Give Em Enough Rope
I started running in college. I was a resolutely un-athletic nerd in high school. But when I stopped marching and joined band staff, I needed some physical activity in my life…,preferably physical activity that allowed me to have that same embodied connection to music that playing in the marching band did. So, running it was. But what music to run to? Well, I started out with early punk records. Duh, music by angry 19 year olds on tons of speed is gonna be great for running, I thought. And I was right: The Clash’s “White Riot” and the Dead Kennedys “MTV Get Off The Air” come in around 190bpm, which is fast. I copied my Clash, Sex Pistols, and Dead Kennedys CDs onto tape–this is pre shock-free Discman–and took them with me on my runs around Oxford, Ohio.
Of those albums (most of which I bought at the now-closed Oxford record shop, Looney T-Bird’s), my favorite was The Clash’s second album, Give Em Enough Rope. (I know, I know, it’s supposedly overproduced and not punk and whatever…don’t @ me with trite rockist banalities about this album.) I still run to the album, and it evokes specific places for me, places I lived and studied and, above all, ran. And it doesn’t just evoke images, but gestures and ways of being a body in a place.
“Safe European Home” is the album’s opening track. It begins with a pickup from the snare, which I always hear as the gunshot that opens a race, the “BANG” before the first beat your foot pounds out. And even though my feet are doing most of the work here, this track revs up my hand gestures, too, turning me into a band nerd version of Brad Pitt’s overly gestural gym rat character in Burn After Reading. The lyrics are about lead singer Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones’s trip to Jamaica, a place whose less-than-idyllic reality sorely disappointed the reggae-idolizing band, who was happy to return to their safe European home. Appropriately, Jones’s guitar kicks into some reggae-style off beats during the bridge. Running can sometimes feel like the jock version of skanking, so it’s easy for me to use the heel of my right hand to mark the downbeats so that as I bend my wrist back I can hit the offbeats even harder. But what really drives this song, and helps drive me along as I run, is the main guitar riff. It unfolds over four measures, but its pattern of emphasis or accent breaks the first eight beats into a 4+2 pattern that looks something like this:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
I I I I I I I—————– I——————
This is my favorite part of the song, and the one with the most involved hand gesture: every time that riff comes along, I take my right hand and beat out a 4+2 pattern along with the first two measures like a conductor might. And that tension between the actual eight beats in those two measures and the 4+2 breakdown, that tension drives the song. Tension and release is what I listen for in a running soundtrack–the buildup of musical tension is what pushes and pushes me on as I run. It’s not BPM that drives me so much as the development of tension. In a way, I’m listening structurally, which is how music scholars are trained to listen. You could say I can’t escape Adorno (who coined the term ‘structural listening’) even when I run. I can’t escape Adorno not just because of how I listen, but also because the song helps me vent professional frustration at my fellow continentally-trained philosophers who do, effectively, what Strummer and Jones did. They treat philosophical work outside the European canon as a nice place to visit: they dabble around and get some “diversity” points, but ultimately they return to their Safe European Homes and don’t have to deal with what it’s really like to work in those trenches. At the level of the lyrics, “Safe European Home” isn’t so much about a geographic place as it is an intellectual and academic space I inhabit and the things that disappoint me about it.
“Tommy Gun” puts me back in Chicago on the north side of Montrose heading east to the lake, the brick wall of Graceland Cemetery across the street to my right. Though you might think a song called “Tommy Gun” evokes uptown Chicago because of old speakeasy a block north on Lawrence, but in my case the connection is less historical and more concrete. For a few years I lived in an apartment on Paulina between Montrose & Sunnyside, so if I started “Give Em Enough Rope” when I hopped off the porch to run, by the time I got to Graceland, “Safe European Home” was over and I could skip “English Civil War” and cue up the third track, “Tommy Gun.” And it was perfect timing: in addition to being flat and straight like all Chicago streets, because it’s just walled-off cemetery, that stretch of sidewalk is shady and uninterrupted by obstacles, alleys, driveways, or side streets. That meant I could just run as fast as I possibly could and with complete abandon.
