It’s one thing to help invent a genre, but it’s quite another to continue inventing and developing that genre into the next generation. That’s a particularly impressive feat when you consider that The Clash was together for only a decade. It sounds hokey, but they never stopped being willing to learn; as a result, they ushered in British punk and then helped turn punk into post-punk.
Guitarist/vocalists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones formed The Clash in London with bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon in 1976. Two facts immediately set them apart from other groups expressing the new punk attitude in their clothes and music: a) They played their instruments well; and b) They had a keen interest in other types of music, especially reggae and ska, not to mention some sense of the history of rock.
They proved their devotion to Jamaican music by covering the Junior Murvin hit “Police and Thieves” on their first album, The Clash (1977). The bright-sounding hi-hat cymbal is not softened here by mellow guitar waves the way it is in the original Murvin recording, and the rhythm in general is tighter and more frantic – the default mode of The Clash. This track is also a good indicator of the band’s political bent, to call out perceived wrongs, and never in a detached way. These were injustices that had been or might well be committed against themselves, so their delivery was powered by genuine anger, not just empathy.
The band’s second album, and the first to be released in the U.S., was Give ʼEm Enough Rope (1978). It contained only songs by Strummer and Jones, with the exception of their strident arrangement of the folk song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which they called “English Civil War.”
If you think the songs I’ve mentioned so far don’t add up to a punk band, then listen to “Drug-Stabbing Time,” which is punk by any measure. First, there’s the title and lyrics – punks don’t pussy-foot about their habits. They say what’s on their minds and in their veins. Then, there’s the brash drum-smashing that drives the song forward. But Strummer and Jones, meanwhile, are doing fun rockabilly riffs on guitar. Wait – do I hear influence from the Beach Boys amid all that turmoil? Probably. Welcome to The Clash.
Give ʼEm Enough Rope climbed all the way to number two on the British charts. American critics were starting to take notice, too, paving the way for the next album to really land. That album, of course, was London Calling (1979). While the title track became a huge single, other songs from the album are worth remembering
“Lost in the Supermarket” has a lot of interesting things going on. For one thing, Strummer intended it as a fictional biography of Jones’ childhood, yet filled it with details from his own childhood, particularly the suburban setting. Jones agreed to sing lead on it anyway. As usual, the broader message is dissatisfaction with the changing world, only this time the mood is more disappointed and overwhelmed than angry. The arrangement is surprisingly delicate, largely thanks to the lacy effect of Headon’s quick, tricky drumming.
It makes sense that musicians who admired the work of others would be happy to feature that work in their own projects. A great example is “Lose This Skin,” from The Clash’s fifth album and final success, Sandinista! (1980). Strummer invited English folk singer and fiddler Tymon Dogg (this is a man, despite the high voice), giving him a whole track to show off his stuff. Dogg even wrote the song, and The Clash stays in the background, providing high-energy chords with Simonon’s bass clearing a path for the fiddle.
The Clash, always seeking new influences and sounds, realized that New York was the place to be. Everything and everybody showed up there, and Strummer and Jones were always primed to absorb what they heard. The hot new trends they found most intriguing were two ways of using pre-existing recorded material: an electronica outgrowth of reggae called dub, developed by Jamaicans in London and New York, and hip-hop, which at the time was a fairly new technique growing in the African-American musical scene.
Released as a 12-inch single in 1981, “This is Radio Clash” celebrates and experiments with both of those new flavors. The extreme reverb and shimmering are common colorations of dub. The jagged bass reshaping comes out of hip-hop. You’ll hear some solid funk bass-slapping in there, too. And best of all, it’s a meta-song, with self-referential lyrics (another frequent feature of hip-hop).
Plenty of musicians called New York City home in the early 1980s, and many of them worshipped at the feet of legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Strummer, though, took it upon himself to win Ginsberg over, convincing him to recite his poetry for the number “Ghetto Defendant,” which appeared on the 1982 album Combat Rock.
Just when you acquiesce to Ginsberg rhyming Acropolis, cosmopolis, metropolis, and populus over a reggae beat, in comes the harmonica. It’s bizarre and kind of charming, as if the NYC beat scene of 1962 wandered across the world for 20 years, only to eventually show up at a Clash recording session by accident.
During the planning stages of Cut the Crap (1985), guitarist Mick Jones was fired because he and Strummer couldn’t stand each other anymore, and drummer Topper Headon was fired for his heroin use. No surprise, then, that this is the band’s final studio album. Also, no surprise that neither the fans nor the critics had much use for it.
But, in retrospect, some of it isn’t so bad. Here’s “North and South,” a ballad by Strummer. The production is tritely 1985 – too busy, too much tinny nonsense – but the song itself has that uniquely Clash combination of melancholy and frenetic energy, as if to say “Sure, life is awful, but if I keep on moving, maybe the worst of it won’t catch up to me.”
Looking for more nifty non-hit Clash tracks? The band itself took care of that for you. Black Market Clash (1980) and the expanded 1993 version, Super Black Market Clash, contain nothing but non-album material. Enjoy what’s out there; sadly, thanks to Strummer’s death in 2002, there’s no chance of any new Clash music.