|Cassette painting by Horace Panter over the names of|
unarmed black men and women killed by the police.
Four track CD/12" vinyl/digital download
(Review by Steve Shafer)
By the time The Clash released "Know Your Rights" in April 1982--the first single from their then forthcoming album Combat Rock--the notorious British Sus law, which gave police the right to racial profile and harass non-white Britons, had been repealed only about six months earlier. (Sus allowed the police to stop and search black and South Asian people on the flimsiest of pretenses, namely the officer's suspicion that someone is behaving like they might be a criminal and have the intent to commit an arrestable offense; outrage over the police's systemic racist treatment of non-white Britons helped fuel the Rock Against Racism movement in the late 70s--which was also an organized push-back to blunt the rise of the National Front as a political force in the UK, which worked!--and ongoing police oppression in black and Asian communities helped ignite widespread rioting in the late 70s/early 80s.) But this, of course, didn't mean that all the racist police brutality and violence had magically disappeared from England's green and pleasant land. Joe Strummer's first verse was still quite valid: "You have the right not to be killed/Murder is a crime!/Unless it was done/by a policeman/or an aristocrat." Keith Topping's book "The Complete Clash" posits that Strummer may have been thinking of the extrajudicial police killings of boxer Liddle Towers and anti-racist activist Blair Peach when he wrote this track. (In "Know Your Rights," Strummer asserts that the three basic human rights are the right to live, the right to basic necessities like food, and the right to free speech--but then notes all of society's exceptions to those rights, which render them meaningless.)
Thirty-four years later, the lyrics of Strummer's song remain painfully relevant and real for many people all over the world. In the US, ongoing police killings of unarmed people of color (as well as racist and unconstitutional police tactics like New York City's now discontinued "stop and frisk" policy or police stops of black, Native American, and Hispanic drivers across the country for "driving while black" or DWB) have outraged people of conscience and launched the Black Lives Matter movement (as I write this review, yet another unarmed black man, Alfred Olango, who was possibly suffering some sort of mental illness--the police were told in advance of that this person was experiencing an "emotional breakdown"--was tasered by one officer and shot and killed at the same time by another in El Cajon, CA). The Specials' guitarist Lynval Golding, who has lived in Seattle, WA for some time now, was compelled to protest the seemingly never-ending racial police violence/killings in his own way by recording and releasing a cover of Strummer's "Know Your Rights" with Austin, TX-based reggae band Contra Coup. Golding and The Specials (then known as the Special AKA) came to know Strummer during their support of The Clash on their "Out on Parole" tour of the UK in 1978. And Golding is no stranger to writing and performing songs that addressed police brutality and racial violence ("Do Nothing" and "Why?"--the later recounted the horrific, racially-motivated knife attack he endured in 1980 outside the Moonlight Club for walking and talking with two white women). Indeed, the last time I saw Golding and The Specials perform in NYC in July 2013, he aimed their cover of Dandy Livingstone's "A Message to You, Rudy" and The Specials' own "It Doesn't Make It Alright" at George Zimmerman and played "Why?" in honor and remembrance of young Trayvon Martin.
The Clash's original version of "Know Your Rights" is a skittery, stripped-down, post-punk rockabilly track (one could imagine Strummer singing it to a small crowd down a less-traveled side alley, while keeping an eye out for the brown-shirted thugs in the fascist takeover of the UK depicted in "English Civil War"), which is fantastically transformed into an urgent 70s-era roots reggae song (with echoes of Bob Marley and the Wailers' less cynical call to action "Get Up, Stand Up" in its arrangement and production--like the use of the instantly recognizable clavinet) by Golding and Contra Coup on this release. While I've always loved the message of the "Know Your Rights," the original version of the song has never felt fully formed--which is not the case here. Lynval Golding and Contra Coup's re-working of "Know Your Rights" fleshes out the song, finally giving the music a power that equals the still incendiary lyrics. Good and effective protest music requires both.
Contra Coup's "The Same" is great modern ska track (that might remind one of a Skaboom-era Toasters) which (I think) is about trying to do right and stand by a friend who can't recognize that they need help or that you're their ally. The EP includes cool remixes of both tracks by Specials Mark II member Mark Adams; "Know Your Rights" is given an interesting dubstep/dancehall treatment, while "The Same" is made-over into a dubby rocksteady cut.
I've read that Jerry Dammers has had fans approach him decades after the 2 Tone craze ended to tell him that The Specials' music and message led them to examine their racist beliefs and become anti-racist--which is extraordinary. (Dammers quoted in the May 2015 issue of MOJO: "I wanted to change all of society from within, which was a much harder and more risky thing to try and do. The amazing thing is that it worked at all, even to the small extent that some people say it did. I often meet people who tell me that if it wasn't for The Specials they would have been racists or whatever, and that they turned to more socialist ideas because of The Specials.") Obviously, the hope is that this new version of "Know Your' Rights" shakes us listeners out of our passivity and spurs us to some sort of action and involvement that helps bring about policies that end the unacceptable police killings of unarmed black people in the USA.
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