The Clash formed in London in 1976. After a riotous tour supporting The Sex Pistols, their manager Bernie Rhodes obtained them a deal with major label big boys, CBS.
The band subsequently unleashed the two-minute classic White Riot – a chant-along stomp that smashed into the Top 40 and announced the arrival of a band whose impact was second only to the Pistols.
In contrast to Mr Rotten and Co, The Clash manipulated the energy of punk as a vehicle for political protest and musical experimentation.
Their debut LP, The Clash, (released in 1977) was a blinding statement of intent. I’m So Bored With The USA and Career Opportunities rallied against inertia while a cover of Police And Thieves was the first of many sporadic forays into dub reggae.
The album went Top 20, lauded by many critics as the definitive punk set, while a further two classic singles (not on the album), Clash City Rockers and White Man In Hammersmith Palais made the Top 40 – the latter addressing the issue of racism, a subject never far from the band’s agenda.
CBS (and no doubt the band themselves) were keen to break in America, subsequently enlisting the production services of Blue Öyster Cult guru Sandy Perlman for their follow-up set, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978).
The album’s less frenetic approach met with criticism and despite the best efforts of the label, the record failed to crack the US Top 100.
It had, however, made #2 in Britain and spawned the band’s first Top 20 hit in Tommy Gun.
The Clash then set out to tour the States, while British fans lapped up their The Cost Of Living EP and it’s incredible cover version of Sonny Curtis’ I Fought The Law.
Finally, in late 1979, The Clash delivered their marathon masterwork, London Calling. Overseen by seasoned producer Guy Stevens, the double album showed The Clash at an assured creative peak. New York’s Village Voice called it “the greatest double album since Exile on Main Street“, and it (controversially) topped Rolling Stone‘s end-of-decade poll in 1989 as “the best album of the 1980s”.
Britain was suffocating in crisis: soaring unemployment, racial conflict, and widespread drug use. “We felt that we were struggling,” Joe Strummer said, “about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us.”
Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones channelled that trial and worry into the title song, produced with hellbent atmosphere by Guy Stevens.
It sounded like The Clash marching into battle: Strummer and Jones punching their guitars in metallic unison with Paul Simonon’s thumping bass and Topper Headon’s rifle-crack drumming (the “nuclear error” referred to the March 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania).
The songwriting partnership of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones now embraced other influences apart from punk and reggae, including rockabilly (Brand New Cadillac), pop (Lost In The Supermarket), and R&B (I’m Not Down), though Paul Simonon provided the dark anthem Guns of Brixton.
Spanish Bombs was a genuinely stirring political hymn, while the loping bassline, slicing guitar, and throat-shredding vocals of the title track gave The Clash their biggest hit single to date. The LP was also a UK Top 10 hit and finally cracked the US, where it hit the Top 30.
The cover knowingly referenced that of Elvis Presley‘s first album, though Pennie Smith’s iconic photo of Simonon on the point of smashing his bass guitar was pure punk.
The Bankrobber and The Call-Up singles followed before the band issued the sprawling album Sandinista in December 1980.
The triple album (it would have made a brilliant single album) was of a highly experimental nature and earned a critical pasting, with the bulk of the tracks failing to withstand repeated listening. Its relatively poor sales forced a back-to-basics re-think for Combat Rock (1982).
Although this album was a healthy seller, it sounded laboured – Ironically, it became the band’s biggest-selling album in America, where the Rock The Casbah single made the Top 10.
Drummer Topper Headon was already long gone by this point and was replaced by the returning Terry Chimes (who dubbed himself Tory Crimes), who had left after the 1977 debut.
Combat Rock was to be their last hurrah. A communiqué from the band on 10 September 1983 read, “Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon have decided that Mick Jones should leave the group.”
Strummer soon blamed the sacking on manager Bernie Rhodes and unsuccessfully begged Jones to return.
The band hired some kid off the street (we could look it up, but his name isn’t really important) because he looked and sounded a bit like Jones.
Needless to say, the band stumbled on for only one further album, Cut The Crap, in 1985 (it was absolute dog shit) before finally calling it a day the following month.
Clash fever gripped the UK again in 1991 when Should I Stay Or Should I Go? (a Top 20 hit in 1983) hit the charts again after being used in an advert for Levi jeans.
A “Best Of ” double album, The Story Of The Clash Vol 1, flew off the shelves, and rumours were rife of a Clash reunion. The rumours were unceremoniously quashed by Joe Strummer.
Joe Strummer died in London on 22 December 2002. He was just 50.
Tory Crimes (Terry Chimes)
Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon