The Guns Of Brixton

Album: London Calling (1979)


  • Unlike most Clash songs, which were written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, "The Guns Of Brixton" was written by bass player Paul Simonon, who decided to get in on the songwriting himself. It became one of the band's best-known songs and a staple of their live set until their demise in the mid-'80s. Simonon takes lead vocal duties on the song, which is about gangsters in his hometown of Brixton in South London.

    Interestingly, he was reticent about singing lead vocals initially, but Strummer noted that "they're your lyrics, you sing them" and the rest of the band agreed. Simonon notes: "The vocal mike was right up against the glass panel of the control room and sitting two feet behind the glass was some American CBS bloke. That's probably why the vocals came out the way they did." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Nick - Harpendonia, England
  • Brixton was the site of race riots in 1981 and again in 1985. This song captures the alienation many citizens of Brixton felt leading up to the riots.

    The central plot has Ivan, the anti-hero character from the popular film The Harder They Come (the soundtrack of which contained many of The Clash's favorite reggae songs, including the title track) in urban South London ("You see, he feels like Ivan, born under the Brixton sun, his game is called survivin', at the end of the harder they come") and on the wrong side of the law ("When the law break in, how you gonna go? Shot down on the pavement, or waiting on death row").
  • In 1990 the bassline to "The Guns of Brixton" was sampled in the Beats International (AKA Norman Cook, AKA Fatboy Slim) hit single "Dub Be Good To Me," and became a UK hit single, meaning Simonon received a credit of the royalties for his bassline. Interviewed by Scott Rowley on October 1999 for Bassist magazine, Simonon said that he "was surprised that it became number one, that was quite shocking. And the fact that it was my performance that they had lifted. The smart thing would've been to copy it and change it slightly, but they just lifted it straight off. So, really, I have done Top of the Pops! I met up with Norman [Cook] and we came to an arrangement which was much needed at the time. But I thought it was a really good idea and it was quite reassuring for that to happen to my first song."
  • This song was not released as a single when the London Calling album first came out, however in 1990 with the re-release of London Calling on CD, a remixed version entitled "Return to Brixton," which included the original "Guns of Brixton" mix on the B-side, was released and reached #57 on the UK charts in July 1990. Interestingly, a typo on the sleeve notes of the CD release meant Paul Simonon's name was misspelled as Paul Simon; although a very successful recording artist in his own right, the actual Paul Simon (half of Simon & Garfunkel) had nothing to do with the writing of "The Guns of Brixton"!
  • The song was always a popular live fixture, and Simonon's moment of glory onstage as he took lead vocals. He would swap instruments with Joe Strummer, who would play bass whilst Simonon played some rhythm guitar and sang (or usually bellowed) his vocals with great gusto. An example of this is the live version of the song which appears on the From Here To Eternity live compilation CD, taken from one of their many New York shows in June 1981. The song was first played live by the band at a September 1979 show in Chicago and at almost every show after that.

Comments: 22

  • Rocco from New York City, NyI have to agree with Nick from Harpendonia. After having seen the Clash live over a half dozen times, Simonon and Strummer switched instruments for this song. Strummer was efficient enough on bass, but Simonon --- I just seemed that he was concentrating on his vocals so much that he couldn't hear the rest of the band and was off-beat almost every time I saw these guys. A couple of times, Mick Jones had to turn up his amp in order to cover over Simonon's. This takes nothing away from the song though. It's powerful and mesmerizing.
  • Aurelien from Saint Etienne, FranceThere's nothing hard to understand on the meaning of this song, I don't get why you all talk about gangs or racial riot.

    Maybe you guys don't get it's a punk song first of all.
    Guns of Brixton is about police repression, and Law. It means that the law is wrong, and that if you are right, you'll get "crushed" and "bruised". But police will have to answer to the people's anger.
    It says that society is made is such an hypocritical way that if you're poor, you sometimes have no choice but illegality, and you'll be judged for that (Ivan).

    The Guns of Brixton represent the anger of the people against a society which make them live in misery; the police incarnating this society.
  • Morgan from My Backyard, Onbilly joe doesnt have a son named brixton.
  • Ross from Leicester, United KingdomI think this song was more about the police than gangsters. If anything it's a fantasy response to police brutality and like a lot of Clash songs influnced by films - in this case Paul Simonon's love of Jimmy Cliff film "The Harder They Come" (one verse refers to Ivan - Jimmy Cliff's character in the film and the film is directly named).
  • Dave from Ocala, FlAnd here's one of the live versions of the song by Nouvelle Vague I mentioned:
  • Dave from Ocala, FlNouvelle Vague, with the ever-so-sexily-intriguing Camille Dalmais, sometimes performed this song as an acoustic song with captivating vocals by Ms. Dalmais and a fantastic groove to the acoustic guitar.

    And it is true that Joe & Paul switched instruments on this song - or at least at each of the3 shows I was fortunate enough to see back in The Day.

    There's a widely circulating live recording usually called "Indian Cents" from their show at The AC Hall in Hong Kong on Feb 25, 1982. If you can find it, and it absolutely smokes - and Joe introduces Paul as they trade instruments. PLease try to find it!
  • Robert from New Orleans, LaIs it true that when the Clash played this live, Joe would play bass because Paul had a hard time singing and playing at the same time?
  • Simon from London, EnglandSouth London gangsterism
  • Matthew from Milford, MaYeah, this song is about a society where gangs are formed because the law doesn't give a **** about you...
  • Mudassir from Bolton, EnglandThis song is about a neighbourhood in London called Brixton where Paul Simonon was from. It is probably the first established and most famous black neighbourhood in London but was also the scene of much racial tension in the late 70s with police and the black community. The theme is basically a warning of the catastrophic consequences of violence if the police brutality continued unchecked. The song actually echoed the subsequent riots in 1981.
  • Izzy from Buffalo, Nyjohn, you are sadly mistaken. thats what the song 'clampdown' by the clash is about. gicing in to government or not. this song is just about giving into crime or not.
  • Izzy from Buffalo, Nylove this song
  • Will from Schoharie, NyAlso sampled by Cypress Hill for their song "What's Your Name, What's You're Number?"
  • Lauren from London, EnglandSampled in 'Dub be good to me'
  • J from Nyc, NyJohn, it's simply just about the crime and violence of the Brixton area Simonon grew up in; you're reading a little too much into it. If you haven't check out the live version on From Here to Eternity...AWESOME!
  • Nick from Harpendonia, EnglandAlthough Paul Simonon played bass on the recording, when the Clash played live he would switch to guitar and Joe Strummer would play bass on this song, as Simonon was not skilled enough to sing and play bass at the same time.
  • John from Indianapolis, Inthis song is strait forward and not much theory is possible to present the sheer simplicity of it astounds.
    its all about resisting the government or going peacfully which would you do?
  • Jeff from Staten Island, NyBlack Maria" (alternatively spelled "Mariah") is an archaic American/British nickname for a paddy wagon, or a bus used to transport prisoners.
  • Jeff from Staten Island, NyIts more of a reggae song, one of many the Clash has done. I'm a huge Clash fan & this is my favorites too.
  • Petter from Ã?ngelholm, Swedenit's funny how you really can think of this song as a hiphop/rap song. it's really cool and good!
  • Nicole from Nottellin, OrOne of my very favorite Clash songs. Paul's lyrics and bass are great and the imagery striking.
  • George from Hell, PaMy favorite Clash song, but my opinion doesn't count because I'm relatively new to the Clash (with the exception of the radio-plugs, but they don't count as people).
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Howard Jones

Howard JonesSongwriter Interviews

Howard explains his positive songwriting method and how uplifting songs can carry a deeper message.

Charlie Benante of Anthrax

Charlie Benante of AnthraxSongwriter Interviews

The drummer for Anthrax is also a key songwriter. He explains how the group puts their songs together and tells the stories behind some of their classics.

P.F. Sloan

P.F. SloanSongwriter Interviews

P.F. was a teenager writing hits and playing on tracks for Jan & Dean when he wrote a #1 hit that got him blackballed.

Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks

Ron and Russell Mael of SparksSongwriter Interviews

The men of Sparks on their album Hippopotamus, and how Morrissey handled it when they suggested he lighten up.

Jello Biafra

Jello BiafraSongwriter Interviews

The former Dead Kennedys frontman on the past, present and future of the band, what music makes us "pliant and stupid," and what he learned from Alice Cooper.

Keith Reid of Procol Harum

Keith Reid of Procol HarumSongwriter Interviews

As Procol Harum's lyricist, Keith wrote the words to "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." We delve into that song and find out how you can form a band when you don't sing or play an instrument.