rope, both use the I Can't Explain riff. I think both Strummer and Townshend did a wonderful job of synthesizing art, politics, music and personal tales all together and weaving them into highly idiosyncratic music. Ray Davies, Bob Dylan and John Lennon would fit this bill as well.

    The London Calling album is a total mish-mash of every style of music. It could have easily come out as a discombobulated mess but it came out as a unique, highly creative, focused album that remains atop the heap of my records some 30 years later. There has NEVER been a time that the I have not smiled and began bopping my head the second I hear that bass line opening in London Calling. Brilliant.