He’s in love with rock ‘n’ roll whoa
To start with, the Clash loved music. Joe Strummer had been in a roots-revival band called the 101’ers, slinging rockabilly hash for the Teddy Boys, when he saw the Sex Pistols for the first time and they blew his head off. So he left the 101’ers and went over to a squat at 22 Davis Road in Shepherd’s Bush. There, lurking in the back bedroom, were Mick Jones and Paul Simonon and Keith Levene, who had seen him onstage and sneered at him in the dole office. They didn’t say much, just grabbed their guitars and went to work.
None of them were musos, and none of them wanted to be. Yeah, there’s a lot of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in the drum shuffle that opens “Janie Jones”, which opens The Clash: boom chi-chi boom-boom chi-chi boom, coulda been straight from “Twenty Flight Rock” a million years ago. And yeah, maybe the short stabs of guitar that introduce Joe’s ugly/beautiful voice were straight lifts from the Steve Jones songbook. You can hear the Ramones if you listen really closely. But when you get to the heart of the song, it’s a new propulsive crashing sort of thing, with elements of ’60s garage-rock (that guitar drone that floats on one side), Motown (Simonon’s no James Jamerson, but he knew who to steal from), and a bunch of other things. And it’s fairly significant that the first line is “He’s in love with rock ‘n’ roll whoa”.
The Clash got into music not because they wanted the publicity, or wanted to be down with the scene, or because they wanted to get laid. They did it because they had no choice. They loved rock and roll too much not to try and save its life.
Big business it don’t like you
The Clash were the first English punk band to release an album on a major label. They were called sell-outs, they were called “the punk Bay City Rollers”, they were called a lot of things. But when the Clash signed with CBS, everyone else got stars in their eyes, and when The Clash dropped in April of 1977, everyone suddenly knew that punk rock was real.
They bashed the thing out in three weekends’ worth of sessions and it sounded that way and they wanted it that way and they released it that way and it went to #12 in Britain. Our wimpy version of CBS here in the States refused to release the album because of that sound, so we had to make do with imports. The Clash became the biggest-selling import album in history.
I’m not who I want to be
Why did the troubles of funny-accented strangely attired people from another country appeal so much to young people over here and all over the world? One popular theory has it that the Clash were the first vulnerable punks. The Ramones hid behind their hair and their irony; the Pistols were completely untouchable in many many ways; but the major lyrical theme of The Clash is pretty much “What the hell am I doing here and who am I anyway?” Those two timeless questions are at the heart of all great rock and roll; we heard its call loud and clear. (Interesting bit of trivia: Joe and Mick both picked Kermit as their favorite Muppet. Not Animal, not Crazy Harry, but Kermit.)
The Clash understood what it was like to have asshole parents (“What’s My Name?”), messed-up unreliable friends (“Deny”), obstacles to overcome (“Cheat”). There’s never been a better description of desperate weekend fun than “Monday’s comin’ like a jail on wheels” from “48 Hours”, and there’s never been a better rewrite of “Summertime Blues” than Mick Jones’ “Career Opportunities”. This was universal music and it was for everybody.
Never mind the Stars and Stripes
Simon Warner’s “So bored with the USA?: reflections on a transatlantic divide” claimed punk rock — and the Clash — purely for England. This argument is partially based on the lyrics to “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” The Clash were undeniably an English band, and without all the anarchy in that U.K., no punk happens over here either. No one really wanted to follow the Ramones down their path, and we fell all over ourselves inventing NEW WAVE and denying that there was any kind of “movement”. Television? Blondie? Talking Heads? They were just all nice white people making cool-sounding music. (Well, okay, we did have the Voidoids and what was left of Iggy Pop. Still, though.)
The Clash attacked English problems with a very English accent. It bears pointing out that the Clash weren’t entirely focused on ending American cultural hegemony; “London’s burning with boredom now” is also the chorus of a song on this album, and “White Riot” and “Career Opportunities” and “48 Hours” and “Remote Control” are all pretty savage indictments of not-so-Great Britain. But something about this most British of records struck a few chords on this side of the pond. Hell, we were all bored with the U.S.A. too.
Black man got a lot of problems
By 1976, music had reached its most segregated state ever. It wasn’t like no one was listening across the color lines, but there was a general acceptance that white music was white music and black music was black music and then there was Santana and that was the way it was. This is not to say that whites were not stealing and appropriating black musical forms — hell, why change the most basic underpinnings of the American music industry? No, it was more like self-segregation, on both sides of the fence, a bunker mentality with a general cease-fire. And, in the post-integration era, this was the same approach we used with respect to social problems: white flight, baby! Hell, even George Clinton was celebrating the idea of the chocolate city and all her vanilla suburbs.
But in England they were facing different challenges. Over there, poor people of all colors were still all squashed in together, and were very influenced by each other, even if they didn’t really get along very well most of the time. Reggae, with its undeniably funky essence and relentless social criticism, was heroic music for early punk rockers. This is signified by the canny cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and in the angular Jamaican syncopation of the less obviously influenced tracks. Lester Bangs called the Clash’s use of reggae “the lost chord, the missing link between black music and white noise”. Everybody else just danced.
If someone locks me out I kick my way back in
The Clash often get characterized as the Apollonian “constructive” impulse to contrast with the more Dionysian “destructive” principle of the Pistols, but it’s not quite that easy. This first album is a pissed-off album. There’s anger here that was threatening and scary back in a 1977 where the Eagles told us to “take it easy” and even Curtis Mayfield was doing disco. “If I get aggression / I give it to ’em two times back” is more Malcolm X than Dr. King; the creepy “Are you sleeping tight?” that erupts during “What’s My Name?” is hardly a call for hand-holding and coalition-building.
The trick was to be pissed-off in the right way. The pronouncement that “Anger can be power / you know that you can use it” was off in the future, but the sentiment was lurking. And the music fit the lyrics perfectly. There were guitar heroics, but hardly any solos from Mick, whose tasteful riffs are so important to these songs that it’s almost impossible not to get hypnotized by them. But let’s not fool ourselves here — Mick Jones could pull a metal solo out of his pants any time he wanted to: live, he used to wail on “Police and Thieves” like there was no tomorrow. And there were big fat bass sounds and tough drum sounds and they locked together like a safety net. But put it all together and it just sounded mad and bad and mean and, impossibly, lovely.
Back in the garage with my bullshit detector
Because that’s what we really wanted: the ability to see this obstacle-course world for what it was, and the strength to negotiate it without getting mowed down in the process. We wanted to understand the game, and then not play it; we wanted to figure out who exactly we should be flipping off, and then flip them off with both hands and a punk sneer so they knew we fucking meant it; we wanted to be able to escape the gerbil’s wheel of modern life.
And we wanted a soundtrack for our struggle.
And we got it.