Just as famous music critic Robert Christgau once said, “Hippies were rainbow extremists; punks are romantics of black and white. Hippies force warmth; punks cultivate cool.” The UK enjoyed many years invading the US with a decade’s worth of rock ‘n’ roll influencers. But a new revolution was emerging within the country as the British would once again change music.
The mid-to-late 70s marked the first wave of a subculture that rejected mainstream music and ideals. Punk was trending among the youth as the primo switch from traditional sounding music to distorted emotions. The Vanguardists behind this latest move was a band of rebels who were dubbed as “the only band that mattered.” For their time, The Clash truly was. Backed by intelligent lyrics and fiery personalities, The Clash became the paradigms of their genre. For a band that excelled in their space, they elevated it to even greater heights with usage of their roots. But before “London was calling”, before they “fought the law”, they were fighting just to stay in school.
Art school was a tough billing for Mick Jones and Paul Simonon who, ironically, were creative geniuses. Just not in the way they originally thought. But the two friends were always attached to early rock music that had been the soundtrack of their youth. Another artistic soul who shared their tastes for the classic sounds of rock was local busker turned pub rock sensation, Joe Strummer. The three were a part of relatively minor bands separately, but when they came together something had clicked. Their free-spirited thinking and pro-creative ideals glued together to form the first incarnation of The Clash. This union, backed by legendary manager Bernard Rhoades, was perfect. Except, Simonon had to learn to play bass guitar, an instrument he still didn’t understand how to play during The Clash’s first recording. But with the addition of the drumming backbone of Nicky “Topper” Headon, anything was possible for the group. As it turns out, you don’t need world-class musicians to make an album, just creative people. Their self-titled debut testifies that.
1977’s The Clash holds every belief and issue that the members took personally. The album compromises deep-seeded discussions on drugs, street violence, law enforcement and racism. The hit single “White Riot” references the latter which deeply troubled Jones and Simonon who rooted for equality. Apart from what made the album so dynamic from its topic would be its crossbreed of genres. As an unapologetic “reggae addict”, Simonon influenced the group’s hybrid mixture of rock and punk with reggae. Its blend charted the single “Police & Thieves” highly in the UK with Bob Marley’s producer favoring it incredibly. The album received critical acclaim upon its release with many hailing it as the greatest album produced from the UK. Numerous publications years later continue to praise it as an “essential punk classic.” Its musical variations and intricate lyrics paint the album as an anthem that the youth of today can still relate.
After a year of touring in their native country, The Clash forced a reputation of uncompromising cool. From their cut-off outfits to their hard-edge stage presence and music, the band was poised for an American welcome. Give ‘Em Enough Rope bounced the group between studios in San Francisco and London during recording. When they weren’t mastering new tracks, they found ways to kill time by fighting police and club bouncers. Lead singles “Tommy Gun” and “English Civil War” expressed this nature of anticorporate warfare. Rolling Stone praised the album and noted it as, “straight English punk with a grip on the future”. The album provided the group’s first tour across the US in 1979. Everyone was expecting continued greatness and edgy excellence from the group. But a sold-out crowd at the New York Palladium never anticipated they would witness the single greatest shot in rock history that defined an era.
A year of wild performances and uprooting a mainstream system was just another day at the studio for The Clash. As 1980 approached, the group decided to finish the year with a double album feature. London Calling was not only their masterpiece, but a physical embodiment of one of the most influential rock albums to ever release. The record was an amalgamation of every genre that inspired the group to make music. Jazz, reggae, funk, soul, polished rock and heavy vibes with quick-witted lyrics. The album’s cover captures the shot Simonon smashing his bass guitar in frustration at their New York show. An image that flashed the band’s attitude and moody tracks. The self-titled track and “Train in Vain” stormed the world as the group became paradigms of their contemporaries. Critics not only marked it as the best album of the decade, but of the century. Retrospective reviews continue listing it among the top 10 of greatest albums ever with over 2 million copies sold.
When it came to shaping music with other genres, they were best at it. But mixing hip-hop with rock? Unheard of. The Clash were always a daring group as evident by their high-profile fights with unruly police officers and skinheads. Their fifth album Combat Rock shows not just their usual spirited nature. That was a given. Touring the US opened the members to proliferate New York’s hip-hop scene which struck the group given their accustomed to black culture. The album influences sparked radio classics “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Musical evolution and preceded reputation shot the album to be The Clash’s best-selling ever. Fighting and making music was always the norm as fans were either reading an album review or who The Clash fought next. When the press covered Headon’s drug addiction that later ousted him from the band, it was a turning point for music.
While the group had become bigger than ever, it was evident that they were falling apart after parting with Headon. Mounting tension grew amongst its members and by 1983, Jones would split to follow other projects. The Clash did its best to stick together with the addition of new members, but music was changing at the same time. Punk ideals and incorporation of their roots wasn’t sticking with a changing market as fans were also moving on emotionally. Simonon and Strummer stuck together one last encore in the release of 1985’s Cut the Crap. “This is England” penned the end of an era at it would be Strummer’s “last great Clash song.” The band officially disbanded by the time the album was released as each member continued making music. Strummer new he’d be making music forever regardless of who he was with. He never realized how short his “forever” would be.
Strummer and Jones occasionally collaborated to release music for their new groups. The late 90s was a year of reconciliation as Headon became sober and Simonon was creating artwork. But December 2002, Strummer would pass away from a congenital heart defect at the age of 50. His passing was felt deeply by his former band members and friends. In the aftermath, The Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and honor the star’s passing. But the legacy of this group is more profound than awards or certifications. Its immeasurable effect on culture and attitude prescribes The Clash as medication for politics. While its members are far removed from their party-hard, fight hard days, they remain as an inspiration for music. “London calling to the faraway towns.”
Written by Trenton Luber