I’ve never been able to figure out why so many people are so quick to dismiss this album. Sure, there’s a bit of a drop-off after the full-on punk assault of The Clash (UK or US version* – and hey, CBS/Epic/whoever’s holding the copyright, when the hell are you gonna release those two on one disc?). So there’s no “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)”, no “Complete Control”, no “Clash City Rockers”… well, that’s not entirely true; “Clash City Rockers" reappears here, in slightly slowed-down mode, as “Guns on the Roof”. Where “Clash City Rockers" was all brash punk braggadocio, “Guns on the Roof” is surly, menacing, downfall-of-western-civ. type stuff. Plus “CCR” was really just The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” dressed up in ripped shirt and spiky hair, so I guess it all evens out in the end.
I think a lot of scorn stems from the idea that for some (mostly those among the hyperbolic and impossibly fickle UK music press), this album was a “sellout”. If ever there was a band that nearly drowned in dogma and “correct ideology”, it was The Clash. How much was posturing and how much was philosophy? At times it seemed as if the rhetoric - the heavy-duty sloganeering (Sten Guns in Knightsbridge, Under Heavy Manners, etc.), the Brigate Rosse T-shirts, and so on – would eclipse the music.
If you stripped away that rhetoric, however, what you found was a rapidly maturing band who were maybe feeling a little hemmed in by what was swiftly becoming a hidebound scene. The most tedious arguments I’ve ever heard in my entire life have all centered around what does and does not constitute punk rock. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is a transitional album, moving from pure punk to the more eclectic smorgasbord that is London Calling, and as such it’s actually quite a good set. To the “purists”, though, it was an abandonment of principles.
Held up against Sandinista or Combat Rock, I’d say GEER holds its own against both and is quite possibly superior to either, although to be fair it’s been a thousand or so years since I’ve listened to either of those two. Actually, I don’t know that I ever got all the way through Sandinista in one sitting; parts of it are fantastic, but I’ve got a fairly low tolerance level for dub. As for Combat Rock, I’ve just heard it too many times to remain anything like objective about it. Everybody at the record store where I worked at the time just played the hell out of it, so I could live the rest of my life without ever hearing “Rock the Casbah” again and still die happy. And Cut the Crap…let’s just pretend that it never happened. Trust me.
Hey, howzabout a little history, OK? The producer of the sessions was none other than Sandy Pearlman, best known for his work with Blue Öyster Cult. This is/was a source of much bitching by various fans/critics/wankers. Pearlman had also produced the first couple of Dictators LPs, so it’s not like there wasn’t any sort of precedent. Also, the band chose him themselves, according to an interview Strummer did with Melody Maker in the November 25, 1978 issue: “He was the only contender. Who else is there? Try and name one… The only producer I met was Sandy, and he amazed me. I’d never heard of him before. I’d never bought a Blue Oyster Cult album… I didn’t know who he was. But he really knew quite a lot about us. And he was the first producer I thought we could really work with. We’d tried people in the past, but the ones we’d tried were past their peak.” I haven’t found anything that would contradict that quote, so I think it’s OK to proceed with the notion that Pearlman wasn’t foisted on the band without their consent, yes? And just so we’ve got all the bases covered, here is Pearlman’s take on the making of the album.
Ok, enough fooling around. On to the album itself. The first thing you hear on the opening track, “Safe European Home” is the massive crack of Topper Headon’s drum, followed swiftly by the slash of the Strummer/ Mick Jones guitar attack and the rumble of Paul Simonon’s bass. It’s an immense, epic, everything sounding five times the size of God, except the vocals. That’s really the biggest knock on Pearlman’s production that I can make. Given the importance lain on the lyrical content of this new, emerging style, it’s nigh-on criminal that the vocals get the treatment they do here. Plus, y’know, big production values weren’t exactly what you might call “ideologically sound” at the time. Purists. We oughta stick ‘em all on an ice floe with the fundamentalists and let the polar bears sort ‘em out.
It has been pointed out in the past that Side One of the record (or the first five tracks, if your only exposure to the album is via CD) is much stronger than Side Two. That’s a fairly accurate assessment, I’d say. It’s front-loaded with the three of the strongest tracks of the set: the aforementioned “Safe European Home”; “English Civil War” the story of British youth turning on each other (a topic Strummer revisits on “Last Gang in Town”, three songs later) set to the tune of “Johnny Comes Marching Home”; and “Tommy Gun”, a enormous-sounding, angry indictment of the futility of violence. I think. It’s fucking gigantic, whatever it’s actually about.
