The below was written as a Christmas present for a good friend in December of 2013 and January of 2014. It was written so that someone with only a cursory acquaintance with popular music could comprehend the full significance of The Clash. Accompanying it was a three-disc, fifty-song set of The Clash’s music. That music can be heard here.
Table of Contents
Disc 1: Rock the Province
02. “White Riot”
03. “London’s Burning
04. “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”
05. “Career Opportunities”
06. “Janie Jones”
07. “Police & Thieves”
08. “Hate & War”
09. “Remote Control”
10. “Complete Control”
11. “Clash City Rockers”
12. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
13. “English Civil War”
14. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”
15. “European Home”
16. “Stay Free”
17. “All the Young Punks (New Boots & Prospects)”
Disc 2: Go Back There Again
18. “Pressure Drop”
19. “I Fought the Law”
20. “Capital Radio 2”
21. “Armagideon Time”
22. “London Calling”
23. “Lost in the Supermarket”
25. “The Guns of Brixton”
26. “Death or Glory”
27. “Koka Kola”
28. “Spanish Bombs”
29. “Brand New Cadillac”
30. “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”
31. “Rudy Can’t Fail”
32. “Revolution Rock”
33. “Train in Vain (Stand By Me)”
Disc 3: Nothing Stands the Pressure
35. “The Call Up”
36. “Police on My Back”
37. “The Magnificent Seven”
38. “Somebody Got Murdered”
39. “Washington Bullets”
40. “The Sound of Sinners”
41. “Something About England”
43. “Radio Clash”
44. “Know Your Rights”
45. “Ghetto Defendant”
46. “Rock the Casbah”
47. “Should I Stay or Should I Go”
48. “Straight to Hell”
49. “This Is England”
50. “We Are The Clash”
It had been six years since “Rock Around the Clock” and just five since “Maybellene,” but though Bo Diddley kept his beat going, with Chuck Berry jailed, Elvis drafted, Buddy Holly grounded, Little Richard gone gospel, and Jerry Lee Lewis barred from radio play (if you’re thinking Bill Haley meant anything, you’re mistaken), many declared rock and roll dead in 1960.
Of all the rock-is-dead alarmism that’s existed (see also: Train’s aural infection “Hey, Soul Sister” being the only rock song to hit the top ten in 2010, causing all rock lovers except poobah-gone-bananas Greil Marcus to PANIC), that was probably the most sensible. Great rock albums were practically nonexistent in that weird period after 1959 but before 1963. But the world would later find out that a band that started as The Quarrymen in 1957 became The Beatles in August 1960. And in October 1962, they’d release their first single: “Love Me Do.”
And though the future of rock was thankfully more akin to “She Loves You” (my favorite song from the world’s favorite band), The Beatles, in that moment, introduced something much more important than their music: the rock band. Sure, Bill Haley had his Comets just as Buddy Holly had his Crickets, but now even the drummer and bassist could be one with the singer and the genre-defining guitarist. When the girls chased ‘em, The Beatles escaped together.
Rock bands thrived throughout the sixties. There were the British invaders who later matured into worldly gurus: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks. Perhaps the two most notable American rock bands were The Beach Boys, who followed the evolutionary trajectory of the British Big Four, and The Velvet Underground, who probably rock the highest influence to first-week sales ratio of all time (in 1982, Brian said of the debut that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”) and defined that all-too-familiar delineation from pop: alternative.
(On music of the ’60s: Other rock bands that snuck into prominence in the sixties included Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (you’re a right fool if you think Hendrix rendered his bandmates irrelevant), Cream, The Band, Led Zeppelin, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Sly & the Family Stone, King Crimson, Creedence Clearwater Revival, MC5, and The Stooges among many others. Though solo performers and songwriters including giants like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, and Artist of the Century (of any medium) Bob Dylan roamed the earth, rock bands defined the sixties.)
Don’t be deceived by stories of 1970 being another near-death for rock and roll. Things certainly changed. The Hell’s Angels had recently stabbed a fan to death at a Stones show. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix each died after only 27 years of living. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways after the turbulent recording of Bridge over to Troubled Water. Bob Dylan released his Self Portrait after a never-matched streak of eight classic albums that famously made Greil Marcus open his Rolling Stone review: “What is this shit?” in a piece that one must parse to understand Self Portrait’s confusing place in history. The most beloved musical entity the world will ever know broke up. It was a sad time, and the sixties were for sure over.
(On the music of 1970: If rock was buried, there must have been a lot of noise coming from the casket. Metal was birthed with Black Sabbath’s debut and promptly exploded with the epochal Paranoid. David Bowie showed with The Man Who Sold the World that he might be more than just “Space Oddity.” With After the Gold Rush, Neil Young cleared away any doubts that he’d be anything less than legendary. Finally done just being a guitarist to The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton lived up to Clapton Is God hype not with his just-fine solo debut but with an album and song the could each lay claim to being the Greatest Of All Time: Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs and its titular centerpiece, “Layla.” Curtis Mayfield of “Superfly” fame began his career as a performer. Randy Newman released his first album of note, 12 Songs, and began on his trajectory that today is fondly honored with an almost belittling number of Academy Award nominations. Van Morrison abandoned the spacing out from his first proper album, Astral Weeks, and fell back into the songcraft that created “Gloria” with Moondance and His Band and the Street Choir. Led Zeppelin followed up their duo of ’69 albums with a final hint at greater significance.
Perhaps most importantly to our story, Marc Bolan, who had just transformed his acoustic-minded band Tyrannosaurus Rex into electric warriors T. Rex, dropped “Ride a White Swan” to begin the era of glam rock.
(On the music of 1971-74: You had masterpieces from The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones. You had “American Pie.” You had Paul Simon learning he was far better without Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder proving himself a Ray-Charles-genius rather than your average wunderkind, the beginning of legends like Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen, Kraftwerk, Steely Dan, John Prine, and Aerosmith, and the blossoming of careers, be they artistic or commercial, like those of Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley’s The Wailers, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, and Parliament-Funkadelic.)
Contrary to narratives constructed of 1970 and rock’s end days, popular music was still chugging along to the tune of rock and roll. But all of those things I just listed are unrelated. Music was moving, absolutely, but there was no real movement.
…aside from glam rock, that is, although glam was teeny while it had any momentum. You had T. Rex, of course. You had Gary Glitter, best known for his song “Rock and Roll” (along with “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” a name-checking in “Clash City Rockers,” and an actual honest-to-goodness deportation for sexual abuse of minors), particularly its second part, which is probably played at that crucial moment in every sports film where momentum is about to swing in the protagonist team’s favor (check out his IMDB page for full info, but without having seen any of the films in ten years, I am willing to bet money that this happened at some point during The Mighty Ducks trilogy). Brian Eno (who after a project with the joyless and pedantic King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp would go on to craft many great solo albums, produce for Devo, Talking Heads, and U2, and create “The Microsoft Sound” (“I wrote it on a Mac. I’ve never used a PC in my life; I don’t like them”)) played keyboards for Roxy Music, where protopunk met enemy progressive rock. David Bowie morphed from one-hit-wonder to future Nirvana-cover-ee to the legendary pop changeling who would release no fewer than five albums in this four-year period, including a legendary riff in “Rebel Rebel” from his 1984-emulating mess Diamond Dogs, defining work Hunky Dory, and his quintessential rock opera stint as and about Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie would also write the seminal song “All the Young Dudes” (a sort of cousin once-removed to punk rock calls to action) for Mott the Hoople, who produced great work through this period (perhaps the closest true glam came to punk) until frontman Ian Hunter ducked out in 1974 for a little-discussed solo career. But while they lasted, following around Mott was one starry-eyed superfan named Mick Jones.
But perhaps the most important music from this period to the story was being made adjacent to glam. Iggy Pop’s The Stooges followed up their albums in and songs about 1969 and 1970 with 1973’s Raw Power, regretfully thinly produced by David Bowie but thankfully adding James Williamson on guitar. Lester Bangs referring to Iggy Pop as “that Stooges punk” in December 1970 was perhaps the second notable use the word (first goes to a March 1970 use by Ed Sanders of then-recently defunct band The Fugs, describing his solo album thusly: “punk rock–redneck sentimentality”), leading electronic protopunkers Suicide to describe their second show as a “punk mass.”
And then there was New York Dolls, defined by noisemaker guitarist Johnny Thunders, dubbed after the Kinks song of the same name, and the missing link between Mick Jagger and punk vocals, David Johansen. Their eponymous debut banged into existence with the seminal “Personality Crisis” while their second and last album of their golden years, the prophetically titled Too Much Too Soon, finished with the Johansen epic “Human Being.”
And most importantly, a little band called Ramones formed in 1974, playing a show at the New York City club CBGB that August, covering the club in leather jackets the way an Aerosmith show would do with denim jackets.
After all that, we can move on to the all-important 1975.
(On the music of 1975: Bob Dylan kicked off the year releasing his first masterpiece since ‘69’s Nashville Skyline: Blood on the Tracks. Led Zeppelin continued their legacy with their double LP, Physical Graffiti, containing “Kashmir”’s eternal progression. Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” headlined Wish You Were Here, a lament for the declining mental state of visionary former bandmate Syd Barrett. Bob Dylan’s recordings with The Band from 1967 were released as The Basement Tapes, with some claiming that it signified the beginning of a now-ongoing attraction to low-fidelity recording. Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled hinted at the quality of the all-timer they’d release two years later. Joni Mitchell threw a change-up with The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Parliament peaked with Mothership Connection. Brian Eno released his personal masterpiece, Another Green World. Queen put out A Night at the Opera, which climaxes with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Mick Jones’ beloved stadium-rock-Woody-Guthrie Bruce Springsteen released an album that would define the career of any other artist: Born to Run.)
And punk rock was born.
Alas, I could only point to three releases that signified any of this. Poet Patti Smith released her album Horses, opened by a rewrite of the Van Morrison tune “Gloria” and punkest during barnstormer “Free Money.” Inaugural Velvet Underground fetishists The Modern Lovers (although Mott had a wonderful “Sweet Jane” cover) released the fan-fucking-tastic song “Roadrunner.” Television was an odd band to be among the leading punk charge, as their playing could modestly be referred to as virtuosic, a quality that runs contrary to punk’s simplicity. In fact, Richard Hell defected because bandleader Tom Verlaine felt threatened by Hell’s punk attitude, with Verlaine feeling that his songwriting was being upstaged by antics and telling Hell to “stop jumping around” while refusing to play Hell’s songs live. That year, while they still had Richard Hell (who that year would turn down offers to front Sex Pistols), would release “Little Johnny Jewel.”
That year, also while Hell was still onboard, Television opened for New York Dolls on that band’s dying leg. As the band was imploding from drug abuse and internal quibbles, Malcolm McLaren managed them during their final shows.
Figures like Malcolm McLaren and his associate Bernie Rhodes stand tall over our story. McLaren is easily best known as the manager of the Sex Pistols, and while guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock were out a singer and frantically searching with McLaren, Bernie approached a random on the street wearing a Pink Floyd shirt, with the words “I hate” personally inscribed above the band name. Bernie’d never heard the kid sing, perform, or anything, but it was a fellow named John Lydon, who would soon go by the name Johnny Rotten to front Sex Pistols.
Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes are key to understanding the struggle between revolution and the money to be made from it, along with the public’s confusion between what culture comes from passion and what culture’s done for pay.
So what is this revolution rock? Sonically, punk can be best understood by a return to the simplicity and swagger that once defined rock and roll. The Stooges and New York Dolls are great reference points, but going back further, MC5’s Kick out the Jams offers exceptional insight into the approach. Better still, you have the sound that defined British invasion bands pre-1966, like The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” or The Kingsmen’s iconic cover of “Louie Louie.”
Topically, the later work of the British invasion Big Four would fit punk rock perfectly. The Beatles’ skepticism of misplaced rage, “Revolution.” The Kinks’ albums devoted to British disillusionment, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. The Rolling Stones’ curiosity in revolution via physical intimidation, “Street Fighting Man.” Rock writer Robert Christgau characterized punk as “a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of hippie myth.”
Also important to the topicality was reggae, Jamaican music developed from ska and rocksteady. The anti-establishment and countercultural themes found in punk had their closest relation in the reggae of the time. Though today most closely associated with Bob Marley and The Wailers after covers of “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash and “I Shot the Sherriff” by Eric Clapton hit #1 increased Marley’s popularity stateside, it was the DJ Don Letts that brought reggae into the emerging punk scene in the UK, although with Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” having gone #1 there in ’68, the genre was a bit more popular.
As for the word itself, ’75 had people referring to Patti Smith Group, Bay City Rollers, and Bruce Springsteen as punk. That haziness had to be consolidated into one definition. And though CBGB club owner Hilly Kristal referred to the movement as “street rock,” punk rock ultimately did come to be known by “what was going on at CBGBs.” By the end of 1975, a magazine Punk was started and the term was set. Magazine cofounder John Holstrom recalls: “It was pretty obvious that the word was getting very popular. We figured we’d take the name before anyone else claimed it. We wanted to get rid of the bullshit, strip it down to rock ‘n’ roll. We wanted the fun and liveliness back.”
But ultimately, and you never hear this, punk rock was about equality. The simple sounds and formats were so that people on the street could pick up a guitar, totally fuck the dog playing it, but still have a voice in music despite the early seventies trend of recording and performing being privy to fewer and fewer. It was about taking gaps of wealth and skill and zipping them shut. Above absolutely all else.
And so as we moved into 1976, two punk rock movements progressed: the one primarily housed in New York City’s CGBG led by Ramones and Patti Smith with emerging acts like Talking Head and the one brewing in the UK that would produce acts like Sex Pistols, The Damned, and another big name.
(On the music of 1976: ’76 seems like one of the driest years of the album era. You had Stevie Wonder’s artistic peak, Songs in the Key of Life. After long last, you had the release of Elvis Presley’s ’54 and ’55 recordings, The Sun Sessions. Aerosmith followed Toys in the Attic with Rocks. Graham Parker took the first steps of punklike genre new wave with a duo of great ones: Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment. David Bowie built the beautiful bridge that would bring him to his Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno: Station to Station.)
The rest of the year consisted of the rising waters as the dam was about to burst. Jonathan Richman’s The Modern Lovers, recorded in 1971 and 1972 and helped to life by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, was finally released. Ramones put out their single “Blitzkrieg Bop” and their self-titled album. Richard Hell would create a band that had room for his genius and release “Blank Generation.” There were two incredible singles sung by women: masterminded by guitarist/songwriter Joan Jett, helped by future superstar Lita Ford, and sung by 16-year-old frontwoman Cherie Curie, The Runaways launched “Cherry Bomb” while Blondie dropped “X Offender.” The Nerves released “Hanging on the Telephone” just for Blondie to perfect it two years later. The Damned released “New Rose,” the first punk rock song to chart in the UK and possible holder of the title for Greatest Intro Ever.
