Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Clash's "Bankrobber": An Appreciation.

The Clash's "Bankrobber" is one of those rare songs in which nothing should work, but everything somehow does.

It's a reggae song by a punk band.  It runs well over 4 minutes without ever changing rhythm, tempo, dynamics, or melody.  Its lyrics are meandering—even pointless at worst—with verses & refrains all but interchangeable, rendering any inherent structure meaningless.  With all of these elements, the song feels long & repetitive, almost to the level of deadening.

& yet, it's a masterpiece.

Released by the Clash in the August of 1980—the first new music after their artistic pinnacle of the previous December's London Calling—"Bankrobber" was put out as a stand-alone single.  It reached #12 on the UK pop charts, which makes it the biggest hit on their native soil outside of the anthemic #11 "London Calling" & their sole #1 hit, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go."

Along with "Rock the Casbah"—their next best-charting UK single at #15 & their only Top 10 American hit—"London Calling" & "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" are perhaps their most popular, easily-recognized songs.  It feels intuitive that these songs did so well; it makes sense.  But "Bankrobber" is something else entirely.  It is not famous, iconic, or influential—by comparison, it is a deep-cut, a well-kept secret among those in the know.  Without being tied to a classic album like London Calling, there is no vehicle by which people can discover it (like "Guns of Brixton" or "Lost in the Supermarket"); with the band being inactive & no major covers of it, there is no way for it to become a classic-in-hindsight (like David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" or Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," brought to light by Nirvana & Jeff Buckley, respectively).  Viewed this way, "Bankrobber" is like its titular outlaw—a song without a country.

It turns out that the outlaw figure is the key to unlocking the song. Despite the song's punk performers, reggae sound, & '80s production touches, it is a folksong at its root, far more in common structurally to Bob Dylan's "Girl from North Country" or Paul Simon's "Kathy's Song" than anything the Sex Pistols ever released—& far more in common thematically with Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" or the even older "Jesse James" ballad than anything on The Harder They Come soundtrack.  Spiritually it goes back even further, pitched between Kelly Harrell's "Charles Guiteau" & the Carter Family's "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man," which appear consecutively on the third side of Harry Smith's Anthology of [Old, Weird] American Folk Music. "Bankrobber" has the sing-a-long come-uppance of "Guiteau" (about a madman who shoots the president & is hanged for it) & the melodic grace of the "Hardy" (about a railroader who shoots an unnamed man & is hanged for it), but none of either song's violence. After all, the first thing we're told after "My daddy was a bankrobber" is "But he never hurt nobody," as though to reassure the listener.  If the Clash were to hear "Guiteau" & "Hardy," I think they'd be less drawn to the sensationalism of the violence (which would be the American focus) & more interested in the people to whom the violence was done. I mean, it's hard to imagine a bigger range in social standing than the President of the United States & a random railroad worker, & the interchangeability of each figure in their respective song are the underlying secret that most closely ties them to "Bankrobber." 

* * *

It is in this way that, unlike the American folk ballad tradition, where the outlaw is a central figure from which any revelations about the class system must emerge, the Clash are product of a country where the class system is the central obsession, & thus, the source from which any revelations about the outlaw figure must emerge.  But just as they do with rock & roll, the Clash take the American outlaw & grab it by the throat, shaking it down & internalizing it until it becomes less a figure to condemn or glorify than it does simply a means of escape.

It's little wonder that the outlaw is everywhere in the Clash's finest work. Born out of Robin Hood's "wealth distribution" (as mentioned in "White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)"), revived by Jimmy Cliff's Ivan in the reggae film The Harder They Come (as name-checked in "Guns of Brixton"), & epitomized by Stagger Lee (as heard in the unrestrained, ridiculous false start of "The Wrong 'Em Boyo"), the outlaw was a very real thing for the Clash. "Bankrobber" is the internalization of these 3 figures — the British Robin Hood, the Jamaican Ivan, & the American Stagger Lee—as heard in the song's perfect everything/nothing refrain:

My daddy was a bankrobber
But ever hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
& he loved to steal your money

Central to the song is its sense of romanticism.  As previously noted, there is no violence in the song, as opposed to what one might find in source material like The Harder They Come or latter-day outlaw gangsta rappers like Tupac & Notorious B.I.G.  Compared with these heavy cultural products, "Bankrobber" sounds like the folksong that it is—not afraid to look death in the eye but doing so in a way that feels oddly distanced & refreshing.

For, unlike so many other Clash songs, the lyrics to "Bankrobber" are not overly preachy or targeted, they merely set the scene in which the song inhabits.  Like a folksong, the verses feel less like a set narrative than they do a stream-of-conscious collection of ideas, train cars that can be linked in almost any order.  Sometimes the verses repeat, sometimes the rhymes don't match up, sometimes a word is used twice in lieu of a rhyme.  It often sounds like somebody making it up as they go along.

