The Clash was a British punk rock group that existed from 1976 to 1985. One of the most critically lauded bands of their period, The Clash was noted for being musically far-reaching (they incorporated reggae, roots rock, and eventually many other music styles into their repertoire), for displaying a political and lyrical sophistication that distinguished them from most of their colleagues in the punk movement, and for uncommonly intense stage performances. They are considered as one of the most influential and best-known punk acts. Besides contemporary American punk outfits like Green Day, Blink 182 and The Offspring, which cite The Clash as a major influence, seminal alternative rock bands like U2, the Cure and R.E.M. borrow much from The Clash. The 1990s British music of the Britpop movement has also been influenced by The Clash -- via revolutionary looks and big, catchy hooks.
Line up and early days
Originally composed of Joe Strummer (b. John Graham Mellor in 1952) (vocals, rhythm guitar), Mick Jones (b. 1955) (vocals, lead guitar), Paul Simonon (b. 1955) (bass and vocals), Keith Levene (lead guitar) Terry Chimes (credited on the first LP as "Tory Crimes") (drums), the Clash formed in London in 1976 during the first wave of British punk. Keith Levene (later of Public Image Limited) was an early guitarist and songwriter with The Clash, but he never recorded with the band and left in ambiguous circumstances after 5 gigs. Strummer had previously been in the pub rock act The 101ers (his first stage name at this point was Woody Mellor, branding himself "Joe Strummer" during this period), and Jones and Simonon (briefly) in legendary proto-punk band London SS. At the behest of manager Bernie Rhodes, Jones, Levene and Simonon recruited Strummer from the 101ers ("You're all right," they told him, "but your band's crap." Rhodes then allegedly gave Strummer 48 hours to sign on, but called him wanting an answer in 24). And so the Clash—name supplied by Simonon after seeing the word in all the newspapers—came to be.
Following the release of their first album, Chimes was replaced with longtime drummer Topper Headon (b. Nick Headon). The musically gifted Headon was planning to stay only briefly. Instead he remained with The Clash until late 1982 – present for most of the band's career as well as the most successfull part.
Their first gig was in 1976 supporting The Sex Pistols, and that autumn the band were signed to CBS Records. They released their first single ("White Riot") and first album (The Clash) in 1977 to considerable success in the UK, though CBS initially declined to release either in the United States, only releasing a modified version of the first album in the US after the UK original had been a bestselling import for two years.
Initially The Clash were notable for their strident leftist political outlook and distinctive clothes that they painted with revolutionary slogans ("Sten Guns in Knightsbridge" "Under Heavy Manners"). Throughout 1977, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were in and out of jail for a range of minor crimes, ranging from vandalism to stealing a pillowcase, while Simonon and Headon were arrested for shooting racing pigeons with an air gun.
Their next album, the Sandy Pearlman-produced Give 'Em Enough Rope, was the first to feature Topper Headon on all cuts. Pearlman was amazed by Headon's impressive timing and musical skills and thus christened him "The Human Drum Machine". 'Rope' was released in 1978 and debuted at number two on the British charts, but failed to crack the top 100 in the world's largest music market, the United States.
Cover of Give 'Em Enough Rope
Like many early punk bands, The Clash protested against the monarchy and the aristocracy in the U.K. and around the world. Unlike many early punk bands, however, The Clash rejected the overall sentiment of nihilism and anarchy. Instead, they found solidarity with a number of liberation movements going on at the time. Their politics were expressed explicity in their lyrics, in early recordings such as "White Riot," which encouraged disaffected white youths to become politically active like their black counterparts, "Career Opportunities," which expressed discontent over the lack of jobs in the U.K., and "London's Burning", which expressed punk rage, but was at the same time downright analytical.
In one instance in 1978, at a Rock Against Racism show, organized by the Anti-Nazi League, Joe Strummer wore a controversial t-shirt bearing the words "Brigate-Rosse " with the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) insignia in the middle. He later said in an interview that he wore the shirt not to support the left-wing terrorists factions in Germany and Italy, rather to bring attention to their existence. Still, he felt bad after the show, prompting him to write the song "Tommy Gun," renouncing violence as a means of protest.
The Clash offered some support to the Sandinista and other Marxist movements in Latin America (hence the title of their 1981 album, Sandinista!). They were involved directly with the controversial Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. By the time of the December 1979 album London Calling, the Clash (like the Dead Kennedys in the U.S.) were trying to square the circle of maintaining punk energy while developing increasingly musicianly chops. They were especially wary of their own emerging stardom: they always welcomed fans backstage after shows and showed genuine interest and compassion in their relationships with them.
The title of London Calling evokes American radio newsman Edward R. Murrow's catchphrase during World War II, and the title song announces that "...war is declared and battle come down..." It warns against expecting them to be saviours — "... now don't look to us / Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust..." — draws a bleak picture of the times — "The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in / Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin" — but calls on their listeners to come out of their drugged stupor and take up the fight without constantly looking to London, or to The Clash themselves, for cues — "Forget it, brother, we can go it alone... Quit holding out and draw another breath... I don't wanna shout / But while we were talking I saw you nodding out..." — finally asking, "After all this, won't you give me a smile?"