Near the tail end of ’76, Sex Pistols released their punk rock call-to-mayhem “Anarchy in the UK.” Earlier in the year, at one of the band’s earliest gigs, they opened for pub rock band The 101ers. That night, the 101ers frontman would watch in amazement and decide that punk rock was the future. He was a young man (who was older than most would think) who went by the name Joe Strummer. “After I saw the Sex Pistols,” he said, “I knew we were yesterday’s papers.”
Meanwhile, Bernie Rhodes had grown increasingly irritated and convinced that, with Sex Pistols, McLaren had hijacked all of his ideas.
And now you understand how this became just another story.
(Joe Strummer, Mick Jones)
March 1977, White Riot 7”
Bernie Rhodes was printing t-shirts for Malcolm McLaren. While his boss was away managing New York Dolls, he had taken the developing Sex Pistols under his wing and, perhaps feeling a bit of paternalistic rage when the real father came back and wouldn’t let him co-manage, decided to set out to mastermind his own band. Armed with studies in Marxist left political theory, weirdo Bernie would later have his bands read about Dadaism, modern art, and existentialism. He’d later dismiss his band’s urges for day-to-day maintenance like buying replacement guitar strings with stuff like, “You guys are wasting my time! Have you read any Sartre?”
Then there was Mick Jones, who’s best described by writer Keith Topping as “a glam-obsessed guitar hero of some talent.” In July 1975, with drummer Tony James working with him, he’d put out an ad in Melody Maker: “Lead guitarist and drums to join bass-player and guitarist/singer, influenced by Stones, NY Dolls, Mott, etc. Must have great rock’n’roll image.” Mick would also play an audition for the forming Sex Pistols. Mick’s roommate turned away Malcolm McLaren and Glen Matlock when they came knocking at his address.
It all began with Bernie and Mick. In late ’75, Mick noticed a fellow who looked sort of rock and roll and went over to talk to him. “Are you a piano player?” Bernie let him down (“No I’m not…”) before the two got on (“…but you’re wearing one of my t-shirts”).
In January 1976, Mick and Tony hired Bernie and became London SS, revealing that, in punk, it wasn’t only Ramones, with their “Blitzkrieg Bop,” that was fascinated with Third Reich imagery.
Mick: “Bernie had a bunch of these shirts with two cowboys on them both with their dicks hanging out and some other things, and there was a problem with the police who wanted to confiscate them all. So Bernie asked me to hide the silk screens and some shirts for him. He brought them up to my nan’s flat and hid them under my bed. That was one of the first things I ever did with Bernie.”
While looking for a talented frontman, they’d auditioned a fella named Paul Simonon (flubbing his way through “Roadrunner”) who wasn’t up to snuff, but a later encounter Mick reported to Bernie had the manager saying, “forget Tony James; start a band with that bloke.” Mick would go on to start a band with Paul in 1976, though Mick would go on to start a band with Tony, whose defining work would be with punk band Generation X, in 2002: Carbon/Silicon.
As is the punk rock way, Mick decided he’d teach then-talentless Paul the bass guitar. Joe remembers: “Paul was practicing bass to reggae songs and the first Ramones album, which was seminal. It can’t be stressed how great the first Ramones album was to the scene because it gave anyone who couldn’t play the idea that it was simple enough to be able to play.”
In May, when Paul had six weeks of bass guitar under his belt, he and Mick saw the frontman of The 101ers and began nervously eyeing him in admiration.
“I was expecting them to tangle with me out in the street. Paul looked a bit tasty, so I thought I’d smack Mick first and leg it,” remembers Joe Strummer, whose birth name John Mellor he’d long since stopped using. Joe had been playing shows with The 101ers and practicing with them and sqautting in abandoned houses to stay entertained and alive, but he knew it was a go-nowhere group.
Paul and Mick finally got close to Joe, and Mick said, “We like you, but your group’s rubbish!”
One has to wonder what Joe would have said to Mick if he’d known about the corn and angst strewn throughout Mick’s sour relationship songs.
Joe immediately abandoned The 101ers for this new band, which he’d sing and play rhythm guitar for.
Inspired by its frequent use in newspaper headlines and its potency in conveying the idea that something big was happening, they would name the band The Clash.
Many forget that early The Clash was truly six people. Along with the three, you can’t forget Bernie, who Joe has said “imagined The Clash,” Terry Chimes, their drummer, and Keith Levene, who was a third guitarist for a time (long enough for a single songwriting credit on “What’s My Name?”) before kissing off quickly saying he had urgent family business in North London.
The Clash was usually presented as Joe, Mick, and Paul, with Terry not even making the cover of their debut LP. In a way, it was odd. To return to the words of Keith Topping: “It’s a deep irony, but The Clash – that most English of bands – didn’t, initially, contain a true Englishmen among them.” Joe was born in Ankara, Turkey as the son of a diplomat. Mick was the son of a Welshman and a second-generation Russian Jewish refugee, who divorced when he was eight. Paul spent some teenage years in Italy and was raised by his Belgian immigrant father.
The band would have two recording sessions in 1976, once at Beaconsfield Film School with producer Julian Temple and in November for Polydor Records produced by Guy Stevens (Paul: “The engingeer was going on at Joe about having to ‘mind your p’s and q’s which was ridiculous, as if Joe was going to pronounce every syllable”). In January 1977 they’d join producer Mickey Foote, an old friend of Joe, to record for their first release. Mick: “After the Guy Stevens demo, Joe was very particular that he didn’t want to sound like Matt Monro or something, didn’t want to sound too polished, so we had our sound man Mickey Foote at the desk. And it was mixed like magic.”
“The day I joined The Clash was very much back to square one, year zero,” said Joe, making 1977 year one. “Part of Punk was that you had to shed off all of what you had known before. We were almost Stalinist in the way that we insisted you had to cast off all your friends, everything you’d ever known, and the way you’d played before in a frenzied attempt to create something new, which was not easy at any time. It was very rigorous; we were insane, basically. Completely and utterly insane.”
And although it was back to square one, The Clash would adopt a few old songs its new members had lying around. Mick’s “I’m So Bored with You” was appropriated into “I’m So Bored with the USA,” Mick’s “1-2 Crush on You” became one of the band’s earliest songs (although it wouldn’t be released until 1978 on the Tommy Gun 7”), and “Lonely Mother’s Son” was a song Joe did with The 101ers that would later be dubbed “Jail Guitar Doors” and released as the B-side to the Clash City Rockers 7”.
“White Riot” was the single and is by far more the more historically significant recording. But I’m convinced that no song is better to introduce someone to The Clash than “1977.”
The song premiered live in August 1976, and it was recorded at both the Beaconsfield Film School and Polydor sessions. With its single recurring line, “NO ELVIS, BEATLES, OR THE ROLLING STONES,” (just as 1960 had no Elvis, Berry, or Buddy Holly) even if The Rolling Stones would release the fabulous Some Girls the next year, the song might as well be called “No More Heroes.”
But even without any heroes, 1977 turned out to be what I think is just about the greatest year for music, ever.
(On the music of 1977: Even keeping to albums, there was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (of “Don’t Stop” (thinking about tomorrow) and “Go Your Own Way” fame), Bob Marley’s Exodus, Steely Dan’s Aja, Elvis Costello’s debut My Aim Is True (of “Allison” fame), Pink Floyd’s Animals, Lynyrd Skynyrd swansong Street Survivors, Culture’s reggae classic Two Sevens Clash, Kraftwerk’s electronic music magnum opus Trans Europa Express, and two David Bowie experimental albums recorded with Brian Eno: Low and “Heroes”.)
In punk, Sex Pistols continued to blow up for their better or their worse. After writing music to the band’s first three singles (“Anarchy in the UK,” “God Save the Queen,” and “Pretty Vacant,” which he also wrote the words to), Glen Matlock quit Sex Pistols, claiming Rotten’s expanding ego caused him to leave. Though denied by Matlock, Rotten recalled in his autobiography that the lyrics he’d written to Matlock’s tune for “God Save the Queen” “declared us fascists,” according to Matlock. McLaren claimed at the time that Matlock was thrown out because he “went on too long about Paul McCartney” while Jones said it was because he “liked The Beatles.”
Whatever the reason, Matlock was replaced with the now-infamous Sid Vicious and the band went on to release the biggest punk album of the biggest punk year: Nevermind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. Along with that, ’77 brought two Ramones albums, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, Television’s Marquee Moon (one of my ten favorite albums), The Damned’s Damned Damned Damned, The Jam’s In the City, The Vibrator’s Pure Mania, Talking Heads’ 77, Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F., Suicide’s debut album, Wire’s Pink Flag, and two Iggy Pop albums: The Idiot and Lust for Life. Finally, glam hero Marc Bolan died young in a car crash.
So as the end builds from 1977 (“sod the jubilee!”), 1978, 1979 (“stayed in bed”), 1980, 1981 (“the toilet don’t work!”), 1982, 1983 (“here come the police!”), to 1984 and promptly ends with a crash (an Orwell reference we should have seen coming), thinking about the song from the perspective of a 1976 band changes it up from an over-exaggeration of the moment to a humorous piss take at sensationalizing the future. Indeed, it is in this way that “1977” is perhaps, despite The Stooges’ “1969” and “1970,” most culturally analogous to those glorious Conan O’Brien bits done as we awaited Y2K: “In the Year 2000.”
April 1977, The Clash LP
In Sounds, Giovanni Dadomo had written of The Clash, “They’re the first band who’ll frighten the Sex Pistols shitless.” “White Riot” and its story might have something to do with that.
It was the summer of 1976. It was very hot, and police had been putting pressure on the black community. At the very end of August, with Joe, Paul, and Bernie in attendance, the annual Notting Hill Carnival erupted into a riot.
“We were there at the very first throw of the very first brick,” Joe would recall, probably while grinning giddily.
Paul recalls: “Joe, Bernie and I went to Portobello Road, under the Westway, during the Carnival. I don’t know where Mick was. We were hanging out listening to the sound systems when two squads of police turned up and picked on a couple of guys and tried to drag them off, and they’re shouting that it’s nothing to do with them. Somebody next to me said something about pickpockets.” It was, at this point, that Joe remembers “a conga line of policemen came through the crowd – they hadn’t learned to keep their presence low back then. Anyway, they came through the crowd wearing the British police helmet, which kind of looks stupid. And when you see a line of them going through a carnival crowd it looks really stupid. Somebody threw a brick at them and all hell broke loose – and I mean hell!”
Back to Paul: “So everyone’s running away, people with babies in prams and us, and we get pushed up against a wire fence and Bernie’s glasses go flying. Joe’s tripped up and the police back off.
It just exploded after that. There were no-go areas for the police and we controlled those streets. The police station was at the top of a hill and their vans had to drive past us to get there, and as they came past people lobbed bricks at them, smashing all the windows. It was like shooting pigeons.
At one point a guy on a police motorbike came zooming down at us and I thought it was awfully brave of him, but I picked up a bollard and ran towards him and lobbed the bollard at him. It hit his wheel and he went flying. I was really worked up with the whole thing, along with everybody else.
That was how it was, though. Black people were picked on all the time. From the time I’d been a kid, going to Blues parties, there’d always be white guys having a go at me ‘cos of it.
The thing about the riot was that you felt relieved somehow, just to be holding that brick and lobbing it.
At one point Joe and I were trying to light a car to set it ablaze. Some kids had been trying and failed. We got an old shirt, stuffed it under the car and tried to light that, but but it wouldn’t go. Until suddenly it blazed, and smoke was pouring out.
I remember seeing a white guy dressed as a clown hiding in a basement while bricks were being thrown, looking dead scared.
Walking around the backstreets were all these Rasta Generals who were in charge of what was going on, sending people to attack in different areas. They were always prepared for the police and sent them running back as soon as they tried to advance.
At one point Joe and I were cornered by a bunch of kids who tried to mug us, probably because we were white, and there in the middle of the riot. They went through our pockets and of course we were penniless but our pockets were stuffed with bricks. A Rasta General saw what was going on and came over and told the kids to clear off and then left us alone. It was then that I realized that this wasn’t about us, this was not our story.”
“The Notting Hill riot was a black riot,” Joe summarized. “It was a spontaneous expression of ‘We ain’t taking this anymore.’ ‘White Riot,’ in its clumsy way, was saying that white people had to become activists too or else they’d get plastered over in society.”
Odd duck Terry wasn’t as impressed: “I felt when you have a carnival you sometimes have a bit of aggro and it’s no big deal. They were talking about it like it’s some major event in world history. In fact it was just a few punch-ups, which happens all the time.”
One might be uncomfortable with The Clash’s unafraid acknowledgment of racial difference (see also: “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”), but acknowledging that differences aren’t all based on class, that persistent theme in UK politics since long before Thatcher was Conservative Party leader. First the song gets at the divide: “Black man got a lot of problems, but he don’t mind throwing a brick/White people go to school where they teach you how to be thick.” Then, the commonality: “Everybody’s doing just what they’re told to/And nobody wants to go to jail!”
Recorded at both 1976 sessions and for the first single, here I’ve included the version from the debut LP. The single version sounds too small and UK sirens don’t sound frightening enough. I’ll take Mick’s opening “one, two, three, four!” followed by the most distorted guitars since The Beatles’ “Revolution” anyday. And Joe rambling during the break is slightly preferable to the single’s lyrics from the break: “Are you taking over?/Or are you taking orders?/Are you going backwards?/Or are you going forwards?”
If “1977” recalled The Stooges’ “1969” and “1970,” then “White Riot” recalls one of the greatest of all Rolling Stones songs mentioned earlier: “Street Fighting Man.”
April 1977, The Clash LP
“I like the first album best, actually.”
Mick said that of the February ’77 recordings from the band’s return to Beaconsfield Film School released a month after “White Riot,” but many others think it, including my intro to rock writing (and my friend (!)) Robert Christgau. That same month, they’d release a flexi-disc via NME of interviews and the less remarkable version of their song “Capital Radio.” If The Clash, music’s biggest event, weren’t at their peak at this small stage, keeping to simply rocking the province, they weren’t far from it. The Clash, deemed by CBS unfit for American release, went on to become the US’s best-selling import from the UK, ever.
Recorded at both ’76 sessions and twice in ’77, once for the album and again for the B-side to the controversial Remote Control single, “London’s Burning” is perhaps the most representative song of their period while also being the least focused. It might also serve as the quintessential Clash song title.