Track four, however, really steps out of the mould the band have trapped themselves in. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is a tiny peek at where The Clash would be headed on their next outing, the universally acclaimed London Calling. It’s a goofy, rollicking barrelhouse-piano-driven romp about an undercover snitch, and the closest thing to pure unadulterated fun the band had produced to date. Baby steps away from the punk template, into a larger, richer world.
“Last Gang in Town” rounds out Side One. Here Strummer calls out the same mindless youth-on-youth violence that prompted Jerry Dammers three years later to write “Ghost Town” for The Specials. "Last Gang in Town" is not really A material for The Clash, but not at all bad. I have to admit that going back and re-listening to the album for this project has made the song grow on me. I find myself humming it at odd moments - make of that what you will. Simonon sounds especially good here; his bass sounds like more than an afterthought in the mix. And ya can’t really argue about the message of the song: perhaps, rather than fighting amongst themselves, perhaps the youth of Britain would have been better served by uniting and blah blah blah. It ain’t sedition, but it poked at the status quo (NOT THE BAND, FER CHRISSAKES). Sometimes that’s enough.
Side two! “Guns on the Roof”! Great song about a shitty incident! Headon & Simonon got busted for plugging racing pigeons with an air rifle; Strummer/Jones wrote a doomy indictment (heh) of the entire judicial system & ripped their own band off in the process. Fantastic lyric, yes, great song, absolutely, but there’s really no excuse for the original crime. I don’t care if “guns (were) made to shoot” or not, it’s no justification for killing out of boredom. If you’re not gonna eat what you kill, you’ve got no business killing it. End of sermon.
“Drug Stabbing Time”: great title/poor execution or rank filler? Either way, it wins the award for “Most Egregious Use of Cowbell in a Punk Rock Context”, although I suppose a case could be made for blaming that on the producer. Otherwise, it makes a framework on which to hang the groovy production values Pearlman brought to it.
Jones’ Mott the Hoople fixation comes out toward the end of the second side. “Stay Free”, Jones’ sentimental ode to a friend doing time, is the sort of thing that might have drawn tears in the hands of Mott’s vocalist, Ian Hunter. Hunter has the voice to pull it off, Jones hadn’t really yet grown into his voice here, so it comes off kinda nasally and wet. It definitely seems like a refugee from another album.
Why is “Cheapskates” even on this record? The album runs 37:04 as is – were they that hard up for quality material? Really? ‘Cause this is the sort of “bonus track” you find on re-releases that you play once and immediately forget, yet it’s part of the original track listing! Cuts like this are why people look down on this album. Which is a shame, because there’s so much else going on here. My guess, which is very easy for me to make this late in the game, is that the band should have waited a bit longer before heading into the studio.
“All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” references both Mott the Hoople (“All The Young Dudes”) and Ian Dury (the album New Boots and Panties!!). It’s got that Mott-esque, semi-wistful look back kinda quality to it. I could see this one showing up, in a slightly less brash fashion, on Mott. And while Jones may not have come into his lead voice, his backing vocals throughout are impeccable, no more so than here. It’s Strummer who tells the story of a band grinding it out because “it’s better than the factory / Now that's no place to waste your youth / I worked there for a week once / I luckily got the boot”. No future, indeed.
What’s it all add up to? As far as I can see, Give ’Em Enough Rope is decent album with a somewhat dodgy second side. Fair enough, although in the light of Sandinista… well, whatever. Let’s put it this way: had it been released by any of The Clash’s contemporaries, it would most likely be looked on much more fondly than it is now. It hit #2 in the UK, although it only crawled up to #128 in the US charts. For whatever that’s worth. (Hint: fuck-all.)
So yeah, there is a bit of a trough in between the peaks of The Clash and London Calling. You can’t really deny that, although I maintain that’s it’s not as deep as some would have it. Give ‘Em Enough Rope marks the integration of the vastly underrated Topper Headon into the band, and documents their first steps away from the stifling arguments over what did and did not constitute punk rock before rendering such argybargy (even more) pointless with the release of London Calling. As such, it sure as hell beats a lit cigar up the nose.
*Fun side note: the band’s first, eponymous album came out in the UK in 1977; CBS/Epic, moving in mysterious ways, didn’t drop it in the US until July of ’79 – eight months after GEER was released on November 10, 1978. The US version is radically altered from the UK release. Songs were dropped, others added, and there’s yet to be a definitive version released. Wacky, but true.