The Clash - (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais [7-inch] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Clash

(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais [7-inch] (1978)


The central theme of the Clash’s mega-hit “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” was disillusionment. Practically since their first note, the punk band had been making the somewhat paradoxical argument that punk and reggae were one in the same thing – despite their drastically different takes on religion and sonic style- because they were both “real” music as opposed to the disco/pop/Elton John garbage heard on the radio. So, what a disappointment it was for vocalist Joe Strummer to go to the famed Hammersmith Palais where Dillinger, Leroy Smart, and Ken Booth, were performing, and for the reggae legends to crank out glammy-showbiz style performances instead of heavy duty dread reggae. The Clash had built their image and ethos with a large block of reggae philosophy, and when they actually got to see it live, it was left wanting.

The 70s were a time of profound and rapid creativity for the band, so while the show left them with a sick feeling in their stomach, they converted that disappointment into perhaps their most poignant statement ever. Using the cheesy gig as a springboard, Strummer masterfully built from his personal disillusionment up to greater global issues. He next attacked punk groups perceived as committing the same sin as Dillinger that fateful night, only to stretch that criticism to the national level, suggesting that even Adolph Hitler himself would be warmly greeted by the British government. Leave it to the Clash to build a wasted evening into a cutting musing on the nature of phoniness.

Of course, the song was equally informed by its white-reggae beat. Although the band previously covered “Police and Thieves,” that take was still essentially a punk cut with Jamaican lyrics dropped over the top. By contrast, “White Man” was rooted in the Jamaican music style, as seen through four white British dudes. Wisely, instead of trying to duplicate Lee Perry or Leslie Kong, the band knew they could never out-do Max Romeo, so they kept their punk strike in the upstroke, creating a hybrid style that to this day, is attempted by punk bands, but rarely, if ever duplicated. It’s telling that despite the band’s disappointment with the gig, they still showed a profound reverence for reggae as they bounced through the track. It almost suggested that ideals were more important than reality- something that Strummer himself would benefit from later on in his career…

Meanwhile, the Mick Jones sung b-side played foil to the A-side. Just as “White Man” dealt with the Clash facing, embracing, and accepting reggae music, “The Prisoner” detailed the world of despondent British youth as seen through the culture clash that was 70s Briton. Jones details German and French people bashing against one another as well as the musical influences that formed the band, shouting out both “Johnny Too bad” and “Johnny B. Goode.” If there’s a better way to succinctly described the band, you’d be hard pressed to find it.

Built around the earliest Clash style of a ripping, but melodic riff, Jones contrasted his youthful, earnest vocals against the harder, smashing music. In usual Clash style, this created the effect of having somewhat sensitive, introspective lyrics stretched across an aggressive beat. Like few punk bands before them, the Clash were both thoughtful and hostile at the same time.

At this period, everything the Clash touched turned to gold. No doubt, it was in part created in a cauldron of youthful rage, idealism, and a lack of second-guessing. The Clash would go on to make perhaps more reflective, more poetic lyrics, but this single is what not only defined them, but removed them from the limited space of their contemporaries. Despite the fact that both sides of this slab deal with disillusionment, the overall statement of the record itself, as it broke punk into new areas, was one of the movement’s most hopeful statements ever.