This is maybe the best one to represent Bernie’s influence, who urged Joe and Mick to write about the everyday lives of their penniless peers and social issues. “Don’t write about love,” Bernie said. “Write about what’s affecting you, what’s important.”
Like “White Riot,” this was mostly a Joe affair, having been written while walking the streets of London, having nothing better to do because television stopped airing after 11 p.m. “The bit I like best about the song is its intro, the guitar bit, because it’s completely insane.”
Despite the violent image in the title, it’s a song entirely from and about boredom. Joe credits Mick with the line about television being the new religion. Shockingly, the drab architecture of London’s tower-blocks is only alluded to once on The Clash, on this song’s third verse. And “speeding around underneath the yellow lights” has nothing to with Joe driving and more to do with amphetamine sulfate, which Joe has long since dismissed: “I didn’t think the up you got was worth the down.”
“I’M SO BORED WITH THE U.S.A.”
April 1977, The Clash LP
Also recorded at their first session, “I’m So Bored with the USA” has that huge riff that sounds like “Pretty Vacant” but chopped and screwed and projected on a big screen. I’ll turn it over to Joe for the rest.
“I think the most amusing story is about ‘I’m So Bored with the USA,’ which was probably the first song that Mick, Paul and I started work on together. When Mick demoed it to me I thought he said it was called ‘I’m So Bored with the USA’ and I jumped out of my chair going, ‘Great, great,’ because then, like now, we live on a diet of American TV programmes and I said, ‘Great, I’m so bored with the USA,’ and Mick says, ‘No, I didn’t say that, this is a song about my girlfriend, called “I’m So Bored with You,”’ and I said, ‘Never mind that, let’s write it now. ‘I’m So Bored with the USA.”’ It became a big favourite with American audiences; they used to scream if we didn’t play it.”
April 1977, The Clash LP
“Career Opportunities” was also recorded at the second ’76 session. The lyrics were mostly by Joe, although the biggest inspiration comes from Mick’s job at the Department of Health and Human Services, which included opening the mail during the scare of the Irish Republican Army’s terrorism-via-post letter bombs. The song wasn’t about the hardship of finding employment but the pressure in society to take on unfulfilling work, including the Royal Air Force: “I hate the Army and I hate the R.A.F./I don’t want to go fighting in the tropical heat/I hate the Civil Service blues/I won’t open letter bombs for you.”
“Career Opportunities” best underscores the wariness of appearance of hypocrisy within The Clash. Despite Joe’s pseudonym, his age (being three years the senior of his bandmates, the 24-year-old was much older than many of his punk rocker peers) and hard-to-trace (although now very well known) earlier years as a middle-class diplomat’s son (when asked what poverty meant to him, Joe replied “fifty-four pence, ‘cos that’s what I’ve got in my pocket right now”) and the trio’s privilege of all having gone to art school became public knowledge, and skepticism of whether or not The Clash were representatives plagued punk rock discourse.
In late January ’77, The Clash signed a record deal for £100,000. “Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS,” remarked one idealistic critic. It wasn’t effectively big bucks, though. Bernie, who had already been giving £1 a week to Paul so he could scrape by, simply gave each band member £25 a week. Remembering signing the contract, Paul remembers that “for days afterwards Joe and I deliberated over the content of the songs, saying we can’t do ‘Career Opportunities’ anymore, ‘cos now we’ve got some cash.”
The song was almost just a little bit different. Paul: “At one point Mick pulled me aside and said, ‘I want you to sing this bit about pensions,’ in ‘Career Opportunities’ and I said, ‘I’m not singing about bloody pensions,’ and Joe saw what the problem was and changed the lyric.”
April 1977, The Clash LP
The last of these Clash songs initially recorded at any of the ’76 sessions (with Guy Stevens for Polydor), “Janie Jones” is considered the greatest British rock and roll song by director Martin Scorsese.
“He’s in love with rock and roll, whoa/He’s in love with getting stoned, whoa/He’s in love with Janie Jones, whoa/He don’t like his boring job, no!”
Ending its chorus like it was straight outta “Career Opportunities,” the first of these songs that was primarily a Mick production was about a woman sentenced to prison in 1973 for running a brothel and threatening witnesses during the trial. Upon her release in 1977, Janie would make friends with the band. Joe wrote her 1983 single “House of the Ju-Ju Queen” and Mick would publish her memoir The Devil and Miss Jones in 1993.
The bored frustrations of a fellow in the office looking forward to his night at the brothel, “Janie Jones” features a single bass guitar note repeated ad nauseum on the refrain. Legend has it that Mick wanted to bring out the boredom in the lyrics. More likely is that when “Janie Jones” was written, Paul could hardly play much else.
“POLICE AND THIEVES”
(Junior Murvin, Lee Perry)
April 1977, The Clash LP
Joe, Mick, and Paul all had their musical influences and beginnings.
Joe’s first music purchase was the I Want to Hold Your Hand single. “I remember when music really hit me, though,” recalls Joe, “and it was while I was at boarding school, aged eleven. I had to be tough there, it could be oppressive and if you didn’t go in fighting people would kill you. I remember hearing [The Rolling Stones’ cover of Buddy Holly’s] ‘Not Fade Away’ blasting out of this huge wooden radio in the day room–they always kept it on really loud–and I walked into the room as it started and thought, ‘This is something else! This is the complete opposite of all this other stuff I’m having to suffer here.’ That’s the moment I fell for music.
I made a subconscious decision then to follow music forever, that music would be the way I’d live. Everyone at that school needed something like that. It was a place where people hung themselves.”
After buying a ukulele, figuring the four-string instrument would be easier than the guitar, Joe would begin following musician Tymon Dogg (who would record vocals on The Clash’s “Lose This Skin” in 1980) around in the early ‘70s. “Eventually I learned to play Chuck Berry and went out on my own. One day I was in the Underground, playing ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ on the uke when an American happened to walk past, and he stopped in front of me. ‘I don’t believe it, I can’t believe it!’ he said, and then started smacking his forehead, staggering around looking like he was gonna faint. So I stopped playing and he says, ‘You’re playing Chuck Berry on a ukulele!’ I hadn’t considered it to be odd at all and only began to think so after he’d pointed out the ridiculousness of it.”
Before The 101ers, Joe played in an R&B band called The Vultures starting in 1971. And there was Joe’s discovery of Jamaican music: “One day in Newport this guy who looked the spitting image of Jim Morrison came up to me, he was a student who used to hang out in Corporation Street with black guys and smoke weed. He said to me, ‘Hey, there’s this thing called Dub, come with me.’ So we went to a joint called Silver Sands and that was the first time I ever saw something of a rebel nature going down, the roots rock scene, and I realized that I had to go back to London because if this was happening on the black scene in Newport, then I needed to get back to the capital somehow. The Vultures had finally crashed and I had to do something new.”
Mick’s first music purchases were Jimi Hendrix’s Smash Hits and Cream’s Disraeli Gears (perhaps singer/bassist Jack Bruce helped along Mick’s cornball sensibilities). At age 16, Mick followed bands like Rod Stewart & the Faces (think more Every Pictures Tells a Story than “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”) and Mott the Hoople across the country. “One of our lot would always jump on stage during the encore so the band got to know us and they’d sometimes let us in for nothing. They’d actually talk to us, which was quite different to other groups at the time.”
Paul remembered his childhood circa 1967: “The skinhead movement was just beginning to take shape and was very appealing to budding misfits like me. The hippie movement held no such attraction, since I didn’t care for the music or the look. A friend told me about a place called the Streatham Locarno that put on Saturday morning dances. The Locarno had a very rowdy crowd of boys and girls. Once inside we listened to lots of Lee Perry instrumentals, which made a great soundtrack to the fights that broke out on the dance floor.
The Streatham Locarno was eventually closed because of fighting. So it was at a friend’s home with a newly purchased [funk group Archie & the Bells] Tighten Up album, or the sound system at Brockwell Park Funfair where I heard the current releases. Flash clothes, Jamaican music, fighting and football were our obsessions. Girls came later.”
Flash forward to 1977, when The Clash thought of trying to “Ramones” a Bob Marley B-side, “Dancing Shoes.” Instead, they tried a song they weren’t playing yet that was being blasted at the clubs they went to and the Jamaican parties they crashed: Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves.” This would be one of the earliest examples of Paul Simonon’s reggae-influenced bass guitar grooves.
Joe’s memories shed light on the unlikely success of what they tried and Mick’s integral part in all Clash covers: “We tried to cut a version which, when I listen to Junior Murvin’s original today, makes me think, ‘What a bold brass neck we had to try and attempt that!’ ‘Cos he sings like a smooth river of silk. I’m glad we did it because we did it in a Punk Rock way which worked. I mean the song was strong enough to stand our kicking it and led to greater things in the future with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bob Marley hearing it, and being hip enough not to diss it. By rights they should have said, ‘Hey there man, you ruined it!’ But they were sussed enough to know we’d brought our own music to the party.”
And in one of his more profound moments of praise for his partner: “I gotta say, and it hasn’t been said enough: Mick Jones’s talent is not only as a player, and he’s a brilliant player, but as an arranger, like Gil-Evans – he’s an arranger of music and all through The Clash we hear his talent at arranging. Alright, it’s a simple four-piece rock band, but to arrange those pieces into something that works so fantastically, ‘Police & Thieves’ is a prime example. The way he told me to go, ‘Rah!’ And then kill it, as he went ‘ra-ra’ and then me hitting the on beat again. It was brilliant. Any other group would’ve all played the offbeat because we were trying to assimilate reggae. But it was very punk to have one guitar playing the on and the other the off-beat. He’s a genius arranger.”
Thanks to Mick’s arranging prowess, “Police & Thieves” would be the first of many Clash covers that would obliterate the original.
“HATE AND WAR”
April 1977, The Clash LP
As opposed to peace and love.
Written by candlelight when Joe broke into a disused ice cream factory, “Hate & War” (“the only things we’ve got today”) is the first song here primarily sung by Mick and the most melodic moment on The Clash. It’s my favorite song on their first album, too. One of my fondest memories of it will always be sitting around the newspaper office and realizing that I had just hit 100,000 songs played on last.fm when “Hate & War” came on.
It represents the moment when empathy for other people transforms into anger and thirst for action. Mick’s heart, hitting the homestretch repeating the album’s title every measure, meets Joe’s rage, telling his countrymen they’re just as bad as the immigrants they deride: “I hate Englishmen/They’re just as bad as wops!/I hate all the blindness/I hate all the cops/I wanna walk down any street/Looking like a creep/I don’t care if I get beat up/By any walking Greek.”
April 1977, The Clash LP
Another Mick-headed number, although set against Joe jumping in often, some called “Remote Control” the band’s most ambitious piece from its debut. Joe declared that Mick had “written a mini-opera.” Columbia thought it was the most radio-friendly track on the album. Much like “Hate & War,” Mick wails each measure (“Repression!”) as Joe rants, even referencing Doctor Who: “Gonna start on Tuesday/Gonna be a Dalek/I am a robot/I obey.” It’s also the best visualization of London on the album, with the panda car crawling around and the fat and old House of Lords.
Unfortunately, the band practically disowned it. At a May show, Joe introduced it thusly: “We’ve just been told this is our new single. Let’s hear it for artistic integrity. From now on we’re The Sweet. Or maybe Chicory Tip!” The first band who’ll scare the Sex Pistols shitless had just been controlled.
In 1979, a US version of The Clash was released featuring the best songs up to that point (anything before London Calling) that weren’t included on Give ‘Em Enough Rope. If you’re curious as to how the band might feel about it, note that “Remote Control” is in the third slot (almost poetically right before this next track I’ll cover).
Robert Christgau weighed in on the US edition: “Cut for cut, this may be the greatest rock and roll album (plus bonus single) ever manufactured in the U.S. …Yet the package somehow feels misbegotten. The U.K. version of The Clash is the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere in some small part because its innocence is of a piece–it never stops snarling, it’s always threatening to blow up in your face.”
September 1977, Complete Control 7”
Paul: “We’d say to Terry ‘What do you want to do if you ever get any money?’ and he said, ‘Get a Lamborghini,’ and I said, ‘I’ve never heard of a Lamborghini’ – I thought it was some kind of pet budgie or something. He didn’t spend much time hanging around us.”
Joe: “Terry quit just before we were due to go out on the Anarchy in the UK Tour at the end of 1976. He said, ‘I can’t stand all this, I’m out.’ That was like a death blow to us because Terry Chimes was a brilliant drummer. We were lost.”
Terry would still record on all sessions through those for The Clash, but after that they’d audition 205 drummers, playing “London’s Burning” with each of them and ruining the song for themselves.
Having auditioned back when Bernie, Mick, and Tony were still looking for London SS drummers, Nick Headon, who picked up drumming at age 13 by doctor’s request (seeking to blow off steam when his starry-eyed dreams of being a footballer were brought inside by a broken leg), remembers: “Mick, Joe and Paul hated funk and they hated jazz and anything that wasn’t Punk. At the audition I went to there were five other drummers and they agreed with everything Mick, Joe or Paul said. When they asked me ‘What are your favorite drummers?’ I said Buddy Rich and Billy Cobham, giving all the wrong answers.”
It wasn’t just the punk rock in Headon’s defiance that had him hired and promptly nicknamed “Topper” for his large ears (“he looked like a character from a comic book called Topper, a kind of Mickey the Monkey, especially when he had his hair cut off”), courtesy of Paul.
Joe remembers what the band was looking for: “We played ‘London’s Burning’ with all the drummers we auditioned, and were interested in volume. If we could hear them playing, then they were good. It took half the number for everyone to realize that Topper could whack ‘em. He was dynamite. There’s a founding rule of rock ‘n’ roll that says you’re only as good as your drummer. Topper had done the chicken-in-a-basket circuit since the age of 15 or 16, with American soul groups who’d come over and use a pick-up band. And nothing fazed him. He could play Funk, Soul, Reggae. He’s why The Clash became an interesting musical unit.”
Topper recalled playing everything on hi-hat where Mick wanted the beats played on tom-tom. Like the other band members, the already-accomplished drummer tore it up and started again, relearning his instrument.
I once wondered whether the band’s debut would be any better if Topper had played those sessions. A friend expressed doubt that those songs could withstand Topper’s sheer power.
Meanwhile, Sex Pistols were becoming a bigger and bigger deal. It would take a while after this Clash release (they wouldn’t even release their album until October) for the band to become fed up with manager Malcolm McLaren, but when touring the US in January 1978, Johnny Rotten, coming out for an encore, declared that, as per his laziness, the audience would only get one extra song. It was a cover of The Stooges’ “No Fun.” He’d finish as the song ended, before throwing down his microphone and walking offstage: “This is no fun. No fun. This is no fun. At all. No fun. Ahaha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.”
