I recently received a comment from a reader named Andy Visscher who had this to say:
“….With your involvement, do you have any inside stories about or insights into the meaning of the song Bankrobber, which you feel may not have been covered by anyone else who wrote about it? I’m not sure where the ‘bank robber’ part of the song comes from, but I read the lyrics as more of an indictment of going-nowhere work that offers no real satisfaction for the person doing the job – I would love to read any expansion on that.” – Andy.
Bankrobber – The Clash.
Back on October 28th 2012, I wrote an editorial on theclashblog.com regarding the Bankrobber video:
“That was a totally insane day at Lewisham Odeon. Don Letts turned up with his film crew to take some footage to splice into a video for ‘Bankrobber.’ Having no pre-conceived concept, it was an on-the-spot idea to have me and Johnny Green dress with bandanas’ over our faces and pretend to rob a bank.
I was less than enthusiastic at the idea, as I already had a full day of work preparing for the show that night. But Don assured us it wouldn’t take long and Johnny coerced me along. I couldn’t see the point at the time – we were the most unlikely-looking bankrobbers you could ever imagine….Johnny’s gangly stick insect figure looking ten-feet tall made me look even shorter and squat than normal. Later watching the finished video, I finally understood the comedic visual Don was trying to put forth and it actually worked very well.
So he filmed us leaning up against the wall, running out of the bank, running down Lewisham High Street alarming shoppers, tearing across roads, jumping over the camera – it went on and on and all I could think about was what I should have been doing the whole time back at the gig. Suddenly two police Rovers came screeching round the corner, grabbed us and bundled us all up against the wall!
“This is all your fucking fault, Green!” I yelled at Johnny as the cops padded us down. “Now we’re gonna end up down the nick and miss the gig, you cunt!”
After much convincing that it was all a stunt, the cops let us go with stern faces and we made it back to the Odeon just as the soundcheck was ending. Fortunately, there were few problems equipment-wise and all’s well that ended well. Ironically, the funniest part of the incident, was the part Don couldn’t film – Johnny and I screaming at each other hands against the wall….”I’m gonna fucking kill you Green when this is over!” “It’s your fucking fault Baker for looking like a thug!”
Later, back at the hotel, we divvied up the fee Johnny had coaxed out of Don, so that was alright. I always wondered what the fans made of it….what did you think Gil?”
The big question everyone seems to have is: “Who was the daddy that Joe was singing about?”
“My daddy was a bankrobber
But he never hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
And he loved to steal your money” – ‘Bankrobber’: The Clash
Joe could just as easily have sung “Freddie Smith” or “My best friend….” But he chose to name his own father as the bankrobber in question, thus linking himself to a lifestyle of non-violent resistance to conformity and working for the system. His many lyrics would often run along this theme as a rejection of dead-end, go-nowhere work that offers little tangible fulfillment or compensation from “Career Opportunities,” “Death or Glory,” “Working for the Clampdown,” to “Magnificent Seven,” they all deal with the same question of submission to a system that offers nothing real and eventually grinds one down to an unthinking robot….
“….The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal….” – ‘Working for the Clampdown.’
So who was the daddy that Joe was singing about?” Having never asked him I have always pondered the same question, and have my own theory as to who he was really singing
about. From very early on, I felt that Bernie Rhodes took on the role of Joe’s surrogate adopted father-figure and continued throughout their tempestuous relationship. Even before they met, Joe had attached himself to older men like Tymon Dogg and Dave Goodall who had acted as moral and political mentors. Joe’s rejection of authority and home-life was a very evident sign of his lack of emotional stewardship throughout his formative years. Tymon, Dave, and later Bernie, no doubt fulfilled the fatherly role that Joe had been seeking. Additionally, Joe always understood that Bernie had the vision to deliver him to a higher plateau (as he did lifting him effortlessly out of the 101’ers). Being the next oldest within the early Clash camp, Bernie also may have become the big brother Joe had lost and Joe probably felt he could defer some of the inherent pressure from the press and critics onto Bernie. I think Joe also hated being the ‘bad guy’ and Bernie was the ultimate vote splitter between Joe and Mick.
During the two years after Bernie was fired, Joe yearned for his surrogate father-figure both emotionally and politically, perceiving Bernie’s chaos-making presence as an essential part of the chemistry. Finally by the end of 1980, when Joe was left alone to shoulder and defend much of the harsh criticism of ‘Sandinista,’ there was no one else that understood the weighty burden more than Bernie. In need of the benevolent father-figure he had never had growing up, I feel Joe ‘chose to believe’ that Bernie (The Clash’s creator) was a good, loving, and wise creature awaiting his return with outstretched arms. But Bernie seems to have had a different viewpoint as was even quoted as saying, “Nobody gave a fuck about Joe Strummer until I got hold of him.”
In demanding Bernie’s return, Joe doubled down on his belief that fathers (albeit surrogate), must fundamentally love their grown children and would have the mental maturity to see them in their own image once again. But it was a conviction not based on reality. Bernie may well have been aghast at how his off-spring were evolving and certainly seemed to have an odd, eccentric paternal outlook on their relationship. Bernie said in interview, “My take on Joe Strummer is this – before we met, Joe and I, he had a dilemma: he was dissatisfied with himself and his life. He took on the role of Woody, but then he met me and I shook his life into the future. Joe didn’t want to be Woody, he wanted to be me. And that’s how he became an international success.”
Read into that what you will – whatever the true dynamics of the relationship, Joe’s zealous belief in Bernie’s flawless capriciousness was the result of unreasonable logic, and one which wouldn’t accept new data and new facts. Again, it all comes back to Joe’s filial relationship with Bernie and his fervent belief in Bernie’s judgment. It’s easy to see how Joe would have regarded Bernie as a harmless eccentric outlaw, willing to do battle with authority and ‘rob the bank’ while hurting no one.
When viewing that time, a fundamental mistake (even today), is the belief that Joe insisted on Bernie’s reinstatement in order to rekindle the spirit of 1976 and reassemble the old team. It’s true that Alex Michon was brought back on board to add her creativity and inspiration to the Clash clothing and she was set-up in an office in New York. CamdenTown also became part of our sphere of operations again in 1981. However, lurking underneath the initial frisson, there was a much larger agenda that wasn’t so apparent. On a fundamental level, Bernie was brought back by Joe to change things – not to do the same! Once reinstated, Bernie then set about reconstructing the band he had originally created and resurrected the Stalinist regime he had fostered back at Rehearsals in 1976 (unfortunately with disastrous consequences for the band).
In retrospect, I realize that Bernie was always in the background making odd covert appearances even though he had been officially fired, and was kept there by an ever-enthusiastic Joe. It makes me wonder if Bernie ever really fully went away.
Note: Everything presented here is my own subjective viewpoint taking into consideration what I saw and heard during my seven years working for the Clash. Inevitably, others will have entirely different points of view, but I welcome all ideas and discussion on this most fascinating and misunderstood man.
August 4th, 2013 – Postscript: and just to prove it can and does happen, here is a news story from today:-