That the Clash survived as long as they did — and, in fact, proved commercially viable in both the UK and US — is a clear testament to their rugged integrity and stubborn refusal to buckle despite enormous adversity, much of it self-induced. The Clash were formed to fall apart, but it took better than seven years for the inevitable Joe Strummer-Mick Jones bust-up to finally occur. That Strummer died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50 in December 2002 was far more shocking.
If any rock band ever insisted on doing it their way, the Clash take first-place honors, despite the price their nonconformity exacted. Nonetheless (or as a result), they became enormously popular, even in America, where their Top 20 chart success stands as redemptive proof of an indomitable spirit. The Clash received no small amount of criticism over the years: damned for their integrity (or lack thereof); assailed for absorbing black musical styles; attacked for injecting politics into their songs; blamed for changing; blamed for not changing; ridiculed for having ideals; accused of abandoning them. They were branded sell- outs, hypocrites, rockists, opportunists and worse. Through it all, the Clash consistently proved equal to the task of confounding everyone that ever followed or dealt with them, offering contradictory and inconsistent statements in classic Bob Dylan obfuscatory oratory and generally failing to act in their own self-interest.
With continuous chaos and controversy swirling around them, the Clash still managed to make some of the most brilliant, absorbing, potent and staggering rock and roll of all time. Alone save for Elvis Costello and the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon (plus alternating drummers Terry Chimes and Nicky “Topper” Headon) were new wave’s original and most significant trendsetters; the original Clash never made an album that isn’t worth owning.
The Clash, 1977’s finest LP bar none, was not issued in the US until 1979, and then in radically altered form, adding subsequent single sides (the apocalyptic, autobiographical “Complete Control,” the groundbreaking reggaefied “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais,” “Jail Guitar Doors” and others) and deleting four original tracks (“Deny,” “Cheat,” “Protex Blue” and “48 Hours”), making it paradoxically fragmentary but substantially stronger. In the album’s original form, the fourteen songs explode in a scathing frenzy of venom and sardonic humor, ranging in subject from unemployment (“Career Opportunities”) to the underground music scene (“Garageland”) to cultural imperialism (“I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”) to rebellion (“White Riot,” “London’s Burning,” “Hate & War”). Strummer’s bellow exudes focused rage, while Jones’ flaming guitar work both sets and supersedes the style for countless derivators who followed. Since the original album lacks a lyric sheet (the US label couldn’t resist adding one), the exact words were appropriately indiscernible, but there’s no missing the power of the music. A full disc of classics, including the Clash’s first stab at reggae: a brilliant rendition of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves.” (The American LP initially came with a bonus 45 containing two numbers recorded for The Cost of Living EP: the rocking “Gates of the West” and Strummer’s Dylanesque semi-acoustic “Groovy Times.” The EP’s “I Fought the Law” was included on the album itself. None of the CD editions of the album have ever included “Gates of the West” or “Groovy Times.”)
The pairing of the fiercely English and shyly commercial Clash with American big-shot producer Sandy Pearlman (Blue Öyster Cult, but also the Dictators) proved controversial but fruitful on Give ‘Em Enough Rope. By exchanging the band’s garageland raunch for heavily overlaid, crystal clear guitars and drums, Pearlman delivered a supercharged rock sound for some of Strummer/Jones’s most stirring and sensitive songs — “Safe European Home,” “Tommy Gun,” “English Civil War,” “Stay Free” and “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts).” Studio sophistication did nothing to blunt the band’s power — quite the opposite, especially in terms of Headon’s authoritative drumming — and their defiant confidence to mix in more liberal amounts of sensitivity and cleverness only adds to the album’s appeal. Jones’ vocal on “Stay Free” casts him as the tenderhearted member of the band but, as a guitarist, his work throughout goes against punk’s early egalitarian precepts, proudly standing up as a genuine guitar hero for the new age.
The Cost of Living EP is a small but mighty British 7-inch that contains the Clash’s blistering remake of Sonny Curtis’s (by way of Bobby Fuller) “I Fought the Law,” a different version of “Capital Radio” from the one that had been on a New Musical Express flexi-disc in 1977, “Gates of the West” and “Groovy Times.”
London Calling established the Clash’s major-league stature, regardless of commercial considerations. The two records, produced by the legendary (and now late) Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople), stretch over an enormously expanded musical landscape with few weak tracks. Unlike most double-albums, London Calling needs all four sides to say its piece; while not especially coherent or conceptual, the tracks share a maturity of vision and a consistency of character. Whichever way the band turns, the record bears its unique stamp — from the anti-nuclear throb of the title track to the updated rockabilly oldie “Brand New Cadillac” to the bebop of “Jimmy Jazz” and the rude boy anthem “Rudie Can’t Fail.” And that’s just the first side! Some of the other stunners are “Death or Glory,” “Koka Kola,” “Lost in the Supermarket” (Strummer lyrics sung by Jones), “The Guns of Brixton” (Simonon’s powerful reggae rumble), “Spanish Bombs,” “The Right Profile” (about actor Montgomery Clift — how’s that for a change of pace?) and “Clampdown,” collectively proof positive that the Clash would not be limited by anyone’s expectations. A masterwork.