Of the night, he’d later say, “I felt cheated, and I wasn’t going on with it any longer. It was a ridiculous farce. Sid,” who’d beaten an audience member with his bass guitar, put himself in the hospital fighting one of his own bodyguards, and received oral sex onstage during the American tour, “was completely out of his brains–just a waste of space. Malcolm wouldn’t speak to me. He would not discuss anything with me. But then he would turn around and tell Paul and Steve that the tension was all my fault because I wouldn’t agree to anything.”
Three days later, “the Sex Pistols left me, stranded in Los Angeles with no ticket, no hotel room, and a message to Warner Bros. saying that if anyone phones up claiming to be Johnny Rotten, then they were lying. That’s how I finished with Malcolm, but not with the rest of the band. I’ll always like them.” He’d make his way back to the UK with the help of Virgin Records, who tried to get him to front the budding band Devo, who said they weren’t interested. Johnny Rotten would become John Lydon again and start post-punk art rock group Public Image Ltd. with early Clash guitarist Keith Levene.
Sid Vicious and his girlfriend and manager Nancy Spungen plummeted into heroin addiction. One night, Nancy was found dead in the hotel room she was sharing with Sid, wearing only her underwear and with stab wounds to her stomach. Still a suspect of her murder, Sid died four months thereafter from a heroin overdose. John Lydon fought legal battles with Malcolm McLaren until control of the band’s heritage for its surviving members was finally won in 1986, the same year a film fictionalizing the final years of its deceased bassist, Sid & Nancy: Love Kills (whose soundtrack Joe Strummer wrote many songs for) was released. The surviving members of Sex Pistols, including Glen Matlock returning in Sid’s stead, have since reunited on multiple occasions.
Without this foresight into just how hard their manager could fuck them over, The Clash had an odd meeting with Bernie. Joe recalls: “Bernie and Malcolm had got together and decided that they wanted to control their groups. Bernie called a meeting in a pub after the Anarchy Tour and started with ‘I want complete control,’ but Paul and I just ran out laughing. Paul was in hysterics about the phrase. Next thing I know Mick’s come up with the tune and it was perfect.” That tune was The Clash’s first song they’d record as Joe, Mick, Paul, and Topper. That tune would contain their best riff. That tune would become their best song. That tune was “Complete Control.”
Hearing he was in London recording Bob Marly & The Wailers, The Clash invited Lee “Scratch” Perry to produce the single. Having loved their cover of his “Police & Thieves,” he agreed. Joe remembers: “Mid-way through the session the Upsetter was moved to tell Mick Jones that he played guitar ‘with an iron fist.’”
Mostly a Mick lyric, Mick says of the song, which Joe declared practically finished upon seeing it: “I wrote it standing up in my bedroom. Bernie said write what affects us. And this did.”
“They said, ‘Release “Remote Control”’/But we didn’t want it on the label.”
And so began the laundry list of the myriad ways their label and manager violated The Clash’s principles.
“On the last tour, my mates, they couldn’t get in/We’d open up the back door, but they’d get run out again.”
Before every show, Joe and other members would wander around the town, meeting fans and having a good time with them. They’d usually try to get stragglers who couldn’t afford tickets into the show.
And after that, you’d get “Complete control, even over this song!” You’d get a Mick solo, during which Joe exclaims, “You’re my guitar hero!” in the most loving recorded moment between the two. You’d get “They said we’d be artistically free/When we signed that bit of paper/They meant they’d make a-lots of money/And worry about it later.” Then you’d have Joe take the microphone to preach to the masses, spitting on top of more Mick guitar heroics, as if the song took a prolonged amount of time to celebrate itself.
The song was a more scathing attack at their record label than Sex Pistols could manage with their track “EMI,” and Jon Savage summed up the song thusly: “Instead of a piece of cynicism, ‘Complete Control’ becomes a hymn to Punk autonomy at the moment of its eclipse.”
“CLASH CITY ROCKERS”
February 1978, Clash City Rockers 7”
1978 featured solid releases from The Jam, The Who, Television, Buzzcocks, Wire, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and Marvin Gaye. There were debuts from Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., X-Ray Spex, Johnny Thunders, The Cars, Siouxise & The Banshees, The Police, and Nick Lowe. Then there were career highlights: The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, and Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ This Year’s Model.
Certainly important for its self-mythologizing, being the band’s first song written with a Jamaican rhythm, the references to The Groove, David Bowie, Gary Glitter (Mick: “The Gary Glitter lyric? Yeah, that was before the internet.” [grins]), and Prince Far-I, and its celebration of the synthesis of punk rock, the real story behind “Clash City Rockers” comes after its recording.
Joe and Mick were on vacation while, in December, Bernie decided that the recording was “too flat.” Mickey Foote remembers, “We varispeeded the master about one-and-a-half percent.” When Mick was available to hear the result, Johnny Green recalls that “he went absolutely mental.” They were too late to stop the original release, but all subsequent issues of “Clash City Rockers” would use the original mix.
Already paranoid of their relationship with the record company, The Clash suddenly were worried they were being subverted from within. They never worked with Mickey Foote again. And, subsequent to the implosion of Malcolm McLaren and Sex Pistols, tensions with Bernie began to worsen.
Joe characterizes the relationship: “Whatever ‘The Clash’ was it was something to do with Bernie Rhodes and The Clash, that’s what I always maintained, for better or for worse.”
Below is a transcript of an interview the band did with Radio Mirror published in June 1978. Bernie had been sitting in, for some reason, and interrupting.
RM: Let’s pretend Bernie isn’t present. How are relations with Bernie? We’ve been hearing rumours…
Joe: Sometime’s it’s stormy, you know. The rumours are a load of bollocks. There’s all kinds of bastards trying to take us over, because they see they can make a few bucks off us. They started seeing these rumours, they’re trying to drive a wedge between us and Bernie.
Mick: We love Bernie really.
Joe: Yeah–even if he is short. We argue a lot, you know, because we’re called The Clash and we have them. People say they ain’t gonna last long like that, but we’ve been doing it for nearly a couple of years.
RM: What do you argue about?
Joe: Everything. We argue about dates, tours, songs, shoes, socks, shirts, television programmes, telephone bills, everything.
Later in the interview, Bernie would interrupt again.
Bernie: How many copies of Record Mirror do you sell?
Joe: Oh my God. Bernie, go out and get some sandwiches.
(This leads into a long, rambling tangent from Bernie.)
RM: Bernie, why do you always insist on interrupting? Why can’t you let the group talk for themselves?
Joe: Because he loves talking. He can’t resist it. He’d rather be here, butting in, than sitting at home watching telly.
Bernie: Well, they’re talking, aren’t they.
Joe: Not when you’re butting in.
Bernie: Sorry, you didn’t send me the rules.
Along with this, Bernie had set up a gig for the band in Harlesden while the band was gone that they couldn’t play. Joe remembers that they had to cancel, but that they “had to go down there and apologize to the fans. I showed them we weren’t some tosspots swanning around somewhere not caring about them. About a month later,” just weeks after the above interview was published, “Bernie was maneuvered out of the managerial chair in a power struggle.” But Joe noted, “losing Bernie created a vacuum,” saying of the man that “Bernie was the only one in our crew who understood how one should go about getting known. That’s why his guidance was so crucial.”
Whether it was producer Mickey Foote or manager Bernie Rhodes, nothing stood the pressure of the Clash City Rockers.
“(WHITE MAN) IN HAMMERSMITH PALAIS”
June 1978, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais 7”
Thumbing through the lyrics would give you the story about as well as I could. Excited for an all-night reggae show at Hammersmith Palais featuring Dillinger, Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson, Joe, accompanied by friend Don Letts and a roadie, was disappointed at what was done with the Jamaican music of rebellion, later recalling that “it was all very Vegas”: “But it was Four Tops all night/With encores from stage right/Charging from the bass knives to the treble/But onstage they ain’t got no roots rock rebel.” Of the “many black ears here to listen,” Joe remembered: “The audience were hardcore and I felt that they were looking for something different than a showbiz spectacle.”
By 1978, the wave of punk that had created The Clash had ebbed, with bands either evolving (Talking Heads, Wire) or imploding (Sex Pistols), with Joe expressing his dissatisfaction at shows by changing the opening words to “What’s My Name”: “What the hell is wrong with you?/You’re doing what you’re supposed to do!” Joe observed that punk rockers in the UK were busy with their own in-fighting, and despite this took the next stanza to take a jab at the frontman of mod-revivalists The Jam, Paul Weller, who dressed spiffy and said he’d vote Tory (just the next year, Tory Margaret Thatcher would be elected the UK Prime Minister and remain in office until 1990): “The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned/They got Burton suits, ha, you think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money/All over, people changing their votes/Along with their overcoats.” Right after, Joe would unleash his harshest couplet ever: “If ADOLF HITLER flew in today/They’d send a limousine, anyway!”
Onstage they ain’t got no roots rock rebel, only UK pop-reggae, and the rebellion in UK punk had seemingly fallen in tatters. Almost as if he were talking about “White Riot,” Joe said of “White Man”: “I was getting at the division between white and black rebels and the fact that we gotta have some unity or we’re just gonna get stomped on.”
Produced by the band, “White Man” was the bridge between their “Police & Thieves” cover and further forays into the roots rock they’d dig deeper into as their career went on. By this point, Paul’s bass grooves had taken on their Jamaican influence, and, with Mick’s guitar and backing sighs keeping the rhythm, one of his first showcases as a great bassist is here. “White Man” is fairly obviously one of the very greatest Clash songs, and it would be played at Joe’s funeral after he died in December 2002.
“A lot of people have told me that when they first heard ‘White Man’ they couldn’t believe it because we weren’t supposed to come out with something like that at the time. We were a big fat riff band with rock solid beats and so coming out with ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ was really unexpected,” Joe remembered.
“And those are the best moments of any career.”
“ENGLISH CIVIL WAR”
November 1978, Give ‘Em Enough Rope LP
With Mickey Foote done producing them and Bernie done managing them, The Clash were in a state of flux. First there was the matter of their management. Coming back to London after touring Europe, they turned to the Blackhill management company.
Paul: “Blackhill was a really boring management company, always smoking spliffs and wanting to have band meetings, but I said I wouldn’t go to any unless they got me a rabbit outfit. One day they wanted a meeting and there was this limp rabbit outfit waiting for me, so I said, ‘Right you lot, I’ll get you back for this.’ I went and put it on and came back to the meeting, but started hitting and kicking everybody and swearing and completely disrupted the whole meeting. Mick and Joe were in hysterics.”
Still, the band was impressed with their new manager, Caroline Coon. Caroline remembered Joe thusly: “On-stage Strummer wires himself up into an inhuman dynamo of sweaty, trembling flesh, fearful enough to have one wondering when the ambulance brigade will rush to his rescue with a straight-jacket. While he tilts his bullet head at acute angles, his agonizing face screwed into an open wound, he wields his Telecaster like a chain saw. His magnetism is totally original – more like an Olympic strong man imploding all his energy into a final record-breaking lift than anything seen on a rock’n’roll stage before. Off-stage, he’s the Clash member with the lowest profile.”
Paul remembers what she pulled off for them in early ‘79: “She said she’d keep things going and organize stuff, like for the first tour of America that was coming up. So Joe and I said we’d really like Bo Diddley to tour with us, thinking it was the most outrageous thing we could ask, and somehow she managed to swing it.”
The Clash was still only available in the UK, but word of the band was still getting around, increasing pressure to appeal to American record execs. And then came a fellow named Sandy Pearlman who’d been managing and producing a band called Blue Öyster Cult. Though the character was named for a different music producer, Christopher Walken’s character in the famed Saturday Night Live “More Cowbell” sketch based on the creation of Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was very clearly a spoof on Sandy.
“The first time I ever heard of Sandy Pearlman,” Joe says, “was in Bernie’s Renault. He was checking out a Blue Öyster Cult tape and I thought he’d gone bonkers.”
Sandy was famous for Blue Öyster Cult’s big, heavy metal guitar sounds, but he’d also produced a protopunk album in 1975: The Dictators’ Girl Go Crazy!
Whereas The Clash was finished recording in 12 days, it took Sandy’s crew three days alone to put the drums into perfect position. Paul particularly complained about Sandy’s methods of having every backing recorded over and over for perfection, saying it ruined any spontaneity. Topper didn’t mind. Much like Ringo Starr during his tenure with The Beatles but with much more difficult parts, Topper didn’t err once during recording, gelling with Sandy’s style perfectly (and it shows, Topper’s drums on the album sound major).
During recording, Paul, Mick, and Topper went onto the studio roof and played with air rifles (see “Guns on the Roof”), eventually firing at what they didn’t know were expensive racing pigeons. Some mechanics working nearby shouted at them and aggressed, and, “Someone had reported an armed gang on the roof firing at trains, and this was around the time the IRA were active in London, so they pressed the red alert button,” Topper remembers. “When they eventually realized they couldn’t really do us as IRA or keep pretending that we were a danger, then it became quite amusing. I think I got fined more for giggling in court than for the actual offense.”
Mick worked harder on the album than anyone. He was always behind Sandy, watching what he was doing. This was likely the beginning of Mick’s later streak as a producer and engineer. However, he was so stoned all of the time that Sandy picked up rumors that the band was considering replacing him with former Sex Pistol Steve Jones, who did show up at a few Clash shows. No one knows how true that was. Regardless, recording finished, with the band saying things like “it was 98 days of hell” and “we came out like zombies.”
Give ‘Em Enough Rope was the first Clash product to hit the states, and though the following four songs might all be more remarkable and “Tommy Gun” (an insight into the minds of those involved in terrorism, not included in this set) the lead single, “English Civil War,” the rewrite of Louis Lambert’s (the pseudonym of Patrick Gilmore) “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” written about and written and published during the American Civil War. Those on the left (such as The Clash) were alarmed by the rise of the whites-only British National Front. Mick, when asked if suggestions of the Front’s power might be exaggerated, replied, “In 1928, Adolf Hitler got 2.8 percent of the votes. By 1939, there was no one voting for anyone else.”
On the cover of the single is a still of the 1955 animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, featuring Benjamin the donkey gaping as the suited pigs stand on their hind legs. “It takes the piss out of people who say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s gonna happen.’ ‘Cos it goes, ‘Aha, haha, I told you so, hurrah, tra la la,’ and then it goes on to ask, ‘who did anything about it?’” Joe says, regarding the line that asks: “But who hid a radio under the stairs, and who got caught on their unawares/When that new party army came marching right up the stairs?”
“A week after the Rock Against Racism rally, some white guys in Wolverhampton opened a car window and fired a shotgun at a bunch of West Indians.”