The Clash are generally credited with founding the roots of punk rock in liberal protest, and were known as the "Thinking Man's Yobs" by many for their politically astute take on the world. It should be noted that they were never driven entirely by money. Even at their peak, tickets to shows and the prices of souvenirs were kept reasonable. Similarly, the group accepted lower royalties from Sandinista! in order to ensure that the album would be sold the same price as a single LP.
Give 'em Enough Rope was the first Clash album to be released by a US label (though the UK release of the first album was a bestselling import in the US), and to support it the Clash went on their first tour of the US in early 1979. Their first album did not see an official release in the US until July 1979, then in a drastically revised form from the version that was released elsewhere. This included a roaring version of Bobby Fuller's I Fought The Law (originally from their Cost Of Living EP).
The band's critical and commercial breakthrough in the US came with London Calling, a double album released in January 1980 for the price of a single album (at the band's insistence). Besides straightforward punk, it featured a much wider array of styles than the earlier albums, including American-style rockabilly and reggae works that resonated with the ska movement in Britain. The album is considered a landmark, and tracks such as "Train in Vain", "Clampdown" and "London Calling" show up with regularity on rock stations to this day.
The Clash followed London Calling with a triple album (released for the price of a double album) in late 1980, entitled Sandinista! (with the catalog number FSLN1, from the Spanish initials of the Sandinista political movement, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional). The results were mixed, as the band continued their experimentation into reggae and dub ("Let's Go Crazy") and expanded into other musical styles and production techniques that included jazz ("Look Here"), hip hop ("The Magnificent Seven"), chamber music ("Rebel Waltz"), vocals by keyboard player Micky Gallagher 's young son, and "Mensforth Hill," a tape loop collage similar to The Beatles Revolution No 9.
Fans were confused and sales were down, although they were better in the US than previously. Following the release of Sandinista!, The Clash went on their first world tour including venues in eastern Asia and Australia.
In 1982, The Clash returned with the best-selling of all their albums, Combat Rock. Featuring the singles "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" it broke into the American Top Ten, and did the same in the UK. "Ghetto Defendant" featured Allen Ginsberg, and "Red Angel Dragnet" referenced the film Taxi Driver.
Tensions and disintegration
The effects of this were not apparent externally at first with the success of Combat Rock. After that, the Clash began to slowly disintegrate. Topper Headon was fired on account of his on-going heroin addiction problem and the original drummer, Terry Chimes, was brought back into the fold for the next few tours. The key members began to feud. Terry Chimes left the band after the 1982 Combat Rock tour, convinced the band could not continue with in-fighting and turmoil. In 1983, after an extensive search for a new drummer, Pete Howard was recruited and performed with the original line-up at several low-key US dates and before The Clash's largest audience at the US Festival in San Bernardino, California—Mick Jones's last appearance with The Clash.
In September 1983, Strummer and Simonon ousted Jones from the band, citing his problematic behaviour and divergent musical aspirations (Jones went on to found Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) with Don Letts ). After a series of auditions, the band announced Nick Sheppard (23), formerly of the Bristol-based Cortinas, and Vince White (23) would be the band's new guitarists. The band played its first shows in January 1984 with a batch of new material and launched into a self-financed tour, dubbed the Out of Control tour.
Musically, the band was more than capable of re-creating—at times, bettering—the fire and intensity of the original line-up, but chemistry and trust between the old guard and the new were sometimes strained due to circumstance and unfamiliarity. Regardless, the band toured heavily over the winter and into early summer, with Strummer taking a hiatus until the fall to tend to personal matters. At a Miner's benefit show in December, he announced the band had a new record and was releasing it early in the new year.
The album's recording sessions were a shambles with manager Bernie Rhodes scrubbing Howard's considerable talent in favour of a drum machine, drastically re-engineering the songs' live arrangements, and relying on synthesizers and mob choruses. Other songs aired on the tour remain unreleased: "Ammunition", "Glue Zombie", "In the Pouring Rain".
Disillusioned with Rhodes's album, Strummer took the band busking across Northern England and Scotland, playing for free on street corners and in bars. The Clash played their final shows at European festivals in 1985, with Strummer eventually calling the band together and put The Clash down. Meanwhile, Cut the Crap was released to a generally poor reception, though it charted higher than Big Audio Dynamite's release in the USA.
