An all-star panel – including Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Terry Chimes – vote for their greatest cuts (from Uncut's December 2003 issue)
1 (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
Single A-side, June 1978
JONES: Really? That’s Number 1?
SIMONON: I think this is the overall Number 1 for me, too. It was such a change from what we’d been doing, from what the audience was expecting. They thought we were just gonna charge along with another bunch of numbers and then we came out with this. It’s like a couple of songs in one. Same with “Complete Control” and “Clash City Rockers”. They’re almost like mini operas. It’s got that reggae element, but it’s also a rock song. It’s not a punk song but then again it is. It’s a combination of all those elements.
JONES: I knew the moment we came up with the music it was gonna be a big number. Then taking it home after we’d finished it and listening to it the next day thinking, “Wow!”
SIMONON: It became one of those sing-song sort of tunes, really, one where everyone sways along when they’ve had too much beer on New Year’s Eve. It’s a Hogmanay song!
JONES: I remember some years ago I was up in Liverpool at this party after The Farm did a gig. Suddenly all these guys started singing “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”. They knew all the words. I was so moved. It was so entrenched in them, y’know. That song really means something.
NORMAN COOK: This was very influential on me; the way the Clash used reggae, but were never a cod reggae band. I also identified with being the only white face in a crowd. Key line would be: “Ha you think it’s funny turning rebellion into money.” It came absolutely out of nowhere, it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I was born in 1963, and I’d have been 15 or 16 when I heard this. My brother had brought home the first Damned album and “White Riot” and I’d bought them off him by the time the records finished playing. At school, you were either a Clash fan or a Jam fan, but I found the Jam a bit humourless and po-faced. The Clash had the swagger. If you were looking for rock’n’roll idols, they were it. I saw them 13 times, saw every line-up.
MOBY: It’s funny, with a lot of bands, people’s choice of favourite song tends to be very subjective, but with The Clash I feel there’s almost a universal consensus among friends I talk to as to what that best song is. And it’s “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”. It’s like, you get a bunch of Clash fans together, at the end of the day and, after one or two minor rows, everyone will probably agree that’s their finest hour.
It’s definitely their most EPIC song. If anything it’s almost like a weird prog rock number. In the sense that it begins one way, develops another way, and ends in another way again. It just has so many different facets. It starts out kinda light-hearted, then gets very intense and emotional, then has this big build, then ends quite, well, delicately. And it tells a great story.
RODDY FRAME: It’s the obvious classic Clash song. People like my brother, who was 10 years older than me and he hated the whole punk thing – he liked Bob Dylan – even he liked “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”!
It was the first time The Clash had actually been well-recorded. The first album was a bit tinny, but by the time they did this, they’d got their head round the recording process a bit better. It was so melodic, it had harmonies, a middle eight, a reggae beat. It was much slower than any punk record I’d ever heard up till then. It wasn’t really a punk record, but it seemed to encapsulate everything about The Clash and what they were gonna do.
Being in Scotland, of course, the whole London thing sounded exotic. God, I must have been about 13 at the time. We used to read the NME from cover to cover and backwards again. They had great writers in those days, people like Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons. So you’d be reading it and wishing you were in London the whole time. When you heard The Clash sing about “Hammersmith Palais” it did seem exotic – it seemed like London was the place where you wanted to be.
It’s funny now that I live in Notting Hill, I remember when I first came down in the early ’80s, when Aztec Camera were on Rough Trade, you used to see Joe Strummer walking around in the street. I used to think “Wow! That’s really weird!” I remember once having to restrain my dad when we saw him in the pub. “Oh look – it’s Joe Strummer, I’ll just go and have a wee word.” I went, “Nah, just leave him alone!” That was the great thing about Strummer. I can see him standing in the Earl Of Lonsdale pub wearing all that amazing Clash stuff – those cut-off sleeveless jackets with the epaulettes – it was fantastic. Joe Strummer looked like Joe Strummer wherever he went.
ED HAMELL: I once opened up for The Clash in some band I was in. It was the Cut The Crap era, no Mick Jones or Topper Headon, so I guess it doesn’t count, but Strummer was very cool, letting me play the “Question Authority” Telecaster during soundcheck, and I was in awe. But what was brutally apparent, particularly during the check where they were warming up and you could hear them playing solo and individually, was what a distinctive and unique bass player Simonon was. There were four forceful personalities in that band (when Topper was aboard), and Paul’s came through in his instrument. This song rocks hard and the bass player, amateur though he might have been at that time, carries the band. He also brought the reggae, and though I’ve always been suspect of white pop bands doing the reggae thing (read: The Police), these guys pulled it off. Some maintain that the morphing of the two styles was their greatest contribution, but I ain’t buying it.
