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Counterbalance No. 56: 'The Clash'

This week, Counterbalance moves the town to the Clash City Rockers, so if you need a little jump of electrical shockers, this punk debut is the 56th most acclaimed album of all time.

The Clash

The Clash

US Release: 1979-07-26
UK Release: 1977-04-08
Label: Epic

Klinger: Now here's an odd one for the Great List, Mendelsohn. The Clash's debut album was released in the UK in 1977, but CBS decided that it could prove too harsh for the delicate sensibilities of the US audience. So it wasn't released in the United States until 1979, after the group had put out their second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope. But here's the really weird part -- the album that we Yanks got is vastly superior to the UK version. Relatively fillerish tracks like "Protex Blue" and "Deny" were replaced with singles that had been released around the same time as the LP. So when the album finally hit our shores, we got classics like "Clash City Rockers” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" (note for note, quite possibly their finest moment). For once a big dumb record label made an actual good decision, and we're the better for it.

It turns out, that may have been a necessary move in 1979. By then, that kind of straight-ahead punk already seemed passé. The Sex Pistols had split up and post-punk was already on the scene. The US record industry was already figuring out how to package these groups under the more palatable New Wave brand instead of the dried spit-encrusted punk label. So a touch more reggae here, a well-chosen cover of "I Fought the Law" there, and voila -- a record that's in keeping with the times. Even "Clash City Rockers" has a piano on it. But it's been a while since we've talked about the punk rock music, Mendelsohn, and I'm curious as to how this somewhat more jaggedy version of the Clash hits you.

Mendelsohn: I'm not a huge fan of punk. This album's saving graces come down to reggae inflections and the fact the Clash actually knew how to write a good song, although the chorus to "I'm So Bored With the USA" is unforgivably cliché. That has nothing to do with the subject matter (we are a boring lot), but more about the way they express said sentiment.

I like the later version of the Clash, the one with the expanded musical palette, and in listening to this album it’s easy to see how they would eventually get from Point A to Point B. But I still have a lot of unanswered questions in regards to how this album made it onto the list, especially considering the dual versions, which, as you have admitted, vary in quality. How do we know which Clash album we are supposed to be listening to? Was it the US version of the album that made the list, or was it the UK version? And if we were British, could we, in good conscience, champion an album that we knew was inferior to a later version of the album that came out two years after and an ocean away? If you feel like teasing out answers to those queries, I'd love to hear it, but we can just gloss over them and move straight to the one question that hasn't stopped burning in the back of my brain since I noticed the placement of this album. Would The Clash be on the Great List, in the Top 100, if the Clash had never released London Calling?

Klinger: OK, as for the UK/US discrepancy, I'm going to say it's academic. The UK critics immediately got on board the Clashwagon, and the album sold well enough as an import in the US that critics here had to recognize the discrepancy. I suspect they were really reviewing the amorphous blob that was the group’s 1977-78 output.

As to your last question: I think so. To me, and I sense that this applies to the rock criterati in general, the Clash has always served as the yin to the Sex Pistols' yang, so it’s hard to give a complete picture of ’77 punk without talking about The Clash. Arguably, that alone could ensure its place here. While the Pistols seemed engineered to burst into flames upon contact, the Clash represented a more sustainable model. They more readily acknowledged their roots -- even early on -- and even their political stances came across as far less nihilistic (say what you will about hurling bricks, at least it's an ethos). In fact, "I'm So Bored With the USA" was originally a Mick Jones boy/girl song called "I'm So Bored with You" -- the change came at the behest of manager Bernie Rhodes, who pushed them to be “socially relevant” as a way to gain notoriety and stick it to the man.

Because of all this, there was a great wringing of the hands as to whether the Clash were really punks at all. After all, Joe Strummer was a middle-class kid, which is apparently a big deal in England (he got guff for allegedly putting on his “street accent”). Plus the Clash signed to multinational conglomerate CBS, which served as the opening salvo in the eternal (and eternally tiresome) argument among punks over what it means to be a "sell-out". To this day, the Pistols' John Lydon resents the Clash because of their student-ish politics and... well, frankly I tend to tune Lydon out after a while, but needless to say he's still pretty worked up about stuff.

