“We will teach our twisted speech /
to the young believers /
We will teach our blue-eyed men /
to be young believers”
Joe Strummer looks dazed. Stepping up to the microphone, semi-sneer loaded with crooked teeth, sweat beading sinisterly on a freshly shorn scalp, he stares blankly into the camera, his lips parted in an almost audible sigh. The Clash have launched into their fourth and final song for this appearance, “The Clampdown”, and after the frenetic opening of descending notes and thrashed out chords, Strummer staggers, about to sing. Dressed in what looks like hand-me-downs from a concentration camp, he peers directly into the lens and blurts out the infamous first line:
“Taking off his turban they said, “Is this man a Jew?”
His bandmates look ready to fight. Paul Simonon, decked out in bad ass black leather, is still reeling, his cocksure demeanor indicating that his solo spot, the reggae influenced “Guns of Brixton”, was perceived as a powerhouse—at least in his mind. To Strummer’s right is Mick Jones, resplendent in a purple zoot suit, guitar dangling low on his lanky frame, matching the watch bob and chain accenting the costume. Behind them, lost among a massive drum kit, a diminutive Topper Headon keeps up a steady, striving beat. It’s a must for this number, and he meets the mandate coolly and calmly.
The Clash—Guns of Brixton
For American fans hungry to see this “only band that matters” in the flesh, Fridays seems like an odd broadcast choice. This bastard cousin of Saturday Night Live, ABC’s attempt to bring hip, irreverent comedy to the first evening of the weekend, was a second class avenue, especially for a group that was carrying the continuing torch for the readily dying punk movement. By the time of their ‘80 appearance, the substance had slid out of the once potent US / UK scene, DIY determination falling on mostly deaf ears outside a considered college / cosmopolitan crowd. Just a scant two years before, the Sex Pistols had imploded while on tour in America, an ill-prepared nation pummeling them with beer bottles and jeers.
Yet thanks to the popularity of “Train in Vain”, the unlisted mystery track off the band’s third album, London Calling, The Clash was getting radio attention. The number, a catchy little throwaway originally intended as a flexidisc premium for NME, marked a definitive moment for the band. No longer were they listed as noise producing pricks more concerned with image and anger than actually making music. A nostalgic slice of retro-pop, percolating along across a shuffling beat and an echoing guitar / keyboard combination, the “moon / June” lyrics and slightly ‘50s feel to the structure argued for simplicity that was effortless, not affected. Even better, the single sounded like the first selection on what would end up being a future double album of “greatest” hits for the boys.
The Clash—Train in Vain
Who would have known that, just as they were being celebrated as heirs to the thrown of rock ‘n’ roll, The Clash were already peaking. Halfway through what would end up being a 10 year journey as a band, London Calling would represent the third of only five albums that they would create together as a group. There would be a sixth, the sloppy and unimportant Cut the Crap, but without input from Jones and Headon it is today seen as merely half-Clash. Unlike other groups, who air their decidedly dirty laundry in perplexing public places for the rest of the world to witness, The Clash maintained an outward air of dignity that, unfortunately, seemed to forever brand them. Instead of being allowed the occasional flaw or foible, these “jail guitar door” gods were perceived as perfect—at least when it came to making meaningful music.
It wouldn’t be long before the bloom was gone from that sullen English rose. The path toward the groups implosion, a road paved with great intentions, amazing musicianship, a love of the planet’s sonic diversity, and a never-ending appetite for indirect destruction of all they created became the foundation for every song they every sang, every experimental track they ever recorded. It’s a rise and fall that can be traced both aurally and chronologically with the recent release from Legacy (Sony / BMG) of The Clash—The Singles. Using a long standing CD gimmick of recreating—in a substantially smaller aluminum disc form—every 7” 45 released by an artist (along with the inclusion of some bonus tracks taken from the accompanying 12” singles), we wind up with the distorted din equivalent of a nuclear bomb. With “White Riot” in 1977, the initial shout was deafening. By the time of “This is England” in 1986, the band had moved so far from their starting point that the music became more languid and lazy, losing some of its potency in the process.
But it was all bravery and bullocks in the beginning. Of the artists to come out of the big bang of 1975-76, The Clash appeared as the perfect combination of all the genre’s best features. Melodic like The Buzzcocks and The Damned, provocative like The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers, they gave off an aura of political, philosophical, and personal defiance in a time when conformity was crucial to making a name in music. Appearing just as Album Oriented Rock (or AOR) radio and playlist consultants were gaining a foothold with programmers industry-wide, punk pronounced the artform dead—or better yet, destroyed—and proceeded to rebuild it from the passion up. Some of said enthusiasm was a tad misguided (only prisoners and porn stars should be allowed to spit on people as a form of appreciation), but the need to redefine the soul of the angst-ridden teen trumped all stumbles.
