Artist Spotlight: The Clash

The Clash were known as “the only band that matters.” But what was that supposed to mean, exactly? How can any band “matter” in the grand scheme of things? Were they supposed to have mattered because of their politics? Every punk rock band in existence preached similar crypto-anarchist talking points, and even mainstream acts like U2 and The Police practiced some brand of righteous leftist advocacy. Or was it their genre-hopping musical diversity that set them apart? Surely Talking Heads, Blondie, and even The B-52s could at least match them in that regard. If it can in fact be said that The Clash “mattered” in a way that their contemporaries didn’t, it was because they embodied a specific tradition-bound rockist narrative – through five 1 studio albums, a handful of singles and countless live performances, they showcased an outstanding ability to reinforce the values of straight-ahead classic rock, injecting their songs with impassioned melodies and brilliant hooks, while building on the genre by fusing it, Beatles-style, with any number of international/historical influences from the past, present, and sometimes even a possible future. Although it is true that they only ever recorded one “real” punk rock album, their approach and outlook remained as radically punk rock as it gets, regardless of what the actual music sounded like. And despite working in such a niche genre, they still strove for truly universal appeal. They mattered because this music was for everyone, from the FM radio pop fan to the most adventurous, eclectic, and demanding listener.

Formed after certain members of The 101ers and London SS caught a Sex Pistols show in 1976, the group originally comprised Joe Strummer (born John Graham Mellor, vocals and guitar), Mick Jones (guitar and vocals), Paul Simonon (bass) and Tory Crimes (born Terry Chimes, drums). Veterans of the London underground rock scene, The Clash landed an opening gig for the Pistols themselves in short order, and began to focus on strengthening their repertoire and refining their sound. By the first month of 1977, they had signed a deal with CBS Records, and debuted with the original version of The Clash (A-) by that April. CBS refused to release the album in the United States due to the unpolished sound (which is hilarious because it essentially sounds like hyper-competent bubblegum pop-rock by today’s standards; the idea of this style of music ever having been controversial or sounding amateurish now seems quaint), leading to the album becoming the biggest-selling import record in history. It’s easy to see why – The Ramones and Sex Pistols may have laid the groundwork for the idea of what “punk rock” would become, but The Clash poured the cement, codifying the disparate influences of The New York Dolls, The Stooges, and an ultra-aggressive take on Nuggets-style garage rock into a simple, potent formula. For better or worse, a movement that began as a weird confluence of artsy provocateurs settled into a recognizable set of signifiers: gruff vocals, agitprop lyrics, fast tempos and a generally aggressive approach (and a token reggae song).2

It’s easy to see why this stuff resonated so strongly. The experience of Strummer and Jones brought a professionalism and proficiency to the songwriting that no other early punk band could match. “Hate And War,” “Remote Control,” “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” and “Career Opportunities” immediately come across as some of the most sophisticated compositions yet seen in the genre – quick, punchy, and to the point – while “Janie Jones,” “London’s Burning,” “White Riot” and “What’s My Name” qualify as some of its angriest rants. The supple basswork of Simonon and the smoother singing of Jones on lead and backing vocals also lend the songs a sense of musicianship that makes it difficult to shake the suspicion they are purposefully playing below their actual abilities. The guitars may be drenched in 80 layers of static-driven fuzz, but the grimy tone can’t conceal the fantastic melodic chords of “U.S.A.” or the tasty riffs and counter-riffs of “Deny” and “Hate And War.” By the time the album reaches the Junior Murvin cover “Police And Thieves,” which runs nearly twice as long as any other track, it’s clear the band isn’t just riding coattails, they’re here to make their own mark instead. Through it all, the band’s rebellious spirit attains a righteous fervor, due to their old-school reverence for roots-rock’s values: they may be raging against everything from the job market to politicians to the cops to themselves, but the first song on the album starts with “He’s in love with rock n’ roll.” That was where their true priorities lay.

Not that their follow-up, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978, B) did anything to deliver on the first album’s promise of The Clash as would-be saviors. A classic sophomore slump, Rope seemingly betrayed the band’s punk ethos by enlisting Blue Öyster Cult’s Sandy Pearlman as producer (who sanded the band’s rough edges down to a glossy sheen) and by having the nerve to include songs that went on for longer than three minutes, sometimes. I’m going to give the band a pass on the second point – they were growing as songwriters, and never intended to play one-to-two-minute punk singles forever – but the production does rob the band of their rawness and immediacy. The fact that a few of these songs are much more intricately-arranged and interestingly-conceived than anything on the debut (“Stay Free,” “All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)” and “Last Gang In Town” especially) was lost on detractors quick to dub it a “glam metal cash-in”. If it was intended as a sell-out, it could not have failed any harder. The real problem with the album, beyond any concerns of commercialism, is twofold: 1) two of the first three tracks suck complete ass, and 2) while they make admirable efforts to stretch their songwriting skills, they don’t bother to update their sound from the basic three-chord distorted-guitar punk style of the first album. It’s as if they are hedging, eager to showcase their maturity, but not quite ready to leave their early sound behind yet. Even if the songs sounded alright in a vacuum, they would still positively draaaaaaaaggggg next to the in-out brilliance of the debut. If they had only thought to include more varied instrumentation or even just cleaner guitar tones on a few more songs, the album might have sounded a lot more like the clear leap forward it was intended as, an idea which seems borne out by the excellent piano-bar pop of “Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad.”

