Musical Interlude: “Know Your Rights” by The Clash

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The Clash, Harvard Square Theatre, February 16, 1979.

The best[1] concert I ever saw, and I saw a lot, back in the day.

Harvard Square Theatre, the legendary Harvard Square Theatre, was located on Brattle Street opposite the also now-vanished Out of Town News. In 1979, it was a single screen venue; it was brutalized into a multiplex in 1986, and closed in 2012, and — checking my memories, such as they are, against Google Street View — the building seems to have been turned into a bank, which is indicative. (Harvard Square certainly looks a lot less funky than it used to.)

The venue was small (originally 1640 seats, floor and single balcony). As you can see, the Clash were very close to the audience:

We were about halfway back. The Harvard Square Theatre was a typical low-end art-house facility, with sticky floors and extremely small velvet-ish seats, with little space between the rows. It wasn’t really possible to stand, let alone dance, and so the audience ended up, still seated, rocking entire rows of seats to the freight train-like pounding of the rhythm section and the screaming guitars, which were as loud as jet engines spooling up before take-off. Everyone knew they were experiencing something extraordinary.

The two guitarists and the bassist — all slight, black-clad — all sang (and since all were products of British dentistry, incomprehensibly). There were three mikes, and while singing and playing, they’d simultaneously run from one mike to another — while their guitars trailed those black power cords you see in the photo. I couldn’t imagine why the cords didn’t get tangled, or unplug, or even short out, but apparently the roadies knew their business.

Describing the music as best I can…. This former Dead-head has turned out to like concise songs that have a gritty texture and pack a punch in the lyrics[4]. (After The Clash, I went on to X.) I want to be able to sing them while walking. No drum solos, no extended jams, hooks are good but please don’t go all pop on me. Above all, no self-indulgence. The group is the unit, not the star player. The Clash exemplifies all these values.[5]

The morning after — I am not a morning person — I got up very early and took the T into Boston so I could be at the punk-rock record[2] store when it opened, when I bought everything available: Two LPs (1977’s The Clash, and 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, plus a single, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”. I don’t remember the name of the shop; all I remember is that the sidewalk in front was brick, and shone with thin snow or ice. Like every other street in downtown Boston on that day!

Here’s the song I mentioned in the title (not played at Harvard Square, but of contemporary relevance). It comes from a late live album, From Here to Eternity. I wish the liner notes — or whatever we call the printed material slipped into a CD’s jewel box[6] — were available online, but I can’t find them. I recall one listener who followed the Clash from concert to concert, who said she liked them because they made her think. “Know Your Rights”:

And here is a link to the complete lyrics. I’ve helpfully underlined the salient material in the first verse:

Know your rights
All three of ’em:

[Verse 1]
Number 1
You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a crime
Unless it was done
By a Policeman
Or an aristocrat

That certainly sounds like a good idea. Maybe we should try it!


[1] Amazingly, there’s a bootleg of it. The sound quality of the recording is awful, compounded by the badness of the sound system in the hall.

[2] The Harvard Square Theatre also screened The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

[3] A phonograph record, an analog sound storage medium manufactured from vinyl.

[4] I arrived at The Clash through the Trojan-era Wailers, who also exemplify these values. I can forgive Sandinista’s lack of concision given its extreme grittiness.

[5] Knowing nothing about music technically, I can’t comment on melody, harmony, changes, etc. Musical readers please weigh in.

[6] A Compact Disk (CD), a digital optical disc data storage format made from plastic. A “jewel case” is the CD’s packaging.

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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. Sub-Boreal

    You know you’ve reached a Certain Age when:

    “CD” and “jewel box” have explanatory footnotes.

  2. Arizona Slim

    I visualizing Yves listening to this while recovering from her surgery.

    Get well soon, Yves. You rock!

    1. norm de plume

      For years I understood that the Pistols couldn’t play their instruments and were shite live, and that the Clash were a stark contrast. Certainly the evidence of the couple of decades following the punk/New Wave revolution provided plenty of evidence for that notion.

      But someone sent me a while ago a link to a Pistols concert in London from 2007. I was gobsmacked by it then and occasionally I still am, as I periodically feel a need to go back to it. What really stuns me here is that when Bollocks was released, the majority of this crowd would have been in the ‘twinkle in their father’s eyes’ thru to Huggies range of development. Yet they scream every word alongside the balding oldsters beside them.