It was this initial “punk” phase that formed the grounds for The Clash’s legitimate legacy. “Riot” was followed by a slew of sensational singles, each one arguing for the band as the rock reporters for a nation asleep. “Capital Radio One” took on the airwaves, defending pirate stations while arguing that the BBC was “in tune with nothing”. “Remote Control”, on the other hand, aimed at such lofty targets as the authoritarian state of Britain circa the mid-‘70s. It’s astonishing, the level of insight and confrontation in the group’s often garbled words (Strummer and Jones are not known for their diction). “Remote”‘s level of alienation and dissidence is matched only by its follow-up’s outright rejection of the overall state of musical affairs.
Two seminal tracks from the era—“Complete Control” and “London’s Burning” (with boredom, no less)—positioned the group as observer’s of England’s ennui. As Strummer sings over the final flourish of “Complete”‘s masterful three minutes “This is Joe Public speaking / I’m controlled in the body, controlled in the mind.” Oddly enough, just as the band’s agenda seemed to be solidifying, the next phase of their career was coming into view. One of the best elements of the Singles set is getting to hear the magnificent B-sides that the band was recording at the time. On the first few singles, the occasional startling track was matched by an impressive live take or an almost inaudible interview. Instead, with “City of the Dead” on the back of “Complete”, the first hints of pure pop appeal began appearing.
The Clash—(White Man) in the Hammersmith Palais
Mind you, the song is still overloaded with lines like “But somedays we hide inside / all courage gone and paralyzed”, but amidst all the torment, the backing provides a sax driven accompaniment that suggests a lighter, more lively approach. Even after the crash bang opera of “Clash City Rockers”, a more melodious, meticulous sound was obviously evolving. This pop phase announced the end of punk’s powerful hold on the group, instead suggesting that success and reputation were finally liberating The Clash from a primal power chord paradigm. The most famous example of this, of course, is “(White Man) in the Hammersmith Palais”. Written by Strummer as a response to spending all night at a reggae rave-up, the choice to maintain the Jamaican vibe via a standard ska-like groove was superlative.
It also began the separation of the band as instrumentalists and individual members. Up until this time, The Clash were viewed as a combination of their separate strengths: Strummer’s politicizing, Jones way with a tune, and Simonon’s solid bass work. But “White Man” took all their parts and purposely pushed them apart. Suddenly, Strummer was seen as a convincing vocalist, selling the sentiment of a song’s narrative with power and conviction. Jones wasn’t just around to add his signature guitar hooks and varied vocal backings. He, too, could produce a potent piece of prostylitizing (as in the single’s brilliant b-side, “The Prisoner”). But it was Simonon who suddenly came into his own, exploring the multiple influences surrounding the band (soul, reggae, dub, r&b); he ended up importing many of the styles to his ever-growing confidence as the band’s bottom and anchor.
The Clash—Tommy Gun
With the release of their debut album, The Clash, the group gave the rest of punk its primer, sacked original drummer Terry Chimes, and headed off to America with new member Topper Headon to create a different kind of tension. While many see their flawed follow up, 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope as a strange amalgamation of strategizing and selling out, the singles culled from the session remain some of the band’s most inspired. “Tommy Gun”, with Headon’s percussive impression of the title weapon, finds everyone playing at triumphant tour de force levels. Filtered through producer Sandy Pearlman’s rock dinosaur designs, it is an overpowering piece of bad boy Sturm und Drang. Strummer, even more marbled mouthed than usual, shouts out the lyric like a condemned man heading to the gallows, while Jones and Simonon trade off amazing musical cues. Backed by the cool school throwback “1-2 Crush on You”, it seemed like the band was looking to move forward—or at least more toward the middle of the road.
