I remember a conversation I had with my brother when I was a teenager. He asked me if I thought I would still be listening to any of the music I liked then when I was 50. At the time it seemed like it was an eternity in the future, our parents weren’t even that age. However, it did make me think. What would happen to my tastes in music as I aged? Looking at my parents record collections didn’t bring me much solace as it was predominately classical music with a couple of token collections of old socialist/union songs.
As the years passed I forgot the conversation and never really gave it much thought again. My musical tastes have broadened and I listen to material from all over the world. I’ve come to appreciate the sublime beauty of a Brahms concerto but am equally moved by classical music from Persia (Iran) and India. However, like most everyone else these days, a quick glance through my iPod’s playlist is probably the best indication of where my heart really lies. While you’ll find an eclectic mix of music reflecting my various interests, you’ll also notice a predominance of music from thirty to forty years ago, with one band in particular standing out among the others.
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 listen to them today at 52 just as often and with as much enjoyment as I did over three decades ago. I still say the best rock and roll concert I ever saw was seeing them 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 as Legacy Recordings has just re-released all five of the band’s original studio recordings re-mastered 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 and vocals, Mick Jones guitar and vocals and Paul Simonon bass. Terry Chimes (credited on the first album 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 all 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 in 1983 and the band staggered on until 1986, releasing Cut The Crap (an album Strummer later disowned) before they finally broke up.
In many ways The Clash were the epitome of the punk scene. They were raw energy which couldn’t be contained and eventually self-destructed like the scene itself. Punk’s “do it yourself” ethos couldn’t stand up to the corporate reality of the music industry as even signing a recording contract would mean surrendering some of your independence. Becoming successful would almost contradict everything punk was supposed to have been against – the bloated self-importance of rock stars living in old castles and driving around in Rolls Royces while their fans were kept at a distance by managers, promoters and record companies.
However, 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, “London Calling” and “Waiting for The Clampdown” continued the band’s assault upon the establishment. However, it also featured songs which were far sophisticated then any other punk band 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, 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 the material on the first two albums and 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 and songs they had previously released which they recorded in Jamaica with producer Micky Dread. They even did their version of 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 “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 the first band to sing about how Western commercialism was impacting the developing world with the biting and satirical “Charlie Don’t Surf”.
Sandinista may not have appealed to those fans who thought the band should have stayed firmly stuck in the past playing the same music they had started out with. However, unlike many bands who had put out three album sets before, each disc remains, interesting to this day. You can’t find anything you would even remotely call filler or wasted space anywhere. The band also insisted their label at the time charge no more than the price of a regular single album when it was first released, ensuring everybody would be able to afford to buy it. This combined with their continued refusal to conform to anyone’s expectations musically and their insistence on sticking to their political guns marked them as punks in attitude and spirit.
While 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 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 making a 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 thirty years after their release it’s amazing to hear the amount the band progressed in such a short time. Musically and lyrically they singlehandedly 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. They were one of the few bands who demonstrated punk was more than just a style of music, it was an ethos. Speaking out against injustice, spitting in the eye of authority and always playing by your own rules. Which is probably why I can still happily listen to anyone of their albums at the ripe old age of 52. It’s not a matter of recapturing my youth, it’s a matter of reminding myself what’s important. For me, they will always be The Only Band That Matters.