When I’m travelling, I get hit by culture shock pretty regularly, pretty hard. It’s just a fact of the life I aspire to lead, and I’m resigned to simply riding out the vertigo that seeps in when I’m first treading the concrete of a big new city. There are certain things I do when I feel overwhelmed to keep myself grounded. A familiar meal or foodstuff usually helps. Chocolate. Pizza. Normal, everyday food. Also beer. Alcohol is extremely good at conjuring a false sense of belonging. I also find music is hugely powerful when it comes to giving the strength to keep plodding on; to delve further into The Strangeness.
The right song can turn the most dour of days inside out. The right song can remind you of who you really are in those low times when you’ve almost forgotten. Does any song spring to mind? Something that chucks some much-needed kerosene on your fire? Since moving to Berlin, my soul’s bonfire has oscillated wildly between a towering inferno and a smouldering coal heap that could be extinguished in the blink of an eye with an ill-aimed streak of piss. Music gets me through the low times. And it’s always the Clash. The Only Band That Matters.
Complete Control is a 3 minute 12 second silverback chest pound of a track, and for me it is the epitome of song writing and performance, perfectly capturing that indescribable feeling you get on your very best days, that of youth, rebellion, passion and unstoppable momentum. The song begins with a martial drum beat and grinding guitars. Joe Strummer, the righteous and furious, snarls into the mic with his iconic London gravel. Mick Jone’s lead guitar soars over the top of Strummer’s, er, strumming.
The song begins as a gigantic ‘fuck off’ to their record label. The label released a track called Remote Control without consulting the band first, and they were livid. The creative control they’d been promised was a lie. They’d been duped, and as managers and corporations closed in around them, the short lived, fierce spark that was the punk dream already looked to be in recession. In retaliation, they recorded Complete Control and stuck it on the very same album as Remote Control, immediately after it.
“They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant let’s make lotsa money
An’ worry about it later”
Halfway through, the song changes. It stops simply being a good punk song. A break in the drums leaves Mick Jones’s guitar shimmering, alone in the void with Strummers rasped accusations. Then the chugging distortion begins anew, harder; Topper Headon’s drums resume their march, and for the final 90 seconds, the rising crescendo manages to translate into sound all the passion, anger and hope that I’ve ever felt.
Strummer’s fury is enough for all the world, a desperate indignation spills out of him with an urgency so great that he can hardly form words. The song stops being about the record label. It takes on the form of everything that it means to be young and poor and desperate and lost. You can hear every night Joe Strummer spent shivering in a West London squat in his cries. You can hear it in the malice with which he batters his guitar. Punk died a death within years of its inception. As the walls closed in around, and the managers loomed over and media denounced punks as nothing but cannibal infidels, and the inevitable tide of profitability and marketing swept in and everyone sold out or grew up or died, Complete Control was the lasting, anguished, apoplectic battle cry of a dying idealism; a searing, seething supernova.
Forty years later, Strummer is dead, the Clash is dead, and punk is dead. In Complete Control, though, it’s still there, trapped on wax, the audacious defiance of four young men in the face of an uncaring world. Listen to the last 90 seconds. Put headphones in and close your eyes. Listen to the indecipherable rage of 25 year old Strummer, calling out everyone and everything, cracking open the skies, fighting every injustice, righting every wrong, and you’ll believe, even just for a few seconds. You’ll believe in hope, you will regain that youthful idealism and all the impossible silly lofty perfect ideas you had bred out of you through years behind a desk. You may not have had it for a while, that lightning flash of passion that makes you feel like you can do anything. When I hear the conviction in Strummer’s voice, however, I feel like I know who I am again.
When I hear that song, I feel like no matter how weird things get, no matter how lost and confused in the world I am, no matter how far away I am from where I want to be, I’m going to be okay. You can’t suppress hope, not for long.