Consider then, what I believe to be the creative apex of the song—its center, in which 3 lovely verses float by in an exercise of all that is random yet perfect in the song:

The old man spoke up in a bar
Said, "I never been in prison—
A lifetime serving one machine
Is ten times worse than prison."

Imagine if all the boys in jail
Could get out now together
Whadda you think they'd want to say to us?
While we were being clever.

Someday you'll meet your rocking chair
'Cus that's where we're spinning
There's no point to wanna comb your hair
When it's grey & thinning.

I hear it less as a set of interconnected verses than I do an unintended narrative.  If we take the Clash at their word (& the Clash are nothing of not literalists), the old man at the bar can mean "the old man," as in, "My daddy," i.e., the Bankrobber.  It makes sense that he never went to prison (he never hurt nobody) & his wisdom about "serving one machine" could be either the life that drove him to bank robbing or a metaphor for the society that gave him the job in the first place.

His mind shifts to an old man's dream of the boys in jail getting out together, which in turn leads to one of the strangest moments in a song made up of them.  The old man doesn't want to judge, lecture, dismiss, or scheme.  In fact, he doesn't want to speak at all.  He wants to turn the scenario around to hear what the boys in jail have to say to us—"while we were being clever" (whatever that means).  It's a very civil & noble act, & one that takes a group of people easily stereotyped as beasts & humanizes them, giving them strength, validity, & perhaps honor.  It is a question that sets up an impossible answer, doubling back on its own question.  What would they want to say to us?

The old man then seems to address the boys in jail, warning them of old age & bringing the song back to the motifs of boys in jail & old men in bars; of youth & aged; of fathers & sons. Again, there is a touch of weirdness—a rocking chair that spins?—which makes it feel all the stranger & deeper.  & then come the devastating, comic, blunt final lines that sum up image, age, & rock better than any line outside of Pete Townshend's "Hope I die before I get old."

By the time the final new lyrics come at the song's end about being able to find "that hole-in-the-wall," it doesn't matter if it's the slang for a bar or a literal hole-in-the-wall that the Bankrobber uses to get his stash, because the two have already become one.

* * *

So what do we have here?

A song about the English class system centered around a version of a folk hero—invented in England (Robin Hood), glorified in America (Stagger Lee), & revitalized in Jamaica (Ivan)—in a UK punk band's reggae song with weird synth flourishes, in which the verses & refrains collapse into each other until the two become one, all comprised of the same melody, until the whole thing becomes one big circle, like the record that plays the song.

& herein is the song's strange power: It's a song about classless society that itself is built like one.  Verses & refrains are the peaks & valleys of popular music, with the verses almost always playing second-class citizens to the big & all-important refrains.  But in "Bankrobber," it's not quite that simple.  In this verse, the first verse is the refrain—or one of the refrains, since it's not even the only "verse" to repeated in full—thus leading to a breakdown, if you will, of the song's inherent class structure.

As such, the melody doesn't change, the rhythm doesn't change, the tempo doesn't change, the feel doesn't change. What makes it seem deceptively flat is the same thing that gives it its strength — every part leans equally on the other, nothing rising to the surface.

Wait, did I say nothing rising to the surface? Spoke too soon. Because this song would be nothing without Joe Strummer singing his most passionate &—yes—beautiful performance. His conviction is the engine that runs this train, seeing through all aspects of sound, vision, & vibe.

There's so much more that can be touched upon—the weird, shooting synthesizer blasts that sound like a futuristic space-age Star Wars, the ominous; wordless choruses that sound like the ancient song of moaning monks; the way the words bob & weave around the music, obscuring pronouns & blurring verbs; hell, even the way the guitarist does that weird strum rhythm once in the opening & then only after the line "jazz it up," as though he is jazzing it up to illustrate the lyrics; & on; & on; & on.  Like the finest rock & roll—"Like A Rolling Stone" or "Louie Louie"—this is a song in which you can pick up something new every time you hear it, or hear it a new way that makes you pick up something old, or something that you didn't know was there, or something that never was there but you imagined.  Which is all just to say, it keeps going.

For, like the record it plays on, this is a circular song; as Greil Marcus wrote of Clarence Ashley's epic reading of the folksong "The Coo-Coo," this is a song in which the beginning & end feel false; this is a song that goes on forever. Is it any wonder that "Bankrobber" opens with an awkward drum fill that doesn't really even set the tempo & ends with the central "verse/refrain" that takes it back to the end of the beginning of the end?

My daddy was a bankrobber...


  1. The restraint in this song both frustrates and excites me. It feels as if as some point it should burst out and speed up, but it remains agonizingly constant.

    Great analysis.

  2. Thanks for this article, it helps me understand more of the lyric

  3. My favorite part of the song is the way the piano helps bring closure to many of the versus. It adds another layer of lighthearted folkness to the song.

  4. Great review. But the million dollar question is "Who is on the cover shot?" It's no one from the Clash.