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Rude Boy (1980). The Clash!… and their mate Ray Gange.

February 19, 2017

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Describing this old film reminds me of Samuel Johnson trying describe John Milton’s religion… it’s much easier to say what Rude Boy is not.  Rude Boy is not really a drama.  Nor is it a documentary.  Nor is it a mockumentary.  Nor is it a musical, or a concert movie.

I read an interview with Ray Gange recently.  He seems much happier that he was as a twenty year old and has a lively interest in painting.  His photo illustrates a cheerful bald man in his late fifties.  The years have been kinder to him than you might think.

Armstrong and Miller used to have a cop-show sketch called “Parsons & Lampkin…and Lampkin’s mate Steve”, which was an eloquent meditation on the fact that once someone is established as a “mate”, you are sort of stuck with them, no matter how professionally inconvenient they might be. Ray Gange is the kind of “mate” that a band more ruthlessly committed to global super-stardom on conventional terms would have shed within the first ten minutes of the film.  He does of course, become increasingly estranged from the band’s rise to glory, but the astonishing thing is not that he starts to lose access, but that he retains it for so long.  Mick Jones tells Gange that “I’m  watching you”,  as Gange’s capacity for drunken vandalism becomes clear – in a chilling sequence.   The unfailingly charming Joe Strummer continues to listen to Gange, though.   Even when Gange is drunkenly suggesting that The Clash have become too political, rather than argue, Strummer continues to tinkle the ivories and smile.  It is as though Gange is exactly the sort of person that Strummer is morally as well as politically obligated never to give up on.  It is as though the whole purpose of The Clash is to retain some point of contact with someone like Gange.

If so,  the film really is about tragic failure, as what passes for  a “story” illustrates how The Clash connect and fail to connect at one and the same time.  The face of Gange as he puzzles over the lyrical content and purpose of “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” is a sad sight to behold.

Directed by Jack Hazan and David Mingay, filmed in 1978 and 1979, released in 1980 and repudiated by The Clash instantly, Rude Boy is a difficult film to watch all the way through.  The concert footage is wonderful of course and the reason you keep going.  The Victoria Park Rock against Racism performance is incandescence and it’s an education to see the people in the crowd that day.  You keep thinking you’re going to spot Jeremy Corbyn.  It’s also a shock, of course, to see quite how much hair Mick Jones has in 1978.   He could have plausibly earned extra money as Brian May’s stunt double.

Gange’s story has no beginning and no end.  His only claim to fame is a personal connection with members of The Clash, and a brief clueless stint as their roadie.  His daily life is awful to watch, especially when there’s no music in the background.  Gange needs The Clash as much as we do, and/or, we need The Clash as much as he does and when they play, it’s a blessed relief from the shabby imbecility of Gangeland.

Gange (in this movie) is not so much right wing as anti-left wing (unlike his skinhead friend).   He never actually joins the National Front (who are chillingly exhibited in the film).   The Front are horribly canny in the way they thank the police, their politeness serving to enlist the Met as allies.   Meanwhile, a black kid from Brixton is brutally arrested in a dawn raid and railroaded by the criminal justice system.  In the final frames, Thatcher becomes prime minister.  We’re not told how Gange voted, if he bothered to vote… but his stubborn refusal to be politicised by Strummer or to reject the NF with a scintilla of energy, point to 1980s casual Toryism, a Toryism based on how easy it has become to buy stuff.  The world will belong to “Gange” rather than to The Clash, because Gange is someone with a dogged and determined refusal to absorb any kind of macroeconomic narrative, a refusal to relate his own life to anybody else’s life, to see himself as part of anything bigger than himself.  It’s a refusal (as he tells more than one hapless girlfriend) to love.

Gange doesn’t really have enough depth to be a tragic figure.  The loneliest and saddest “character” in the film is, perhaps “Strummer”, the Strummer who is edited together by Hazan and Mingay.   Strummer, you suspect,  regrets Gange’s condition more than Gange does.   And the most lonely moment in the film is Strummer in the recording studio wearing headphones, laying down vocal tracks for the unhappy Give ‘Em Enough Rope album.  (It’s a great album, of course, just known for the frustrations of the context of its own production.)

Here is Strummer shouting into the void.  What he’s doing is no fun but needs to be done, and nobody but he can do it.   And nothing is more silent and scary than the recording studio with him alone in it,counting down bars till it’s his turn to shout and sing.

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