“We felt that the whole machine was teetering on the brink of collapse. Some amazing things went down in Britain during the ’70s—the government decided they could disempower the unions by having a three-day week, for instance. Can you imagine that? … There were garbage strikes, train strikes, power strikes, the lights were going out—everything seemed on the brink, and looking through youthful, excitable eyes it seemed the very future of England was at stake.” – Joe Strummer
In 1970, when Joe Strummer was just 18-years-old, the future frontman for The Clash was asked to identify the body of his older brother David who had committed suicide. David’s body was found on a bench in London’s Regent’s Park where it laid for three days after he swallowed a lethal dose of pills. At the time of David’s death, he was estranged from his family and had joined The National Front, a far-right fascist organization that enticed angry young men and promoted neo-Nazi ideologies. In the years that followed The Clash rose to prominence in Britain’s burgeoning punk music scene, but Joe Strummer rarely talked about his brother and the impact of his death.
Despite Strummer’s silence on the subject, his music tells a vivid story about the circumstances that gave rise to The National Front and why the unsavory group may have appealed to his sibling. The frontman’s grief metastasized and found expression in the reggae rhythms and punk riffs that characterize The Clash. Between 1977 and 1985 the band recorded a handful of studio albums that gave voice to the disenfranchised while railing against social injustice, criticizing nationalism, denouncing racism, condemning capitalism and mourning the victims of perpetual war.
RUDE BOY (’80), which is currently available on FilmStruck, captures the zeitgeist of the times. This loosely scripted cinema verité drama stars 18-year-old Ray Grange, an apathetic young bloke employed at a London sex shop. Ray eventually finds work as a roadie for The Clash, but he is ill-equipped for life on the road and spends most of his time in a drunk stupor spewing racist rants that demonstrate how ill-informed he is. In response, the band members barely tolerate Ray’s presence. Drummer Topper Headon knocks him around during a boxing workout and guitarist Mick Jones threatens Ray on several occasions, but Joe Strummer sporadically takes pity on the confused youngster and attempts to straighten him out. Through it all we witness angry riots breaking out in the streets, spurred on by Margaret Thatcher’s rightwing policies and racist attitudes advocated by The National Front that Ray has adopted. At the end of the film we are left wondering what will become of Ray while a substory involving black youths weaves in and out of the loosely defined narrative in an attempt to further demonstrate the bigotry affecting Britain.
Jack Hazan and David Mingay (A BIGGER SPLASH [‘73]) shot the film between 1978 and 1979 but it wasn’t released until March 1980 and when RUDE BOY finally reached theaters critics were decidedly mixed about the results. New Music Express called it a “An innovative piece of cinematic art” but The Daily Mail asked readers, “Must we show off this foul view of Britain?” Worst of all, The Clash disowned the film due to its erratic editing, which makes the filmmakers inclusion of black youths rather ambiguous and difficult to follow. Strummer even suggested that the filmmakers were advocating racist government polices in a 1980 interview with Melody Maker stating, “We didn’t like what they were doing with the black people, because they were showing them dipping into pockets … Who wants to propagate that? That’s what the rightwing use, ‘all blacks are muggers’ which is a load of rubbish.”
It is also evident that Strummer has trouble explaining his progressive politics clearly to Ray and this has led some critics to believe that The Clash was dissatisfied with how they represented themselves on screen. But if the final product is rough around the edges, that is understandable. Punk music is dissonant, transgressive and disruptive by nature so why shouldn’t RUDE BOY embody these traits? Strummer is a lyricist and he, along with the rest of the band, can best express themselves through their music. Much to the directors’ credit, they were able to capture the confused chaos that frequently accompanied the band’s live shows as well as the political climate that inspired their songs. In turn, the concert footage is what makes this such an indispensable film.
The Clash is absolutely electric on stage. They are all raw energy and instinct with rowdy balladeer Joe Strummer leading the band through one angry anthem after another including “I Fought the Law,” “White Riot,” “Career Opportunities,” “London’s Burning” and “I’m So Bored with the USA.” Strummer is accompanied by Paul Simonon slinking across the stage like a hungry mountain lion while pounding out aggressive rhythms on his low strung bass as Mick Jones wields his guitar as if it was a weapon and he was a combat veteran looking for his next gutter fight. In the background we catch glimpses of Topper Headon beating on the drums while frequently wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit that resembles Bruce Lee’s costume in GAME OF DEATH (’78). This live material was shot during the historic Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park and their On Parole and Sort It Out tours, allowing viewers to get a varied and intimate look at the band before they found worldwide success following the release of Combat Rock in 1982.
The film’s important place in music history can’t be overlooked but RUDE BOY is also a pertinent social document that can help contextualize our current political landscape. In a bleak world where good jobs are scarce, healthcare is a luxury and upward mobility has become almost impossible for those born without a silver spoon in their mouths, fascist organizations can effortlessly take root. Hopelessness breeds anger and anger needs a target. Immigrants and ethnic minorities can easily be transformed into involuntary adversaries when governments won’t acknowledge the human cost of autonomous war and unremitting colonialism. Joe Strummer understood this unfortunate truth and the music he made with The Clash remains as relevant today as it was 35-years ago.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Note: This was originally published in 2017 at FilmStruck.com