Those of us who were around in the early ‘80s undoubtedly remember The Clash’s monster hits “Rock The Casbah” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” To many people, the fact that the band imploded a year after these songs’ release marks The Clash as another one-hit wonder in an era rife with disposable pop acts. However, the fact is that The Clash had already created a pioneering musical legacy long before ascending the pop charts, one that continues to resonate today.
In 1976, Joe Strummer (born John Mellor) was the frontman of London pub rock band the 101ers. Pub rock was a form of rootsy, boogie type music that was popular as a soundtrack to drinking in pubs. One night, Strummer saw an early performance of a bunch of scruffy juvenile delinquents calling themselves the Sex Pistols. This was before “punk rock” even had a name- at this point the Pistols were just a bunch of disaffected kids playing stripped down, adrenaline charged rock & roll. Their music recalled the early days of bands like the Who and Rolling Stones, back when rock music was seen as a dangerous threat to morality and social order instead of as a business.
Instantly, Strummer knew he was seeing the future of rock & roll. By the mid ‘70s, rock had become mired in bland mediocrity as the trailblazing stars of the previous decade settled into mansions and sank under the weight of their own malaise and self-indulgence. Economic times were tough, and escapism was the overall theme in the entertainment world. Where rock music had once challenged social norms, it was now content to pacify, as evidenced by pub rock’s “let’s just get wasted and have a good time” philosophy. Raw, edgy bands like the Pistols were needed to make rock compelling again.
Strummer soon met up with a group of likeminded musicians and formed The Clash, whose lineup had solidified by the end of the year to include guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Terry Chimes. Their self-titled 1977 debut is a rough-hewn document of a band finding its legs, but it stands head and shoulders above the morass of “punk” records issued that year. Prodded by manager Bernie Rhodes to move beyond simple boy/girl lyrical topics, Strummer wrote about the world facing Britian’s young people in the late ‘70s- unemployment, police harassment, race, class, encroachment of American culture and an uncertain future. Although they could play fast and loud with the best of them, The Clash also showed a willingness to slow things down (relatively speaking) and stretch out with a cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae hit “Police And Thieves.”
After the album came out, fate handed The Clash a blessing in disguise. Drummer Terry Chimes resigned, resulting in a mad scramble for a replacement. The eventual candidate was Nicky “Topper” Headon, whose jazz and r&b skills made him ridiculously overqualified for playing in a punk band. Headon’s initial plan was to build his resume with The Clash in order to move on to “real” drumming work, but the group soon realized they had an incredible musical chemistry. Chimes had been a good drummer, but Headon’s extensive musical palate enabled the band to broaden their horizons in ways they’d never imagined possible.
1978’s Give ‘em Enough Rope showed a band much more musically savvy than the year before, but their willingness to move beyond the strict template of punk left many fans crying sell-out. The safe move would have been a return to form, blasting out loud fast songs with tunefulness kept to a minimum. Instead, in 1979 The Clash released London Calling, a double album that shattered all notions of what punk, or even rock music itself, was all about. The genre-hopping record included a dizzying array of styles and sounds that were all flawlessly executed- this wasn’t the work of dilettantes, The Clash had done their homework and were able to fully integrate their diverse influences and create a unique musical style. Ironically, by discarding punk’s stifling aesthetics they managed to stay truer to the movements’ original intent of creative expression than any other band. London Calling proved to be one of the most influential records in rock history (my vinyl copy hangs in a frame in my son’s room).
By 1980 The Clash began writing and recording in New York City as they became interested in the fledgling rap and club music scene there. Lengthy, spliff-inspired studio jams were edited together to become the basis for 1981’s sprawling Sandinista!, a three-record set that contained a single albums’ worth of brilliant tracks scattered among experiments, jokes and boring noodling. True to their principles, Sandinista! (like its predecessor) was sold at single album price, which severely impacted The Clash’s earnings.
Although they were internationally famous and critically acclaimed, by 1981 The Clash were in debt to their record company. In light of this, the preparation for their next album was a source of contention in the band. Guitarist Mick Jones had begun assuming production duties for their recordings, and was insistent on producing their next record himself. His version of the album, provisionally titled Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, was rejected not only by their record label, but by the rest the band as being too experimental. The master tapes were handed over to veteran producer Glynn Johns, who trimmed and tweaked the recordings into what became 1982’s Combat Rock. Bootleg copies of Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg reveal an album not quite finished, and illustrate Johns’ excellent sense of what needed to be improved versus what shouldn’t be fiddled with. Jones’ version is moodier, longer, and more verbose, but Johns was able to tighten things up without losing the band’s identity or original intent.
“Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and “Rock The Casbah” from that album propelled The Clash into the stratosphere. Constant touring and massive record sales quickly erased the band’s debt, and they began earning large sums of money. However, things were falling apart. Just before Combat Rock was released, Topper Headon had been fired from the band due to his debilitating heroin addiction. Ironically, he’d been the one to write the music for “Rock The Casbah”, which would soon become the band’s biggest hit. The Clash drafted Terry Chimes back into the fold but he resigned again at the end of the Combat Rock tour, citing the toxic atmosphere in the band. Jones and Strummer had begun feuding over artistic direction and control, and in late 1983 Jones was fired.
Most fans consider this the end of The Clash, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Strummer hired a new drummer and a pair of guitarists (bassist Simonon had stayed on) and began to tour and write new material. The resulting Cut The Crap (generally referred to by fans simply as Crap) is an unmitigated disaster. While recording the album, Strummer and band manager Bernie Rhodes had fallen out, resulting in Strummer abandoning the sessions. Rhodes decided to finish the album on his own and subsequently submitted it to the record label, which was evidently too hungry for a follow up to the multiplatinum Combat Rock to realize they’d been handed a load of garbage. After Crap’s 1985 release, the band inexplicably went on a busking tour of England- hitchhiking from town to town and playing acoustic guitars in public places for change. By 1986, The Clash had finally ceased to exist.
Over the years, Strummer and Jones reconciled their differences while recognizing that they had drifted too far apart creatively to work together. In 2002, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame announced that The Clash would be inducted the following March. Strummer, Jones and Headon began discussing a possible reunion to coincide with the induction, which was sadly mooted when Strummer died of a heart attack on December 22, 2002. While Jones, Simonon and Headon have all worked together in various permutations since then, they have stated that The Clash cannot exist without Strummer.
Ignominious end aside, The Clash’s body of work sets a standard for creativity and fearlessness that will continue to challenge and inspire musicians for as long as there is rock music.