“Tommy Gun” is perfect accompaniment; it’s still my lead-in to my full-on sprint song (KMFDM’s “Drug Against War”) because its musical climaxes pushed me through points of muscle soreness and tiredness, points where I could just say “oh fuck it, I’ll walk.” These climaxes build tension and then delay release, often with a few measures of machine-gun-like sounds in the drums punched with a heavy strum on 3+ in the rhythm guitar. (Combining both sextuplets that sound like machine guns and more traditional rock drumming, “Tommy Gun” is one of the early pivot points between rock’s traditional train-based rhythmic motion,which it got from the blues, and the kind of rapid-fire machine gun style rhythmic motion that becomes more common in the 1990s with the spread of drum machines and increasingly virtuosic metal drumming.) Those few measures make us wait for the big downbeat that helped me keeeeeep pushing through the soreness and shortness of breath and blast off with a big burst of energy once the song lands on that climax.
The first really big hit comes right about a minute in, when Strummer sings “Tommy Gun” with some tiny little melismas–melismas! In a punk song!–right on the downbeat, my left foot pounding the pavement and my right fist punching the air in sync with Strummer’s first “T.” But this isn’t time to rest–this is actually the beginning of the song’s main build, which erupts in an “alright!” that propels us into the downbeat of the bridge. Then, as energy dissipates, Topper’s machine gun-like drumming propels my feet till the very last heavy strum at the end. So even though BPM matters for running music–it feels really good to put my feet down to those hi hats (cymbals that make a tssss sound) in the verses–development does too.
Because running isn’t just about planting your feet, but about pushing through those “oh fuck it, I’ll walk” moments.
The next song on the album is The Song That Must Categorically Be Skipped: “Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad.” It has hi hats at about the same tempo as the first three songs on the album, but it’s a pretty retro blues-rock song, and, uh, just….boring. So I’ve always skipped it, ever since I started running in the 90s. The one time I remember sitting all the way through it I wasn’t running, but driving down 75 south from my then-boyfriend’s parents’ house in Xenia, Ohio, to my mom’s house in West Chester. Southwest Ohio had a modern rock radio station then, 97X, which I was listening to. I didn’t flip the station because my puzzlement was stronger than my dislike for the song: “Julie” is about the deepest of deep cuts from any of The Clash’s early albums–it wasn’t a single, nobody ever plays it on the radio, puts it on playlists or in Clash boxed sets. It’s basically album filler. So why were the 97X DJs playing it? When the song ended, I found out: Joe Strummer had been found dead in his home that day, apparently from heart failure. Now, I hate the song even more because it reminds me of the first time a musician whose work I really cared about died.
97X was in Oxford, Ohio, where I went to college and started running. About 10 years after Joe Strummer died and 12 years after I graduated undergrad I was back in Oxford for a philosophy conference. It was April, so I thought I’d take a run on my old route while I was in town. The route began at my old apartment across from Wal-Mart and laced through campus and some off-campus housing and retail, but it was mostly two long flat streets, and then one long street uphill away from campus and one long street downhill toward campus. About midway through the long, flat street off campus there are some railroad tracks; the pedestrian crossing is pretty uneven and tricky. To my surprise and delight, as I ran across the tracks my feet didn’t even need to ask my conscious brain what to do about that obstacle–the muscle memory was there, 12 practice-free years later.
I cued up “Stay Free,” because it was about the very thing I was experiencing in that moment. The song is about friends you left behind (purportedly it’s about Jones’s childhood friend Robin, who the lyrics say went to jail instead of on to international rock superstardom). My first running route felt like a friend I lost touch with but once we started talking it was like no time had passed. When I could have gotten bogged down in the emotional bittersweetness of it all, the bridge, starting with its bouncing bass and working up to the hard-hitting rhythm guitar chords, the bridge drove me through and kept my feet going as I rounded the corner from College, where I cross the railroad tracks the first time, to Chestnut, where I cross them again.
What I enjoy about all this isn’t nostalgia or sentiment, but the way that the sounds on the album, and the way running made me embody those sounds, they were part of the landscape and geography, as much as that brick wall in Chicago and those railroad tracks in Oxford. Together, the album and my running are a sort of sonic embodied memory that brings me back to moments in my past and the places where they happened, sometimes in my mind, but sometimes in my body’s stride too.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at UNC Charlotte. She is author of Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, neoliberalism (Zero, 2015) and her writing has appeared in venues such as The New Inquiry, Noisey, SoundingOut!, Cyborgology, Hypatia, and The Journal of Popular Music Studies. She’s writing a manuscript that argues neoliberal political economy, algorithmic culture, post-identity politics, and even string theory ontologize acoustic resonance. She used to play oboe, but now she’s building a theremin and plans to teach herself how to play that.