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The Punk Jurisprudence of The Clash


Thursday, Jan. 16, 2003

On December 23, 2002, The Clash frontman Joe Strummer unexpectedly died from a heart attack. His death did not just alert a certain generation to the alarmingly rapid passage of time. ("Fifty? How can a punk rocker be fifty?") It also marked the loss of a truly brilliant artist. Strummer was a musician who stripped rock back down to its raw essentials, then exploded its creative vocabulary with borrowings from around the world. He was also a lyricist who channeled the ragged anger of punk into a vast, incisive social critique.

The tributes paid to Strummer in recent weeks have not forgotten that The Clash were the most politically engaged and articulate musicians of their time, perhaps in the history of rock and roll. Other bands wrote protest songs. The Clash had a full-blown foreign policy. Touted early on as "the only band that matters," they very nearly lived up to the hype.

But Strummer could have been much more than that. He would have made one heck of law professor.

The range and depth of The Clash's commentary on law and justice humbles that of just about any other rock band. (It also happens to compare favorably to the written output of many tenured legal scholars.)

After all, how many popular musicians began songs by proclaiming "This is a public service announcement... with guitars!" or swearing "by Almighty God/To tell the whole truth/And nothing but the truth," as The Clash did in "Know Your Rights" and "Guns on the Roof"?

But before any sentimental record companies rush to endow a Joe Strummer Chair of Punk Jurisprudence, they should prepare themselves for a lively clash of values. For Strummer, "justice" and "the justice system" were fairly inimical concepts. As a result his views fell squarely into the "Critical Legal Studies" camp.

Given today's political climate, Strummer would have faced a tough road to tenure. But through his songs, we can at least get a glimpse of what the curriculum might have looked like.

1L Fall Semester: Criminal Law

For The Clash, the typical introduction to the law begins with a slap of handcuffs on the wrists and ends with a stiff sentence in Brixton. Punk culture began with a defiance of accepted norms, most definitely including the legal ones. In the early '70s, the young men who would form The Clash found themselves in plenty of trouble with the law, both real and (heroically) imagined.

Of course, the rebel with or without cause is one piece of legal terrain that rock music had mined well before The Clash. The band gave a nod to this tradition with rousing cover of Sonny Curtis' "I Fought the Law" on its 1977 debut album.

Strummer and his songwriting partner Mick Jones also drew inspiration from the "Rude Boy" genre of Jamaican reggae, which recounted the travails of unruly youth in a humorous but affectionate tone. The typical Rude Boy can't make it through a three-minute song without being hauled into a courtroom at least once (for "looting, running and stabbing and shooting"), invariably to be met with a stern lecture from the judge.

Unlike typical folk music ballads of justice denied, the "Rude Boy" sagas don't turn on questions of individual guilt or innocence. The Rude Boy can safely be assumed to be guilty of something, even if it is not the actual crime with which he is charged. What matters is how he experiences The Law--as a more or less random intrusion into the anarchic world where he lives.

To the legal system, the Rude Boy is so anonymous and undifferentiated that in song after song, he needs no other name than "Rudy". (The Clash later paid tribute to this venerable character in "Rudie Can't Fail").

These influences are evident throughout the Band's work: "Johnny Too Bad meets Johnny B. Goode," as The Clash aptly put it in "The Prisoner." "I got nicked [arrested], fighting in the road," Strummer growled in one early song. "The judge didn't even know/What's my name".

The guilt of Clash protagonists, like Rudy's, is either openly acknowledged (as in "I Fought the Law" or "Robber Dub") or irrelevant ("Jimmy Jazz"). The songs focus not on the crimes but their aftermath, usually from the point of view of the accused--whether fleeing ("Police on My Back"), resisting ("The Guns of Brixton"), busted ("Julie's Been Working for the Drug Squad"), on trial ("Ghetto Defendant"), incarcerated ("Jail Guitar Doors") or grudgingly spit back into society ("Stay Free").

Long before the triumph of mandatory drug sentencing laws, Strummer anticipated their futility and waste:

They put him in a cell, they said you wait here
You've got the time to count all of your hair
You've got fifteen years
A mighty long time
You could have been a physicist
But now your name is on the mailbag list
'Cos Julie's been working for the drug squad

In the logic of this world, the police are at best corrupt ("The Crooked Beat") or ineffectual ("Red Angel Dragnet"). At worst, they are simply another armed and dangerous gang. The point is made explicitly in an early cover of "Police and Thieves", a reggae classic that remained a touchstone for The Clash. "Police and thieves in the street," the song evenhandedly observes, "Fighting the nation/With their guns and ammunition."

Such equivalencies, of course, are no longer fashionable. Nor is the tendency to view crime as a phenomenon primarily affecting the perpetrator. But Professor Strummer would have made his students remember that the criminal justice system can render judgments about the powerlessness of the accused more reliably than on his guilt, and that sympathy need not be reserved solely for the innocent.

