In this song, Clash frontman Joe Strummer is expressing his view that young white people should be outraged over their oppressive government just as blacks were, and should demonstrate through direct action and protest. He made it clear that the song - and the group - in no way advocated violence, and that it was certainly not racist.
Strummer explained to NME: "The only thing we're saying about the blacks is that they've got their problems and they're prepared to deal with them. But white men, they just ain't prepared to deal with them - everything's too cozy. They've got stereos, drugs, hi-fis, cars. The poor blacks and the poor whites are in the same boat."
This song was inspired by the Notting Hill riots in west London on August 30, 1976. The carnival was a celebration of Caribbean culture, but it turned violent when police were attacked after arresting a pickpocket. Over 100 police officers were hospitalized along with about 60 crowd members. A lot of the tension was along racial lines, with black youths clashing with white officers, although gangs of white youth were also involved. Clash members Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, and their manager Bernie Rhodes were at the event and got caught up in the riots, which led to this song. They included a photo of the Notting Hill riots on the back cover of the album.
Released in the UK on CBS Records March 26, 1977, "White Riot" was The Clash's first single. It became one of their signature songs and was an indication of things to come. The Clash spent the next eight years speaking out for the lower class and against the establishment. Targets of their scorn included the British government and their record company.
Predictably, this song caused some problems during Clash concerts at times when audience members - often political punks - would use it as an excuse to cause trouble. Whether they should play it or not was sometimes a source of tension in the band.
At a gig in 1979, Joe Strummer was determined to play the song as an encore but Mick Jones vehemently disagreed, saying he was sick of the song and wanted to leave it behind. The argument became heated and Strummer for the only time in the band's career punched Jones, leading to an odd situation during the encore where Jones had a bandage around his eye and nose whilst playing on stage - he gave up playing it halfway through and left the rest of the band to play on. Other tales abound of promoters requesting the band not to play the song for fear of wrecking the venue. Naturally, The Clash being the troublemakers that they were, would play it anyway.
Clash members Mick Jones and Joe Strummer played this together for the last time in November 2002. Jones was in the audience for one of Strummer's solo shows and came onstage to join him. Strummer usually didn't like to play this, but he turned to Jones and said, "This one's in 'A', you know it." Strummer died of a heart attack a month later.
The album wasn't released in the US until 1979. Over 100,000 copies were sold there as an import in 1977.