An introduction to the music of ‘the only band that matters’
IF you were going to create the perfect rock band, you would begin with the lead singer. Make him a wide-eyed prophet, a shaman with a charismatic stage presence.
Next comes the lead guitarist: rake thin, brooding and intense, capable of shifting from melodic beauty to violent power chords within a few bars.
The bass player must be able to hold the whole thing together with rumbling grooves, but he also has to look good: movie star cheekbones and a gap-toothed smile.
Finally, you’d need a drummer who has power, stamina and subtlety, confident with whatever you throw at him, whether hard rock, dub reggae or bossa nova.
If you were going to create the perfect rock band, you’d have The Clash.
Marketing material around the time of the release of London Calling, The Clash’s masterpiece third album released in the dying days of the 1970s, described the foursome as “the only band that matters”.
Record company hyperbole, no doubt — and never forget that this was a band so full of self-mythologising, the so-called ‘Last Gang in Town’, that they namechecked themselves in song titles not once, but twice (‘Clash City Rockers’ and ‘This is Radio Clash’). But 40 years later, there is little question they occupy a place at the very top of the pantheon of rock music legends, perhaps a rung below The Beatles and Bob Dylan, but alongside The Rolling Stones, The Who, the Velvet Underground and David Bowie.
Formed in the shadows of the Westway in London W10, The Clash came to prominence on the tail of the Sex Pistols in the punk year of 1976 as another angry and loud group of three chord yobs, but they refused to be pigeon holed and had ambitions well beyond the cul-de-sac that punk represented. By 1978, at the same time as the Pistols imploded with a couple of singles and one album behind them, The Clash were preparing to launch their vision upon the world with theur second LP, Give ’Em Enough Rope. A year later they would produce the 18 epic tracks that made up London Calling, by which time they had left punk well and truly behind. Angry and political they would continue to be, but both musically and lyrically they pushed the boundaries ever further.
The following year, 1980, they recorded the triple album Sandanista!, deemed by many an incoherent mess, but breathtaking in its scope of different styles and genres. This was a band that wasn’t afraid to fail. By the time of the release of Combat Rock in 1982, they were one of the biggest acts in the world but the volatile personalities that had given the band so much drive could no longer hold it together, and within a year, The Clash as we knew them were no more after Mick Jones left to form Big Audio Dynamite and Topper Headon was sacked for his ongoing heroin use.
Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon continued for another year or so, but without the input of his songwriting partner and lead guitarist, Strummer was lost and the band eventually fizzled out.
And that might have been it, except The Clash really were a band that mattered. They fused great music and lyrics with an unimpeachable political commitment and a belief that music could be a force for change.
Their influence is hard to measure. Unlike many the other great artists of theirs and other eras, few other bands have attempted to emulate their sound — The Libertines being an obvious exception — perhaps because they were such undefinable shape shifters. And this was a band that once sang about how ‘Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust’.
But their take no prisoners attitude, a refusal to sell out and a determination to maintain their integrity, combined with their constant creativity, experimentation and exploration, has been cited as a major influence by the the likes of Billy Bragg, Public Enemy, The Pogues, the Hold Steady, the Living End, Weddings, Parties, Anything, Blur, Manic Street Prisoners, Transvision Vamp, and Primal Scream.
The Clash were always about more than just music. They were a look and an attitude — both of which have been emulated by some of the groups named above — but it is the music that is their lasting legacy. Joe Strummer’s beat poetry holds up well decades later as a type of proto-rap, while sonically they still sound as if they belong to the future rather than the past. They made you want to dance as well as making you think, and you learnt something from every song.
It’s a thankless task to attempt to distill their recording legacy down to just 10 tracks, but the following list is intended to serve as an introduction to the music of The Clash as their career progressed.
