The Greatest “Yeah, Yeah”: The Clash, “Clash City Rockers” (1978)

For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
—Walter Pater[1]

The point of concentrating on hooks in music is to glory in the self-sufficiency of radiant moments.  But that self-sufficiency is illusory.  No hook is an island.  Every highlight has a setting and a history.

All right, says pop music, but I will push against that necessity.  I will effloresce, erupt, slash free of the cobwebs of time.  I will choose sounds so compelling you will forget they were chosen for reasons.  Even when I take up the tools of language, I will speak words of raw presence and affirmation, summative words that say it all.  I will say—quoting here the Isley Brothers in “Shout”—“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”  When I say yeah, I’m saying it all in the best way possible.  When I unroll a chain of yeahs, I’m saying it endlessly.

But words, so far from being purely present, always come with arrows attached.  They have about-ness—even the self-absorbed “ooh” points (barely) to something going on in the world—and they have to-ness as well, pointing to someone.  The affirmation “yeah” gives something and someone a green light.  True, the something and someone are sucked into a blast of presence, but we still have to be mindful of a certain distribution of things to get the sense of a given yeah.   This means that I, alone, cannot ever be saying it all by saying yeah; but you and I together could come much closer to a completeness if we make a call and response, yeah/yeah, and better still on and on, yeah/yeah / yeah/yeah.  It’s nicely done this way in Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” (1961).

In “Shout” (1959), however, the Isley Brothers short-circuit the call and response structure.  There is plenty of convivial back and forth between voices in the track, but the main “yeah yeah” line is taken by just one voice, both arrogating and sharing the power of achieving this effect by oneself.  Unlike the alternation yeah/yeah, the line yeah-yeah becomes a unit of utterance, a button of excitement to push, a phrase of romantic enthusiasm—which is how the Beatles use it in their epochal “She Loves You” (1963).  (Lennon and McCartney originally intended to throw in some “yeahs” as a response to the thesis statement “She loves you,” but they ended up putting in a yeah-yeah-yeah to complete the statement line.)[2] And then Nilsson goes for the world record by blasting eighteen “yeahs” in a row on “River Deep, Mountain High” (1967/1971).

So the meaning of yeah, yeah has a history.  We shouldn’t have to date and sequence songs to explain their hooks, but for this hook we do.  It sounds like a revivalist stunt when Tommy James and the Shondells use the old back-and-forth yeah/yeah in “Mony, Mony” (1968).  When the Clash confronts the “phoney Beatlemania” heritage of rock’n’roll in the punk revolution of the 1970’s, one of the choicest gibes they shoot in that direction is Joe Strummer’s mocking “yeah, yeah” in the middle of  “Clash City Rockers” (1978).[3] Once the acute punk phase passes, it’s fine to use any rock value any way one likes, post-ironically.  In 1995, yeah, yeah becomes a massively popular stairway to God (Joan Osborne, “One of Us”).  Still cool in the 21st century, yeah, yeah is now high concept for a band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (listen in particular to “Bang,” 2001).  But there can never again be the ingenuous surge of “She Loves You” or the pointed criticism of “Clash City Rockers.”

We have to hold all this in mind to appreciate the greatest yeah, yeah, which, I contend, is Strummer’s.  What we have heard through the years has made us realize that one of the supreme verbal gestures of immediacy cannot be as free as it wants to be.  It has to drag historical baggage with it.  Strummer’s is the yeah, yeah that does this lucidly.  He makes a peak moment of a burden of awareness.  In a song suffused with anger and scorn, following a chorus that tells us “Don’t complain” and “Shut your mouth and pretend you enjoy it” (your life prospects in Thatcher Britain, that is),[4] he underlines the message by twirling us about an axis of joy—we are rocking, this is fun, no pretending about it—with a wickedly buoyant delivery of yeah, yeah that doesn’t kill it or even dampen it, but lets its feathers flutter in the sarcastic gale; and then, like a smirking MC, the yeah, yeah bounces us right over to the next battered institution of joy, the lead guitar solo.

“Clash City Rockers” Yeah, yeah

It’s over! —a quick thing that you’re lucky to hear, the very opposite of the million-dollar hook in “She Loves You” that you can’t escape.  But it’s the pivotal midpoint of the whole history of yeah, yeah.

If you don’t like the freighted yeah, yeah of the Clash, you can go back to the exuberant “Shout” (or, earlier still, the swing band jive of Louis Prima’s “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” circa 1950) or forward to the overheated “Bang”—yeah, your choice.

See the Yeah, Yeah mix

_____________________________________________________

[1] Walter Pater, Conclusion, “Renaissance.”

[2] “She Loves You,” The Beatles Ultimate Experience:  Songwriting and Recording Database.

[3] “Phoney Beatlemania” is a phrase from “London Calling” (1979).

[4] But see Comment 1—Thatcher came to power in 1979 (thanks, Tim).

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Greatest “Yeah, Yeah”: The Clash, “Clash City Rockers” (1978)

  1. Tim says:

    Nicely written, researched and articulated. Strummer sums up living in England at that time – but please note Thatcher wasn’t in power at the time it was written, she did however make a bad time worse!

    Tim

  2. Piotrek says:

    my favourite “yeah” in a song comes from “Polythene Pam” by The Beatles and represents the “sunny” aproach to the word 🙂

  3. Steve Smith says:

    I agree. One could argue that “Polythene Pam” is satirical and even sneering, but those chords (flat-6, flat-7, tonic) and melody are just tremendously buoyant no matter what was intended.

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