Mick: “That happened the night we were playing there. We went out the next morning and read about it in the papers.”
“JULIE’S BEEN WORKING FOR THE DRUG SQUAD”
November 1978, Give ‘Em Enough Rope LP
Operation Julie was a police sting carried out in early 1977 that netted 1.5 kilos of LSD microdots, with Cambridge chemistry students manufacturing and selling the stuff. 17 defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a total of 130 years in prison.
Leave it to Joe to find the funny angle (beginning with a callback to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”): “The only way for the cops to bust them was to put in some hippies of their own, who had to take acid continually to maintain their cover. The song’s really about that, imagining tripping policemen.” Not just that, but also the wasted potential pulverized by the prosecution: “You coulda been a physicist/But now your name is on the mailbag list.”
Keith Topping remarks, “Only Jones’ guitar work, full of ironic little exclamation marks, would have seemed out of place in a 1950s New Orleans nightclub.” It’s a fun genre departure for The Clash, with jazzy drums and piano. One night, Joe introduced it by saying, “I think they call this R&B.”
“SAFE EUROPEAN HOME”
November 1978, Give ‘Em Enough Rope LP
“I suggested to Bernie that we go to Jamaica to write the next album as a joke. We wanted to get away for a couple of weeks and we couldn’t go to Paris because we knew too many girls there and we’d be distracted, so I said what about Jamaica and he said no. But a couple of weeks later he came in with the plane tickets,” Joe once said of the two-week December 1977 trip.
“It was Bernie’s idea,” goes a conflicting account of his.
It was just Joe and Mick, though. Paul was angry that he wasn’t invited to come along to his spiritual home, and has always seemed angry recalling the story. “I was really pissed off about them going to Jamaica because I really wanted to go and didn’t. That really pissed me off.”
But Paul felt a little better when he heard the songwriting pair (who only came out of Jamaica with two songs: “Drug Stabbing Time,” not on this set, and “Safe European Home”) had spent most of their time in their Kingston hotel room.
Mick and Joe were terrified of the world outside their hotel. “We just walked around in our punk gear,” Joe recalled. “I’m surprised we weren’t filleted and served on a plate of chips. We went down to the docks and I think we only survived because they mistook us for sailors.”
Like “I’m So Bored with the USA” before, this and Sandinista!’s underrated “Kingston Advice” both could come off as isolationist anthems (“I went to the place/Where every white face/Was an invitation to robbery/I’m sitting here in my safe, European home/I don’t wanna go back there again”), but instead it’s the product of internationalists like The Clash advancing too blindly, diving headfirst into cultures they haven’t taken the time to properly understand.
Joe quipped, “The Jamaican Tourist Board gave me and Mick a fiver for this one” while playing the song in 1979.
Also notable is that to US consumers who didn’t import, “Safe European Home” was the first Clash song they’d hear, particularly surprising when Mick’s vocal harmonies and cutting guitars in the end stretch as Joe’s scatting (including stuttering “Rudie can’t fail!”) brought the thing to its knees.
Friend Jim Connelly sums up that magic: “I still remember the exact moment I took the record out of the ultra-saturated red and yellow cover, put it on the turntable and sat back on my bed as ‘Safe European Home’ came blasting out of the speakers, with a ‘POW!’ and bounced all over the corkboard that covered the walls of my room. It was as hard as any metal as I’d ever heard, but it was lighter on its feet. It had obvious roots in my beloved 60′s Who and Rolling Stones singles, but with the guitars cranked ten years louder. And then there was that breakdown at the end where the deep-voiced guy was ranting about Jamaica and the high-voiced guy repeating ‘Your-oh-pee-un Home!’ over guitars that kept stabbing stabbing stabbing like a serial killer until the drums came back up and sealed the whole thing up.
Holy fuck!!!!! I had never heard anything like that song before in my entire 15 years. What in the hell was it? Why wasn’t this being played every single minute on the radio? Was there more? I had to find out.”
Another of The Clash’s very best, I always like to say that you can tell how much a fan of The Clash someone is by how bonkers they get about “Safe European Home.”
November 1978, Give ‘Em Enough Rope LP
Yet another of The Clash’s very best, “Stay Free” is Mick’s best moment. He wrote the song about Clash roadie and later journalist Robin Crocker. Robin and Mick met at school in 1969 getting into a fight over who was better: Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry. Soon Robin would be expelled and, in March 1970, was sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in an armed robbery. The pair’s friendship would resume when he was released.
At a stay in a Minneapolis hotel in September 2013, with no evening plans, I got out my acoustic guitar to learn and then polish this song, whose every second tickles me, particularly Mick showing us what he’s got with a little melody after revealing what he did with his time: “I practiced daily in my room.” Like all great Clash songs, it goes epic after its final lyrics, but it’s just about the pure joy you might feel simply seeing someone…
“’Cos years have passed, and things have changed,
And I move any way I wanna go.
And I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home.
And I’ll never forget the smile on my face,
‘Cos I knew where you would be,
And if you’re in the crowd tonight,
Have a drink on me.
But go easy…
…and then hoping they’ll stick around.
“ALL THE YOUNG PUNKS (NEW BOOTS AND CONTRACTS)”
November 1978, Give ‘Em Enough Rope LP
A bit of mythos not quite as successful as namesake “All the Young Dudes,” “All the Young Punks” is The Clash’s origin story: “Hanging about down the market street, I spent a lot of time on my feet/When I saw some passing yabbos; we did chance to speak/I knew how to sing, y’know, and they knew how to pose/And one of them had a Les Paul heart attack machine.”
The chorus is barely comprehensible, and you can hear it a thousand times before you hear it containing a word that means a hell of a lot less in the UK than it does here. “All the young punks/Laugh your life, ‘cos there ain’t much to cry for/All the young cunts/Live it now, ‘cos there ain’t much to die for.”
Then after fibbing about and romanticizing the band’s beginning, Joe brings up the label and manger coming down on them like Mafioso oppression and the backbreaking work they were doing then with Sandy that made them hate the whole thing.
Then he remembers a brief stint he had working for a factory versus his present situation. “I luckily got the boot,” he concludes.
February 1979, English Civil War 7”
The Clash then entered 1979, which featured great releases from Elvis Costello, Wire, David Bowie, Talking Heads, The Jam, Nick Lowe, and Fleetwood Mac alongside debuts from Gang of Four, Tom Verlaine, Joy Divison, Joe Jackson, The Specials, and The B-52’s. Then there were truly great albums, like Graham Parker & The Rumours’ Squeezing Out Sparks, Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box, and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.
After leaving their safe European homes and shitting their pants in Jamaica, the group did “Pressure Drop” over a year later, and it sounds like they go back there again. For the rest of their career, their sound would keep going to that well.
A cover of the 1970 reggae classic by Toots & The Mayals, The Clash’s “Pressure Drop” was a precursor to ‘79’s UK ska explosion, including acts like The Specials and The Beat. Turning the humble tune to stadium rock (Mick’s background vocals!) like the next (and more famous) great Clash cover would do.
What allows this version to kill the already-fantastic original? When it drops, you feel it.
“I FOUGHT THE LAW”
May 1979, The Cost of Living EP
The most famous Clash cover and their first US single (it even received modest airplay!), Bobby Fuller, guitarist for Buddy Holly’s Crickets, wrote “I Fought the Law,” which became a top ten hit after its release in 1966. After hearing it in a studio jukebox and treasuring it while recording Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Mick and Joe decided to try it out.
And, like most other grand successes after “Complete Control” but before “London Calling,” it’s Mick’s backing vocals (which again launch the song into stadium rock territory) and guitar heroics and Topper’s rocketing drums (although hearing Mick and Joe play it on acoustic guitars, Topper reacted, “I’m not doing that, it sounds terrible”) that make the song, although during the song’s dynamite live performances, Joe would have his moment by changing the line “I lost my baby” to “I killed my baby,” a harsh nod to the tragedy of Sid Vicious.
Released on The Cost of Living EP (Paul: “There was something on TV or in the papers about the cost of living and for some reason Joe and I saw humour in those words and were down on our knees, laughing away, saying, ‘Oh no! The cost of living!’”), which contained Mick’s love letter to America, “Gates of the West,” “I Fought the Law” was their first cover of an American song, and it was around this time, particularly during their Pearl Harbour Tour with Bo Diddley, that the band would quit being bored with the USA and begin falling in love with it.
Joe remembered touring in America: “When you’ve been into American music as long as I have, to go there and ride across the country is a real trip. To go to places you’ve only heard of in songs is fantastic.
Mick: “I just remember the bus and watching America go by outside, like some big movie.”
“CAPITAL RADIO 2”
May 1979, The Cost of Living EP
In 1973, London gained its sole independent radio station: Capital Radio. “London finally had a station of its own,” Joe recalls. “So naturally we were disappointed when it played Elton John all the time.” The song was first recorded as a B-side to a rare flexi-disc 7” released by NME, and it namechecked Capital Radio Head of Music, Aiden Day (“If you wanna hear a record/Get the word to Aiden Day/He picks all the hits they play/To keep you in your place all day”).
Joe: “They’re even worse because they had the chance, coming right into the heart of London and sitting in that tower right on top of everything. But they’ve completely blown it. I’d like to throttle Aiden Day. He thinks he’s the self appointed Minister of Public Enlightenment. We’ve just written a new song called ‘Capital Radio’ and a line in it goes ‘listen to the tunes of the Dr. Goebbels Show.’ They say ‘Capital Radio in tune with London.’ Yeah, yeah, yeah! They’re in tune with Hampstead. They’re not in tune with us at all. I hate them. What they could have done compared to what they have done is abhorrent. They could have made it so good that everywhere you went you took your transistor radio — you know, how it used to be when I was at school. I’d have one in my pocket all the time or by my ear-hole flicking it between stations. If you didn’t like one record you’d flick to another station and then back again. It was amazing. They could have made the whole capital buzz. Instead Capital Radio has just turned their back on the whole youth of the city.”
So while British radio would never play punk rock, The Clash found another reason to love America: despite their first US single, “I Fought the Law,” only arriving in 1979, word of The Clash spread through college and freeform radio stations (despite Sex Pistols’ onstage antics keeping radio stations afraid of playing punk) well before then, aiding sales of debut The Clash by import.
Copies of the NME disc were auctioning for absurd amounts of money due to the rarity of “Capital Radio,” so, this time, with Topper, the band decided they’d record another version of the live favorite, which they always experimented with. As such, “Capital Radio 2” begins with calm and thoughtful acoustic guitar arpeggios. Then Mick, way in the background, counts “1-2-3-4” before the guitars, drums and shouts create a different kind of mayhem and your jaw fucking falls open.
And then after the chorus of Mick chanting the song title, every second is brilliance. “Jonesy?” “Yeah, what?” “I’ve been thinking. We’re never gonna get on the radio like this. You know that? Well, I’ve been studying the charts…using my mind and my imagination, and I can see it all now.”
“The drummer’s in the box office, and he’s counting all the money,” Joe continues, referring to Topper’s idea of turning the ending storm into a typhoon of disco and funk, with Mick possibly showing some admiration of Nile Rodgers in his playing. After the tension of Topper’s drumroll becomes impossible to maintain, cannons or something fire, and the band gets jamming, with Joe shouting gaily: “Have you seen me dance?!” “I’m the one that I want!” “All right, on the count of four…FOUR!” “Yeah, get that DJ on the line!” “Slow me down.”
Performing the song in 1979, Joe threw in some different theatrics: “Since I am the DJ on this here Capital Radio, I would like to tell you a few of our station rules. Number one: we allow no rock’n’roll! Number two: we allow no rock’n’roll. Number three: we allow no rock’n’roll!”
Certainly another of the very best band’s very best.
(Willie Williams, Jackie Mittoo)
December 1979, London Calling 7”
The next album would materialize around a year after Give ‘Em Enough Rope, in the twilight of 1979. CBS demanded the band pick a big name producer. The producer of their second sessions and the producer/manager largely responsible for Mott the Hoople’s inception (although not eventual success) was one Guy Stevens.
Mick remembers approaching Guy before recording began: “We went to his house to meet him before we’d begun and he was really upset about a Led Zeppelin film he’d just seen, The Song Remains the Same, and was getting more and more crazy about the fantasies that the band had filmed and he suddenly threw the record away in disgust. It hit Joe in the eye, knocking him over. Guy was really upset and fussed ‘round Joe as he lay on the floor with a black eye coming up.”
“I’m so glad they got rid of Sandy Pearlamn,” said DJ Tommy Vance after premiering a couple of new songs. “It was getting far too American…they’re back into good old British rock and roll!”
That was, of course, a truly daft statement that didn’t comprehend the coming evolution of The Clash. John Tobbler of Radio 1 was interviewing Mick and Paul, asking them if they were worried that the new material didn’t sound like The Clash. Mick responded, “People can’t expect us to stay the same – that thing from 1977. We like music too much. Staying the same kills your love of music.”
Really, what happened was the band mixed their British roots and American grandeur while expanding into other lands, going further into places like Jamaica. “We’re still digging reggae,” said Joe. “What we’ve added is Motown, but as a simple four-piece group plus two tablespoons of organ and half-a-pint of horns.”
The wrongness of the depiction of a return to UK roots is best shown in the B-side to the album’s titular lead single, released just a week before the album. Written with Jackie Mittoo, Willie Williams had a hit singing “Armagideon Time,” released in 1978. The Clash would do soundchecks playing the song, later incorporating it into live sets, where its slow intensity contrasting to the surrounding songs would awe the audience with the band’s diverse ability, and beyond.
Clash aide Kosmo Vinyl had a theory that all great singles should be 2:58. Joe liked the idea, and told Kosmo to stop the band exactly after that time had elapsed. After a flawless 2:58, Kosmo came in on the studio intercom: “Time’s up, let’s have you out of there.” The whole thing nearly fell apart, and only Paul’s bass kept up. Off mic but damn audibly, Joe shouted: “Okay, okay…don’t push us when we’re HOT!!!” The song would then continue recording for another minute. “I thought, I’m dead, I’ve ruined a perfect take,” Kosmo recalls. “But nobody said a thing about my voice being all over it.”
Surely enough, you can hear the whole thing on the released product.
December 1979, London Calling 7”
Can you more closely associate The Clash with any other two words than these?