The first great Clash song, perfectly summing up the frustration and anger of working class teenage life in London in the mid-1970s, when there was nothing to do to relieve the boredom of another night in front of the telly in a soulless flat in a council high rise but load up on speed, steal a car and drive through the empty streets. Strummer’s genius was to take the title of a children’s nursery rhyme and then twist it into a ode to teenage hellraising, complete with a great singalong chorus (‘London’s burning with boredom now/London’s burning dial 99999’). The Clash’s debut album featured plenty of great tunes (‘White Riot’, ‘Janie Jones’, ‘Career Opportunities’ to name three), but ‘London’s Burning’ summed up the band’s ethos better than any other.
For a band so vocally anti-establishment and anarchic, it was ironic that The Clash signed a six figure sum recording deal with a pillar of the music industry mainstream, CBS. It was always destined to end in tears, and it didn’t take long for the relationship between band and record label to unravel. After CBS released ‘Remote Control’, a minor track from the debut album, as a single without their knowledge or consent, the band responded with one of the greatest “fuck yous” in the history of rock music. ‘Complete Control’ is a blistering attacking on both CBS and the corruption of the music industry and the high water mark of the Clash’s punk period. And that would be enough on its own to make it a classic, but it’s also an incredibly catchy tune featuring some of Mick Jones’ best guitar work, prompting Joe Strummer to scream over Jones’ solo “you’re my guitar hero!”. And to top it off, it’s produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
(White Man in ) Hammersmith Palais
Considered by many The Clash’s greatest single recording, and who could argue. The song’s origins lie in a reggae gig at the Hammersmith Palais attended by Joe Strummer and Don Letts. Strummer left the gig disillusioned at the showbiz presentation when he had expected an authentic Jamaican ghetto experience, and afterwards he penned this state of the nation address which skewered both the commercialism of Jamaican reggae and the apolitical disaffection of the punk and new wave scenes, along with identifying the shared oppression of white and black working class youth and even having a dig at himself (“I’m the all-night, drug-prowling wolf, who looks sick in the sun”). It comes racing out of the blocks at 100mph on a wave of distortion and a thunderous guitar riff, before settling into a reggae dub groove before being rudely interrupted again by fist pumping choruses and guitars at an ear-splitting volume. As a perfect blending of The Clash’s punk fury and their passion for Jamaican music, it was an early clue to the ambitious scope of the band’s future recordings. It was played at Joe Strummer’s funeral in 2002.
Give ’Em Enough Rope is an unfairly maligned second album, primarily because American producer Sandy Pearlman polished the rough edges that defined the band’s debut a year earlier. This lost the band some fans who felt they had sold out to break it in the hated USA, but the reality is that without Pearlman’s input, The Clash would have quickly spluttered out in a dead end street like so many other one dimensional punk bands. Opening with the explosive ‘Safe European Home’, Give ’Em Enough Rope has some memorable highlights, although the critics were correct that it also veered too closely to Springsteen territory at times. ‘Tommy Gun’, track three on side one, showcases the band’s not so secret weapon, the drumming of Topper Headon, who had replaced Terry Chimes soon after the release of The Clash. On ‘Tommy Gun’ Topper’s work with the sticks recalls the power and inventiveness of Keith Moon in his prime, all but relegating Mick Jones’ incendiary guitar to background noise, while Strummer’s lyrics are a potent disavowal of terrorism as the means of achieving change.
I Fought The Law
The Clash had an uncanny ability to take someone else’s song and reinvent it as if they had written it themselves. ‘I Fought The Law’ is a case in point. Legend says Joe Strummer and Mick Jones first heard the Bobby Fuller version on a jukebox while mixing Give ’Em Enough Rope in San Francisco in 1978 and it was released as their first US single in 1979. The Clash’s version is fast and furious, seemingly played at twice the speed and twice the volume of the original, built on the bedrock of Topper Headon’s drumming and climaxing with a white hot middle guitar break, all in all two minutes and 40 seconds of rock and roll perfection.