      I yield to no-one in my love for and admiration of Strummer and the Clash, but Never Mind the Bollocks was an epochal album in a way that even London Calling can’t match. And it turns out that, after a bit of practice, those Pistols really could play.

      1. JohnMinMN

        The musicians in the band (yes, there were some), formerly of the Sex Pistols, toured a bit in the 80’s as The Professionals.

  3. Dirk77

    You’re all right Lambert. A year after this, the Clash at the Santa Monica Civic. I can’t claim to have gone to nearly as many concerts as you, but to this day, the best I ever saw too, even adjusting for me being in high school then. I contacted the Clash’s tour photographer years later and got a framed picture from that concert.

    1. redleg

      If you’re pointing at the Dead Kennedys, point at “Stars and Stripes of Corruption”.

  4. lettuce prey

    mick jones live, though, always seems better to me .. fascinating guitar stuff

    and there’s a nice ‘straight to hell’ version on that same album, too

  5. Phil

    Growing up in Belfast in the 1980’s, was never a fan of the Clash, they were a bit too English and not quite hard core enough. Me and my friends would listen to local bands like Stiff Little Fingers, and the American band the Dead kennedys, a band I don’t think anyone else has come close to in polictical lyrics.

    Although for some unknown reason the only bands that would play Belfast in those days would be Heavy Metal bands, no one else was brave enough to visit.

  6. ChrisPacific

    On the subject of lyrics for today, I ran across this one recently in an old Public Enemy song from 1990:

    “Beware of the hand when it’s coming from the left”

    I don’t think I got the meaning of that at the time. I definitely understand it now. The more things change…

  7. Cocomaan

    Funny, I was at a library book sale (love these) and picked up a Clash greatest hits. Will have to see if Know Your Rights is on there.

  8. curlydan

    Like all things at NC, “This is a public service announcement!” as this line on “Know Your Rights” song led off The Clash’s album, “Combat Rock”.

    I love The Clash but was too young to have seen them live or fully understood their message at the time.

    A year ago or two ago, I read this wonderful passage from an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of “London Calling”, and it really sums up what listening to The Clash is like:
    “I’m suspicious of anyone whose heart doesn’t swell during “Spanish Bombs,” the deeply moving, remarkably catchy account of a doomed group of antifascist insurgents pinned against the rocks and ultimately slaughtered by General Francisco Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a hit, but wait until you hear it. The Clash are a bit like The Wire. The atmospherics and storytelling tend to be so spectacular that it is only in the gripped and exhausted aftermath of experiencing a song that it might briefly flash before your mind: Wait, am I learning?”

    Yes, I am learning.

    P.S. my favorite Combat Rock song might just be the very odd, “Ghetto Defendant” featuring William Burroughs. Lots of learning there…

  9. Temporarily Sane

    Love The Clash, great song! Combat Rock was the first Clash album I purchased. I bought it on a whim without knowing anything about the band because I thought their name was cool and I liked the cover photo. Know Your Rights is the opening track and I was hooked after one listen.

  10. Larry Y

    I’d consider Rage Against the Machine serving a similar role for me. Last year upped it’s frequency in my playlists…

    1. redleg

      Drive By Truckers take that RATM rage and make it twangy. They released the livid “American Band” record before Obama was out of office, so they were righteously pissed off at thing before brunch was inconveniently interrupted.

  11. ObjectiveFunction

    Being a good WLIR kid, I saw the Clash open for the Who at Shea, fall 1982 and they were in fine form. That was the Combat Rock phase though. MTV took over around then; after that, nearly every band was all about glitzy commercial branding, which made any political messaging ring pretty hollow. Even LA skater punk went into a long skid around then; the CBGB hardcore matinee got formulaic, and by graduation (mid 80s) I was listening to a lot of country…. sprinkled with Peter Murphy, Iggy Pop and a few other post punk refugees.

    1. neo-realist

      The CBGB matinees were a little formulaic but mostly fun, e.g., Agnostic Front, the Abused, the Nihilistics:) Mid-80’s, started drifting to more underground metal–Slayer, Celtic Frost, Motorhead, with many of those matinee punks at the shows.

  12. Grebo

    Apparently the American release of The Clash’s debut album did not include Cheat, which is my favourite track. Look out for the Neil Young style guitar solo.

