Give ’em Enough Rope

1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the second outing of English punk stalwarts The Clash, and was actually their first release in the United States, preceding the US version of their self-titled debut by several months. It also precedes the 1979 masterpiece London Calling, the double album that would catapult The Clash to stardom, and as such is an oft-overlooked recording. It’s not a masterpiece, suffering from some rather patchy work, but it has a few terrific highlights, and is overall a solid addition to any punk fan’s library.

The Clash — Give ’em Enough Rope: Track-by-track review

1. “Safe European Home”
“Safe European Home” is the album opener, and it handles that job very well, with its crunchy guitars and tight backing harmonies. Strummer is in typically fine shape here vocal-wise, growling and munching his way through a vicious critique of “proper” upper-class society, which may or may not be a reflection on his own background as the son of a diplomat. He ends with a repeated plea to the mythical “Rudy” of ska canon, and some good fireworks by drummer Topper Headon.

2. “English Civil War”
“English Civil War” is a bloody valentine to the traditional favorite “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Paul Simonon gets to start off with a fine, insistent bass line before being joined by his fellows, and Strummer’s vocals shape up to the kind of menace he would later showcase on luminaries like “London Calling”. The lyrics are typically vicious, giving us the sense that Johnny, whoever he is, will have anything but a happy homecoming.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is in itself a retread of a much older tune. The original is Irish, entitled “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”, and tells the story of a woman whose lover returns from war so traumatized and damaged that he does not recognize her, and she, in turn, mourns the loss of the man she loved. The wording most of us are accustomed to is American, written some time before the American Civil War. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether Joe and the gang knew this, but it does shed a different light on all three versions.

3. “Tommy Gun”
This is where the album finally begins to win me over. This is the first song that feels like a Clash number, with the solid, aggressive energy that is a true hallmark of the group. It’s a fine critique of the military-industrial complex, highlighted once again by Headon’s terrific percussion work. The other members pull themselves together to make a track that, while not an early classic like “White Riot”, is still a strong addition, helping to kick-start the previously sluggish flow of the record.

4. “Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad”
Containing references to one of the largest drug busts ever conducted and name-checking The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, this fourth track is a delightful, jazzy number with a welcome, saloon-style piano backing. Joe eases off the vocals a bit, providing a drawling platform for the sardonic lyrics. Though ostensibly based on the infamous “Operation Julie”, wherein the largest LSD-trafficking ring was broken, the song works well on its own as the story of a tempting, femme fatale snitch.

5. “Last Gang In Town”
“Last Gang in Town” is a true showcase for the beautifully crisp production on this record, which was done by luminary Sandy Pearlman. No element overshadows another, all of them contributing to the cheeky, “bad-boy”, bluesy atmosphere of the tune. Again, Strummer relaxes on the vocals a little, harmonizing well with Jones and easing the occasionally grating quality of his voice. This track is another winner, carrying the torch of good, gritty rock ‘n roll.

6. “Guns On The Roof”
Opening side two of the original record, this blistering rant against global terrorism was inspired by a spot of legal trouble — Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were fined for shooting pigeons with an air gun from the roof of their recording studio. It’s a fine piece of work, contributing to the band’s (largely self-created) hoodlum image. All four members chipped in on the writing and arranging, and fans of The Who will notice the main riff’s striking similarity to “I Can’t Explain”.

7. “Drug-Stabbing Time”
Opening with crunchy, distorted guitars, the number promises to be a Ramones-style thriller. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t quite manage to deliver. The energy is a little too overwrought, and there’s a perplexing element of saxophones that feels utterly misplaced. The technical proficiency of the band is not at fault, it just isn’t quite as cohesive as should (and easily could) have been. An unfortunate break in the streak of good-quality songs, although for a lesser band, it wouldn’t have been a bad effort at all. Who knows.

8. “Stay Free”
Undoubtedly my favorite song on this album, and one of my favorite Clash songs in general. Mick Jones takes over vocal duties, and was largely responsible for the story of the song. It’s oddly sentimental, approaching a ballad, and details the close bond between three young outcasts, which is broken when two of them are sent off to prison. The joy is apparent in Jones’ voice when he sings of plans to paint the town once the other two are sprung, but by the end of the song, it’s clear that he has changed his ways and is admonishing his former comrades to do the same, albeit with a gentle wistfulness that, to be honest, brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. He doesn’t shirk on guitar duties either, ending with a stunning solo, and he’s backed throughout the song by Simonon’s unimpeachable bass, Headon’s driving drums, and Strummer’s keening harmonies. A cinematic gem, definitely one of their earlier classics (although to be honest, the Hammond organ at the end is maybe a little much).

9. “Cheapskates”
A turn into much darker territory, this tune is hampered right from the start by its unremarkable lyrics, which undermine the strength of Strummer’s furious vocals. Jones and Simonon back him up with decent harmonies, and Jones’ great guitar redeems the number a little bit. Once again, the problem lies in the lack of “teamwork” — there seems to be a lack of direction, and the whole thing comes off, disappointingly, as sloppy.

10. “All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)”
A much lighter, more atmospheric rocker, the vocals are the star of this tune, despite Pearlman’s notorious attempts to bury them underneath the drums (apparently, he hated Strummer’s voice). In a similar mood to the ska/rocksteady classic “A Message to You Rudy”, it’s a winking admonishment of the current generation. Strummer, born in 1952, was a little older than most of the core punk demographic, and thus in a better place to advise his contemporaries to beware of the vagaries of the world, from soul-sucking factory jobs to corrupt band managers. It’s a nice finish to the album, with another sharp solo from Jones. Inexplicably, the title on the US release was changed to “That’s No Way to Spend Your Youth”, but this was correct on subsequent editions. It ends the record on a bright, thoroughly rocking note, adding much-needed strength.

Give ’em Enough Rope by The Clash

“Safe European Home”

“English Civil War”

“Tommy Gun”

“Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad”

“Last Gang In Town”

“Guns On The Roof”

“Drug-Stabbing Time”

“Stay Free”

“Cheapskates”

“All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)”

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