Forty years later, the powerful rush of the opening chords still sends a chill down the spine. Kicking off and lending its name to their masterpiece, ‘London Calling’ was the band’s manifesto, a battle cry emanating from the decay of the British capital at the beginning of Thatcherism (‘London calling to the faraway towns/now war is declared and battle come down’). With Strummer howling, shrieking and whispering some of his best ever lyrics over a propulsive rhythm that sounded like the approaching apocalypse, ‘London Calling’ was a thrilling call to arms to rush the barricades from a band on the verge of greatness and remains probably their best known song.
Lost in the Supermarket
The Clash never really did ballads, so this is as close as they came. Penned by Joe Strummer for Mick Jones to sing, ‘Lost in the Supermarket’ was both a sharp commentary on the spiritual emptiness and alienation of late-20th century materialism and a poignant reflection on Jones’ painful early upbringing by his grandmother after he was abandoned by his parents (‘I wasn’t born, so much as I fell out/no-one seemed to notice me’). Deceptively simple with its strummed chords and Jones’ gentle guitar flourishes, switching tempo between verse and chorus, and delivered in Jones’ fragile soprano. A standout and one of the most enduring tracks from London Calling, it was yet another sign of how quickly the band had progressed as a musical unit in just three years together.
There’s a strong case to be made that The Clash are not only the greatest white reggae band of all time, but up there with the very best from Jamaica. Paul Simonon grew up listening to reggae in Brixton, and Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were enthusiastic converts, even visiting Jamaica in 1977 to explore their passion, with Strummer often drawing parallels between the punk and reggae as two forms of urban folk music from the oppressed classes. With Simonon’s bass underpinning their sound, The Clash adapted the music uniquely to their own ragged style, unlike most other white bands who attempt but never manage to pull off an authentic reggae sound. They recorded several reggae covers during their career, from ‘Police and Thieves’ on their debut album through ‘Pressure Drop’ and ‘Revolution Rock’, and also wrote and recorded other originals, but their 1979 version of Willie Williams’ ‘Armagideon Time’, which was originally released as the B-side to the ‘London Calling’ single, is probably the pinnacle. The hypnotic groove is propelled by Simonon’s bass and Headon’s percussion, while Jones’ effects-strewn guitar and a swirling organ add a weird Oriental flavour to the mix and it became a live favourite over the years.
The Magnificent Seven
Although they were a product of, and one of the leading protaganists of, the British punk explosion of 1976–77, The Clash quickly outgrew their origins. Their ambitions and idealism was just too great to be confined to the limitations of three chords, a 4–4 rhythm and a standard two guitars-bass-drums line-up. Once they had recruited Topper Headon as drummer who was able to master any genre, they had the means to realise their ambition, and over the course of their career they performed rock, reggae, gospel, ska and calypso, soul, funk, hip-hop, folk rock, rockabilly, and even disco and jazz. ‘The Magnificent Seven’, which opened the sprawling triple album Sandanista!, is perhaps the furthest extension of their experimentation and probably the first instance in music history of a white group attempting rap, predating Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ by six months. Hip-hop was still emerging as a musical genre at the time, but The Clash in their usual fashion of exploration had absorbed black street culture during their extended period in New York in the early-1980s. Some of the lyrics are rubbish (“Italian mobster shoots a lobster/seafood restaurant gets out of hand) but it was infectious fun and yet another example of how The Clash was so far ahead of its time.
Straight To Hell
The masterful ‘Straight to Hell’ was the final track recorded for The Clash’s last proper album as the band was beginning to fall apart. Eerie and ghostly, it delves into the impact of colonialism, class divisions and war over a haunting backdrop of latin percussion, rumbling bass, and mournful, scratchy guitar. Strummer had written the lyrics and recorded the vocals in a single manic session immediately before hopping on the plane back to London from New York. It later came out on a double A-side single with the radio friendly ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, but while the other song was banal throwaway pop, ‘Straight to Hell’ was complex, subtle and contained multiple meanings.