War document: “Straight to Hell,” Track 12, From Here to Eternity, The Clash

By lambert strether

For Memorial Day Weekend, I thought I’d curate a few documents on war. Here’s the third, and last:

Unlike many Clash (and punk) songs, “Straight to Hell” is long, slow, and sinuous. The drumming — “one, two, three, four” — conjures stomping, then dancing boots (“boots on the ground”); the rhythm guitar calls up memories of the thwop, thwop, thwop of helicopter blades; and the lead guitar lacerates and howls like barbed wire woven from grief and rage.

Unlike poetry, the lyrics aren’t meant to be understood apart from the performance, but I want to annotate some of them, so for reference here they are:

1 If you can play on the fiddle
2 How’s about a British jig and reel?
3 Speaking King’s English in quotation
4 As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust
5 water froze in the generation
6 Clear as winter ice
7 This is your paradise

8 There ain’t no need for ya
9 There ain’t no need for ya
10 Go straight to hell boys
11 Go straight to hell boys
[varies between “boy” and “boys”]

12 Wanna join in a chorus
13 Of the Amerasian blues?
14 When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
15 Kiddie say papa papa papa papa-san take me home
16 See me got photo-photo
17 Photograph of you and
18 Mamma Mamma Mamma-san

19 Lemme tell ya ’bout your blood bamboo kid.
20 It ain’t Coca-Cola it’s rice

21 Oh Papa-san
22 Please take me home
23 Oh Papa-san
24 Everybody, they wanna go home

25 So Mamma-san says…

26 You wanna play mind-crazed banjo

27 On the druggy-drag ragtime U.S.A.?
28 In Parkland International
29 Hah! Junkiedom U.S.A.
30 Where procaine proves the purest rock man groove
31 And rat poison
32 The volatile Molotov says-

33 [pant] [pant] [pant] [pant] straight to hell!

34 Can you cough it up loud and strong?
35 The immigrants
36 They wanna sing all night long
37 It could be anywhere
38 Most likely could be any frontier
39 Any hemisphere
40 No man’s land
41 There ain’t no asylum here
42 King Solomon he never lived round here

43 Straight to hell boys
44 Go straight to hell boy

[1] “You” The Vietnamese son (“boy”) of the American soldier and his Vietnamese wife, and those for whom he is a figure. The speaker, the “I” represented by the singer (“Lemme tell ya” [19]), is less clear (much unlike Sherman, and Homer). For example, “It ain’t Coca-Cola it’s rice” [20] is spoken to the child, but the speaker could be the soldier, the mother, or any (American) authority figure. All the speakers seem to share a phantasmagoric collective unconscious defined by the failure to win asylum (safety, sanctuary, peace), in life or in language, wherever and however sought.

[2] “British jig and reel” Isn’t a jig Irish in origin, and not British?

[3] “King’s English” Which “boy” will be as unlikely to speak as any other immigrant, member of a subject population, or working class child with little education and bad teeth. Study though they may.

[18] “Mamma Mamma Mamma-san” Mamma-san can only be the boy repeating a phrase he has heard, possibly from the soldier; it’s “pidgin used by American servicemen for any older Vietnamese woman”, making her situation even more poignant. So but and see note on [42].

[25] “So Mamma-san says…” And how does the mother know about the hell that follows starting at [26]?

[28] “Parkland International” Perhaps a language school?

[32] “volatile Molotov” Word play unlikely to be from the mother.

[42] “King Solomon” 1 Kings 3:16-28 (and see also).

[44] “Go straight to hell boy” He’s got no place to go…

See the NOTE below for liner notes-like discography, and links to some coherent interpretations.

NOTE “Straight to Hell” was recorded live September 8, 1982 at The Orpheum, Boston, MA. I saw The Clash live at The Harvard Square Theatre, February 16, 1979. Best rock and roll concert I’ve ever been to, bar none. See here and here for some appreciations of the song.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Flying Kiwi

      One usage of the word “British” is referenced to the British Isles, which would include both Ireland and Scotland.

    2. J. Sterling

      Some art forms are considered “Irish” or “Scottish” not because they were the first places for those forms to appear in the islands, but because they were the last places for them to disappear. Jigs and reels were universal in Britain until the upper class in England decided that continental European fashions in music were where it was at. Then when they decided to patronize “country” or “folk” music again, Ireland and Scotland looked like pure untouched examples of the ancient forms. On top of that, the rising concept of the nation-state required the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh to insist that their cultures were separate and unique, when the pre-nationalist reality is more one shared culture with local variations.

