Photo by Adrian Boot
Forty years ago this month, the UK edition of The Clash’s debut album dropped like Spanish bombs on the punk rock world. To celebrate, all week long we’ll be lost in a supermarket of exclusive features that remind us why The Clash continue to rock our Casbah and remain the only band that matters. Today, Kenneth Partridge traces the band’s heritage and argues how it might warrant one hell of a record collection for die-hard fans.
Back in the ‘70s, the first bunch of punks on both sides of the pond were way more mindful of rock history than they liked to admit. Because of this, it was possible — and in some cases instructive — to view the supposedly idol-smashing, temple-burning genre they created as backwards compatible with artists from other eras.
If punk meant challenging the status quo while dressing weird and making a big noise, then surely T. Rex, The Velvet Underground, and Little Richard qualified. And so they were grandfathered into a narrative that otherwise would’ve held CBGB as the Garden of Eden. But the wider you extend punk’s umbrella, the less meaningful the term becomes. Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie were guitar-toting rebels. Maybe they were punks, too. Take away the guitar — an arbitrary instrument, really — and a case can be made for Charlie Parker, Nina Simone, and, hell, Beethoven. If punk is everything, it’s also nothing.
The Clash, the greatest and most ambitious of the first-gen UK punk bands, favored a broad definition. Singer and guitarist Joe Strummer would refer to himself as a “punk rock warlord” well into the ‘90s, long after the group had split up and he’d begun making techno-tinged world-rock with The Mescaleros. But The Clash and their eclectic catalog are best summed up by another genre tag — one created by Barry “Scratchy” Myers, the man they hired to be their pre-show tour DJ in the late ‘70s.
“I was playing punk rock from the Ramones to the Pistols, Iggy and the Dolls to the MC5, reggae and ska, r’n’b and rockabilly and ‘60s soul,” Myers says in a 2015 book of Clash photos by Bob Gruen. “It was attitude music.”
“Attitude music” is precisely what The Clash played throughout their career. It applies to everything from “Janie Jones”, the blistering leadoff track on their punky 1977 self-titled debut, to the “Death Is a Star”, the film-noir piano ballad that ends 1982’s Combat Rock, the final LP by the classic lineup. (The follow-up swan song, Cut the Crap, is a whole other story.) Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Topper Headon were curious musicians whose records reward like-minded listeners. Becoming a hardcore Clash fan — the only kind of Clash fan there is — means baptizing yourself in an ocean of boss sounds.
The Clash are a starting point for the kind of crucial record collection (or Spotify playlist) that transcends music. It shapes your politics and general worldview and even determines the width of bluejeans and the height of your hair.
Before the four members of The Clash came together, they were already massive fans of the disparate sounds that would inform their style. Known in his youth as “rock ‘n’ roll Mick,” Jones was your classic kid from a broken home finding solace in his guitar. He loved all the groups you’d expect — The Beatles, the Stones, the Small Faces, The Who — but was especially obsessed with Mott the Hoople, a glammy ‘70s blues-rock outfit best known in America for the Bowie-penned “All the Young Dudes”. The Clash put a tune called “All the Young Punks” on their second album, 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and Jones’ handiness with a Les Paul Jr. — something Joe teases him about with that “You’re my guitar hero!” exclamation in “Complete Control” — owes a lot to Mott’s Mick Ralphs.
Just as Jones leads inquisitive Clash fans to All the Young Dudes and Mott — two Hoople joints well worth owning or streaming — Simonon points the way to some choice reggae. The Clash increasingly explored Jamaican music as they transitioned away from straight-up punk rock, but their love for the stuff was evident from the beginning. This was largely thanks to Simonon, who grew up in Brixton, a section of South London heavily populated by West Indian immigrants. Early on, The Clash wore suits stenciled with the slogan “Under Heavy Manners”, a reference to the stellar 1976 Prince Far I album of the same name. Prince Far I was a DJ in the Jamaican sense — he chatted over records in the same proto-rap style as Big Youth, whose 1972 opus Screaming Target was another favorite in the Clash camp.
In 1977, The Clash recorded “Complete Control” with legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and their debut album featured a radical reworking of “Police and Thieves”, the title track off a Perry-helmed 1977 album by Junior Murvin. Police and Thieves is a must-own album for any Clash fan with a taste for reggae. Midway through a widely bootlegged 1979 show at the Palladium in New York City, Strummer tries to make that very point. “You ought to hear Junior Murvin doing that tune,” Joe said after “Police and Thieves”. “He can sing in a voice as high as this roof.” He’s right: Murvin soared over Perry’s rumbling grooves like no other roots vocalist. Police and Thieves is full of Old Testament-inspired Rasta righteousness — the us-versus-them spirit that, along with the steely, steady riddims, drew so many British punks to reggae.