“English Civil War” did nothing to dispel that idea, especially with its singsong verses reinterpreting the old folksong “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. But it was a B-side, again, that sold the shape of things to come. A cover of Toots and the Maytal’s “Pressure Drop” predated England’s soon to be flourishing love affair with the two-tone movement, and solidified the stance the group had taken with “White Man”. Though they didn’t know it at the time, fans who followed The Clash would soon learn how important reggae was to their favorite sods. One of The Singles most interesting additions is a multi-page booklet featuring essays from those influenced by the band. They, too, point to The Clash as awakening an appreciation for black and African music that wasn’t considered cool at the time by many in the punk rock regime. Still, among the next six releases, Strummer and Jones would explore this realm three more times. The first came with “Armagideon Time”, the flip side from the title track to their third album—London Calling. While the single itself was a monster, magnifying everything The Clash stood for in a breathless, sinister statement, it was the B that really mattered.
The Clash—London Calling
Like the opening salvo in a war no one knew was declared, London Calling freed The Clash from the shackles of their original music’s categorical chaos. They no longer wanted to change the world—they had gone ahead and influenced it, and that appeared to be good enough. Now it was time to play. Buried inside a double album overflowing with delights (if there is one downside to the singles-only approach of the box set, definitive album tracks from the group’s history like “Safe European Home”, “Spanish Bombs”, and “Car Jamming” are purposefully left out) was the danceable psychological kitchen sink storyline of “Lost in the Supermarket”, the jackboot bombast of “The Clampdown” (and its piano driven companion piece, “The Card Cheat”) and that aforementioned one-off ditty that became a significant hit. To many in the critical community, The Clash were becoming a powerful songwriting force, Strummer and Jones earning comparisons to another groundbreaking duo who did most of their damage over a decade before: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Yet there were signs that some of this was going to their head.
Dub, with its endless studio invention and protracted remixes of almost every facet of a song, was coming into its own in Britain, fueled by the continuing affinity for ska and reggae. The Clash jumped in like the knowing novices they were, turning both “Armagideon Time” and the solo single, “Bankrobber”, into extended tone poems overloaded with echo and reverb. Where once the group took its time to deliver a back up as good—or occasionally, better—than it’s A-side, this shift signaled the arrival of the next stage in the Clash’s commercial conundrum. No longer content to push the boundaries of their own abilities, the band embraced radical politics, closed themselves off from most of the mainstream, and turned themselves into aggressive agent provocateurs. Their goal? Spin the entire genre on its ear, erasing everything that came before with a newfound appreciation of up and coming musical movements.
While their fourth album, Sandinista, simmered in endless recording sessions, a first single emerged, and it promised exceptionally great things. An able anti-war rant, “The Call Up” acts as protracted propaganda, except this time, the party line is positioned on the side of peace. Employing a brand new aural structure in their songs—loose, jam-influenced backing tracks, lots of fuzzy, spatial openness and more of that dub-mandated echo—the group appeared detached, lost in their own world of roots, rock, and revolution. Even the song that supported the release—another sonic screed entitled “Stop the World”—made its no-nukes case in a calm, almost casual manner. Instead of arguing pro or con, Strummer merely sums up a life lived in the shadow of a mushroom cloud, a place where even money no longer matters (“The bank notes of Europe/ The Emperors and Kings/ Curl in the Autumn as the burning of leaves / and I’ve cleaned my black guitar…”).
The Clash—The Call Up
Spread out over three discs and encompassing almost every style known to modern music, Sandinista was a sprawling surprise, a dense, intricate distillation of influences and indecision that stands today as either a failed masterpiece or a brilliant bungle. Beginning with the ragged rap of “The Magnificent Seven” (more slam than street poetry, one imagines) and ending with another remix, this album, named for a sect of Central American revolutionaries, viewed the entire catalog of sound as a starting point for an “anything goes” overview. There’s jazz here, gospel too. A bit of Motown (the terrific take on Indie labels by Jones entitled “Hitsville UK”) and some silly didactic disco, just to name check the already dying enemy. The Singles set shows off the cornucopia of ideas The Clash immersed themselves in by providing the endless string of edits, versions, and remixes that followed each release.
The band returned to its solid rock roots with a powerful presentation of Eddie Grant’s plea “Police on My Back”. No longer floating inside a slow island jam, the Clash reclaimed their position as potent guitar giants with this amazing three minutes of mayhem. Oddly enough, the b-side was the only other standard pop song from the record, Jones’ joking take on homicide entitled “Somebody Got Murdered”. But from then on, it was all beats, boogie, and more of Simonon’s amazing bass. Indeed, the real revelation culled from the Singles set is what an amazing musician this seemingly snotty sideman really was. He carried the rap influenced tracks—“The Magnificent Seven” and “Lightning Strikes (Not Once, But Twice)”—while solidifying yet another reggae rollout, “One More Time”. All throughout the Clash’s history, Simonon strove to break free of Strummer and Jones’ substantial shadow. Though its decades later, this box set brings his amazing ability directly to the fore for fans and scholars to hear and enjoy.
