The Meaning Behind “Clampdown,” The Clash’s Response to the Kind of Political Turmoil We’re Experiencing Still Today

The Oxford Dictionary definition of clampdown is a severe or concerted attempt to suppress something. In the context of The Clash song, “working for the clampdown” is the equivalent of working for “the man” or the establishment. A theme The Clash visits more than a few times is breaking out for the inevitable future that seems to be already chosen for you. How to avoid the brainwashing that is part of the program. Much in the same way as the military breaks down the individual for the benefit of the group, society swallows the worker and erases his or her uniqueness.

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The album London Calling by The Clash contains anti-racist, anti-establishment, and anti-capitalist themes. Guitarist Mick Jones initially came up with “Clampdown” as an instrumental. Early on, it was called “Working and Waiting.” The early version was recorded during the preparation for London Calling. Singer Joe Strummer started working on lyrics for the song. The 1979 nuclear reactor crisis at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was an inspiration—at one point, the song was called “For Fuck Sake.” Let’s take a closer look at the meaning behind the lyrics.


Strummer mumbles over the intro to the song. It’s low in the mix. 

The kingdom is ransacked
The jewels all taken back
And the chopper descends
They’re hidden in the back
With a message on a half-baked tape
With the spool going ’round
Saying I’m back here in this place
And I could cry, and there’s smoke you could click on
What are we gonna do now?

(Side note: British comedian Spike Milligan of The Goons was associated with the phrase, “What are we gonna do now?”)


Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?
‘Cause working for the clampdown
They put up a poster saying we earn more than you
When we’re working for the clampdown

We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers

The Clash weren’t afraid to tackle delicate subjects. As some people accused them of anti-semitism over the turban line, Strummer was quick to point out it was simply pointing out nationalistic stereotypes and the wrongful suspicion of people from different cultures.

As the economy was limping along, the shortage of jobs was front and center on everyone’s mind. The fear of becoming part of the big machine was great, and a general dissatisfaction with the status quo was a common trait among the youth of England at the time. The first verse alludes to the idea of brainwashing, forming minds to the beliefs of the group for the good of the masses.

The judge said five to 10, but I say double that again
I’m not working for the clampdown
No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown

Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour. Anger can be power
Do you know that you can use it?

“White Riot” from the debut album by The Clash used the lines, Are you taking over, or are you taking orders? / Are you going backwards, or are you going forwards? This sentiment clearly comes from the same place. 

[RELATED: The Meaning Behind The Clash’s 1982 Hit “Rock the Casbah”]


When we arrive at the bridge, Mick Jones has taken over the vocal:

The voices in your head are calling
Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming
Only a fool would think someone could save you

The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy, get running
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal

Strummer shared his thoughts in 2004 for the 25th-anniversary release of London Calling: “Well, politically at that time, with Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the White House, it wasn’t looking too great for the left. And we were always on the left. But having said that, we didn’t have any solutions to the world’s problems.”

But you grow up, and you calm down
And you’re working for the clampdown
You start wearing the blue and brown
And you’re working for the clampdown

So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
You made your first kill now

The “blue and brown” are references to the blueshirts of Ireland in the ’30s and the early Nazis’ brown uniforms. The lyrics of this verse could literally be about the military, or figuratively about the corporate world. Strummer continued, “You have to think to yourself, ‘What would you do if you did rule the world?’ It’s a tough question and I don’t think we had an answer to it. Not that we should have had one, but we did try to … pose those sorts of questions. We did try.” 

In these days of evil presidentes
Working for the clampdown
But lately, one or two has fully paid their due
For working for the clampdown

Hah, get along, get along
Working for the clampdown
Hah, get along, get along
Working for the clampdown

Yeah, I’m working hard in Harrisburg
Working hard in Petersburg
Working for the clampdown
Working for the clampdown
Hah, get along, get along
Begging to be melted down
Get along, get along

Listening to an album from more than four decades ago, one would think the political messages would have lost their relevance. But surprisingly (or perhaps not), some of the messages are just as topical today as they were in 1979. England was suffering from a bad economy, there was racial unrest, and the biggest fear of young people was becoming exactly what their parents were.

Punk rock was a response to that. Equal parts escapism, entertainment, and serious proclamations, punk gave a voice to the everyman. Not only the incentive to start a band, regardless of your musical talent, but the concept of having your voice heard in a time when it felt like a raindrop in the ocean.

Photo by Keith Bernstein/Redferns

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