Police and Thieves is part of Perry’s “holy trinity” of ‘70s productions, which also includes the essential War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo. His name will be familiar to Strummer diehards since the frontman and his Mescaleros reworked his song “A Quarter Pound of I’cense” into “Ishen”.
The Clash weren’t the only punks to get their skank on. But with covers like “Revolution Rock”, “Armagideon Time”, and “Pressure Drop” — plus the original “Bankrobber”, produced by Jamaican DJ Mikey Dread — The Clash nicked reggae’s key sonic elements while retaining enough of their own thing to avoid appropriative parroting. In “Rudy Can’t Fail”, a ska-flavored track off 1979’s masterful London Calling, Strummer sings of being “born for a purpose.” That’s a nod to “Born for a Purpose”, a 1974 anthem of self-determination by Dr. Alimantado. “If you think you’ve got no reason for living,” sings the good doctor in a line that Sex Pistols leader Johnny Rotten has also cited as inspirational, “don’t determine my life.”
In 1977, none other than global reggae ambassador Bob Marley shouted out The Clash in “Punky Reggae Party”. The Clash never tried one of his songs, but on the mainstream tip, they once demoed Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, the first chart-topping reggae song in the UK.
Clash fans who arrived at the band via shout-outs from ‘90s ska acts like No Doubt and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones — both featured on the 1999 Clash tribute record Burning London — won’t be disappointed with any of Dekker’s greatest-hits sets. Folks who like their reggae darker and danker should begin with Dr. Alimantado’s Best Dressed Chicken in Town or Kings Bread Dub, Mikey Dread’s Dread at the Controls, and just about anything Scratch cut at his Black Ark studio in the ‘70s. Highlights of Scratch’s stacked discography include The Congos’ Heart of the Congos (1977) and Blackboard Jungle Dub (1973), an early blueprint for the dub experiments The Clash would try on 1980’s Sandinista!
Strummer came later to reggae than Simonon did, and he clearly had his own ideas about what the music ought to be about. One of Strummer’s greatest lyrical compositions, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, is what today might label a “problematic” song about a white dude going to a reggae show and feeling let down by the apolitical nature of it all. Strummer calls out headliners Dillinger, Leroy Smart, and Delroy Wilson for their showbiz slickness, then chides his punk brethren for basically doing the opposite: fronting like rabble-rousers while secretly competing for a “good place under the lighting.”
Strummer might have been including himself in that criticism. Prior to joining The Clash, he called himself Woody, after Woody Guthrie, and fronted the 101ers, purveyors of a sped-up, R&B-inspired punk precursor called “pub rock.” In his 101ers days, the singer lived in a squat with a bunch of scruffy hippy types. Once he cast his lot with Jones and Simonon and the cultural movement that punk was becoming, Strummer had to change his clothes and ditch all his old friends. He also had to downplay the influence of his heroes. In the song “1977”, Strummer famously sings, “No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones.” It’s a line he probably thought he meant at the time, but the fact was he loved all three. Maybe not as much as he loved Bo Diddley, though.
Diddley is another artist whose fan base The Clash stands to have expanded. Often pictured with his distinctive square guitar — a Gretsch modeled after something the resourceful Mississippi native originally built from old Victrola parts — Diddley played R&B with a chest-out rhythmic toughness and wicked sense of humor. His shit-talking tracks like “Say Man” have rightly been credited with anticipating hip-hop, and even his love songs boast a homespun ruggedness that puts them in the same ballpark as the more overtly topical Jamaican music being made at roughly the same time.
In rehearsals for what would become London Calling, the album where The Clash officially ran over punk’s rule book with a vintage Caddy, Strummer and the boys would jam on Diddley’s “Mona” and “You Can’t Judge a Book (By Looking at Its Cover)”. The influence can be heard on the originals “Hateful” and “Rudy Can’t Fail”, both of which feature the classic “Bo Diddley beat.” That distinctive thump returns, albeit in modified form, on the 1982 Combat Rock gem “Car Jamming”.
