Here I will collect a number of articles that I've saved over the years about the Clash. Many of them are from Melody Maker and New Musical Express by the top punk writers of the day. Others are by one-offs who I never read again. I will always give credit to the original writer and I will continue to add to it as long as I can find new old articles.
The Clash was one of the first punk bands whose records I bought as they came out. I'd heard of the Clash from the skateboarding magazines, but didn't know what to make of them. Then, in 1979, around the time that London Calling came out, I got their first three records all within a short span of time. At the time, I loved the self-titled album, The Clash, I liked London Calling, and Give 'Em Enough Rope didn't really register. It sat in the pile with Never Mind The Bollocks until 1981 or maybe even later, mostly untouched. As time went on, they became one of my Favorite Bands, along with X and Devo.
The Clash put out these studio albums while they were together: The Clash s/t, Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling, Sandinista, Combat Rock, Cut The Crap. They also released a number of singles with songs that were compiled on Black Market Clash. After the band's demise and during the early CD era, there were a number of combinations of singles, B-sides, and greatest hits collections released. Also of note is the excellent live album, From Here To Eternity.
I started saving Clash articles around 1982, and for a while even went and sought out articles in old mags. Here are some of those.
All articles copyright by their respected author.
Live Review: The Clash/Buzzcocks/Subway Sect/The Slits: Harlesden Colosseum, London, by Nick Kent.
Originally published in NME, 19 March 1977.
Nick Kent comes out of hiding to offer himself as a 'punk' sacrifice to the ritualistic 'beat' of The Clash, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, The Slits, and hangs around to join in the ceremony himself. Well, sort of...
London this week has been witnessing dramatic new developments in the so-called 'punk' youth movement currently sweeping the country. From his secret headquarters, last thought to be a cupboard situated somewhere in the Clapham South area, Chairman Mal "The Mug" McContent wrought mighty changes in the system when, in a message to his party, he informed all concerned that from now on the 'punk' ethos could only be attained not, as previously was the law, by 'gobbing' on pedestrians anywhere within the Kings Road district, but by beating rock critics over the head with rusty bicycle chains and running away.
In a detailed manifesto, "The Mug" drew up the exacting rules by which all interested parties could achieve the ends of this "offensive". First he claimed 'punk' predators needed to search out these "scumbag jewboy hypocrites" (as the rock critic element was to be referred to thenceforth) in places like the Roxy, the Marquee and the Nashville.
They should then "irritate" their victims by means of quick kicks in the shin, "accidentally" pouring beer over them while passing by, etc, .and, eventually, when the victim is aggravated enough to retaliate, they should bring in a mate who will "pacify" the critic by brandishing a large knife approximately two inches from the latter's face, and start swinging the chain directly against the cranium of one's victim until stitches are thought to be necessary.
The predator should simply "run away".
The manifesto adds that, as a bonus, anyone causing "the critic" to "get what he deserved" could expect to join members Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious in a reconstructed Sex Pistols.
The first direct consequence of this latest dramatic occurrance, after a surprisingly lethargic immediate response to the call-to-arms, has been the counter-ploy announcement from one Nick "Judas" Kent (considered by Mal McContent's collective to be one of the most desirable craniums amongst the 'rock' critic' crowd to shatter) that he was willing to be the first official sacrifice to this 'new order'.
"Well, it's cheaper than a lobotomy, innit?" quipped the ageing 'hack' from his bomb shelter/bachelor pad below a massage parlour in Kilburn. "No, but really...you've gotta dig it," he continued. "These kids are where it's at, you know. Heavy duty destruction, the breaking down of the old way. I mean, Johnny, Sid, those guys...they're so soulful, so honest.
"I'm truly touched they even mention my name at their press conferences these days. 'The biggest hypocrite walking the face of the earth' – that's pretty heavy, right – and I'm flattered, 'cos, dig, I'm hip to the trip. It's like the same as when me and Iggy Pop used to..."
Kent was later seen down at the Colosseum in Harlesden, a Pakistani cinema that has suddenly allowed the New Wave to 'do their thing' at the premises on a trial basis.
