Today’s Kajsa’s birthday. Happy birthday, Kajsa! In honor of this date, I’m throwing my mind back to 1981, the year she was born. And today’s song conjures up that time better than anything else that comes readily to mind. The Clash released their triple LP Sandinista! in December of 1980. The previous December they’d released their double LP London Calling. I got London Calling probably around the time Sandinista! came out and the latter a little later. The night KDB was born, when I came back from the maternity ward, I sat about partying with some friends, and the LP we put on was London Calling.
“Lost in the Supermarket” was the easiest entry into The Clash. The song, if you were fans of theirs from earlier LPs, might be a bit of a disappointment. It’s not punk, that’s for sure. It actually sounds like a lot of stuff on the radio then, which is why it got airplay. But, in a way, that made the song even more effective. Something in its syncopated beat made it agreeable even as it made it a comment on the factory-produced goods that the singer can no longer shop happily for. For me, I suppose, it was pushing the notion of “The Big Country” into the very conditions of one’s existence. “I came in here for a special offer / A guaranteed personality.” That part always reminded me of something from Ray Davies like The Kinks’ Preservation II, or Soap Opera. Davies was always a major crusader against the forces of conformity.
“The hedge back home in the suburbs” was only too real to me, as was “I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free.” Much as I might consider myself—I was a Philly poet, y’know—outside the usual run of working stiffs, still, I was a guy as much in need of psychic relief on a Friday night as anyone. This song made that state of distress a more general condition: it’s the supermarket itself—the market forces, yes—that are making us all wage slaves and making even rockers part of the fodder. We buy the “big disco hits album”; we buy five vinyl-pressings by The Clash. Yeah, and so what?
As someone trying to write my way to something like an understanding of my own condition, I wasn’t fooled by the success stories of well-heeled writers or by rockstars climbing the charts. I knew well enough that all were mired in the system of selling. I was a minimalist. Minimal work for minimal pay; then I’d just as soon go on my way.
Still, sooner or later, we’re back in the market, hearing the muzak, watching the consumers grab for bargains, seeing ourselves as extensions of our wallets. Our tastes—urban, hip, sophisticated, or happily hippy—simply another marketing ploy. All lining up to be a target audience.
I gave The Clash credit for putting that message on the radio. When a band like The Beatles became dissatisfied with the status quo they were part of, they released “Revolution.” When it was the Stones, they released “Street Fightin’ Man,” and The Who put out “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” All were songs that already suggested that rock was a parallel universe to what was really going on. A place, protected and privileged, where the singer could look down on it all—made explicit on Talking Heads' “The Big Country.” Now The Clash were naming where that perspective was coming from: we sell ‘em what they want so we don’t have to work their jobs.
But for the singer of “Lost in the Supermarket” there’s a point at which the vicarious life via his musical heroes becomes not enough. He “can no longer shop happily.” The Clash are hoping, in their way, that such anomie in the marketplace will spread to all areas of consumption. Not bloody likely. The decade already developing would make markets the basis of every “real” value.
So, there I was, with a new kid on the block, thinking about “hearing that noise was my first ever feeling.” What would her “first ever feeling” be, and how far removed would it be from the hedge back home in the suburbs I hailed from . . . which, as it turned out, she’d become very familiar with too.
I’m not sure when I first gave Kajsa this song, but I think it was pretty early in the “education by mix tape” that began around 1993. It’s a catchy little tune, too repetitive but for that very reason easy to get along with. The Clash had a lot more better songs. But this was the one that first got me interested.