Brixton in South London is known as a defiant kind of place – all the more proud of itself in light of the slings and arrows of outrageous slander by outsiders. If there is one song that captures this spirit above all, and also doubles up as a useful soundtrack and shorthand for the area’s 1981 riots in TV clip show histories, it is The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton.”
Both Mick Jones and Paul Simonon were from Brixton – and although it was often West London that came to be associated with the band, the Simonon-penned “Guns” captures the band’s hit-and-miss, but always enthusiastic journey from straight-up, three-chord punk into the outer limits of Caribbean-influenced dub and experimental parts beyond. In fact, it’s an early peak in the journey – and perhaps not surprising that Simonon was behind it – the Clash’s bassist was always immersed in the ska, rocksteady and reggae of the South London he had grown up in.
For a song often thought to be “about the Brixton riots,” “Guns” actually predates them by a full two years: a lesson, perhaps, that the social tensions and pains from which riots emerge do not explode from nowhere, nor do they disappear as soon as the embers have died down. It’s easy to see why the association is made, even if the timeline doesn’t work: across an irrepressible reggae-influenced bassline, Simonon captured a mood of stoical resistance: “you can crush us, you can bruise us, but you’ll have to answer to...”
The song’s concept is lifted from the classic Jamaican reggae film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, but shifted several thousand miles to the grey streets of South London. (In a wonderful piece of circular inspiration, Cliff covered the song years later.) The police are coming for our protagonist, but he goes down fighting – in the line “no need for the Black Maria, goodbye to the Brixton sun,” the “black Maria” is a police wagon.
“The Guns of Brixton” did not get a direct dub version, as some other Clash songs from the period did – take the superb “Robber Dub,” the flip of “Bank Robber”; indeed the entire outtakes and remixes album, Super Black Market Clash, is packed with overlooked gems, many of them dub versions – but in 1990, years after the band’s heyday, a strange and not entirely terrible dance-pop remix, “Return to Brixton,” was released. (Another track released that year flipped the same irresistible “Guns” bassline to much better effect: Beats International’s “Dub Be Good To Me.”)
For all its tragedy and fatalism, “The Guns of Brixton” is still a proud neighbourhood anthem.
For all its tragedy and fatalism, “The Guns of Brixton” is still a powerful, proud neighbourhood anthem – in its swaggering rhythm, Simonon’s seriously-intoned vocal and its message: better to die on your feet, than live on your knees. Progress was painfully slow in improving the situation in Brixton in the aftermath of the riots. And while it was that period of the 1970s and the 1981 riots that informed the area’s (unduly) bad reputation outside South London, there were lesser known riots following tensions again in 1985, over police racism and brutality in 1995 and again when many English cities were ablaze with rioting in 2011.
Brixton has been transformed in the 38 years since “The Guns of Brixton” and the 36 years since the riots that made it infamous, much of the changes occurring in the last decade. The musical life of the area seems to be holding out gentrification, for now. Even if many have changed ownership in recent years, many of Brixton’s live music and club venues are still going strong: the eccentric and tiny gig venue, The Windmill, the 4,000 capacity mega-gig venue the Academy, the Electric (formerly The Fridge), Phonox (formerly Plan B), Jamm and numerous others. When the estate agents kick at their front door, how they gonna come? Let’s hope it’s like Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come. In spirit, if not literally.