  13. orlbucfan

    Thank you, Lambert. I loved the Clash. “London Calling,” and “Rock the Casbah” are just great tunes, period. The Clash were for-real political punk, not the phony garbage like the Sex Pistols. I am not a punk expert, but even I can hear the difference. I didn’t get the chance to see them live, and I am not sure they even played down here in FL.

  14. farmboy

    the Clash ended with a wimper
    rock and roll of all kinds goes back to its roots to last, the blues. “… play on the affinity between punk and reggae. Then, they continued to turn their gaze outwards, integrating, not imitating, soul, funk, disco, and anything else that pricked their interests with their rough edged punk roots.”

    Read More:

  15. ChrisFromGeorgia

    “You have the right to free speech … as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!”

    Classic, timeless lyric. And brings to mind Julian Assange’s treatment, along with the budding authoritarians at Facebook/Youtube/Twitter taking down any posts mentioning Ivermectin.

  16. Rory

    I can’t remember the exact quote, or who I am quoting, but it has always resonated with me. I will paraphrase: “We love the songs of our youth not because they were great music, but because they were temples where our souls dwelled.” De gustibus …

  17. neo-realist

    Saw their first NYC appearance at the Palladium in 79, with Bo Diddley and the Cramps. It was a good polished, neat show, like they were bending over backwards to please us new yorkers. I was hoping for more of gritty chaos I heard in the music from the Don Letts punk documentary. Anyway, not a bad show, but reminded me a little bit of a contrived arena rock band.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Bo Diddley and the Cramps

      I never saw the Cramps, and I wish I had. Interesting The Clash had enough control over their register to go all squeaky clean for the New York critics! The Harvard Square show was most definitely not polished and neat (but The Clash could also play their instruments, unlike the glorious-for-other reasons Sex Pistols).

    2. Dirk77

      IIRC, this show you were at was the one where the photo on the cover of London Calling was taken. Simenon said the audience was seated and this frustrated him. I don’t know how the rest of the band took the gig.

  18. Nce

    So many great links here this morning. Matt Taibbi asks why the left today doesn’t have music that inspires and motivates people to become politically active. Maybe it exists, but I don’t know where to find it. That’s a problem, no?

    1. redleg

      There’s all kinds of recent, overtly political music out there, but there’s a lot of chaff to sift through to find stuff that suits ones’personal taste.

      Garbage’s new record is there, but this one by Drive By Truckers is as direct as it gets, and without shouting.

    2. lordkoos

      The music is there, but it is not promoted. The present state of the music biz is that there are now a lot more people who want to be in it than there once was, but only those with the best promotional skills are seen & heard. If you are not on a major record label, at this point it is up to the artist to do everything.

  19. DMS

    Pro tip from a hardcore Clash junkie of 40 years or so: Sandinista is by far the penultimate Clash production. It reveals the full depth and breadth of their lyrical, musical and historical perception. Had to say this, as nobody else here had mentioned it yet. If you’ve only heard Combat Rock, you’ve only seen the tourist attractions. Listen to Sandinista and you’ll get to know the real town.

    Joe was an interesting dude… “Redemption Song” by Chris Salewicz is essential reading for any Clash aficionado.

    1. ddt

      Lambert thanks for mentioning X. Some good punk came out of SoCal back in the day.

      As far as the Clash, all they play on the radio is Rock the Casbah and Should I stay or should I go. So vanilla.

    2. norm de plume

      Have you heard the wonderful version of that song by Johnny Cash duetting with Joe Strummer?

      A song by the King of Reggae performed by the King of Country and the King of New Wave. Apparently Joe was a big fan and happened to be in the US when he was told Cash was recording an album of duets so he made it his business to get involved.

      They were both dead within 12 months.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Sandinista is by far the penultimate Clash production. It reveals the full depth and breadth of their lyrical, musical and historical perception. Had to say this, as nobody else here had mentioned it yet.

      I agree on the greatness of Sandinista; it just didn’t have the lyric I wanted. (I did mention it in note [1]; you always gotta read the notes.)

    4. Dirk77

      When I have heard people state that Sandinista was the best, it’s usually qualified with: “once you take your favorite half of the album and toss the rest away”. And this includes me. So you are indeed hard-core. Do you have any thoughts on how the songs played live? I ask bc at least on the ‘81 gig recordings I’ve heard, that album seemed to play live better than the tunes on London Calling.

  20. festoonic

    Just a reminder that Give ‘Em Enough Rope, odd and shiny though it is, is pretty damn good too.

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