In their heyday, The Clash were referred to as “The Only Band That Matters”. While that may not be a title any band can legitimately lay claim to, I still say the best rock and roll concert I ever saw was seeing them in concert in 1982. They might have been on the downward end of their career as a band, but they were still the most dynamic rock and roll band I’d ever seen. This may sound like the typical nostalgia of an old geezer going on about the bands of his youth, but I’m not the only one who thinks they were important. Legacy Recordings have just re-released all five of the band’s original studio recordings, remastered by the band’s surviving members and in their original album packaging.
The Clash (1977), Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) are the legacy of the original core of the band: Joe Strummer (guitar, vocals), Mick Jones (guitar, vocals), and Paul Simonon (bass). Terry Chimes (credited as Terry Crimes) played drums on the first release and returned to the band for their 1982 tour after Topper Headon, who had replaced him on drums for the subsequent albums, was fired because of his heroin addiction. Crimes then left the band again prior to 1983 and was replaced by Pete Howard for what would be the final tour. Strummer fired Jones after the 1983 tour and while the band staggered on until 1986, releasing Cut the Crap (an album Strummer later disowned), they finally broke up.
The Clash weren’t your typical punk band, or band of any kind for that matter. Strummer, the driving force behind the band, was a committed social activist who idolized political songwriters of the past like Woody Guthrie, even calling himself “Woody” for a time. While bands like the Sex Pistols were singing songs about anarchy and destruction, Strummer pushed The Clash in a different direction, attacking what he saw as the inequities and injustices in Britain and the world. Songs like “White Riot”, about riots by white supremacists during the West Indian celebration of Carnival in 1976, “I’m So Bored With The USA”, condemning the Americanization of the UK, and “Career Opportunities”, about the lack of real employment for young people in the UK on The Clash were an early indication of the direction the band was taking. Instead of just being angry, they articulated the reasons for people’s dissatisfaction.
There were also indications right from the start they were going to be more than just your average thrash-and-burn punk band musically as well. Their cover of “Police and Thieves” shows both Jones’ and Strummer’s interest in reggae. The social and political themes continued on the second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, as did the continued development of a more sophisticated sound. While there are still straight-ahead, blast the walls down punk songs like “Safe European Home” and “Tommy Gun”, there were also tracks like “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, with its slower pace and more intricate harmonies and “All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)”, whose almost catchy beat is only offset by the song’s rather bleak chorus, “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”.
It was their third and fourth albums, London Calling and Sandinista, when the band really kicked out the jams both musically and lyrically. London Calling, a two-album set featuring songs like the title track and “Waiting for The Clampdown”, continued the band’s assault upon the establishment. However it also featured songs which were far more sophisticated than any other punk bands had previously attempted. Jazz, rockabilly, and reggae influences could be heard on songs throughout the album. However, it still retains the same sense of urgency and social outrage which had infused the first two albums, making it punk in spirit if not necessarily musically.
Those who felt The Clash were straying too far from the basic punk structure of three chords played extra fast with London Calling discovered they hadn’t seen anything yet with the release of the triple-LP Sandinista. While the album’s title track and songs like “Washington Bullets”, with their support of the overthrow of the American dictatorship in Nicaragua by the left wing Sandinistas, made it obvious their politics hadn’t changed, musically the material was light years removed from that of the first two albums. It even made London Calling look safe. They went in almost every musical direction possible, from the straight-ahead funk of “The Magnificent Seven”, to their homage to Motown with “Hitsville UK” and experimentation with reggae dub style music. In fact, most of side six are dub versions of other songs on the album or other songs they had released previously, which they recorded in Jamaica with producer Micky Dread. They even did a gospel tune, “The Sound of Sinners”, although its lyrics would have left most Christians gasping and reeling, “After all these years/ To find Jesus/After all those drugs/ I thought I was him”.
They also showed they had developed a surprising amount of political sophistication on this release as they didn’t limit themselves to easy political targets in order to score points with the converted. They tackled the thorny issue of England’s neglect of those who fought in her wars in the past with “Something About England”. While the title of “Washington Bullets” would make one think the song was only about America’s history of propping up dictators, the band also included lines in the song like, “Ask the Dali Lama up in Tibet/How he feels about voting communist”. They also were one of the first bands to sing about how Western commercialism was impacting the developing world with the biting and satirical “Charlie Don’t Surf”.
Their last album, Combat Rock, might have been their most commercially successful album. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah” are the two songs you’ll hear played most often on classic rock radio stations. To my mind, it was their weakest album and the one I’ve listened to the least. Although still far more interesting than what most bands were putting out at the time, there was something about the disc which felt almost half-hearted. Maybe it’s only applying 20/20 hindsight, but when the news came out that Mick Jones had been fired from the band in 1983, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. It had really felt like the band was only going through the motions on that last album and the end was near.
The Clash released five albums during the five years the band contained the core of Strummer, Jones and Simonon. Not only does that work out to an album a year, two of those recordings were multi-disc releases for an actual total of eight albums. They also released a couple of EPs of material they weren’t able to fit on other recordings. Listening to these five albums more then 30 years after their original release, it’s amazing to hear the amount the band progressed in such a short time. Musically and lyrically, they single-handedly redefined punk rock by showing it could be more than the simplistic sound of bands like The Ramones or the pure anarchy of The Sex Pistols. These new reissues are a fitting tribute to a band who has been able to transcend time and place and are a testimony to the enduring power of their music.