The Clash: “I’m Not Down” and “Revolution Rock”

(I’m on a quest to get my mom into The Clash, because she missed them the first time round. This was an email to her, with the attached songs. I did this before with “The Card Cheat.”)

“I’m Not Down” and “Revolution Rock” are the second-to-last tracks on London Calling. They were intended to be the final tracks, but “Train In Vain (Stand By Me)” was added last minute (so last minute it wasn’t included in the original track listing).

I am sending both of them because they are, for me, irrevocably connected.

“I’m Not Down” is an anthem for personal change, or rather, personal perseverance. It is at once a description of a difficult, often downtrodden life, a rebellion toward that which pushes us down, and an oath to maintain a positive perspective. You can feel the passion and defiance in the lyrics, sometimes nearly yelled: “So I have lived that kind of day/ When none of your sorrows will go away/ Go down and down and hit the floor/ Down and down and down some more/ Depression/ But I know, there’ll be some way/ When I can swing everything back my way/ Like skyscrapers, rising up/ Floor by floor, I’m not giving up.” The latter verses of “I’m not giving up” are sung just as ferociously as, if not more than, the former verses of “when none of your sorrows will go away.”

“Revolution Rock” is an anthem for political change, or rather, political perseverance. It is the sequel to “I’m Not Down,” the transitioning of the stubborn positivity from the inward (personal) outward (political). It is a call for revolution, but unlike many calls for revolution, it does not give us an agenda, assuring us only of a positive outcome: “Everybody smash up your seats and rock to this brand new beat/ This here music mash up the nation/ This here music cause a sensation/ Tell your ma, tell your pa/ Everything’s gonna be all right/ Can’t you feel it? Don’t ignore it/ Gonna be all right.” It is a call for an emotion (“Can’t you feel it?”) more than an action. It is the creative, the artistic side of revolution—literally: a revolution’s music.

It makes me think of Jill Dolan‘s “utopian performatives.” The theory is, when you see a particular performance or theatrical production, there is a moment when you connect so completely, an overwhelming feeling of community, of synergy, that feels so right, and makes you feel both an immense elan and a sadness in the knowledge that this is merely a fleeting state. As she puts it: “that feeling of hope, or that feeling of desire, embodied by that suddenly hollow space in the pit of my stomach that drops me into an erotics of connection and commonality” (Utopia In Performance, 19-20).

This, she says, is a way that performance can inspire social change. It does not set an agenda for change, it does not show what the perfect world will look like; it does show what the perfect world will feel like, that it is a possibility, one we must strive for, whether or not we know how it will turn out.

This is what “Revolution Rock”—sung with an undeniable, irresistible, infective idealism—does for me. In a time when ideas once thought to achieve social justice have been refuted, when many of us feel we can no longer rely on specific political agendas to tackle massive social ills, it is hard to know how to proceed. It is tempting to give up in a fit of cynicism and overwhelm. “I’m Not Down” and “Revolution Rock” inspire and insist that I keep going.

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