CLINT BOON: The thing about “Hammersmith Palais” is that after Joe died, it seemed to become more poignant. It was the mood of the track. The week he died, that was The Clash record that I used to play out in the clubs. I’d stick it on at the end of the night. It was like “Fookin’ hell” – hairs on the back of your neck, y’know? It was like we all realised that we’d lost somebody really important. Certain people you don’t imagine ever dying, and Joe was one of them.
GARY CROWLEY: An incredible record, and one that always makes me think of being at school just off the Edgware Road. It was mainly all black kids so when we used to go away on organised trips, they’d bring their reggae albums and I’d bring some punk records to play ’em, and they really liked “White Man…” It was around this time that I actually got to interview them for the school mag, which I’d turned into a punk fanzine called The Modern World, after The Jam song, obviously. I used to go to Mickey’s Fish Bar every lunchtime, and one day I saw Joe over the road coming out of the Metropolitan Café. I thought, “Fucking hell, there’s Strummer!” So I went up to him, still in me school uniform, and asked if he’d give me an interview. He said “yeah” and told me to come down to Rehearsal Rehearsals in Camden the next day. About eight of us ended up going, me to do the interview and seven mates to hold the tape recorder! When we turned up, Roadent – a rather intimidating Clash roadie – took one look at us and said, “What the fuck is this? A school outing?!” “White Man…” just takes me right back there.
PETE WYLIE: The dynamic of the song, it’s almost like a novel. And that last bit – “I’m the all night drug- prowling wolf” – the lyrical imagery is great. Strummer could sing the telephone directory and throw in one line that made it stunning. In some ways, it sums up The Clash in one record. The reggae, Joe bringing in his Dylan thing with the bit with the harmonica, Strummer’s great yowl and Mick’s great backing vocals. A microcosm of everything there is to love about them. And what great lines. “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway” – you could take them out and have them on Quote Of The Week on bloody Teletext.
JAKE BURNS: This isn’t just my favourite Clash song. It’s my favourite song, period. It’s the perfect record and I’d have killed to have made it. Because it’s unorthodox, because it’s a weird structure it holds your attention all the way through. I mean, there isn’t even a chorus as such, but it still manages to be big and anthemic. Even now, just that little guitar click at the beginning before they’ve even started playing and the “One, two, a one-two-three-four”, it just sends the hairs on the back of my neck shooting up. The lyrics are fantastic, they really evoke that whole era. I know exactly what he means because even though I never went to the Palais, I did go and see Dennis Brown at The Rainbow and I felt like the only white guy in there. The whole thing was so obviously written from the heart, y’know. And that was The Clash’s big strength. That honesty, that commitment.
MARK REFOY: I remember the first time I heard John Peel play this in the summer of ’78, saying, “Here’s the new Clash single,” and then on came this thing that at the time I thought was nothing like The Clash, but was still great. Then hearing the mouth organ and thinking, “Wow!” I know it sounds a cliché, but it was one of those musical epiphanies.
LAURENCE BELL: Reggae was such an enormous presence back then. If you were a punk rock kid, you’d normally end up at a blues dance or something where there’d be people toasting and everyone drinking cans of Red Stripe. It was a really cool period and “White Man…” seemed to sum it up. It’s very Dylan, very “Positively Fourth Street”. You’re so entranced by it that by the end of it, it’s your personal anthem. It’s a song without a chorus, but by the end of it you realise the whole song is the chorus.
MARK PERRY: It was the first proper attempt at punk reggae. I mean they’d done “Police And Thieves” before, which I thought was a bit half-arsed, but musically “White Man…” is just brilliant, that whole stuttery rhythm. Again, its great that they’re creating their own mythology, Strummer writing about being down the Hammersmith Palais at a reggae show. Lyrically it’s self-effacing, it’s humorous, it’s about a dilemma which we were all suffering at the time.
JOHNNY GREEN: A good tune always wins out and a good tune with a good message is always, always gonna win out. It was a kind of crummy recording to do when we made it. The studio was behind The Marquee, so we’d be slinking around in the dark, trying to avoid the crowds queueing up outside, crouching behind cars so as not to get noticed. But out of that came this terrific song. The way Joe turned what was a conversational anecdote into a song that touches everybody is a remarkable testament to the man. I thought it was very nice when they played it at Joe’s funeral, too.
ADAM SWEETING: Most of the Clash’s DNA was encoded in “White Man” – it was drenched in their west London roots. Musically, it was a perfect mix of garage-band racket and ramshackle reggae – the punks-meet-rasta lyrics amounted to a Clash manifesto, and it even has a classic “1-2-3-4” intro from Jonesy. Strummer, as usual, sang as though he’d got a Red Stripe bottle wedged in his oesophagus, but you couldn’t miss those blinding images of the “drug-prowling wolf who looks so sick in the sun”, or the piercingly acute observation that “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway”. They had rrrrooots rrrrock rrrrebel to burn.
ALEX COX: We’ve all been in that situation, where we find ourselves the only punk present.