I still remember getting into Sex Pistols and some internet jerk telling me no, they sucked. What else you got??? I raged, defending the movement that had been satisfying my cravings for righteous anger in music. After a suggestion and a trip to YouTube (as it was way back in spring 2008), I found myself watching the video to “London Calling.” I can’t say my speakers were blasting, but something about the doom in the lyrics and video and the bark in the singer had me curious. Surfing Wikipedia like I was doing with every band I heard of at the time, I noticed that Rolling Stone had declared London Calling the best album of the ‘80s. My fave critic Robert Christgau had given the damn thing an A+. Expanding my CD collection at every opportunity, I skedaddled to get my bike. I met the college entrance coach my parents were paying for, Veronica, after I walked out of the door, mentally cursing at having forgotten my appointment. Not content to have a session with her while a new find was on my mind, I convinced her there’d been a mix-up in scheduling and sent her on her way. I got on my bike, went five miles to Best Buy, made my purchase of the album with that epic fucking cover of the shadowy figure smashing his bass with the green and pink bubbly lettering around him, went five miles back home, and popped in the CD.
After a few listens (I never expected to be wowed on listen #1), I began to notice the catching bass (Paul had become an all-time bass master by this time), Joe’s unhinged performance, and, my god, the melodies. The whole thing sounded like anything I’d heard before or since. It was old-fashioned rock and roll (not subtly hinted at by the Elvis Presley-aping cover) swirled with reggae rhythms being played in New Orleans in the middle of the apocalypse. Legends of Guy Stevens going mad and throwing the whole thing into a more profound sense of discontent and urgency (Guy once said, “In this world, there are two Phil Spectors, and I’m one of them”) made the album grow bigger and bigger in my mind.
Whereas Mick and Topper turned everything since “Complete Control” into stadium rock triumphs, always breaking down into a lengthy ending section with Joe spitting along when the formula was at its best (“Complete Control,” “Safe European Home,” “Capital Radio 2”), London Calling had the four acting as a unit, with its core four players rarely overshadowing the others. It had Paul Simonon’s peak, Joe’s Strummer-est spittin’ songs (“Jimmy Jazz,” “The Right Profile,” “Four Horsemen”), and Jonesy’s Mick-est moments (heart-on-the sleeve moments like “I’m Not Down” and “Train in Vain” plus the majesty of the entirely double-tracked “Tumbling Dice” spiritual sequel: “The Card Cheat”). And even some of its most minor songs had the catchiest tunes (“I’m Waiting for the Man” spiritual sequel “Hateful” and “Lovers Rock”). Finally, there were three more Clash covers that knocked it out of the park (“Brand New Cadillac,” “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” and “Revolution Rock”).
But then there was that first song. The one that played at a party last year and had me screaming the whole thing. People found it endearing at first. Then I uncannily recreated Joe’s screams (supposedly supposed to mimic the seagulls in Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”) during the break, and people began feeling a little closer to unsettled.
While Joe was a kid, he’d hear the intro to BBC programming. Joined by an SOS Morse signal (thrown at the end of the song by Mick), the radio would announce, simply, “This is London calling.”
The instruments fell into place. Mick recalls of his two chopped guitar chords, “I wanted the urgency of a news alert.” Mick also notes a fact I wish I knew when trying to figure out how to play his damned solo: “Most people aren’t aware that my guitar solo in the middle of the song is backward. After I recorded it, I turned the tape over and overdubbed it onto the mix that way. That’s why it whooshes. I wanted it to sound raw and unhinged.” Paul was looking for a killer bass line and found one that could’ve soundtracked enemy aircraft taking off: “I wanted my bass line to be a big declaration–like ‘Here we are!’ My big influence was Leroy Sibbles, the bass player for the reggae band The Heptones.”
Its topicality was inspired by the news headlines, particularly considering the Thames River, which Joe lived on. Mick, recalling the band’s fear of drowning: “In 1979 we saw a headline on the front of the London Evening Standard warning that the North Sea might rise and push up the Thames, flooding the city. We flipped. To us, the headline was just another example of how everything was coming undone.” Joe: “I read about ten news reports in one day calling down all variety of plagues upon us.” Most notable in context of 1979 was the noting of “a nuclear error,” a nod to the Three Mile Island incident from that March.
“We were a bit ahead of the global warming thing, weren’t we?” adds Mick.
Its famed line “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” lets down the helpless looking to popular music for guidance (“Now don’t look to us!” says Joe in the preceding line), but of course The Clash loved The Beatles. They were just sour on the follower mentality that came with so much British pop (and, regrettably, punk) of the time.
“I’ve never felt so much like…” the song ends. Like what? Live performances would usually get Joe to finish.
“Like singing the blues.”
“LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET”
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
“I gave him a gift,” says Joe the Strummer-penned, Mick-sung marvel.
Mick: “It was written by Joe and I always felt that he was talking about me growing up, even though I didn’t grow up in the suburbs. It touched me on a personal level and everybody thought that I’d written it because I sang it.”
Really, Joe had written an autobiographical song about his lack of self while growing up in suburban Warlingham. Of his father, Joe said, “He was a real disciplinarian, who was always giving me speeches about how he had pulled himself up by the sweat of his brow: a real guts and determination man. What he was really saying was, ‘If you play by the rules, you can end up like me.’ I didn’t want to…I saw how the rules worked and I didn’t like them.”
Urban alienation was a prominent Clash topic, but with “Lost in the Supermarket,” Joe had created the first of what would be many odes to suburban alienation. Still living in Woodbury, a town I never grew personally connected to, it was just the thing for me.
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
A Mick tune and Joe lyric, “Clampown” isn’t just about falling into a dead end job a la “Career Opportunities.” Really, the inspiration was wheel-clamps, which were showing up on the streets of London and denying people the freedom to ride out of there.
Along with Joe’s regular howls, some lyrics here are nigh incomprehensible. In the song’s middle, Joe cheers, “Ha! Gitalong, gitalong.” Those quiet last words in the song ask, “Who’s barmy now?” And then there’s that whispered beginning pre-“What are we gonna do now?!”: “The kingdom is ransacked/The jewels all taken back/And the chopper descends/They’re all hidden in the back/With a message on a half-baked tape/With the spool going ‘round/Saying ‘I’m back here in this place/And I could cry and there’s smoke you could click on.’”
The song on London Calling that most closely resembles the band’s stadium rock output from “Complete Control” through The Cost of Living, complete with a jamming coda and all, “Clampdown” takes on racial profiling (“Taking off his turban, he said ‘Is this man a Jew?”), eugenics (“We will train our blue-eyed men to be young believers!”), the court system (“Judge said five to ten/But I said double that again”), and predatory hirers (“The men at the factory are old and cunning/You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running!/It’s the best years of your life they want to steal”). And it unleashes one of the beset nuggets of wisdom in The Clash’s oeuvre: “Let fury have the power/Anger can be power/Do you know that you can use it?”
“THE GUNS OF BRIXTON”
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
The song so cool that even Sally Forth knows it. …You should probably go ahead and Google that.
“I realized that you get money for writing songs,” Paul remembers of the first of three songs he wrote with The Clash (the other, not included on this set, are “The Crooked Beat” and “Long Time Jerk”). “I didn’t get any money for doing the artwork or making the clothing and thought, ‘sod that, I’m going to get more involved in making the music.’ Hence I came up with ‘Guns of Brixton.’”
Paul Simonon’s best groove was turned into an instrumental, and days later he presented Joe with lyrics he’d written. Joe’s response: “They’re fantastic. But they’re yours. You sing them.”
It would take some convincing by the band, but Paul finally worked up the courage to lay down some vocals. Paul: “I don’t consider myself a singer. The vocal mic was right up against the glass panel of the control room and sitting two feet behind the glass was some American CBS bloke. That’s probably why the vocals came out the way they did.”
Paul’s humility shows up elsewhere, too: “I actually wanted ‘Guns of Brixton’ to be a bit more rocking, but music incapability on my part made it a real task to communicate that to the others.”
Paul wrote the song relocates film The Harder They Come’s protagonist Ivan (played by reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, who would cover “The Guns of Brixton” in 2011) to the titular South London city and scatters violence all around him.
In a funny story, Beats International would release “Dub Be Good to Me” (written by bandleader Norman Cook AKA Fatboy Slim) in 1990, sampling “The Guns of Brixton.” Paul: “I was surprised that it became a number one. So, really, I have done Top of the Pops! I met up with Norman and we came to an arrangement which was much needed at the time. But I thought it was a really good idea and it was quite reassuring for that to happen to my first song.”
It wouldn’t be the last time a Clash song would be sampled for a hit single.
“DEATH OR GLORY”
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
So. Guy Stevens. He probably had his most famous moment during the London Calling sessions while the band was recording this song. Paul: “Guy lost it. He ran into the room picking up chairs and smashing them against the wall and we’re thinking, ‘he’s gone insane,’ while still playing the song.” Topper spoke further on the topic of Guy Stevens and chairs: “Guy came into the studio one day where there was a mountain of chairs piled up and pulled one off the top, so that the whole lot fell over. If you listen you can hear them in the background on one of the songs. The chairs falling and Guy going, ‘Ouch!’”
Perhaps more seriously, Guy sometimes prevented work from getting done. Paul: “One day we’re playing a song and in the control booth there are two grown men fighting over the mixing desk. Guy was wrestling Bill, holding up a record. We went in to find out what the problem was and it was Guy trying to put on this Manchester United versus Arsenal record of a game. I supposed he was trying to get some enthusiasm going, I don’t know. He liked to get a mood going in the studio, but we were in the middle of a song. Bill was trying to keep the song going and Guy want to put his record on.”
Mick: “Before Guy came in, Bill would set the faders on the desk into position and we’d be playing. Then Guy would arrive and try to push every one of them up and there’d be a struggle. Guy would be going, ‘Push it up!’ and Bill would be pulling them back and they’d be falling over the desk, struggling. They’d even end up on the floor fighting.”
Still perhaps the most ridiculous was also from Mick: “Guy had a way of coming downstairs that was all his own. In the studio there was a long staircase and Guy would kind of throw himself down them two or three at a time, and tumble all the way down. One day he came down really quickly and came into the room where we were playing and picked up a ladder and swung it around his head. When Joe was playing the piano Guy would say, ‘Play it like Jerry Lee Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis,’ spitting in his ear and banging the piano lid up and down. One day he poured a can of beer into the piano saying it would make it sound better. Which I think it did.”
And there’s also that time when he laid down in front of a CBS executive’s car, refusing to move until the executive agreed that the recordings he had word were “magnificent.”
And with an album starting with a song announcing the apocalypse in which recording always felt like everything was coming apart, “Death or Glory?” might have been a good question. We all know what London Calling led to, but this was the constant story of The Clash getting by on top of the world, but always just barely surviving.
One of Joe’s most heartfelt pieces despite all the humor (“I believe in this, and it’s been tested by research/But he who fucks nuns will later join the church” is the stuff of legend), “Death or Glory” stands as one of the most quintessential songs in The Clash’s canon, getting at what it’s all about.
But for the longest time, when Joe screams “we’re gonna fight your brother,” I always heard “we’re gonna rock the bravo.” Figured it was some British expression I didn’t know. Welp.
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
If you’re just kinda listening, you might think this is about capitalist multi-nationals. And it’s true that I can’t hear this song without wanting to dedicate a performance to the Carlson School of Management. But Joe’s very clear about this one: “It’s about cocaine.”
One of the band’s most fun songs was a sort of unimpressed “really?” to rich Wall Street yuppies. Women. Parties. Drugs. Punk rock bands already were doing that. You didn’t need to be a CEO for it. Their lives they’d sold their souls for were less exclusive than they thought.
The song was often introduced live with “and now a word from our sponsor,” likely making that co-opted “Coke adds life!” bit, lifted from Coca-Cola ads, seem even sharper.
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
“Every day about that time they were going on about Basque bombing beaches in Spain,” Joe remembers of radio topics on 4 a.m. cab rides back from Wessex. Basque separatists were engaged in a bombing campaign that targeted holiday resorts. “I turned to my girlfriend Gaby who was sitting next to me and said, ‘There should be a song called ‘Spanish Bombs.’”
Joe drew parallels between the situation in Spain and the Spanish Civil War of the ‘30s (perhaps best known in popular culture through Pablo Picasso’s Guernica). While Joe tore through books lent to him, he also made allusions to and was inspired by socialist song “The Red Flag,” George Orwell’s A Homage to Catalonia, the Guardia Civil, Vaughn Horton’s “Mockingbird Hill,” and many, many poets, most notably his newfound obsession: Federico García Lorca (of poems like “Tu Infancia en Menton”).
“Spanish Bombs” is a melodic highlight of The Clash’s career, in no small part thanks to Mick’s Spanish (some of which doesn’t make sense): “Yo te quiero infinito. Yo te querda. ¡O, mi corazón!”
“BRAND NEW CADILLAC”
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
“Vince Taylor was the beginning of British rock ‘n’ roll,” said Joe of the “Brand New Cadillac writer who originally released the song in 1959. After many years of fame, Vince would plummet into poorer and poorer mental health. “I met him in The Pig’s Foot restaurant in the early ‘80s. He talked to me for over five hours about how the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were planning to kill him with poisoned chocolate cake.”
Despite Joe’s admiration, it was Paul, who was investigating rock’s beginnings during the London Calling sessions, who brought it to the band.
Often talked about as one of the first recordings from the London Calling sessions, the band got it in one take. “It’s a take!” pronounced a hugely impressed Guy Stevens. Topper, who hadn’t made one error by the ear of the perfectionist Sandy Pearlman while recording Give ‘Em Enough Rope, correctly noted, “You can’t keep that, it speeds up!” Sure enough, Topper didn’t quite keep perfect time here. Guy was unconcerned. “So what? All great rock and roll speeds up. Take!”
Paul also fessed up to playing a wrong note during the recording (which is what would be released on London Calling). “It doesn’t matter,” said Guy. “It’s great.” “He made me feel really at ease,” Paul remembered. “If I played a wrong note, he didn’t care.”
Outside of his madness, Guy eased the band up. Topper said that he “stopped us from getting too serious.” Mick would fret over perfecting a solo. “For fuck’s sake,” Guy would tell him. “Jerry Lee Lewis would have this in the can and be ‘round the boozer by now.”
Guy helped the band stop giving so much of a fuck in a way that came out in the unhinged fury of performances like “Brand New Cadillac.”
“WRONG ‘EM BOYO”
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
Probably nothing better demonstrates the album’s distinct sonic identity than “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” a cover of the 1967 song by The Rulers which starts with an interpolation of a 1958 hit by Lloyd Price based on the traditional folk song “Stagger Lee,” which is based on a true story from 1895. A St. Louis newspaper report in the following days read: “William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis [aka Billy Lyons], at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.” Stag became a figure of toughness whose legend was heard and spread by early folk and blues musicians.
