Song of the Week 53: The Guns of Brixton – The Clash

Paul Simonon

“When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun”

52 weeks make a year. 53 makes week one of the next year. My years are slightly slower than earth years, as I occasionally miss weeks here and there, putting the SOTW years as somewhere between an Earth year and a Mars year, or somewhere out in space. I’m quite happy for the Song of the Week blog to inhabit its own position in interplanetary space seeing as it recently acquired its own space on the internet. All of which nonsense brings us to this week’s Song of the Week.


In the very first SOTW I wrote about the song Many Rivers to Cross from the motion picture The Harder They Come featuring the singer and actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s only right that we should pay him a flying visit on this week’s episode.

The Guns of Brixton was the first song composed by Clash bassist Paul Simonon and the first to feature him as a lead vocalist. By the time The Clash had started writing for London Calling in 1979 Simonon had learned guitar and was contributing more to the songwriting.

“You don’t get paid for designing posters or doing the clothes… you get paid for doing the songs.” Simonon 1990

The band had just left their manager Bernard Rhodes and so had to leave their rehearsal studio in Camden Town and find another location. They began work on London Calling during the summer of 1979 in Vanilla Studios in Pimlico. They quickly wrote and recorded demos.

The album was produced by Guy Stevens who was having issues with alcohol and drugs at the time, and his production methods were unconventional. Many of the songs, including The Guns of Brixton, were recorded in one or two takes. While recording vocals for the song, Simonon sang while staring directly at the CBS executive who had popped by the studio, which gave him just the right amount of emotion in his voice. Damn executives! I reckon it’s time to have a listen.

The Guns of Brixton came before the riots that took place there in the 1980s, but it depicts the feelings of discontent that were building due to the recession, and the heavy-handed police action that would lead to the riots. He was originally doubtful about the lyrics, as they reflect an individual’s paranoid outlook on life, but Strummer, the bands leader and main songwriter, encouraged him to keep working on it.

It was not released as a single during The London Calling days. A remastered version was remixed and released by CBS as a CD single, 7 inch vinyl and a 12 inch vinyl entitled Return to Brixton in 1990. It reached number 57 in the UK charts. You can have a listen to that here. It’s a “baggy” updating of the original and a lot of Clash fans aren’t too fond of the remix.

Speaking of remixes and the like, Norman Cook sampled the bass line for Beats International’s Dub Be Good to Me. Simonon was shocked to see it go to number one, and also surprised that they lifted the bassline straight off and didn’t consider changing it slightly. He met up with Norman Cook and came to an arrangement. “I thought it was a really good idea and it was quite reassuring for that to happen to my first song.”

“You see, he feels like Ivan
BORN under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
At the end of the harder they come”

Jimmy Cliff Rebirth

Now back to Jimmy Cliff. I posted a link to the video of the film The Harder They Come in my first Song of the Week post. Ivan was the name of the character Jimmy Cliff played in the movie, so it’s apt that the man himself chose to cover this song in 2011, and hearing it last week spurred me to write about it. It nicely rounds off the first 52 weeks, and sets us on our next 52. Jimmy Cliff was a big influence on The Clash. It features on his Sacred Fire EP in 2011 and was also included on his 2012 album Rebirth.

Speaking of rebirth. One more version I’d like to share is by the French band Nouvelle Vague let by Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux . Their name, which means “new wave”, covers their Frenchness, their artiness and the fact that they mainly cover of punk rock, post punk and New Wave songs, often with bossa nova style arrangements. Their members include many French artists who are very well known in their own right and part of what is known as Renoveau de la chanson Francaise or Nouvelle Chanson: Camille, Phoebe Killdeer, Melanie Pain, Marina Céleste and Gerald Toto and more recently Mareva Galanter. Those French Chanteuses have surely cornered the market in slow, sultry, somnolent suavité. Sacrebleu! Je les aime!

“Parlez-vous français?”

“Eh, non.”

Nouvelle Vague

The song was released on their eponymous solo album featuring the silky stylings of Camille and photos of the infamous Brixton riots.

Born in Croydon, Surrey, to a civil servant father, and a librarian mother, Paul Simonon grew up in Brixton in South London. He was the bass guitarist for English punk band The Clash who formed in 1970.

I’ll return to The Clash in more detail one of these days as Joe Strummer, and the album mentioned above London Calling deserve their own post.

Simonon was recruited into the band by lead guitarist Mick Jones who attempted to teach him guitar. Simonon didn’t take to guitar so well, so Jones decided to teach him to play bass instead. He learned his bass parts from Jones by rote in the early days and still didn’t know how to play the instrument when the group first started recording.

Simonon is credited with coming up with the name “The Clash” and was responsible for aspects like stage backdrops and the clothing they wore. The image of him smashing his bass on the front of their classic London calling became one of the iconic pictures of the punk era.

The Clash London Calling 1979

He only wrote three Clash songs. The other two being The Crooked Beat on Sandinista! and the B-Side Long Time Jerk. He also sang the lead on Red Angel Dragnet.

His bass style was contrapuntal reggae/ska influenced, and was different from most of the other punk rock bassists of the same era. He played with a pick instead of plucking the strings.


He started the band Havana 3am after The Clash dissolved, and along with Sex Pistol’s Steve Jones was part of the sessions for Dylan’s Down in the Groove. Damon Albarn recruited him as bass player for The Good, The Bad and The Queen, reuniting him with Mick Jones. The two of them also played with Albarn on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach.


In 2011, Simonon spent time aboard Greenpeace vessel Esperanza under cover as “Paul the Assistant Cook” in response to Artic oil drilling in Greenland by Cairn Oil. He illegally boarded one of the oil rigs, which earned him two weeks in a Greenland jail, revealing his identity after the voyage. Afterwards he joined Albarn and other members of The Good, The Bad, and The Queen for a performance in London celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Greenpeace.

Mick Jones and Simonon are currently working together as executive producers for a new film based on the recording of 1979’s London Calling, an album I’ll return to later on in the SOTW files. I look forward to seeing that.

The song was a mainstay in the band’s set and when they played it live Simonon would switch instruments with Strummer, because he felt uncomfortable singing lead and playing the bass at the same time.

They released a slightly faster version on the live album From Here to Eternity. Most people know the multi-Oscar winning movie from 1953, but the quote comes from Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem “Gentlemen-Rankers” about soldiers of the British Empire, who had “lost (their) way” and were “damned from here to eternity”. More about those Gentlemen Soldiers, The Clash another day.

So I’ll leave you with the lyrics, and I promise I’ll write another couple of short-and-sweet posts before launching into another epic when I have a little more time.

R.I.P. Lou.

The Guns of Brixton – Lyrics

When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gunWhen the law break in
How you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement
Or waiting in death rowYou can crush us
You can bruise us
But you’ll have to answer to
Oh, Guns of BrixtonThe money feels good
And your life you like it well
But surely your time will come
As in heaven, as in hell

You see, he feels like Ivan
BORN under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
At the end of the harder they come

You know it means no mercy
They caught him with a gun
No need for the Black Maria
Goodbye to the Brixton sun

You can crush us
You can bruise us
But you’ll have to answer to
Oh-the guns of Brixton

When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

You can crush us
You can bruise us
And even shoot us
But oh- the guns of Brixton

Shot down on the pavement
Waiting in death row
His game was survivin’
As in heaven as in hell

You can crush us
You can bruise us
But you’ll have to answer to
Oh, the guns of Brixton

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