Joe Strummer acted in a few movies, recorded movie soundtracks (notably "Love Kills" for the film Sid and Nancy) and experimented with different backing bands with limited success. In 1991/92 Strummer joined The Pogues after their split-up with former frontman Shane MacGowan for a series of concerts across Europe. Finally, in the mid- to late-1990s, Strummer gathered top-flight musicians into a backing band he called The Mescaleros. Strummer signed with the California punk label Hellcat Records, and issued a stunning album co-written with Anthony Genn, called Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. A tour of England and North America soon followed; sets included several Clash-fan favourites. Genn left The Mescaleros in the middle of recording sessions for the second album, Global A Go-Go, which included violinist and guitarist Tymon Dogg, who contributed the song "Lose This Skin" to the album Sandinista! Following the release of Global A Go-Go, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros mounted a 21-date tour of North America, Britain, and Ireland. Once again, these concerts featured Clash material ("London Calling", "Rudie Can't Fail"), as well as classic covers of reggae hits ("The Harder They Come", "A Message To You, Rudie") and regularly closed the show with a nod to the late Joey Ramone by playing The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop". In December of 2002, Joe Strummer died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50. The Mescaleros album he was working on at the time, Streetcore, was released posthumously to critical acclaim in 2003.
Following the break up of The Clash, Paul Simonon joined a group called Havana 3AM, which recorded only one album in Japan and quickly folded. Then Simonon returned to his roots as a visual artist, mounting several art-gallery shows and contributing the cover for Mick Jones' third BAD album, which was, coincidentally, co-produced by Joe Strummer. Simonon's reluctance to play music again has largely been cited as the reason why The Clash were one of the few 1970s British punk bands that did not reform to cash in on the punk-nostalgia craze of the late 1990s. However, Mick Jones commented in the press that at the time of Strummer's death, the foursome was seriously considering reuniting for a tour, and that the likelihood was good of it happening.
After being fired from the band shortly after the release of Combat Rock, Topper Headon wandered aimlessly with a heroin addiction. He formed a jazz band that enjoyed a very brief life. Until the filming of Don Letts' retrospective documentary about The Clash, Westway to The World , and a subsequent presentation to Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon of a Lifetime Achievement British Music Award, Headon disappeared from the music business. It should be noted that his contribution to The Clash was by no means limited to his drumming for the band--Headon also composed the piano riff for "Rock The Casbah." Now he is clean and continues to perform on gigs. It was on one of those gigs when he learned that Joe was dead. In 2003, he stated that he'd perform at tribute gigs for Joe.
LondonCalling.ogg, from London Calling. 30 seconds, 616 KB
- The Clash, 1977, CBS Records CD release: Epic Records #12 UK
- Give 'Em Enough Rope, 1978, CBS Records CD release: Epic Records #2 UK, #128 US
- London Calling, 1979, CBS Records CD release: Epic Records #9 UK, #27 US
- Sandinista!, 1980, CBS Records CD release: Epic Records #19 UK, #24 US
- Combat Rock, 1982, CBS Records CD release: Epic Records #2 UK, #7 US
- Cut the Crap, 1985, CBS Records #16 UK, #88 US
- The Story of the Clash, Volume 1 , 1988 (compilation, greatest hits collection), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records #7 UK, #142 US
- Clash on Broadway , 1991 (3 disc box set containing several unreleased tracks and alternate versions), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records
- The Singles , 1991 (singles compilation), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records
- From Here to Eternity: Live, 1999 (live recordings from 1978 - 1982), Epic Records #13 UK, #193 US
- The Essential Clash , 2003 (compilation, "essential" recordings), Epic/Legacy #18 UK, #99 US
- London Calling: 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition, 2004 (expanded with rehearsal tapes and making of the album DVD), Epic/Legacy #26 UK
- from "The Clash"
- 1977 "White Riot" #38 UK
- 1977 "Remote Control"
- non-album singles (added to "The Clash" US version)
- 1977 "Complete Control" #28 UK
- 1978 "Clash City Rockers" #35 UK
- 1978 "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" #32 UK
- from "Give 'Em Enough Rope"
- 1978 "Tommy Gun" #19 UK
- 1979 "English Civil War (Johnny Comes Marching Home)" #25 UK
- non-album EP
- 1979 "The Cost Of Living EP" (I Fought the Law/Groovy Times/Gates of the West/Capital Radio One) #22 UK
- from "London Calling"
- 1979 "London Calling" #11 UK
- 1980 "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)" #23 US
- from "Black Market Clash"
- from "Sandinista!"
- 1980 "The Call Up" #40 UK
- 1981 "The Magnificent Seven" #34 UK
- from "Combat Rock"
- 1982 "Rock the Casbah" #30 UK, #8 US (1983 release)
- 1982 "Should I Stay or Should I Go/Straight to Hell" #17 UK
- from "Cut the Crap"
- 1985 "This Is England" #24 UK
- from "The Story of the Clash", originally on the US version of "The Clash"
- 1988 "I Fought the Law" #29 UK
- from "The Singles"
- 1991 "Should I Stay or Should I Go" (re-issue) #1 UK
- 1991 "Rock the Casbah" (re-issue) #15 UK