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The Clash sell out [March 4th, 1991]
...and get their first number one
My daughter always lets out a weary sigh whenever YouTube plays an unskippable ad. For her, advertising is a kind of annoying background noise, something you skip as quickly as possible if you can’t bully your father into paying for a premium subscription.
I sometimes give her a rambling speech about how, in my day, advertising was an unavoidable part of our media diet, the broccoli on the dinner plate of mass culture. Back in 1991, a kid (like me) would easily see an hour of commercials each day. Great ads could become cultural heirlooms in themselves, often more beloved than the shows they bookended. Anthony Head built a career on his Nescafe ads, while Rowan Atkinson’s Barclay’s adverts somehow became an entire trilogy of movies.
If an advert deployed a song in just the right way, that song could become a hit, or a classic song could chart again. For example, this week’s top 40 features Free’s “All Right Now” at Number 39, popular again after featuring in a commercial for Wrigley’s gum.
But the masters of the craft were Levi’s. They effectively invented a new artform in 1985 when British model Nick Kamen stripped to his kecks to the tune of “Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Throughout the latter half of the 80s, Levi’s helped to relaunch a bunch of classic soul and blues songs, including “Wonderful World”, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Mannish Boy”.
In the first half of the 90s, Levi’s decided to broaden their scope a little and introduce a little 70s rock. There was a commercial with “The Joker” that I seem to remember being on a lot. There was also a resurgence of interest in “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love”, “21st Century Boy” and…. the third single from The Clash’s last proper album?
Being 13, I had never heard of The Clash before, but I imagine all this came as a shock to die-hard fans. The Clash had always presented themselves up as left-wing, anti-capitalist, punk-till-I-die rebels. Apparently, the justification behind the decision was that the Levi’s brand was an intrinisic part of rock’n’roll iconography, and therefore they were somehow suitable commercial partners for a leftie band.
(Here’s a report from Levi’s own website about child labour in their supply line. Comrades, come rally.)
Selling out is another concept I struggle to explain to my daughter. These days, every artist dreams of a brand deal. It’s the only way to make a living in an age when Spotify pays a billionth of a penny for each play. But there used to be a time when musicians had the luxury of agonising over the choice between artistic integrity and getting rich.
Anyway. I don’t resent The Clash making money. I would just love to know if they felt conflicted about, or if they just paid off the mortgage and didn’t lose a wink of sleep. Like, they did write a whole song about breaking into an advertising firm and shooting everyone.
The other reason “Should I Stay” is a surprising choice is that, unlike previous Levi’s picks, this song had never been a big hit. The song was written and sung by Mick Jones shortly before the band semi-imploded. It reached Number 17 in the UK charts on its original release. In the US, it was overshadowed by the much more successful “Rock the Casbah”.
Why did Levi’s choose it? Possibly because they figured something out that nobody else had, including the band themselves, which is that “Should I Stay” is a genius pop song. It’s got a really simple, really effective call-and-response structure:
Darling, you got to let me know
Der-ner-ner ner-ner ner-ner ner
Should I stay or should I go?
Der-ner-ner ner-ner ner-ner ner
It’s a structure that works equally well in church hymns, stadium chants, and pub sing-alongs. Combine that with simple lyrics that land hard on the rhyme (“so you’ve got to let me know/should I cool it or should I blow”) and you get something that’s insanely catchy and memorable. An ideal pop song. And an ideal hook for a 60-second commercial.
The Clash finally managed to have a UK Number One, although they did not perform it on Top of the Pops.
Levi’s perhaps started to get notions around this stage, and rightly sussed that they could break new acts with the right ad, which would probably save them a fortune in royalties even if it did lead to the grim horror of Babylon Zoo. But that’s all in the future for now…
Elsewhere in the charts
By the way, the original “Should I Stay” single was actually a double A-side with “Straight to Hell”, also known as that song that MIA sampled for “Paper Planes”. MIA’s dad was a legit left-wing revolutionary, which is something that Joe Strummer would have envied.
The Clash finally dislodge Bart Simpson from the top spot. Not sure how Joe Strummer felt about that.
Two minor songs by British indie bands appear side-by-side in the top 20. The Charlatans reached Number 15 with their non-album track “Over Rising”, which was technically part of the genre known as Baggy, although it sounds more like Shoegaze to me.
Meanwhile, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin had their biggest mainstream hit ever at Number 16 with “Happy”. I personally think of Ned’s as Baggy but Wikipedia considers them Grebo. Early 90s indie had a very confusing taxonomy.
Roxette were new entrants at 18 with “Joyride”, another ruthlessly efficient piece of Swedish pop. Nobody knew Sweden were good at pop in 1991. Even Abba was considered naff until Erasure rehabilitated them in 1992.
“Cherry Pie” by Warrant wasn’t a big hit here (it debuts this week at Number 60), but Americans regard it as a classic. I wonder if it’s the last Hair Metal anthem released before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” broke through? We’re only about six months away from Nevermind…
Maybe the best song of 1991? “Unfinished Sympathy” is certainly a contender for the title.