The United States that the band sang about being so bored of finally got its very own version of The Clash (A-) in 1979, with four notorious hit singles appended, to replace several of the filler tracks from the original issue, along with some bullshit called “Jail Guitar Doors.” Confession: I do not like “Clash City Rockers.” Joe’s just singing along with the chords, and it goes on for way too long. “Complete Control” is absolutely fucking amazing, though. Easily the biggest songwriting triumph of The Clash’s early years, with an extended coda that kicks all the asses. “I Fought The Law,” a Bobby Fuller cover which proved yet again that The Clash’s tenuous connection to punk was more about reviving the original rebellious spirit of oldies rock n’ roll than anything else, also finds the band in top form. That leaves a shittier version of “White Riot” and a drag-ass reggae song called “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” 3 feeling like rather unnecessary inclusions, and a backasswards track order disrupting the more-or-less perfect flow of the original album. It’s beyond me why they couldn’t just have reissued the original album with “I Fought The Law” and “Complete Control” as bonus tracks, but I guess CBS had shit for brains at the time.

“Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad” was the one thing about Give ‘Em Enough Rope which unequivocally worked. Clearly, The Clash’s hearts were not totally into the whole “punk rock the fuck out at all times thing” anymore, but they also weren’t yet skilled enough or brave enough yet to move their overall sound forward. But what made “Julie” work so well (and in general, what ended up making The Clash seem like such a dynamic, vital band at their peak) was that it recognizes that the primary strength of rock ‘n roll was that it was a hybrid genre. If someone hadn’t thought to mix white country-western with black R&B, such a culturally revolutionary style would never have been discovered. Together, those influences became far more powerful than they could ever become on their own. London Calling (1979, A) is The Clash’s best album because it takes this lesson and applies it to all sort of disparate genres and influences – jazz, blues, swing, ska, reggae, piano pop, R&B, soul, folk, new wave, country response songs, world music and a whole literal shit-ton of other styles that all blend seamlessly together in one flavorful cherrypicked stew, stamped with the singular songwriting talents of Strummer, Jones, and Simonon. But the band’s playing has also grown way beyond typical bash n’ bop – the rhythm section in particular keeps this collection of globe-hopping tracks from turning into a mishmash, lending them a consistently strong and versatile backbeat (courtesy of drummer Topper Headon, who joined the group after the debut) that never lets up, and ensures that the band’s grasp more than exceeds its reach.

Although the excellent first track helpfully informs us that “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” The Clash could not have been more transparent about their attempt to make their own White Album if they tried. Their previous attempts to update the foundering spirit of rock music while keeping one foot in the past had mixed results, but for the first time this band sounds totally unconstrained by genre concerns or purity considerations, as if they are finally free to be exactly who they are. Throwbacks like “Brand New Cadillac” and “Jimmy Jazz” now sit entirely comfortably alongside more newfangled dub-style material “Koka Kola” and “Rudie Can’t Fail,” the band somehow effortlessly maintaining their sense of sonic identity through all of these left-field departures and bizarre experiments (what the hell genre is “The Right Profile” supposed to be?). The guitar tones are brighter and more vibrant-sounding than ever before, and the production makes room for all-new sounds from horns, strings, different keyboards, harmonicas, additional percussion, and absurdly melodic vocal hooks.4 “Train In Vain” just might be the greatest closing track of all time, and finally brought the band some regular radio rotation in the United States. For the first time, it seemed, The Clash were about to start living up to the hype, as if their proclamation of exclusivity viz. “mattering” was something they took to heart, and they now had the chops, the adventurousness, and the songwriting acumen to back up that claim.

The Clash were on a roll, and the following year saw the release of the rarities collection Black Market Clash, later expanded into Super Black Market Clash (1993, B-). Early punk singles like “1977” and “Capital Radio Two” show just how far this band has come since their debut, while “City Of The Dead” and “Gates Of The West” show off their evolution from scrappy London pub crawlers to worldly pop geniuses. The remainder of the set is filled out with cover songs (including “Pressure Drop”, an early example of the band’s ability to take someone else’s song and make it theirs entirely5) and overlong, meandering dubs of some of the band’s best songs (including “Bankrobber” and “This Is Radio Clash”, a pair of interesting singles that never appeared on any of their albums). This collection works best as an extra course for established fans – anyone not already indoctrinated is advised to look elsewhere, until you are.

