Death Or Glory

Album: London Calling (1979)
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Songfacts®:

  • This song is about Clash frontman, the late Joe Strummer, looking back at his life, acknowledging the complications and responsibilities of adulthood.
    Kind of odd to read ripped-and-tough lyrics like these and think that the cynical punk rocker was an avid tree-hugger. In fact, Strummer founded The Carbon Neutral Company (originally called "Future Forests"), dedicated to planting trees all over the world in order to combat global warming. Strummer was also the first artist to record, press and distribute records while remaining carbon neutral.
  • The line "Love 'n' hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands" is yet another reference to the 1955 western-gothic thriller The Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum plays the world's creepiest preacher / con artist who chases two orphaned children across the American Midwest in an attempt to gain the hidden loot of their father, who was a robber. Mitchum has the tattoos on his knuckles. Every single time you see any character with anything tattooed on their knuckles, it's a shout-out to this film. As most-referenced film memes go, this is right up there with a boy and alien on a bicycle flying in front of the moon, Clark Gable saying "I don't give a damn," and Citizen Kane's "Rosebud."
  • The song is also about refusing to conform to authority, and the difficulties of not "selling out" to the "man" - something on The Clash's mind very much in terms of a growing up as people standpoint as well as the perspective of being a popular rock band trying to stay true to their roots as they sold more and more records.

    The amusing lyric, "he who f--ks nuns will later join the church" is a metaphor for teenagers who rebel against authority growing up and becoming authority figures themselves, becoming all that they fought against before. Journalist Lester Bangs believed the lyric about a "gimmick-hungry yob" related specifically to Sham 69 lead singer Jimmy Pursey, although as The Clash were friends with Pursey and the band this unlikely and is more likely a generic reference to bands trying to make a quick buck out of rock music.
  • "Death or Glory" was originally written on the piano, and initially rehearsed at a much slower pace more as a reflective ballad. The main reason the song was sped up was to avoid its obvious similarity to Max Steiner's "As Time Goes By" ballad from the film Casablanca. It was apparently one of the band's favorite songs to record for the London Calling album, and producer Guy Stevens added to the energy of the recording by throwing chairs around the studio whilst the band were laying down the tracks.
  • The Clash always liked the song, but never had the time to rehearse it properly to do it justice in a live setting, something that was confirmed by singer Joe Strummer in an interview with the Eccentric Sleeve Notes fanzine in July 1982. It only featured very rarely in the band's live set, with it's first appearance coming at the Rainbow in July 1979, before appearing a few times on the 1980 16 Tons tour and the pre-US Festival warm up gigs in 1983.
  • A cover version by Dave Smalley features on the 1999 Clash tribute album City Rockers.

Comments: 14

  • Scott from Rhode Island"He who f nuns will some day join the church" has got to be one of the best lines in rock n' roll. I think it means more than just selling out. Still I can't quite get my mind around it. There is conformity in rebellion. You can't be a part of something and still be an individual.
  • Luke from Auckland, New ZealandI'm pretty much in tune with Terry's (Ottawa, Canada) comment, while I personally also put 'Give 'Em Enough Rope' up there as the album which signaled that we could expect great things from this band.
    I am somewhat disappointed not to see another personal favourite, 'Hateful', in the list - thought that shared similar qualities to 'Death Or Glory', in terms of 'punch', writing, melody and 'succinctness'.
  • Ross from Leicester, United KingdomI don't agree that it's about being "hit or miss". I thinks it's more about those who claim they'll "never sell out" becoming part of the system they're supposed to be against - whether it's in the music business or life. The Clash were being accused of this from when they signed to CBS and onwards, so I think it's them having a dig back at their critics.
  • Ross from Leicester, United KingdomRe "Love and hate tattooed..." These were common tattoos in the UK at the time. I guess the line refers to people who put on a hard and rebellious image to the outside world but in reality are bullies, domestic abusers etc "hands that slap his kids around..."
  • Chris from Claremont, CaI heard the cover by Social Distortion, then I heard it again whilst playing Skate 2; Though I like the Clash version a bit better
  • Terry from Ottawa, CanadaThis one of the best songs from one of the clashes' best album. I remember at the time, its cohesive, ambition and damn fine writing blew us away. Bordering on mainstream but as hard as any they ever did. the he f---s nuns line hasn't been matched since. Still, I prefer Sandanista to London Calling. Splitting hairs, I know
  • Matthew from Milford, MaThose who f--k nuns? Oh my God!
  • Mudassir from Bolton, EnglandFirst 2 verses, surely the greatest lyrics ever?!
  • Theresa from Pittsburgh, PaI think this song speaks to the idealism of youth versus the realism of experience.
  • Chelsea from Wichita, KsI agree with Ed.
  • Pissing_wanker from The Inside Of My Head-ville, OhThe line: "Love and hate tatooed across his hands" sounds very much like a reference to a movie, Night of the Hunter, starring shelley Winters and someone else. but i really don't know. just thought i'd throw it out there. and "josh" is right, the social distortion version is ok, but im a music snob and must only listen to the original. but yeah...
  • Andy from Halifax, EnglandI'd agree with Ed.

    "'N' every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock 'n' roll
    Grabs the mike to tell us he'll die before he's sold"

    Outlining the way so many artists loose their integrity as the big offers come in and this "death or glory" attitude is now 'just another story'.

    Echoed in Babyshambles "F*ck forever", in the context of Pete Doherty's own situation.
  • Ed from London, CanadaI think it means that those who say they won't sell out end up selling out, "Those who f--k nuns will later join the church."
  • Josh from Las Vegas, NvSocial distortions cover aint bad
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