London’s Burning * The Clash * The Clash * 1977
It seems that the international news focus is on Great Britain this week, so here’s a song about barely stifled rage and unrest. Regardless of your opinion of Britain’s decision, the referendum election has made one thing very clear: The United Kingdom is a country with deep internal divisions. Like most ideological rifts, these divisions are nothing new. They are endemic to all human societies large and small. In the case of Brexit, what I’ve seen is a tendency for poorer, disadvantaged voters trying to take back a sense of independence and self-worth from perceived foreigners and elites condescending to them. This may or may not work out for them — a lot of times experts are so called because they actually know what they’re talking about — but what is most important is that simmering rage.
In The Clash’s heyday, that rage of the dispossessed was in rare form. Punk, at least in the UK, was a violent artistic reaction to the quiet, dreary oppression of daily life with no prospects. “London’s Burning” is supposed to act as a wake-up call to the vast multitudes of citizens who are sleep-walking through this oppression. London’s not actually burning in the song, you see, it’s the burning of boredom. The song is an attempt to snap people out of their television coma and understand what is being done to them. The Clash were pissed all the way off, and conducted that rage into their music.
Now it seems that the people The Clash were trying to wake up have done so, at least a little bit. They’ve taken political action and lashed out at their oppressors. The thing is, there is no telling what is going to happen. In striking a blow for independence and self-determination against foreign masters and domestic elites they may have irrevocably damaged their own national standing in the world. Here in the United States I’ve heard both extremes. There are those hailing this result as a triumph of liberty who claim that only unmitigated good will come from the Brexit. Likewise there are many fortelling horrible economic disaster, possibly on a global scale, and the possible dismantling not only of the European Union, but the UK itself. One thing I can be pretty sure of is that what will actually happen is somewhere between the two extremes. Still, the rage remains, and as such the future will be unsettled and potentially chaotic. I’m not sure if The Clash of 1977 would be happy about that or not. At the very least, Britain should be a little more awake now.