By Anwen Crawford
It is fitting that Rude Boy, one of the earliest punk films, should exist in a fraught space somewhere between documentary and fiction. The punk scene it charts and the band at the heart of it were products—with everything that word implies—of the tension between real life and pop spectacle, street fighting and street theatre, revolution and its recuperation into just another set of empty signifiers. “What does it say on that shirt?” asks Ray Gange, the aimless punk fan more or less playing himself in this film, as Joe Strummer rinses out his homemade Red Brigades T-shirt, misspelled as “Brigade Rosse,” in a hotel bathroom. “It’s the name of a pizza restaurant,” Strummer deadpans. He sounds embittered: not the self-described socialist or fiery militant of punk legend but just another ineffectual pop musician, selling lies.
Gange, the ostensible rude boy of the film’s title, is the kind of Clash fan that The Clash don’t want, and this film, which co-directors Jack Hazan and David Mingay began shooting in 1978, catches the band at the moment when they outgrew their original punk audience. Gange lives in a tower block and works occasional shifts in a sex shop. We see him blasting “Career Opportunities,” the supremely ironic anti-work screed from The Clash’s self-titled 1977 debut album, as he opens his pitiful dole cheque. And yet he has none of the class consciousness or anti-racist solidarity that the members of The Clash tried over and again—by turns clumsily, haltingly, and passionately—to induce in their listeners through their songs.
“My idea is to make sure that I become one of the few,” Gange confesses to Strummer in a key early scene, as the two men convene over a pint. (Hazan and Mingay encouraged their cast of non-actors to re-stage conversations they’d already had offscreen, which accounts for some of the stiffness in this film, the sense of people not really hearing what they’re saying.) He wants a Rolls-Royce, a country mansion, and servants. “There’s nothing at the end of that road, no human life…” Strummer warns. “It’s all of us or none.”
The allure of none, of nothing, was strong in the punk scene, in spite of Strummer’s principles. It was the nihilistic will to power that ran through Malcolm McLaren’s gleeful, amoral hucksterism, was signaled in Siouxsie Sioux’s swastika armband, and was threatened—or prophesied—in the scorched earth “NO FUTURE” of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” This was punk as cruelty, and it overlapped, however antagonistically or ambiguously, with the fascists of the National Front and with the ruthlessness of an ascendant Margaret Thatcher, both of whom feature in Rude Boy. That Gange himself is too rudderless, powerless, and most of the time too drunk to make anything of wanting to be one of the few scarcely matters; he’s still a selfish bastard.
But maybe The Clash as depicted here are selfish bastards, too—or at least, the logic of stardom is driving them away, would drive them away, from the collective impulse expressed so strongly in their songs.
The very fact of the filmmakers’ presence was part of the interruption, part of what separated The Clash from the rest of the bill; they were burgeoning stars and everyone, including the band members, knew it.
On April 30, 1978, a massive protest was held in London, organized by the activist groups Rock Against Racism (RAR), and the Anti-Nazi League, to protest a rising tide of far-right violence and hate speech. This 100,000-strong rally culminated in a free, open-air concert at Victoria Park, which The Clash played, but only at the last minute, after much to and fro-ing over who would get to headline (they didn’t). Caught on camera by Hazan and Mingay, their volcanic power is undeniable: the huge crowd practically erupts when The Clash hit the stage. But they played past their curfew, eating into the set time of the Tom Robinson Band, who, unlike The Clash, had done the hard work of grassroots organizing with RAR. (“I was at my wit’s end,” Robinson would later recall. “My favorite band stealing my set.”) Mingay and Hazan filmed the side-of-stage ruckus as various people, including Gange, wrestled over the PA system, some trying to cut the power and others trying to plug it back in. The very fact of the filmmakers’ presence was part of the interruption, part of what separated The Clash from the rest of the bill; they were burgeoning stars and everyone, including the band members, knew it.
The song that The Clash chose to play in that moment, and which recurs throughout Rude Boy, was “White Riot.” Released in 1977 as the group’s first single, it remains, 45 years on, thrilling, uneasy, naive and, once again, ambiguous: a call for racial solidarity that, from its title onwards, can and has been taken for a call to race war. Strummer and Clash guitarist Mick Jones were inspired to write it after their experience at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, an annual London Caribbean street festival, where the presence of 3,000 or so police officers sufficiently antagonized a young, largely Black crowd that hours of rioting ensued.
“All the power’s in the hands / Of people rich enough to buy it,” growls Strummer, in the song’s second verse, “While we walk the street / Too chicken to even try it.” The “we” was white people, who wouldn’t fight back against the state because their racial privilege gave them too much to lose. This was the “white riot” that The Clash wanted, or claimed to want: a giving up of the fear that goes along with power. But what was the power of the song itself, the effect of a bunch of white guys shouting “White riot / I wanna riot” at a largely white crowd? The Clash performed the song at Victoria Park with Jimmy Pursey, singer of Sham 69, a band that attracted a skinhead following, some of whom were proudly and loudly white nationalists.
“You see that Black geezer singing ‘White Riot’?” Gange sneers at Jones, backstage after a show. Gange thinks that makes about as much sense as a white guy singing reggae songs—which is what The Clash did—but Jones doesn’t see anything to laugh at. “I wish that more Black guys would come to our gigs,” he replies, mournfully. For The Clash, any attempt at anti-racist organizing, no matter how inexpert, was worthwhile: this included their own sincerely inexpert songs. This is what made them The Clash and it is why people love them—it is why I love them. Unafraid to embarrass themselves or to hold irresolvable contradictions in the balance, they kept trying.
Gange doesn’t love The Clash because, as he reminds the few women he encounters—this is a profoundly homosocial film—he doesn’t believe in love. The Clash are trying far too hard, in his eyes. In one scene, perhaps Rude Boy’s only truly moving scene, we watch along with Gange as Jones records a vocal take for “Stay Free,” his paean to a childhood friend who served jail time for robbery. The song would appear on the band’s second album, 1978’s Give ’Em Enough Rope, which would put them on the map in the United States and consolidate their trajectory towards worldwide fame.
“Well years have passed and things have changed /And I move any way I want to go,” Jones sings. And there’s the rub. Jones is out on the other side of the kind of life he sings about, and by the end of his take he looks haunted by it. “That’s a fuckin’ heavy song, man,” comments Gange, who’s been sitting in the shadows, and now proceeds to give Jones his drunken feedback. “You shouldn’t do it, man, it’s a bit heavy on the fuckin’ guts and the heart, shit…” Why put yourself through the wringer when you could just have a laugh, or even better, make some money? At the end of Rude Boy, Gange returns to his council flat and Thatcher enters No. 10 Downing Street as the newly elected Prime Minister. The Clash play “I Fought the Law” in front of 2,000 people at London’s Lyceum Theatre, while the cops go on framing and jailing young Black men. Things have changed but not for all of us.
Anwen Crawford is the author of Live Through This (Bloomsbury, 2015) and No Document, forthcoming in June from Transit Books, and is the co-curator of the Pop Plays Itself series.