This recording prominently features organ player Mickey Gallagher (“I got sent a copy of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, had a listen, and thought, ‘my God, what do they want me to do?’”), who over the next years would sometimes be a sort of fifth band member. For the horns, the band worked with The Irish Horns, who had backed Graham Parker on his first two albums. Joe: “The horn parts were all done in one day by the Irish Horns, who made up their own arrangements on the spot. We’d suggest the way it should go, they’d fill it out. They hit five tunes from scratch.”
The band’s dynamics were so varied but gelled so well. Recorder Johnny Green remembered, “I remember Mick strumming country, Paul reggae, Topper disco. They started swapping instruments.”
Joe once introduced it to the audience thusly: “Deep in the jungle of rhythm and blues walks a ghost, undiscovered by the future, forgotten by the past. On my left, Mr. Stagger Lee, and on my right, Mr. Billy Liar. So make sure this is a fair contest…no kicks below the cock line and no punch up the poop-chute and let’s rock it.”
“RUDY CAN’T FAIL”
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
That’s “Rudie,” as in “Rude Boy,” as in a Carribean term for a teenaged thug. Rudies are common images in Jamaican music, sometimes put down for the obvious reasons but sometimes celebrated for their rebellious nature.
“Rudie Can’t Fail” best embodies London Calling’s sound of old-fashioned rock and roll swirled with reggae rhythms being played in New Orleans in the middle of the apocalypse, and along with “Revolution Rock” is perhaps its greatest moment of triumph. It appears from nothing in the dust of Joe’s tossed off, scatted “Safe European Home,” and, finally noticing some fucking competition, declares war on other UK bands like The Specials (who fronted for The Clash on tour while being managed, and cheated, by one Bernie Rhodes) and The Jam: “You think you’re pretty hot in your porkpie hat.”
It also noted a young man who’d been “drinking brew for breakfast.”
(Jackie Edwards, Danny Ray)
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
Not much to say about this one. The album’s third and final cover. Its original ending. There’s Jackie Edwards’ song “Get Up.” That served as the basis for Danny Ray & The Revolutionaries’ “Revolution Rock.” The horns are something else. “I’m so pilled up that I rattle!”
“Everybody smash up your seat and rock to this brand new beat. Can you feel it? Don’t ignore it. Everything gonna be all right.”
“TRAIN IN VAIN (STAND BY ME)”
December 1979, London Calling 2xLP
Up until this point, Mick Jones was the writer of simple romance songs in the group but could never match Joe’s 101ers high note, “Keys to Your Heart.” And this transcendent, almost out-of-place Clash classic purely exists because of Joe ambitiously requesting that London Calling be made a double LP. Like The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.”, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, or The Beatles’ white album.
CBS said no.
The request then turned to including a free single with a single LP.
CBS said fine.
The request for a 7” became a demand for a 12”.
CBS, still, said fine.
The 12” was then to be 33rpm to fit on eight songs.
Then nine songs.
Then the sleeve was printed, showing London Calling with 18 songs. Another would be worked onto the album. The extra disc remained free and, with the album’s sleeve already being manufactured and attesting to a double LP, CBS conceded. London Calling wasn’t just a double LP. It was a double for the price of a single.
“It was our first victory over CBS,” Joe proudly proclaimed that very December.
One day in November, NME asked The Clash to record something they could release on flex-disc like they had with “Capital Radio” after the first album. Mick wrote a song overnight and it would be recorded the next day. It was written, rehearsed, and recorded in less than 24 hours. NME backpedaled, realizing they didn’t have the money to create the flexi-disc. Despite the sleeve already declaring London Calling had 18 tracks, the band decided to insert it after “Revolution Rock,” bringing the album to 19 songs, one more than ancestor “Exile on Main St.”
Along with “I’m Not Down,” “Train in Vain” (so-named because there was already a song out there called “Stand By Me”) sandwiches “Revolution Rock” with Jonesy angst. “Train” chugs along with Mick in near hysterics (“Did you lie-ie-ie-HI-HI when you spoke to me?”) as he sings about what’s probably his then-recently ended relationship with Viv Albertine.
One of the all-time great breakup songs. Also listen to the live version on From Here to Eternity to have your mind blown.
August 1980, Bankrobber 7”
And then it was 1980, which saw Joy Division’s second and final album, Closer, before Ian Curtis would hang himself. Strong releases came from Stevie Wonder, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, The Specials, Ramones, Queen, The Jam, and Bruce Springsteen (who supposedly made The River a double LP in reaction to London Calling) while strong debuts came from The Beat, Dead Kennedys, U2, X, Joan Jett, Pretenders, The Feelies, and Ozzy Osbourne (whose old band Black Sabbath would release an album that year with Ronnie James Dio taking up vocal duties). Then there were the giants, like AC/DC’s Back in Black, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Motörhead’s Ace of Spades, and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. The Clash were gearing up for not their best but certainly their biggest release.
But The Clash were looking for a greater campaign. Kosmo Vinyl remembers: “We decided to record one single a month. As one dropped out of the charts, we would release another one. We delivered [the first of the singles, “Bankrobber”] to CBS but they wouldn’t play it. They said it sounded like all of David Bowie’s records played backwards at once. Eventually they put it out, but only after we had sneaked it out as a B-side in Holland and it was going to chart on import sales alone.”
“Bankrobber” took the slowness of “Armagideon Times” and merged it with the weirdness that would show up in their coming album, Sandinista! It’s not the first time the band has glamorized criminal behavior but certainly the most direct: “The old man spoke up in a bar/Said, ‘I never been in prison/A lifetime serving one machine/Is ten times worse than prison.’”
“THE CALL UP”
November 1980, The Call Up 7”
“The Call Up” single preceded Sandinista! But it was the first song released from the 36-song behemoth. London Calling was released as a double LP for the price of one. Sandinista! was released as a triple LP for the price of one (Mick: “The record company hadn’t wanted to do the two-for-the-price-of-one on London Calling and must have been exasperated when we suggested three for Sandinista!. So we stole the master tapes and held them in a safe until negotiations were finished”).
Joe: “It was three pieces of long-playing vinyl for the price of one and we took a knock in order to bring it out. We forwent our royalties so the company would release it. Many times I’ve debated with people about what should be on it, what shouldn’t be on it but now, looking back, I can’t separate it. It’s like the layers of an onion. There are some stupid tracks, there are some brilliant tracks. The more I think about it, the happier I am about what it is. The fact that it was all thrown down in one go and then released like that makes it doubly outrageous–triply outrageous! I can only say I’m proud of it, warts and all. It’s a magnificent thing I wouldn’t change even if I could. And that’s after some soul searching. … For better or worse, it’s the document of what happened.”
The band had requested three weeks in New York’s Electric Ladyland studio, and they went in to record the album. Joe spells out the intensity of the marathon session: “We were in there for the whole three weeks, day and night. I never went to a bar or a nightclub or anything.” Joe reportedly made himself a bunker in the studio. “I used to sleep under the piano,” remembers Joe, probably not kidding.
“The Call Up” is one of the more typical songs on the album, stretching the “Career Opportunities” line “I hate the Army and I hate the RAF/I don’t wanna go fighting in the tropical heat” to song length. “There is a rose that I want to live for” finally replaced “cry for your lonely mother’s son” as the band’s most tender line.
“POLICE ON MY BACK”
December 1980, Sandinista! 3xLP
Maybe the best example of a Clash cover knocking the original all the way into the next galaxy (it was originally done by The Equals), “Police on My Back” turns a coolly sung reggae track whose refrain sighs “what have I done?” into an arena rocker whose refrain desperately screams “WHAT HAVE I DONE?!” The guitars sound like police sirens. It’s definitely not the first or last song in The Clash’s history to express disdain for law enforcement.
“THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN”
December 1980, Sandinista! 3xLP
It would be a few years before Run-D.M.C. bridged hip hop from an underground movement that sometimes hit the charts as a novelty (see: “Rapper’s Delight”) or resulted in a masterpiece on the alternative scene (see: “The Message”) to an MTV phenomenon, but acts like Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash began to solidify the long-forming movement that looms large as the most sizeable force in popular music today. Joe didn’t know how right he was when he said, “these groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.”
The band loved the hip hop movement, especially Mick, who began carrying around a boombox on his shoulder while the band was in New York, earning him the nickname “Whack Attack.” So the band tried two rap tracks. The other one was “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice,” but this was released as a single. It was based around a bass riff that The Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy did. Norman remembers: “Jonesy said, ‘We need something really funky ‘cos Joe wants to do a rap.’ Joe wrote the words there and then, totally spontaneous. A couple of hours later it was in the can.”
The song tackles themes of monotony (“Cold water in the face/Brings you back to this awful place”) and social injustice (“What do we have for entertainment?/Cops kicking gypsies on the pavement”) before veering into the outright surreal (“Italian MOBSTA/Shoots a LOBSTA/Seafood restaurant gets out of hand”). And then after Joe observes “It’s fucking long, innit?!” he brings in his last bit: “’VACUUM CLEANER SUCKS UP BUDGIE’ was a News of the World headline. I saw it when we were finishing the mix in England and I stuck it at the end. The budgie came out alive, too!”
The song remains an incredibly unlikely and respectful take on hip hop by a white rock band. Six months later, Blondie would release something similar: “Rapture.”
“SOMEBODY GOT MURDERED”
December 1980, Sandinista! 3xLP
Along with “Police on My Back,” “Somebody Got Murdered” shows that it’s the Mick-sung rockers that sound most traditionally Clash. Joe wrote this one, though.
Joe: “The car park attendant in the World’s End housing estate where I was living was murdered for five pounds. We had a phone call from Jack Nitzsche saying he needed a heavy rock number for a movie with Al Pacino, so I said OK. I hung up and went home and there was this guy in a pool of blood out by the parking kiosk. That night I wrote the lyric, gave it to Mick, and he wrote the tune. We recorded it and Jack Nitzsche never called back.”
Topper remembers bringing a special contribution to this one: “We wanted a police dog or guard dog sound. My dog Battersea wouldn’t let anyone hit me, so we went into the studio and I held onto him tight, and every time we wanted him to bark Joe would thump me!”
December 1980, Sandinista! 3xLP
The narrative of American Imperialism would begin around a decade later with its Middle Eastern relations (before which the CIA’s foreign affairs was concerned with holding up right-wing dictatorships in Central and South America, many of which were put in power with CIA-aided coups), but, again, The Clash was early to the punch. While in America, Joe in particular would make efforts to engage with activist groups analogous to those they identified with back in England. Joe met Mo Armstrong, a Vietnam veteran who owned a record store. Mo gave him literature about the Sandinistas’ revolution in Nicaragua.
Joe attributes the revolution’s success against the Somoza Dynasty to lack of US interference: “For the very first time ever when they had a revolution in Nicaragua/There was no interference from America/Human rights in America/Well, the people fought the leader, and up he flew/With no Washington bullets, what else could he do?” Of course, over the next decade Reagan would send opponents of the new regime, the Contras (a “liberation army” which contained many of Somoza’s former men), to fight with Sandinistas for the next decade.
Perhaps the boldest political song The Clash ever recorded, the song was musically the child of Topper’s playfulness in the studio. Its marimba fits the geography of its topic. Bill Price remembers: “Topper used to be first in every day. He’d wander ‘round and find something interesting to play, like a marimba, and start jamming on it. Then the rest of the band would arrive, listen to it, and start overdubbing. That would form the basis for another track. Pretty soon we were up to track 35!”
“THE SOUND OF SINNERS”
December 1980, Sandinista! 3xLP
Joe wanted “a Gospel kind of thing.” And though you might think otherwise, he insisted, “that’s not a piss take.”
“I was thinking of LA and the great earthquake. I had, ‘After all these years to believe in Jesus.’ Topper said, ‘How about drugs?’ All those people who take too much LSD and end up in sanatoriums. Lots of them think they’re Jesus.”
Probably my favorite song on Sandinista! (and Elvis Costello’s favorite Clash song, period), “Sound of Sinners,” like other Clash songs, anticipates Armageddon, but while (somewhat reverently) lampooning religious panic and sensationalism, particularly when it’s used to raise funds for the church.
Some interviewers wondered whether Joe had been shocked into religion. “I believe in good and evil and that what you do will be returned to you. If I didn’t I’d just go out and become a cat burglar. I believe in evil–it’s violence and thievery, screwing your fellow man when he’s not ready for it. It’s when you think somebody’s taking the piss and the feeling comes to get up and smash them in the face.”
Later, Joe would add: “I think a spiritual solution is just as important as a social one. Just solely talking about economics, like Marx did, I don’t think it’s enough.”
“SOMETHING ABOUT ENGLAND”
December 1980, Sandinista! 3xLP
British music had long been influenced by music hall, which since the 1870’s had been a large part of upper class entertainment. Variety shows equivalent to America’s vaudeville produced music that found its way even into rock music, mostly via the late ‘60s work of The Beatles and The Kinks. Punk kept free of it. Until, of course, Sandinista!’s explosion of genre experimentation. But it’s not as if “Something About England” uses that music without proper subversion. Mick begins the song: “They say the immigrants steal the hubcaps of respected gentlemen. They say it would be wine and roses if England were for Englishmen again.”
Mick plays a young man seeking answers for what’s gone wrong with England. “I saw a dirty overcoat at the foot of the pillar of the road/Propped inside was an old man who time would not erode.” Joe plays the old tramp, who cuts in: “You really think it’s all new/You really think about it, too.” “The old man scoffed as he spoke to me.” “I’ll tell you a thing or two.”
A piano sweep hits and the tempo raises and all the music suddenly comes in as Joe unleashes his best set of lyrics, coming from the mouth of a man who saw world wars and protests and revolution fail to disintegrate England’s class system (“Through strikes and famine and war and peace, England never closed this gap”). After time on a ship during WWII, Joe’s character makes his best observation: “The world was busy rebuilding itself/The architects could not care.”
One of The Clash’s finest songs and maybe their most ambitious, “Something About England” leaves behind Joe’s old man as the band’s most memorable character.
December 1980, Sandinista! 3xLP
Another ambitious genre exercise, this time with jazz, about a tramp, this time from New York, “Broadway” is much less focused, lyrically and musically, than “Something About England” but no less grand. Barry Glare helped work on the Sandinista! sessions and remembers: “We stayed at the Iroquois Hotel. Outside was a heating vent. There was always this one particular bloke, standing or sleeping on it. I remembered one night we came back from the studio about four in the morning and Joe was looking at this guy quite intently. I always thought ‘Broadway’ was about him.”
The tramp begins telling Joe his life story after he finds Joe has no coins to bum. He was born in the back of a truck, beaten ugly as a boxer in his younger days, crippled by loneliness, and is driven forward by dreams of owning “one of those cars.” As the song fades, Joe perhaps taunts: “Gimme a push, gimme a pull/Gimme a llama, gimme a mule/Gimme a donkey or gimme a horse.”