The Clash’s many singles contained as much exciting music as their albums, and a lot of non-LP tracks were issued along the way. Since very few of their early 45s were even released in the US, Epic assembled an odds-and- ends collection, Black Market Clash — nine tracks on a 10-inch platter, subsequently reissued as a 12-inch. Tracks appended to the US release of the first album were left off here; the two records collectively fill in the non-LP gaps through 1980. Essential items like “Capital Radio One” (the original), “Armagideon Time,” “The Prisoner” and “City of the Dead” join neat but less crucial tracks like covers of “Time Is Tight” and “Pressure Drop.” Black Market Clash is a worthwhile and entertaining record, not a collection of inferior scraps. Years later, long after a proposal for an expanded Black Market Clash had been waylaid into the impetus for Clash on Broadway, an oddly titled and not quite definitive three-CD box, the 21-track Super Black Market Clash appeared, offering most of the band’s important non-LP/non A-side tracks, from “1977” (the flip of “London’s Burning” to “Mustapha Dance,” a “Rock the Casbah” remix. Surprisingly essential.
Whatever self-restraint the Clash might once have had evaporated on Sandinista!, six sprawling sides (two CDs without any of the original record’s inner artwork) of wildly varied styles and maddeningly uneven quality. Besides the proper songs — some of which are absolutely first-rate — there are silly (but entertaining) kiddie renditions of “Guns of Brixton” and “Career Opportunities,” self-indulgent toss-offs, audio experiments (the backwards “Mensforth Hill”), bizarre stylistic digressions (“Look Here” is swing jazz, “Let’s Go Crazy” is mock-calypso and “The Sound of the Sinners” is the gospel ambiguously according to Strummer), dub mixes and guest artists (toaster Mikey Dread, violinist/singer Tymon Dogg) taking center stage. You name it, it’s here, with only the faintest structural outline holding the whole shebang together. Basically, Sandinista! unnecessarily saddles one-and-a-half great albums with an equal amount of material that ranges from disposable nonsense to endurance-defying crap.
Side One (“The Magnificent Seven,” “Hitsville U.K.,” “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” “Something About England”) and Side Four (Eddy Grant’s “Police on My Back” given a high-pressure rip, “The Call Up,” “Washington Bullets”) are the two strongest chunks (an aspect likely to elude those who only know the CD, which neatly fits three vinyl sides on each disc), but there’s good stuff (“Somebody Got Murdered,” “Charlie Don’t Surf,” “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here),” “Corner Soul”) strewn throughout. Overall, the wide stylistic swath is more provocative than rewarding; a better-focused album would have been much more powerful, both musically and politically.
Returning to a manageable one-disc format, Combat Rock took the Clash into new turf, testing themselves against American rap and funk with more conviction than ever before (Sandinista! contained a few test runs) and getting arty enough to have poet Allen Ginsberg appear on the record. A bizarre collection of material that seems to be diverging at a blinding rate, the dozen tracks proved extremely popular, yielding two bona fide US chart hits (the simple “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” rewriting the Righteous Brothers’ “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” and the danceably impolitic “Rock the Casbah”). Despite slick production possibilities (ace studio hand Glyn Johns “mixed”), the Clash sound more ragged than ever, getting dolled up only for the rhythm-intensive numbers like “Overpowered by Funk,” which has a rap by Futura 2000. A perplexing but partially entertaining set of sounds from the world’s most unpredictable rock band.
Although it wasn’t well known at the time, the Clash had split into two musical camps. With commercial success tugging on one side, abiding fascination for black music on the other, and problematic idealism presenting a genuine challenge up the middle, the Clash finally rended, with Strummer and Simonon unexpectedly booting Jones out of the band. Joined by three young players, the pair later toured and recorded Cut the Crap, ostensibly a Clash album but one that was later written out of the history books to the relief of all concerned. With one notable exception (a movingly mournful anthem, “This Is England”), Crap is just that, a painfully tired and hopelessly inept attempt to catch up with an elusive, fading legend. Strummer shares songwriting credit with manager Bernard Rhodes, but they needn’t have bothered: Sham 69 outtakes would’ve been preferable to these prosaic, forgettable shouters. “We Are the Clash,” indeed. Shortly after the album appeared, the lineup dissolved. Jones played with General Public in the studio during that band’s formative months, and unveiled his new group, Big Audio Dynamite, to great critical acclaim, in late 1985. (The story doesn’t quite end there: Strummer wound up taking a significant role in B.A.D.’s second album.)
The end of the much-beloved band opened the doors to a flow of reissues, repackages, the box set and a live anthology. The first releases were a couple of British EPs: the cassette-only 12″ Tape (extended mixes of “London Calling,” “This Is Radio Clash,” “Rock the Casbah” and three others) and the four-song I Fought the Law (with “City of the Dead,” “Police on My Back” and “48 Hours”). The two-record Story of the Clash compilation followed, wisely overlooking Crap‘s existence. The running order is far from chronological; still, the 28-song selection, despite some notable omissions, conveys the band’s diversity and depth. The only rarity is the 1977 London tube interview portion of “Capital Radio One.” The sound quality is clear and hot, even on the old stuff; liner notes by one Albert Transom (Strummer) may shed little light for neophytes, but are amusing enough.