Diddley also figures into the story of 1978’s “Stay Free”, one of Jones’ greatest songs. It’s a tribute to Robin Crocker, a boyhood chum who robbed some banks and wound up in jail. The song begins “We met when we were at school/ We never took no shit from no one/ We weren’t fools.” As Crocker told The Guardian, Jones based the first verse on the repercussions of an argument they once had about who was better, Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry. Robin liked Chuck, Jones rode for Bo, and the pair wound up in the headmaster’s office, trying to explain the ensuing ruckus.
In some ways, it was a funny argument for Jones to be having. Like Strummer, he was very much a product of the ‘60s. Strummer and Jones talk in The Clash documentaries Westway to the World and Audio Ammunition about their first experiences with The Beatles and the Stones — not Elvis. And yet ‘50s music was another common thread. On “Gates of the West”, Jones marks The Clash’s invasion of America by imagining one of its homegrown heroes on the cusp of breaking: “Little Richard’s in the kitchen playing spoons and plates/ He’s telling the waitress he’s great.”
In addition to Diddley and Richard, both Jones and Strummer dug rockabilly, the twangy, pomade-scented sound of black R&B colliding with white country at a time when schools were still segregated. Rockabilly zooms into The Clash songbook via “Brand New Cadillac”, which follows the apocalyptic leadoff title track on London Calling with some baby-done-me-wrong frivolity. The song was written and originally recorded by Vince Taylor, an OG British rockabilly who inspired David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character yet remained an obscure figure. The Clash made “Brand New Cadillac” a rock ‘n’ roll standard and probably deserve credit for most of the 450,000 streams Taylor’s original has amassed on Spotify.
Another influence was Eddie Cochran, the man behind 1958’s “Summertime Blues”, hailed by some critics as the first-ever political punk song. On the 1998 premiere episode of his short-lived BBC radio show Joe Strummer’s London Calling, Strummer opted for Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown”, a joyously jittery tune about a young buck who’s run himself ragged from partying. The following year, Joe name-checked Cochran on “X-Ray Style”, off his first Mesky’s album: “I’m gonna make like Eddie/ On a rockabilly train/ Going to beat out the blues on my ball and chain.”
You can’t discuss Cochran without also touching on Gene Vincent, the wildest, craziest ‘50s rockabilly of them all. The so-called “Clash Mk. II”, which ran from 1983 to 1986, after Jones had been sacked, covered Vincent’s indelible “Be Bop a Lula” on their 1985 “busking tour” of England. Whereas the best bet with Cochran is to snag a compilation like The Best of Eddie Cochran, Vincent made at least one brilliant album, 1956’s Blue Jean Bop. His unhinged wailing, plus the fret board drag racing of guitarist “Galloping” Cliff Gallup, makes this an arguably stronger set than Elvis’ self-titled RCA debut from the same year.
Just as Simonon’s love of reggae rubbed off on Strummer and Jones, the bassist must’ve caught the rockabilly bug from his bandmates. As the entire band gradually underwent a greaser makeover, trading paint-splattered punk gear for leather and denim Brando would’ve worn in The Wild One, Simonon’s pompadour was the sweetest. His first post-Clash outfit, Havana 3 a.m., included a song called “Blue Gene Vincent” on its brilliant 1991 self-titled debut. Led by singer and guitarist Nigel Dixon, Havana 3 a.m. fused rockabilly, reggae, and another ‘tude-rich sound that Clash fandom will bring to your attention: spaghetti Western music.
The gunfighter symphonies of Ennio Morricone are a neat blip in The Clash saga. In 1981, around the time the band was earning airplay on black NYC radio with “The Magnificent Seven” — a rap-influenced tune with a title taken from an iconic 1960 Western — they started using Morricone’s “Sixty Seconds to What?” as their intro music. Originally heard in For a Few Dollars More, “Sixty Seconds” features chilling church, tart Mariachi horns, and strings and background voices that signal something mega is about to go down. It was perfect psych-up music for a posse of Londoners who fancied themselves not just as rockabilly gangsters, but also cowboys. It clearly stuck with Simonon, as Havana 3 a.m. slipped Spaghetti-flavored surf guitar into tunes like “Reach the Rock” and “Hole in the Sky” and even dropped horns into “Hey Amigo” and “Death in the Afternoon”.