1L Spring Semester: Property

Strummer's views on the Rule Against Perpetuities were never recorded. But he clearly felt that the rich had obtained their wealth through possession of the most adverse kind. As he sang in "Remote Control":

They got you down an'
They wanna keep you there
It makes them worried
Their bank accounts
That's all that matters
And you don't count

In the eyes of The Clash, property held a grip on power too tight to be shaken by anything short of revolution. More moderate measures were viewed derisively, as in the reggae-tinged "White Man in Hammersmith Palais":

White youth, black youth
Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood
And ask him for some wealth distribution

But at heart, the notion was quite serious, and it implied that property, while immensely powerful, was also notably fragile. Strummer put it squarely in "White Riot":

All the power's in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street
Too chicken to even try it

This disdain for property was not necessarily reflected in the band members' own finances. But that is true of many real and would-be revolutionaries. It certainly would not disqualify many law professors of a similar bent.

1L Spring Semester: Contracts

Like many bands, The Clash probably wouldn't have known a contract of adhesion unless and until they found one stuck to their posteriors. But they eventually did, and from that point the learning curve was characteristically steep:

They said we'd be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant let's make a lotsa money
An' worry about it later

It would have been exceedingly rare for a rock band to express warm feelings toward its record label. In this one respect, The Clash failed to defy expectations. The titles of the songs they wrote about this delicate contractual relationship speak for themselves: "Remote Control", "Complete Control", and "Cheapskates". In "All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)", Strummer recounted the band's rise with allusions to both the Mafia and legal formalism ("A contract is a contract/When they get 'em out on you").

With this experience under his belt, Strummer no doubt would have alerted his students to the imbalance in information and negotiating power that prevents many contracts from representing a true "meeting of the minds".

2L Fall Semester: Constitutional Law

Constitutional Law with Professor Strummer would have been a challenging experience for many law students. He probably would have skimmed over Marbury v. Madison and headed straight for Mao. The Clash never seriously doubted that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Regimes are sustained by violence, whether domestic ("Clampdown") or imported ("Washington Bullets"). The institutions of bourgeois democracy, in contrast, could not have been of less interest to The Clash:

Look out' those rules and regulations
Who needs the Parliament
Sitting making laws all day
They're all fat and old
Queuing for the House of Lords

With such an attitude, Professor Strummer might not have been much help to students struggling with the intricacies of the 14th Amendment. But he would have surely made them question the universal veneration of a document which once embraced--among other things--the institution of human slavery.

2L Spring Semester: Civil Liberties

Brilliant iconoclasts that they were, The Clash demonstrated little reverence for the laws and traditions that made their dissent possible.

In "Know Your Rights", for example, Strummer offered his own distillation of the civil liberties society afforded him ("all three of them"). They consisted of the right not to be killed, the right to food money, and the right to free speech ("as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it"). In each case, the putative right comes loaded with caveats and loopholes--murder is allowed to policemen and aristocrats; welfare is tangled in humiliating strings.

Coming from a land without a written constitution, Strummer was perhaps less impressed than most American legal thinkers by the promise of legal rights--and more focused on whether they actually existed in reality. He may have undervalued the gifts of a liberal society, but he would have still made full use of them; after all, in every song, he did "actually try it."

3L Fall Semester: Professional Ethics

Despite his working class image, Strummer was actually the son of British diplomats, and might have easily blundered into a legal career had punk rock not intervened. If so, his strong moral compass would have been just as necessary. After all, "selling out" is not a problem limited to rock stars.

In "Midnight Log" (1980), eons before Enron, Strummer sang knowingly of the ethical dilemmas of professional life:

Cooking up the books
A respected occupation
The anchor and foundation of multi-corporations
They don't believe in crime
They don't know that it exists
But to understand
What's right and wrong
The lawyers work in shifts

Law students could not ask for a better description of the horrors than might await them on the other side of a summer of caviar and canapes. John Grisham can only dream of putting it so well.

3L Spring Semester: Jurisprudence

What about jurisprudence, and the theory of law? The Clash did not offer much hope of achieving justice through the legal system. In one his most apocalyptic songs ("Guns on the Roof"), Strummer drew haunting images of legal process running amok in a state ruled by violence:

A system built by the sweat of the many
Creates assassins to kill off the few
Take any place and call it a court house
This is a place where no judge can stand

Sue the lawyers and burn all the papers
Unlock the key of the legal records
A jury of a billion faces
Shouted out condemned out of hand

It is not entirely clear whether the song's violent atmosphere is revolutionary or reactionary. But like many non-lawyers, The Clash clearly would have liked to "unlock the key of the legal records" that keep our lives and our society tightly bound. They would have preferred to take their chances before a "jury of a billion faces"--wherever the risk might take them.

Of course, The Clash were not the first to suggest that the law stands with the rulers, against the oppressed. But they were the first to do it with really loud guitars.

And so they reached many millions more than even the most eminent law review. So here's to Joe Strummer, the best law professor we never had.

Dean G. Falvy, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, is an attorney focusing on corporate and international law. He once appropriated a set of drums from a friend's basement with the intention of playing them in a garage band called "Grand Theft Audio". But he thought better of it and put them back.

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