JON LANGFORD: A great-sounding, great-looking punk rock seven-inch I spied in the window of Jumbo Records in Leeds, took home on the bus and played to death at the threshold of aural pain. Around that time, The Mekons were doing gigs with Misty In Roots, The Ruts, local reggae bands and sound systems at the R.A.R. club at Leeds Poly, the West Indian Centre and Roots in Chapeltown, and for a while the whole punky reggae party thing made perfect sense, crystallised in the grooves of this single.
ALAN McGEE: Maybe the greatest song ever written by white men. The greatest lyrics ever. It’s why The Clash were a religion to people from Scotland or any other shithole the government has forgotten about.
SIMON MORAN: If people want to understand why The Clash were such a brilliant band they should listen to “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”. From what he said to me, I think it was one of Joe’s favourites, too. It was always a highlight of his solo sets.
JESSE MALIN: Phenomenal. It’s so raw, the guitars are so nasty. And the idea of mixing a reggae feel with a punk thing is just fucking genius. When I saw Joe play it, that was a special moment. But that was what Joe was all about. When I was in D Generation, I had a club in New York called Coney Island High and Bob Gruen, the photographer, brought Joe over and we hung out and talked about Scorsese movies and drank tequila until the sun came up. I watched Joe do that with so many people. He would sit and drink all night and talk to you and give a thousand per cent of himself and tell you every story behind every lyric. The Clash were so real with their fans.
MICKEY BRADLEY: Part of a trio of brilliant singles (along with “Complete Control” and “Clash City Rockers”) released within the space of exactly nine months – a run that only The Sex Pistols could match.
GIDEON COE: Inspired, of course, by Strummer’s trip to the venue now known as Poo Na Na, and it contains some of his finest, most pithy lyrics and clever couplets. It’s also the classic example of the way The Clash used backing vocals to such great effect.
I recently read something by Michael Stipe in which he said seeing the Clash showed him how well a band could use background vocals. R.E.M. do it well and now it makes sense, given their main source of inspiration. Jonesy’s “oh oh oh oh’s” never sounded better. What was the Palais now hosts The School Disco among other things. I’m thinking of going along and writing a pastiche entitled “Old Man at Poo Na Na” but I think I’ll leave it.
ALAN PARKER: From my first listen to this song, right through to this day, it’s still one of the most important slabs of vinyl in the world ever.
BOBBY GILLESPIE: A lot of bands pretend to be anti-authority and anti-capitalism, but they don’t actually do or say anything political. The Clash made a deliberate stance against the system and tracks like “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” remind people what a horrible, racist country ’70s Britain was. The Clash were – and still are – one of the genuine outsider bands, and their music was a force for good.
JAY FARRAR: The Plebes played this one, too. The lyrics were great from the observations of “turning rebellion into money” to the Keith Richards-meets-Charles Bukowski vibe of “I’m the all night drug-prowling wolf who looks so sick in the sun”. The song’s also a great primer for checking out Jamaican music. “Dillinger and Leroy Smart/Delroy Wilson, your cool operator”.
ROBERT ELMS: I’d grown up a reggae fan on a north-west London council estate, my mum and dad met at the Hammersmith Palais, I’d been the white boy at loads of reggae gigs and it just felt as if this song was part of me, the bass line of my life.
DON LETTS: This song is particularly poignant to me because I was the one that took Joe to Hammersmith Palais on that night. Like the song says, he was the only white man in the house. He went there expecting to see a roots reggae show, not realising that all the people down the ghetto in Jamaica, what are they trying to do? They’re trying to get out and be glamorous! So when he went there, instead of this roots ghetto rebel show, what he saw was more Las Vegas glamour, which I think threw him. That was his own misunderstanding, I think. As I often say to people, the ghetto isn’t something you get in to, it’s something that you get out of. That whole ghetto chic thing is a misconception for a lot of people, so I think it was an eye-opener for him.
It was a brilliant evening for me, because I was there to see all my reggae heroes like Dillinger, Jah Stitch and Leroy Smart. But Joe was going through a bit of a dilemma about what he was expecting and what he was seeing, which I think was something he came to understand later on, obviously. It was so unexpected for a band to do something like “White Man…” The groove was slower, it had that reggae feel, it was a complete left turn to what everyone thought they would have come out with, which was another great thing about The Clash. But, literally, when I hear this song I get goose pimples, every fucking time.
I’ll tell you one last thing about The Clash, and what made them special. Doing this poll for Uncut made me rethink about the whole thing, especially in light of music today, and it struck me that when we – Joe, Mick, myself, our generation – all got into music, it was really an anti-establishment thing. It seems to me nowadays that people seem to get into music today to be a part of the establishment. That’s the essential difference between a band like The Clash and all the shit that’s going on now. You don’t get bands like The Clash any more. Then again, they were a tough act to follow. Make that damn near impossible!