Don’t sleep on Sandinista! (1980, A-). I know it’s easy to look at the massive 36-song tracklist and write off the whole triple album as a bunch of indulgent, unfocused, and utterly pretentious overkill, but give these songs an honest chance, on an individual basis, and attempt to evaluate them fairly. I think you will find that, outside of the remixes, dub tracks, and a few other purposefully-ridiculous moments of wonky bollocks, this set is filled with an astonishing number of fantastic, creative, and almost unthinkably varied and multifaceted songs. London Calling was the tip of an iceberg. This is the Clash album I turn to when I really want to hear just how incredibly diverse and consistently excellent this band could be. The strangely-affecting children’s choir on “Hitsville U.K.,” the dead-ass funky grooves of “The Call Up” and “The Magnificent Seven,” the understated, eerie retro rock of “Charlie Don’t Surf”, the joyously uplifting gospel of “The Sound Of Sinners” and the ecstatic Caribbean island steel drum-rhythm of “Washington Bullets” – this band proves to be awesome at all of them. Swear to god, there are several songs on here that make me say, “Is this even The Clash? I mean, are any of the band members even playing on this one?” There guys were connoisseurs, first and foremost, and they’re on a mission to break down all the barriers of the eleventy-thousand different genres of music they enjoy. If you’re a devoted fan, The Clash set out to give you your money’s worth, and you get all that from them and then some. Of course there are bad songs. That’s what happens when a band tries to do everything. Are they really so intrusive that they ruin the overall experience of a band at the height of their powers doing what they did best? Your mileage on this album will depend on your answer to that question.

Having gone off the deep end, the only real place for The Clash to go next was straight mainstream – although they still only managed that in their typical self-immolating Clash-esque fashion. Combat Rock (1982, B+) attempts to bridge some untenable middle ground between the accessibility and immediacy of London Calling and the indulgence and lack of restraint of Sandinista! with the result being yet another hot mess, that happens to contain a few of their best-ever songs. “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and “Rock The Casbah” are two of the most overplayed hits of the early 80s, though it should be noted that they resemble almost nothing else from the period6. One is the most basic, anonymous, and gloriously stupid hard rock track ever made, the other is a bar-room piano dance/funk song that fantasizes about Western music building a pathway to Middle East peace. But the real gem here is “Straight To Hell,” nearly six full minutes of droning synths/strings and tribal percussion over poetic lyrics describing the plight of all manner of displaced peoples. We’re about as far from “Clash City Rockers” as it gets with this track, which Topper Headon described as “Bossa nova.” Other than that, The Clash are once again all over the map, “Know Your Rights” being a dumb, single-chord vamp that never becomes endearing, “Car Jamming” playing some stoned version of classic greaser soul, “Overpowered By Funk” playing like The Clash parodying their own genre-jumping tendencies. And that’s just the NORMAL stuff. The songs toward the back stretch of the album are where things really start to get weird, and a little sad. The band no longer seems interested in vocal melody, to the point where spoken word vocals start to become a legitimate crutch, even bringing in the likes of Allen Ginsberg on “Ghetto Defendant.” I admire the balls it took to make this album, and the band can still play together as a unit as well as anybody, but I feel like they gave up on the structure of their songs around this point, in favor of being as inventive as possible.

Cut The Crap (1985, F) is a joke, right? It has to be a joke. Even without Mick Jones, there’s just no way in hell two people as fundamentally talented as Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon saw this shit as being in any way acceptable. Not that you need a modicum of taste to recognize this material as totally unsalvageable – even if the songs themselves weren’t embarrassingly poorly-conceived and stunningly badly-written, the production7 helpfully stabs the ears with layers upon layers of loud, ugly synths, loud, stupid gang vocals, and loud-yet-strangely-muffled drum machines. Every spare moment of this album absolutely dares the listener to turn it off, with one horrifically unlistenable decision after another. I know avant-garde groups who would kill to make something this difficult and confrontational and impossible to endure. I have no idea how this happened. I can only guess they put this out as some act of bitterness, like they’re purposely trying to shit all over The Clash’s legacy for excellence, to poison the brand forever, to burn everything they did to the ground and make sure nobody ever mistakes The Clash for “good music” ever again. That’s how far out of its way this album goes to tarnish the once-sterling reputation of this legendary group. There’s just no excuse for this shit. In its own way, it’s kind of impressive this album even exists. It’s so impossible to actually listen to, you’d think every copy would be sitting in the same landfill as the Atari 2600 E.T. game. In the critical consciousness, that is basically where it resides.

The Clash officially broke up in 1986, its members going on to eventually form bands such as Big Audio Dynamite, Havana 3am, and Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros. Strummer appeared in films by directors such as Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch before passing away in 2002 at the age of 50, just months before his old band was to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Jones and Simonon have collaborated with a number of different groups (including both with the Gorillaz). Topper Headon left music altogether, to get clean and drive a taxicab. The Clash created a new band archetype, in the form of a sort of bohemian revivalist aesthetic, and yet there’s really never been anything like them, before or since. Everything they did was a statement, and for better or worse, they always meant it.