      [it’s the same in continental Europe, where they try to erase their old links to their neighbors over the border by spelling everything different and calling everything different names. Can’t call it “Budweis”, that sounds too German, it must be “Budějovice”; can’t call it “Turkish coffee”, it’s “Greek coffee”, which is completely different]

      When you hear the drum and fiddle music in the most recent remake of “Last of the Mohicans”, it might sound Irish to you, but it could be from any part of of Britain or Ireland at that time.

  1. gonzomarx

    Joe Stummer’s mum was born and raised in Bonar Bridge in the Scottish Highlands

      1. gonzomarx

        suggestion for a link

        Ireland’s small-town solution to euro uncertainty: bringing back the punt
        Shopkeepers in border town of Clones use loophole to bring back Irish notes – and boost the local economy

        1. Maju

          That was done in Galicia (legally “Spain”) too: a small town whose name I can’t recall was accepting old pesetas and slightly boosting their tourist and shopping economy that way.

          Won’t solve anything however.

  2. K Ackermann

    I saw the Clash in the old Boston Garden – a place where acoustics went to die.

    I think the Clash was one of the only bands that sounded good there – maybe J. Giels on News Years Eve. The place always had energy, though.

    This is a bit off-topic, but you have to love Crass, and their ability to work up a good rant. The way this song builds into a righteous rant just slays me.

    1. Warren Celli

      “I saw the Clash in the old Boston Garden – a place where acoustics went to die.”

      Boston Garden, a piece of Boston’s history — along with Scollay Square — that never should have got the ax. Yes, the acoustics sucked for concerts, but when the Bruins played and Bobby Orr scored a goal you could not hear yourself think anyway! Sad that they are both gone.

      Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

  3. Middle Seaman

    It’s a great song, although I typically prefer the lyrics in songs in some other European and Semite cultures/languages; they are clearer, more poetic, typically way starker and will frequently stand by themselves without the music.

    Thanks a million for the series. It’s an exceptional and brilliant way to bring home the horrors of war. I have been to wars, too many wars. Hell is paradise compared to war. A war is the exact opposite of human needs, desires and dreams. Thanks again!

  4. René

    “There must have been more deliberate lying in the world from 1914 to 1918 than in any other period in the world’s history.”

    – Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood In War Time, 1928


    * * *

    “[Had the U.S. not entered WWI] …peace would have been made with Germany; and there would have been no collapse in Russia leading to Communism; no breakdown of government in Italy followed by Fascism; and Naziism never would have gained ascendancy in Germany.”

    – Winston Churchill, Social Justice Magazine, July 3, 1939

  5. The Old Lie

    Who failed to mention Ofraud channeled the ‘Nam for his Memorial Day choreography? Go as far right as possible, since tales of “dis repect” get the blood up.
    I suppose going back to another murderous police action will divert attention from the number of young folks who kill themselves in the name of Big Corporations, and the obscene levels of plunder, theft from the middle class to engage in Wilsonian insanity. And to think the US had grown to see the error of our ways, only to Iraq them when the vulcans arrived.

  6. Susan the other

    This has been interesting Lambert. The Clash is more Homer than Sherman. Somewhere between the Civil War and the Vietnam War we not only lost our cause, we knew it. We did indeed go straight to Hell. “The lead guitar lacerates and howls like barbed wire woven from grief and rage…” Nice. But look how we still cling to Sherman’s sentiment as if our wars were good wars. War is almost a living thing because each war gives birth to a new one.

    I always thought that we went into Vietnam because we wanted to be repaid for footing WW2 but France and England were busted. THey couldn’t keep their colonies glued together and couldn’t exploit them. They couldn’t afford to use military force against them. And we stood back and pontificated about how it was immoral to be an empire with colonies, it was undemocratic, etc. So we went to war to spread democracy, never admitting we went to insure the economies of our NATO allies.

    Vietnam was just the logical next step after WW1 and 2. The Russians made the comment that the US would betray South Vietnam for concessions from China. It was all for China. Vietnam had multiple half-baked reasons. And it never made any sense. Nor does the Middle East now. Pretty soon we will come full circle insane and have war on war. And we will call it peace.

  7. Haole

    The Clash, in hindsight, shaped my culture more than anything else growing-up. I miss Joe Strummer very, very much. The Mescaleros is some of his best work ever also.

    The cover of this song Lily Allen did with Mick Jones for the Warchild – Heroes compilation is also very good and Lily’s voice adds an eerie air to the song.

    Never commented on your site before Yves but I love you yet more now knowing of your appreciation for the greatest band that ever was, in my lifetime at any rate…

    Blessings to all.

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