For all the stridency of the ultra-urban critics and the small, but loyal congregations of New Wave fans in Washington, Philadelphia and so on, New Wave rock -- what was called punk until the PR companies took over -- has yet to gain any real hold on American popular taste. The spiritual home of New Wave is England, where the word "scuzzy" was practically invented for Sid Vicious' teeth, but where the New Musical Express (a kind of British Rolling Stone) could nevertheless proclaim the Sex Pistols the best group of 1977.
Despite the American audience's lack of interest in New Wave music, the critical claims for hose few whose albums have been released in this country have been fervid. In the 1978 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll, a stunning two-thirds of the Top 30 acts fell into the New Wave-to-rock 'n' roll revivalist spectrum, from the Ramones and Devo to Costello and the Stone (to Robert Christgau's credit, his introduction to the poll does not attmept to disguise his pro-punk prejudices). Of those 30, fewer that 10 have had or will have any substantial brush with the sales charts.
The New Wave is described as political, revolutionary, clash-conscious (to coin a pun); the British equivalent, according to one argument, of Spring-steen's blue collar-broken dreams vignettes. The phrase "new wave" itself implies a tidal upheaval, a sweeping away of old conventions.
Balderdash. Whatever may be the charms of New Wave -- and it is not without attraction -- it is neither political nor innovative. At its best it can be emotional, even cathartic: kinetic and irrestistible dance music It can be rhetorical -- it almost always is -- but the "politics" of rock are as specific as political slogans, and as subtle.
The Clash is a much-ballyhooed quartet whose second album, "Give 'Em Enough Rope" (Epic JE355-43) -- their first was never released in the United States -- reached the No. 4 slot on the afore-mentioned Pazz and Jop poll despite its recent release and virtual invisibility on radio station playlists. They kick off a very limited American tour Feb. 7 in Berkeley and hit Washington's Ontario Theater Feb. 15. Rolling Stone, Time magazine, the Voice and several other major publications have already covered the Clash or plan articles; they are, after the demise of the Sex Pistols, the leading contenders for punk celebrities of 1979.
Is the Clash star material? The short answer to that, as they say, is maybe. The long answer is that, given time to learn to write, and given better production, and given the support of Columbia/Epic, and given a modiucum of air play, and given a powerful live show... maybe.
The album has two strikes against it. First, the lyrics are often unintelligible, and if you don't happen to be in a position to acquire a printed set of lyrics from the record company, you'll miss most of them; and second, much of the material, intelligible or not, is derivative, mundane and pretentious.
The offsetting virtues of the album are its better derivations, its unrefined energy, and a flavor of kiss-off defiance that is somehow contagious (in some cases, it tends to make the listener want to kiss off the turn table).
Probably the best cut on the album is the one motivated by genuine, personal anger rather than philosophical or hypothetical anger. "Safe European Home," an account of the group's illfated pilgrimage to Jamaica, owes much to the Who's anthemic "Won't Get Fooled Again," both in theme and melody. Hum the Clash lyrics to the rhythm of the end of the Who chorus -- "I went to the place where every white face/Was an invitation to robbery/And sitting here in my safe European home/I don't wanna go back thee again" -- and you have the general idea.
There is a beat noire about several of the other songs and a bleak humor which lends a peculiar conviction. In "All the Young Punks," a clear inheritance from Mott the Hoople turns bile-bitter; "All the young punks/Laugh your life cos there ain't much to cry for." A sardonically childlike singsong melody slashes through "Julie's in the Drug Squad," and an ominous, repetitive rhythm punches "Last Gang in Town": "The Crops hit the Stiffs and the Spikes whipped the Quiffs/So they're all looking round/For the last gang in town."
The picture the Clash paints of contemporary middle-and lower-class British society is noire, indeed. To give the Springsteen comparison momentary life, the black-and-white existence of the Clash and their fellow New Wavers (a metaphor already realized in the Stranglers' albums, among others) lacks even the neon promise of Asbury Park. The real reason that the Clash will never write "Born to Run," however, is simply that they lack the talent, and apparently lack the drive, to create an original vision. With all the social standards crashing about them, they are content to peddle a plastic Armageddon.