Strummer also maintained his taste for spaghetti. In 1987, he starred in and contributed two songs to Alex Cox’s genre parody Straight to Hell. (Unfortunately, it’s a dreadful film that’s tough to sit through even if you’re a massive punk fan pumped to see Strummer share screen time with Elvis Costello, a young Courtney Love, Grace Jones, and members of the Pogues.) That same year, Strummer combined spaghetti and Latin vibes on his soundtrack for Cox’s Walker, an “acid Western” starring Ed Harris.
Strummer’s Walker soundtrack might be more digestible to Clash fans than those Morricone scores, and the same goes for “Medicine Show” by Jones’ second-act band, Big Audio Dynamite. “Medicine Show” samples Morricone’s famous wah-wah-wah bit from 1967’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, plus bits of dialogue from other vintage Westerns. The lyrics imagine Jones in a gang of snake-oil peddlers hawking “the stuff that cured a nation” and getting chased from town to town. Whether it’s about his life in The Clash, it’s lovably goofy, like many of BAD’s hits.
The other kind of Western music The Clash concerned themselves with was West Texas country. That moseyed into their story thanks to the great Joe Ely, who befriended The Clash in London in 1978 and later played with them on their first US tour. Ely was enough of a chum to turn up on “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, where he helps Strummer butcher the Spanish language in the call-and-response second verse. Ely’s Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978) and more rocked-up Lord of the Highway (1987) give a good indication of why Strummer and the gang recognized Ely as a real-deal Texas troubadour who walked a path similar to the Rastas and rockers they so admired.
Ely opened for The Clash in the spring of ‘81 during their infamous 17-show stand at Bonds International Casino in New York City. So did the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains. The most memorable support acts, though, were Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, and The Sugarhill Gang. This was long before hip-hop had gained mainstream acceptance, let alone become the planet’s preeminent form of music, and Clash fans were less than hospitable. Each night, after the rap groups were booed off the stage, Strummer would come out and lecture the audience — even though The Clash itself had experimented with hip-hop on “The Magnificent Seven” and “Lightning Strikes (Not Once but Twice)”.
Nearly four decades later, the validity of hip-hop is no longer in question. If anything, The Clash might today remind people to revisit Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message (1982) or The Treacherous Three’s self-titled debut (1984). The recent Soul Jazz compilation Boombox – Early Independent Hip Hop, Electro and Disco Rap 1979-82, featuring the Treacherous Three and a bunch of more obscure artists, offers a more detailed look at hip-hop’s DIY origins.
In 2017, it’s crazy to imagine a popular guitar band jumping on black culture the way The Clash did. Then, it’s crazy to imagine a popular guitar band, given how thoroughly hip-hop has come to dominate pop music. The Clash pulled it off for a couple of reasons. First, they had knowledge of and respect for the source material. Being British also helped; they had cultural ties to the Caribbean and just enough distance from America to seem like harmless outsiders. In the early ‘80s, Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty could never have made a reggae or hip-hop song. Blondie, the only other band of the Clash’s generation to nail the reggae-rockabilly-rap trifecta, made everything feel like a pop-art performance piece. That goes double for Gorillaz, the closest thing we now have to The Clash. They’re an actual art project — and let’s not forget their last album had Jones and Simonon on it.
Even at their most indulgent — sides five and six of Sandinista!, with all the backwards stuff and schoolkids singing “Career Opportunities” — The Clash never got especially artsy. They made their best work from ‘79 to ‘82 yet completely ignored “post-punk,” an amorphous concept that allowed many bands of that time period to melt dub and dance music into gloomy pop songs. The Clash were strident and optimistic. They fully committed to the styles they tried and viewed each as an extension of their mission. On “Hitsville U.K.”, their stab at Motown, resident soulman Topper Headon clobbers his drums. It’s closer to “Tommy Gun” than to “Shotgun”, and it’s not because he couldn’t have swung it if he’d wanted to.
The Clash had a saying: “Like trousers, like mind.” Unlike the hippies, who wore flared jeans and ruined themselves with dope and long guitar solos, the punks were going to rock streamlined drainpipe pants and focus on precise, high-impact music. It’s telling that the R&B and soul music The Clash liked was from sharkskin-suit ‘60s, not the Funkadelic ‘70s. (Other openers on that ‘79 Clash tour included Sam & Dave and Lee Dorsey, whose “Ya Ya” and “Ride Your Pony” are woefully under-appreciated.)
Forty years ago, as punk was beginning, young people in Britain were nearing the end of a decade where nothing seemed to work. The Clash looked westward and envisioned a cooler, more humane world. Then they curated a killer soundtrack to match.