More reissues: the Clash Collection‘s ten tracks (only one of them not on Story) favor songs that got American airplay (“Tommy Gun,” “Train in Vain,” “Clampdown,” “Police and Thieves”). With no Story overlap, 1977 Revisited (aka A Collection of Rare Tracks & B-Sides) collates the four songs deleted from the first album’s belated American edition, two non-LP tracks from The Cost of Living, “1977” and the live “London’s Burning” from the backs of early singles and two less noteworthy B-sides.
The British chart-topping success of Beats International’s “Dub Be Good to Me,” a dance number built around Simonon’s mighty bass riff from “The Guns of Brixton,” prompted the release of Return to Brixton: the original track plus three useless house remixes by Jeremy Healy (ex-Haysi Fantayzee).
Having discovered that the Clash without Mick Jones was not a viable proposition and that Big Audio Dynamite wasn’t big enough for the both of them, Strummer turned to film. In 1986, he began working for director Alex Cox, creating “Love Kills” (the theme song for Sid & Nancy) then starring in Straight to Hell (1987) and contributing to its soundtrack. He also did a credible job scoring and producing the mock-Latin music for Cox’s Walker. Strummer sings the narrative “Unknown Immortal” and “Tennessee Rain” in likably rustic folk fashion, adding mostly spare, relaxing acoustic instrumentals that use guitarron, marimba, horns and piano to evoke the film’s Central American locale.
Expanding his horizons beyond director Cox, Strummer worked on the soundtrack of Permanent Record, a 1988 flick about teen suicide. One side of the LP features an assortment of bands (Stranglers, Godfathers, Lou Reed), while Strummer & the Latino Rockabilly War (a small band including ex-Circle Jerk guitarist Zander Schloss, who also played on Walker) complete the disc with four energetic vocal songs (funk/folk-rock/R&B) and an instrumental theme. The old Clashman hasn’t lost his touch.
In 1989, after a large (and surprisingly effective) role in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Strummer gathered up Schloss and a rhythm section and took an all-music break to record Earthquake Weather. Although the complex lyrics are jam-packed with intriguing names and places (some explained in a glossary on the inner sleeve) from the cultural kitbag of Strummer’s intelligence, the easygoing earthy music is simply lackluster. Strummer’s flat self- production and the band’s consciously casual approach squash any traces of life out of the songs, making this boring exercise sound like The Basement Tapes or Pat Garrett outtakes. Sloppy stabs at rock (and one Princely funk tossoff) are equally unconvincing. Both of the four-song EPs built around ordinary album tracks contain non-LP material.
For his post-Clash part, Simonon returned to action as the leader of Havana 3 A.M., a rootsy/modern Los Angeles quartet with local new wave perennial Gary Myrick and singer Nigel Dixon, late of the English rockabilly band Whirlwind. The eponymous debut album — an exceedingly clever commercial sublimation of unassailable source material (rockabilly, reggae, punk, power-pop) stripped of any edge or conviction — is clearly the work of experienced pros making something presentably adult out of what they can recall of their long-gone youth. “The Hardest Game” sounds like Squeeze on an uninspired day; “Surf in the City” is a fairly obnoxious rewrite of Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Girl” as if done by a Del-Lords cover band; the Stray Catsy “Blue Gene Vincent” is one tribute the late rocker could have done without.
Topper Headon, who vanished from the Clash and the music business soon after the release of Combat Rock, reportedly because of drug problems (Terry Chimes — “Tory Crimes” of the first LP — replaced him for live work), launched a solo career in 1986 with Waking Up. Ambitious and plucky but surprisingly underwhelming, this horn-soul album is so humble his drums aren’t even mixed high enough. Despite an impressive talent roster (including ex-Blockhead and frequent Clash collaborator Mickey Gallagher and ex-Beck guitarist Bobby Tench), Headon’s songs are amateurish, and the arrangements routine and uninvolving; even another version of Booker T’s can’t-miss “Time Is Tight” doesn’t hit a nerve. (Chimes went on to form the Cherry Bombz with former members of Hanoi Rocks and Toto Coelo.)
In March 1991, spurred by its use as a commercial jingle for Levi’s jeans, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was re-released (with a Big Audio Dynamite II B-side!) and promptly topped the British singles charts, making it the long-defunct band’s biggest UK hit ever. “Rock the Casbah” was also successfully reissued. The Singles contains 18 A-sides, from “White Riot” to “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” The subsequent reissue ups the track ante to 20.
From Here to Eternity is a live souvenir, recorded at various shows (including the legendary Bond’s engagement in NYC, from whence the “Clash on Broadway” title originally came) from 1978 to 1982. As the band was live, it’s mighty potent and loads of fun, with a fine 17-song selection that runs the career gamut from “London’s Burning” and “Complete Control” to “Train in Vain,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Armagideon Time” and “The Magnificent Seven.”