The Clash’s “White Riot” Lyrics Meaning

We regularly come across songs, being dropped to this very day even, which criticize the Western masses for being too complacent. Fundamentally “White Riot” is one of such pieces, albeit with a twist. And that would be that the lyrics are specifically race-based, as in the target of such criticisms being “White people”.

The incident which inspired these lyrics was an event referred to as the 1976 Notting Hill riot. Notting Hill, which is found in London, is host to an annual parade celebrating Caribbean culture. And as the story goes, during this event in 1976, when the police went about attempting to arrest a particular attendee (who is believed to have been a pickpocket), this led to the fuzz going at with a number of Black people, as well as quite a few White youth who were in attendance. 

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon of The Clash were amongst the White attendees who got caught up in the festivities, so to speak. And as revealed in the lyrics, that whole occurrence really inspired them.

Or as relayed, they admire the way the “Black man” responds to certain “problems” at times, i.e. by “throwing a brick”. In other words, as depicted Black people don’t have qualms with spazzing when they feel they’re offended by the powers that be. But by contrast, Whites may be the more school-oriented of the two groups alright. But their education is ‘teaching them how to be thick;’ or, put differently, casting them into a state where they’re not as compelled to stand up for themselves against similar forces.

We have the same Enemy

What is further inferred in the second verse is that this isn’t really a critique of one race’s bravery being superior to another but actually an acknowledgement that both Blacks and Whites have a common enemy. Or put differently, the vocalist is speaking more to classism than to racism. 

So the reason The Clash are calling for a “White riot” is because the way they see it their people, excuse our French, were being sh*t on just as much as the Blacks. But as for the Whites, they’re “too chicken” to resist. And what they’re afraid of, as presented, is getting in trouble with the law.

The Conclusion

So conclusively, needless to say this is a song with a very-powerful, perhaps we can even put forth misleading title. You wouldn’t expect a track with a name like “White Riot” to be used, say, to headline an anti-racism concert

And to reiterate, this is not a literal call for Caucasians to hit the streets. Instead, the sentiment that lies at the center of the lyrics is the vocalist’s frustration that assed-out White people do not tend to be as resistant to the powers that be as Blacks who are in the same position.

Lyrics for "White Riot"
The Clash's Joe Strummer talks about "White Riot"

Facts about “White Riot”

On 18 March 1977 and via CBS Records (aka Columbia), “White Riot” was formally released. It was the first single that The Clash, a punk band from London, ever dropped. This is an act that was only around for about a decade. 

When this song came out, the group consisted of the following members:

  • singer Joe Strummer (1952-2002)
  • bassist Paul Simonon
  • guitarist Mick Jones
  • drummer Topper Headon
  • drummer Terry Chimes

Both Strummer and Simonon remained members until the crew disbanded in 1986.

As perhaps to be expected, “White Riot” doesn’t seem to have much of a pop media history. However,  it did make it onto the top 40 of the UK Singles Chart and since then has been featured on the 2003 videogame Tony Hawk’s Underground. Moreover, an award-winning 2019 documentary about the above-referenced Rock Against Racism concert was named after this song.

The version of “White Riot” featured on The Clash’s eponymous debut album (outside of the US) is actually a demo of the song, i.e. an earlier recording from that which was issued as a single.

To note, the photograph which serves as the cover art to this single was not actually taken at the aforementioned Notting Hill riot. Instead, The Clash took the pic in the name of protesting against police brutality basically.

Amongst those who have covered this song throughout the years are Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine.

"White Riot"

THE 1976 NOTTING HILL RIOTS IN LONDON

Riots were rife during the 1900s in the United Kingdom. One example of the major riots that occurred was the 1976 Notting Hill riot in London. It was discovered from witnesses from over the years that the African American community had constantly faced harassment from the police and were seeking drastic change.

The Notting Hill Carnival was an event organized by the black community to celebrate its culture. This usually had a wild crowd of over a hundred thousand people in attendance. The presence of the Police was mandatory to ensure the safety of all who attended.

The number of police officials present at the carnival in 1976 however was between 1,600 and 3,000; over 9 times the usual. The black community saw this as a threat and anticipated that it was one of the plots of the police to harass them.

At about 5 pm as celebrations were ongoing, a riot broke out. The number of angry rioters outnumbered the police. The riot lasted for the better part of the night. Over 300 police officers were injured, 35 police vehicles destroyed, and about 60 rioters were arrested. The unexpected nature of this riot caused many of the police officers to find safe havens in order to save their lives.

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