One of my regular internet haunts is The Word magazine blog, which is basically a fairly standard music, film and TV forum, except that the people who post on it tend to be unusually well-informed, articulate and polite. Without wanting to generalise, there seem to be a lot of music-obsessed males in their 40s and 50s, and topics discussed are typically things like comparisons of Richard Thompson albums and how it’s impossible to have a good time at gigs these days because the music’s too loud and there are too many people talking and flashing mobile phones around. Every now and then someone posts a question to try and achieve consensus on a particular question (such as “what’s the best Beatles album?” or “what’s the best year for music?”), with predictable but still enjoyable lack of success – ask the same question to 100 musos and you’re going to get 100 different opinions back.
This week, someone was brave and foolhardy enough to go for the big one: what’s your all-time favourite track, asked in the hope of eventually being able to compile some kind of chart. This is of course an inherently ridiculous question, and to be fair, the poster was quite aware of this and that the joy of the thread was always going to be in the debate it stimulated rather than the definitive establishing of the best record ever made. I, like rather a lot of the other regular frequenters of The Word blog I suspect, have a stock answer to this question, as I have to the other chestnuts like favourite album, favourite film and favourite book (not Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I should point out, despite some of the resonances with my life I found in it*). I therefore posted up my answer – (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais by The Clash – expecting this to be the only vote for this truly magnificent but not overly well-known record. I was truly surprised to come back later to find a fair amount of other posters agreeing with me. At the time of writing it seems it might even win the poll.
To be honest, I can’t remember when I first heard (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, but I do remember getting obsessed with it round about Summer 1985 after hearing it a few times on tapes of old John Peel shows. Despite an evidently raw and unvarnished production it didn’t sound much like your standard three chord punk thrash (not fast enough, too considered), and despite the rhythm guitar chopping out a pronounced backbeat and the spare, dub-influenced bass it’s not really reggae either (too stiff, too, well, white). It’s catchy, but has no chorus or any repeated verses, and it’s structurally weird, with the middle bridging bit coming between the first and second verses, rather than between the third and fourth as you might expect. It’s jaunty and uplifting, but you’d be hard pressed to dance to it. There are classic Mick Jones weedy backing vocals, and some tastefully restrained lead guitar and harmonica fills, and there’s a great spontaneous feel to the recording, as though this is the first take of the song immediately after the band finished working out the arrangement. But what really lifts this song up into greatness is Joe Strummer’s vocal and, particularly, his lyric.
The song starts out by describing Strummer’s experience as the only white man in the audience at a reggae gig at the Palais. He’s initially thrilled at what he hopes will be an inspiring experience, but gradually realises that the groups he’s listening to are playing essentially pretty conservative music and are going through the motions for the sake of appearing cool. The scope of the song then widens to take in youth culture in general and the stagnant state of politics, and Strummer muses on the dangers of complacency (“if Adolf Hitler flew in today/they’d send a limousine anyway”). At the same time, he’s also amused and self-deprecatory, which helps to stave off any potential preachiness. The dominant emotion conveyed is disappointment, but the lyric never lapses into cheap cynicism, and I can’t think of any other pop song that achieves a similar mix of social concern, wit and passion with such subtlety.
Strummer may be the very worst singer ever to front a stadium-level band if you’re going to apply strictly technical criteria, but the success of his vocal performance here is nothing to do with formal virtuosity. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else attempting this song and sounding convincing. He’s singing from life experience and his character shines through – at the line “they’ve got Burton suits/you think it’s funny” he even breaks out into an unmistakably natural laugh.
I’ve probably listened to (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais through choice more often than any other piece of music, and it’s still utterly beguiling. I’m still waiting to see if it is officially the best record ever made, and won’t be too heartbroken if it isn’t, honest – I’m just glad I’m not the only person who still appreciates it.
* Nick Hornby once worked in the same independent record shop that I did (though not at the same time), and the bits in High Fidelity that take place in the main character’s own shop seemed uncannily familiar to me when I read the book.