By Nigel Gibson, Emerson College
The 1981 punk-rock song “The Magnificent Seven” isn’t about Yul Brynner and the 1960 all-star Western of the same name, but something even more mundane and also more threatening: the endless cycle of work, consumption and work.
On the cover of “The Magnificent Seven” (the record) is a clock showing seven. The song’s title is about time, that unpaid labour time of getting up and getting to work day after day.
Ring, ring, it’s 7:00am move yourself to go again.
Everyone has to reconstitute themselves everyday for work.
“What have we got?” asks Joe Strummer, the songwriter and lead vocalist of the British punk rock band, The Clash, founded in 1976.
Not much, he answers.
Bombarded by ads, we work hard to buy more stuff. And the fetishism of commodities holds us in check:
Gimme Honda, gimme Sony
So cheap and real phoney
Hong Kong dollar, Indian cents
English pounds and Eskimo pence.
The song is a brilliant reflection on labour time and the endless reproduction of ourselves as a commodity, labour power. In other words, we have no alternative but to exchange our time for money, which is why the time away from work is a moment of liberation,
Wave bub-bub-bub-bye to the boss. It’s our profit, it’s his loss.
“But anyway the lunch bells ring,” Strummer laments, and we’re back to work and the seemingly endless cycle where “clocks go slow … minutes drag and the hours jerk.”
All this activity and hard work get us nowhere. Everyday we are back to square one, which brings us back to “ring ring 7 am”:
You’re frettin’, you’re sweatin’
But did you notice, you ain’t gettin’
You’re frettin’, you’re sweatin’
But did you notice, not gettin’ anywhere.
And so, “cold water in the face brings you back to this awful place”.
What is this awful place? It is not the awful place of work but the reality of the alarming ring. Put the kettle on, turn on the radio and throw cold water on the face.
British working class
It feels like a song about the British working class of the late 1970s. Cold water because there is no hot water. The awful place, Britain 1980, the first year Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal totalitarian attack on working people.
Rising unemployment especially among the youth, police harassment and the smell of fascism. These were the days of UB40s (aka the Unemployment Benefit Form 40), signing on at the dole office, and “career opportunities… that never knock” as children sang on The Clash triple album, “Sandinista!” (1980). It took its name from Nicaragua’s left-wing rebel force, the Sandanistas.
But it was also the days of resistance, of a campaign like Rock against Racism and urban revolt against police repression, racism, “sus” laws and mass arrests against black youth. The uprising in Bristol’s St Paul in April 1980 pre-figured the urban revolts in Brixton and later across the country in 1981. Imperial Britain on its deathbed. For some there seemed a connection to the struggle in the North of Ireland. The hunger strike by Irish guerrillas in the H-Blocks in Belfast started on March 1, 1981.
New York adventure
“The Magnificent Seven” was another slice of daily life, a class struggle song framed by the sound of funk and the emergent hip-hop in the New York, which Strummer later said “changed everything for us”.
According to the author Antonino D’Ambrosio, the Clash recorded The Magnificent Seven “as a tribute to the path-breaking Sugar Hill Gang”. By the late 1970s, the Bronx, a burned out eye-sore to the city’s fathers, had become the centre of this music. As soon as The Clash got off the plane at JFK in 1979 they were immersed in the sounds of the street carried by boom-boxes (which The Clash guitarist Mick Jones took to carrying around) and incorporated these sounds into the mix that became the album, “Sandinista!”.
Strummer wrote the words to “The Magnificent Seven” on the spot while listening to a Norman Joseph Watt-Roy bass riff. Englishman Watt-Roy of Ian Dury and the Blockheads was among the group of musicians working in the New York studio on “Sandinista!”.
“The Magnificent Seven” was thus also part of The Clash’s New York adventure. Written in 1980, it was, according to The Clash website, one of the first,
rap records made by a British band and one of the earliest rap records full stop.
It was included on “Sandinista!” and released as a single in 1981. While the song’s hip-hop credentials are often remembered, the lyrics are equally important.
The hybrid character of the song is seen in references such as “cheeseboiger” while the last line brings it back to British tabloids. Finishing the mix in England, Strummer added “Vacuum cleaner sucks up Budgie”, a News of the World headline at the time, while Marx and Engels show up at the 7/11, a staple American 24-hour convenience store.
Marx who has to borrow money from Engels turns on the rhyme of “Marx’s sense” with the need for “British pence”. The song concludes with name-checking historical figures, Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Richard Nixon, as it wonders:
Who’s more famous to the billion millions… Plato the Greek or Rin Tin Tin?
Released on April 10, 1981, the day the Brixton revolt began and a day after hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected to the British parliament, “The Magnificent Seven” climbed to No 34 in the UK charts. It became one of the band’s “best-known and most important singles”, notes D’Ambrosio.
In the US, the B-side instrumental version was very popular. Strummer remembers, you couldn’t go anywhere in New York in the summer of 1981 without hearing it as it was “played to death” on New York’s major black radio station, WBLS:
And that was us, weirdo white guys.
Protest music has made a serious comeback over the past five years. This article is the third in a series featuring Songs of Protest from across the world, genres and generations.