And then Mickey Gallagher has his daughter Maria sing a bit of “Guns of Brixton” before she announces, “That’s enough now. I’m tired of singing.”
November 1981, This Is Radio Clash 7”
In 1981, punk’s influence began truly showing as the eighties alternative scene depicted in Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life began rising with releases like Mission of Burma’s Signals, Calls, and Marches, The Replacements’ Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, and most notably Black Flag’s Damaged. And one of the biggest bands of the decade would release first single “Radio Free Europe”: R.E.M.
The Clash, meanwhile, ended their relations with the Blackhill management. Paul: “Joe wanted Bernie back because there was no excitement in the situation with Blackhill and Joe needed to have someone like Bernie around to give him confidence. At least there were ideas coming from another angle, which was what Bernie thrived on.”
Mick was producing albums for Theatre of Hate, then-girlfriend Ellen Foley (whose album the whole band played on, with some Strummer/Jones compositions to boot), and his childhood hero, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter.
Kosmo Vinyl, Bernie, and Joe had a conversation about The Clash putting together their own radio station. Finding striking images for Joe to rap must have been easy, because the single was released with two version of the same song. “This Is Radio Clash” and “Radio Clash” were the same song, but with different lyrics.
“Radio Clash” is the better set of lyrics and rocks more energy, and so it’s included here. Perhaps modern discourse around the NSA will spring to mind when listening, as it’s less about a radio station as a monument to The Clash (“This is not Free Europe”) and more about technology being used to breath down your neck and watch you.
But above all, it’s just a fantastic tune with a fantastic performance.
“KNOW YOUR RIGHTS”
April 1982, Know Your Rights 7”
With R.E.M.’s EP Chronic Town and releases from The Descendents and Meat Puppets, 1982, commonly known as the year of the biggest album of all time, Thriller, was the last year of The Clash as most know them but also the last year before ‘80s alternative rock would fully materialize.
The lead single and opening track to fifth album Combat Rock, “Know Your Rights” begins with another of The Clash’s greatest lines: “This is a public service announcements…WITH GUITARS!!!”
With a single guitar chord stabbing you repeatedly for most of the song, Joe lists of your rights (“all three of ‘em!”): 1. “You have the right not be killed.” 2. “You have the right to food money.” 3. “You have the right to free speech.” Joe’s rant accompanies the expectations that are now somehow attached to these and spits on those demanding further freedoms. Later he’d say, “it was supposed to be ironic but nobody understood that, which still makes me angry.”
Paul remembers tensions in the band rising during a recording of the song: “All I really remember from recording Combat Rock is having a two-hour argument with Mick about the level of the bass on ‘Know Your Rights.’ I wanted it to be a bit louder and deeper like a reggae sort of sound, so it would match up to the guitar, but Mick had his own idea and so we had a stand-up argument for two hours. Everyone else was just walking around, waiting for us to finish.”
On the cover of the single is one of the lines most commonly associated with The Clash: “THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN.”
(The Clash, Allan Ginsberg)
May 1982, Combat Rock LP
Perhaps no song can represent the strangeness and variety of style on Combat Rock while simultaneously standing up as a phenomenal composition as well as “Ghetto Defendant.”
The poet Allan Ginsberg wanted The Clash to come onto one of his recordings. Instead, Joe invited Allan to be “the voice of God” on the track. Allan told Rolling Stone: “He said, ‘You’re the greatest poet in America, what can you do with this?’”
Joe was impressed. “He just did it on the spot. It was good.”
“Ghetto Defendant” blames the worsening of poor areas not on its residents but those who exploit them: “Its heroin pity/Not tear gas nor baton charge that stops you taking the city.”
“ROCK THE CASBAH”
May 1982, Combat Rock LP
Topper’s crowning achievement came before his terrible fall.
Topper: “I wrote ‘Rock the Casbah’–the music, not the lyric. One day I went into the studio on my own because I don’t actually know what notes I’m playing, so rather than try to tell everyone what to play I went and recorded piano, and then the drums and then bass. I was thinking that it would just, you know, show them the way it could go but they all said ‘great, let’s keep it.’ Mick put guitar on it, Joe put the vocals on and it was done.”
Joe: “We found that whenever we’d play a tune on the Combat Rock sessions, it would be six minutes, minimum. After a few days of this, Bernie came down the studio and I think he heard ‘Sean Flynn’ and he said, ‘Does everything have to be as long as a raga?’ From then on everything we did we called a raga. I got back to the Iroquois Hotel that night and wrote on the typewriter, ‘The King told the boogie men/You gotta let that raga drop.’ I looked at it and for some reason I started to think about what someone had told me earlier, that you got lashed for owning a disco album in Iran. So I transferred that line from Bernie, to these religious leaders who tried to stop people from listening to music.”
“Rock the Casbah” was an enormous hit, going top ten in America. But while touring, The Clash was running into problems. Topper, easily the biggest drug user in the band, and when they landed in drugless Japan, he flipped out and initially issued the ultimatum of “no drugs, no gig.” In the end, he was convinced to wear an oxygen mask while drumming. At the second gig, he’d be tackled by a stagehand, leading a fight to break out until local staff explain in broken English: “Drummer…oxygen…explode!” Topper’s cigarette had been dangerously close to the oxygen canister. Topper remembered, “I could’ve been the first drummer to explode onstage!”
Drugs were unacceptably hindering Topper’s performance. Without letting Topper know, Joe decided his last chance would be in Amsterdam. Topper remembers what happened: “I don’t know I’m being tested, do I? I don’t know it’s my last chance, and I’m running ‘round trying to score coke. They’re all sitting in the dressing room, combing their hair in the mirror against the wall and I go: ‘can I use the mirror?’” Topper placed the mirror on the ground, knelt beside it, cut up lines of cocaine and used.
“When the band sacked me I promised them that I’d stop misbehaving and taking substances. They said, ‘Ok, we’ll go and do this tour and when we come back, if you’ve got yourself together you can rejoin.’ But while they were away Joe did an interview and blew the whole story, said that I’d been sacked, and I went further downhill from there.”
Opportunities came for Topper, but he blew them. The Who’s drummer Keith Moon had been dead since 1978, and Pete Townshend was good friends with Topper. It looked like Topper would go on tour as The Who’s drummer headlining for The Clash (Topper enjoyed the idea of finding himself higher up than his former bandmates), but one night he seemingly jumped off a roof and woke up in a hospital.
Topper would also flounder his chances to be the drummer for Mick’s Big Audio Dyanmite. He would eventually release an ignored solo album, Waking Up, in 1986. He constantly blew any money that came in, including a large sum of money he obtained for his dismissal from The Clash, on heroin, eventually finding himself bankrupt.
But the most painful part for Topper was the video for “Rock the Casbah,” filmed after he left the band. Terry Chimes was sitting on the drummer’s stool. It caused further depression and addiction, he said, to see “someone else in my place playing my song.”
“SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO”
May 1982, Combat Rock LP
Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg version, Unreleased
Combat Rock was initially imagined as a double LP named Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg. A collection of recordings produced by Mick can be found online, but Combat Rock would be cut down and produced instead by Glyn Johns.
Written about the soon-to-implode relationship he was having with Meatloaf backup singer Ellen Foley, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is Mick’s most famous moment. Long after The Clash would exist, it would be rereleased in 1991 and hit #1 on the UK charts.
Another straightforward breakup song, the unreleased version of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” benefits from backing vocals from Joe showing up louder in the mix and Mick’s voice being double tracked. It also keeps intact the original lyric “on your front or on your back,” which was changed to “so if you want me off your back” to better serve possible airplay.
Joe Ely did the Spanish backing vocals with Joe and remembers a fond studio memory: “When you listen, there’s a place in the song where Mick says, ‘Split!’ Me and Strummer had snuck up behind him and jumped out at him in the middle of singing, and scared the shit out of him. He looks over and gives us the dirtiest look. They kept that in the final version.”
After Topper left, the band would play large venues and make appearances as things became even tenser. Paul: “Mick wanted to rest. I think we should have carried on touring, finished the job we’d started because we were on the verge of making a serious dent in the charts. But Mick wanted to go home. That probably caused a lot of frustration for Joe and me.”
Joe: “There was a power struggle between Bernie and Mick and I was foolish enough to let Bernie have his way.” Joe once said, “Sometimes I feel I’ve only been a pawn in a game between Mick and Bernie. If you wanna look at The Clash story, the Titans in the struggle have been Mick and Bernie.”
Then there was the fateful day. Mick: “I came into rehearsal just like any other day and, funnily enough, Topper had turned up to see how we were.”
Paul: “We were in the rehearsal room and it was kind of ‘gunfight at the OK Coral.’ Joe and I had been talking and it was a matter of, ‘We’re grown men, I can’t anymore of this.’ And we agreed that we wanted to get on with the job rather than waiting for Mick, so we asked him to leave. Joe said to him, ‘We want you to leave,’ and Mick asked me, ‘What do you say?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah…’ I didn’t need to say any more.”
Joe: “If I had any defense I’d say that Mick was intolerable to work with by this time. I mean no fun at all. He wouldn’t show up and when he did it was like Elizabeth Taylor in a filthy mood. Any man would have sacked him, but I still regret that I was party to it.”
Paul: “I think Mick felt let down because I’d said to him from Day One, ‘Don’t worry Mick, I’ll always look after you.’”
Joe: “I really learned it was over the day we sacked Topper, and not the day we sacked Mick. There was quite some time between them. We played a whole tour between those times. But it was the day we sacked Tops.”
“STRAIGHT TO HELL”
May 1982, Combat Rock LP
Extended unedited version, November 1991, Clash on Broadway box set
The Clash offered up this full version for release, but CBS declined. It wouldn’t be released until nine years later.
Its opening guitar and strings sampled heavily on M.I.A.’s masterpiece “Paper Planes,” one should be careful not to underestimate “Straight to Hell”’s cultural potency on its own. “Straight to Hell” perhaps only does battle with “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” as the song most closely associated with Joe.
The song journeys from the UK, where it hones in on the growing class divide under Thatcherism, to Vietnam, where children from the American GI’s sperm donor program are born, to America, where crack cocaine was pummeling the impoverished.
“It was New Year’s Eve the day after we’d recorded the backing track. I’d written the lyric staying up all night at the Iroquois. I went down to Electric Ladyland and put the vocal down on tape–we finished at about twenty to midnight. We took the E train from the Village up to Times Square, because the Iroquois is off Times Square. I’ll never forget coming out of the Times Square subway exist, just before midnight, into a hundred billion people, and I knew we’d just done something great.”
“THIS IS ENGLAND”
(Joe Strummer, Bernard Rhodes)
September 1985, This Is England 7”
“I always really like ‘This Is England.’”
Joe’s sentiment is perhaps the most positive thing he or anyone else might say about Cut the Crap.
“This Is England” is a sort of UK cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s all-time great 1984 song “Born in the U.S.A.” The atmospheric, pseudo-patriotic synths are there and what “Born in the USA” was to Reaganism “This Is England” was to Thatcherism.
Bassist Nick Shepperd remembers a rare positive moment during Cut the Crap’s recording: “I remember playing bass on that and Joe being ecstatic. He said ‘That’s the only bit of the record with any bollocks to it!’”
“WE ARE THE CLASH”
November 1985, Cut the Crap LP
Paul: “Bernie suggested getting two guitarists for Clash Mk II, just to change the look, and ‘cos it would have been too much for one person to be charged with replacing Mick. I think there are some really good songs on Cut the Crap and, after the experience we’d just had with Mick, I told Joe that I wouldn’t get in the way. I said, ‘You have control of it, mix it, everything.’ But before I knew it, Bernie was all over it, it was out of Joe’s hands and into Bernie’s. When I finally heard it, the record bore no relation to the songs Joe had written. They were buried under a load of stuff Bernie had dug up.”
Most songs on Cut the Crap were carried by a simple drum machine and only two had Paul on bass.
“I had a terrible time with Bernie in the end,” Joe reflects. “In a nutshell, in order to control me, he destroyed my self-confidence.”
Heartbreakingly, Joe remembers: “I just went, ‘Well fuck this,’ and fucked off to the mountains of Spain to sit sobbing under a palm tree, while Bernie had to deliver a record.”
The Clash had effectively disbanded in early 1986. Joe went to find Mick and ask him to regroup with him, but Mick already had a band, Big Audio Dynamite, who released their debut just before Cut the Crap was released. Mick and Joe would write songs together for Big Audio Dynamite’s second album and for the soundtrack to the film Sid & Nancy: Love Kills. The group would all do their own scattered projects over the years before Joe’s death in 2002.
Lester Bangs referred to The Clash as “The Only Band That Matters,” likely not to invalidate the actions of any non-Clash act but to emphasize that the death of this band might mean the death of hope for us all. And surely enough, it was the man turning rebellion into money that brought the band to its end.
But “Death or Glory,” as Keith Topping puts it, “begins with Strummer reflecting on how time changes everything and that nothing escapes this process.” Joe would, later in life, produce this profound quote: “I’ll tell you something. When you see you become part of the cycle of generations, you lose your ego in the process, because you ain’t nothin’ special. You’re just another cipher in the generations. When you devote all your interest into another person, you lose your self-obsession, and that’s when you understand what it is. You don’t know without that moment. You don’t want anything to harm this helpless being. That’s a fantastic change. And that’s when you understand what’s happening. I never understood anything until my first baby looked at me. I didn’t understand. Now I understand.”
From 1985 on, acts like The Pogues, Public Enemy, Bikini Kill, M.I.A., and many more would create music embracing multiculturalism and counterculturalism the way The Clash did. Independent labels and independent radio broadcasts would become more and more popular. Alternative was briefly on top of the world with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. The age of the internet made the trade and production of music a lot more democratic, and the machine that used to control popular music began to flail.
If The Clash, as Joe says, became part of the cycle of generations and lost its ego in the process, would it look at the world it left behind and conclude its glory despite its death?
“I was trying to prove that I was The Clash and it wasn’t Mick. I learned that was kind of dumb. I learned that it wasn’t anybody, but maybe a great chemistry between us four.”
I used to dismiss “We Are the Clash” because, as I said, it was a lie.
But while it’s not exactly a fantastic set of lyrics, Joe has passion in the chorus when the title is chanted. But he’s not crying it with them, rather simply cheering them on.
The Clash was but a representation of that hard-to-uncover collision of interests, the real reasons that are causing X to fight Y, the actual duality of us v. them. As long as we keep our eyes on how the details interact with the bigger picture, looking for which battles in politics and culture carry the vitality to impact real change, then We Are The Clash.