Sandinista stumbled, seen as self indulgent, confrontational and unfocused. After the one-off single “This is Radio Clash” failed to become the anthem for a whole new rock / rap movement (the boys were about 15 years to early with that one), it seemed that the band no longer wanted to be dictators for their fellow musicians. Instead, they dove even deeper into their own insular ideas, abandoning outright almost everything that helped establish their credentials in the first place. Though its title, Combat Rock, suggested a group ready to take back the turf they’d lost to a bunch of bratty upstarts and coattail trailers, the reality was something far stranger than anything previously offered on that overlong, three album albatross. Presenting the band in their last—and least effective—persona, The Clash became poets with this wildly successful record. If their art was mistaken for artifice by individuals uneducated in such amazing musical details, the hodge podge approach would grow even more jumbled and fragmented upon further reflection.
The Clash—This is Radio Clash
Again, the first single was a ruse. “Know Your Rights” was nearly four minutes of straight anger and confrontation, a reference to all the past protests the band believed it previously addressed, all in a single, simple song. Similarly, Jones would add his own rockabilly stomp with the blues based chord progression of the sensationally unsophisticated “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Though each contained B-sides that sounded more like doodling than legitimate tracks, they also argued for a White Album-like approach to the latest release; a stripping down and a redefining of objectives and opinions. Of course, “Rock the Casbah” ingored all that. Few outside of true fans recognize that this was mostly Headon’s doing; he came up with the piano signatures, most of the melody, and a few of the words. His bandmates took the tune, punctuated it with as much commercial chutzpah as they could manage, and with the help of a manic music video in heavy rotation on something called MTV, The Clash were finally superstars.
Unfortunately, they really didn’t care. Headon, lost in heroin, was fired soon after, and Jones was presented his walking papers when (supposedly) he wouldn’t go along with Strummer’s continuing fascination with free form grooves and urban dance music. Though “Straight to Hell” was one of the band’s best tracks ever, a lyrical ballad with balls, so to speak, it wasn’t enough to keep the band intact. As a splintered collective marched into the studio to record Cut the Crap (and its—you guessed it—reggae-inspired single, “This Is England”) what had begun as a white hot ball of fire just 10 years before had dissipated like the last remaining shards of fallout over a music scene that, again, didn’t care about The Clash, or what happened to them.
The Clash—Rock the Casbah
Yet it’s interesting to note that where most bands leave behind short stories as songs, momentary blasts of contemporaneous musical import typically matching the era in which they were presented, the Clash created novels. Their albums were narratives on the nature of things: of England, of rock, of politics and power. And in a sense, each single signified a chapter, a portion of the everpresent big picture which required an entire long player to fully appreciate. This is not to say that The Clash couldn’t compete in the cutthroat cauldron of commercial music, but rather, the success of their singles was marked by not only how popular they were, but how important they were to the band’s overall stance. The Clash was not a band that wore its efforts like obvious badges of honor. Instead, each track took a part of the players and illustrated their combined point. If anything, the 45s created by the group were trophies for others to mount and enjoy, pictures painted on vinyl grooves with instrumental brushes.
This is why The Clash—The Singles feels simultaneously whole and utterly empty. It’s a retrospective as mandated by the music business, a collective of amazing songs selected and sold as part of a system the group utterly despised. Though the Sex Pistols always positioned themselves as the industry bashing band boys who wanted to take the piss out of monopolizing music companies, Malcolm McLaren’s jaded jester routine made it all seem like a petty sham. No, the true artists as antagonists were The Clash. Only problem was, they weren’t content with just stifling the suits. No, they were also looking directly at their audience, challenging them to accept their various personas—punk, pop, provocateur and poet—and feel the ferocious noise.
Towards the end of that final number on Fridays, a frazzled Strummer closes his eyes, opens his mouth, and sputters some of the song’s more damning lyrics: “You grow up and you calm down” he shouts, “you’re working for the Clampdown”. Oddly enough, while some can argue that they eventually did work for the Clampdown, he and his bandmates never truly acquiesced. If they now look positively tame, tempered, and trivialized by a “classic video” approach to their mythos, there was a time when the tag “the only band that matters” had real meaning. Not just from a significance standpoint, but from a stance of integrity, as well. Looking over the landscape of rock ‘n’ roll today, The Clash appear to be the last band that did really matter.