Mendelsohn: Whenever I think about the concept of "selling out", I always think about a song off of Tool's 1996 masterpiece Aenima (number 811 on the Great List -- can't wait!) called "Hooker With a Penis", in which lead singer Maynard James Keenan addresses a fan who accuses the band of selling out. The gist of it goes something along the lines of, yes, we sold out but we are all sell-outs, and while we may have sold our souls to make this record, you still bought one, and if that makes us sell-outs, what does that make you?

In one way or another we are all sell-outs and the folks who are first to point their fingers are usually the guiltiest. And all that makes me wonder what Mr. Lydon got in return for his soul? Maybe he's just upset he didn't ask for something bigger.

I don't know what else to say about this record. Being that it is by the Clash, I suppose it deserves to be here, but I still can't shake the feeling that while it's a pretty good slice of punk, it just doesn't stand out enough to merit a Top 100 slot if London Calling hadn't followed shortly after. The Sex Pistols, while serviceable musicians at best, had the flash to rise above the rest of the pack, but the Clash's self-titled debut just doesn't measure up in that department. Now, would I rather listen to The Clash over Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols? Of course. Are the Clash the better band? Most definitely. Does John Lydon have a good reason to be jealous? Without a doubt. Do you have any rhetorical questions you would like to ask and then answer? I'm sure you do.

Klinger: No, I'm good. But I think that even here in this embryonic form, the Clash reveal themselves to be a cut above. They demonstrate a keen sense of melody, even on songs less-heralded songs like "Remote Control" and "What's My Name". There's also an indication that the punky reggae party wasn't destined to be the extent of their sound; US cast-off “Protex Blue” subtly hints at the rockabilly sounds that would soon come into full fruition.

And as I've been listening lately, I've been struck by how Mick Jones and Joe Strummer's guitars are working off each other. They've taken care to weave their parts together so that there's some surprisingly dynamic rhythmic interplay -- it actually reminds me quite a bit of the tangles that the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood get themselves into on Some Girls. And while I'm at it, Paul Simonon may have made a big show of painting the notes on the neck of his bass as a way of flaunting his DIY ethic, but I'll be darned if he doesn't know exactly where to place those notes within the songs. He says that growing up within the West Indian community in London instilled a sense for reggae in him, and it shows. He's not always the most inventive player, but his timing is pretty solid, a point proven later when Topper Headon replaced Terry Chimes on drums.

The Clash may have gotten razzed by the dogmatists for wanting to be rock stars, but as we discussed with London Calling, a little bit of professionalism goes a long way. I think that was a major factor for late-1970s rock critics eager to find common ground with this new music. So here's a non-rhetorical question for you, Mendelsohn: Do you think that the Clash's willingness to link themselves to tradition (they did cover the Bobby Fuller Four, for crying out loud) will continue to seal the deal insofar as their critical standing? Or will those signifiers become less meaningful as the critical community itself moves away from its early rockin’ roots?

Mendelsohn: Yes, the Clash's willingness to recognize and celebrate their roots will always put them ahead of a band like the Sex Pistols. Even as those signifiers fade slowly from memory, the Clash will still have the upper hand. Having built their songs on a recognizable template, even if original reference points have become completely obscured, the Clash will be able to connect from generation to generation using a common musical language that will be passed down from band to band.

The Clash are simultaneously an original reference point and a connection between the reference points that came before them. By embracing tradition, they are able to pass along musical knowledge to future bands that use them as a reference point. A band like the Sex Pistols, though highly heralded, are much less dynamic, and by eschewing their roots, have doomed themselves to be a dead end reference that will fade much more quickly than the Clash.

Klinger: Don't let John Lydon hear you say that -- he'll give you a right earful.

Mendelsohn: Hm.

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