Friday night saw The Slits, Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and The Clash performing to a 50/50 crowd of fanatics and mongoloid impersonators whose usual habitat is the Roxy Club.
Kent had arrived early to check out the basic geography of the place and see where the best spot would be to have his 'lobotomy' executed. Despairing somewhat at the timid lack of 'activity', he'd disappeared to the pub, thus missing all-girl 'punk' band The Slits, who had been performing their sound check when he left.
Mildly fortified, Kent returned just in time to witness The Subway Sect. Ah, this is more like it, he thought, looking down at the bunch directly in front of the stage. There was this one guy, see, who looked, exquisitely like a vole sniffing glue, squirting globules of the stuff into the hair of his 'mates' when not falling around or pushing people over, or else getting his four or five cohorts to chant something along the line of "Boring old farts – sitting down" to all those comparatively disinterested souls behind them.
Monsieur Vole, Kent was duly informed, actually ran a New Wave fanzine. Heavy, he thought – and how suitable! He was quite ready to descend from the circle to let the ritual commence... until he noticed a disturbing lack of weaponry being openly brandished. What, no chains, no knives, no...steel combs, even!
His heart sank.
And the band would have been just right, too. They were absolutely godawful. Drawing together what shards of logic and perception he hadn't discarded specially for the occasion, Kent realised that unless one had a hernia or something equally debilitating, it would be quite impossible to dance to The Subway Sect's music.
Such planned obsolescence, so resolute a 'blankness' of attitude...such crappy instruments...and such a determined inability to finger even the most mundane chord shapes imaginable...
And then there were The Buzzcocks, who certain factions of the crowd knew beforehand, because they were shouting "Breakdown! Breakdown!" – which turned out to be the title of this band's only record so far. This duly was churned out as their first song and, sounding exactly like a cheap, sloppy Ramones workout, set the precedent for every other 'toon' to come.
Trouble was, though, this lot come from "up t'North, lahk", and t'singer looks and sounds unerringly like some punk Wee Georgie Wood who's just swapped his old ukelele for an electric guitar.
Also, excepting the singer's puckish frame all swathed in black; the other bully boys in the group all chose to wear these quite grotesque pop-art shirts which even The Who wouldn't have worn for publicity shots circa 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere'. They looked and sounded dreadful, anyway, and Kent quite firmly had decided that their presence onstage to coincide with his 'scalp graft' was so simply not on. He laid low in the 'gods', waiting for The Clash to provide just the right moment.
The Clash eventually came on, to be faced with immediate equipment problems: "And it's all new stuff," moaned the guitar player aggressively, in his special bright red outfit resembling 'pop star' army fatigues. He and the other two frontmen had obviously already seen a bit of 'geldt' from their reputed six-figure deal with CBS. The old paint-flecked jumble sale duds, for example, once so defiantly modelled so that the 'kids' could easily copy the band's style and attitude, had been dumped for custom made threads: extravagant space cadet uniforms – or at least that's what they most resembled – with big lapels and all manner of seamstress embellishment.
They looked like pop stars (albeit rather subversive ones), glamorous enough to be comfortably slotted into some suitably futuristic scaffolding on the Supersonic set. It made Kent remember the previous afternoon, when he'd heard 'White Riot', The Clash's single, at the NME office – and at first had been disappointed at its patent lack of 'menace' until he realised that the chorus had been made insidiously catchy enough to become a sort of football chant.
That it was commercial enough, in other words, to be truly subversive.
Anyway, sod the new clothes and new quipment! They looked and sounded good, and were probably eating regularly. Starvation, after all, doesn't always enhance commitment; it more often than not brings malnutrition and makes one listless and low-energy irritable.
When the band kicked into 'London's Burning', Kent also recalled the first (and only previous) time he'd seen The Clash – when they were battling hard against shoddy equipment, with out-of-tune guitars constantly threatening to destroy the intense energy level but never quite succeeding. There was a tension to their sound then which set them apart from all the other bands simply because it was really was tainted with all the desperate industrial rhythms of their native environment.
Nothing, mercifully, had been lost.
'London's Burning', as performed in Harlesden, stiff smouldered with equal quotients of rage and the sheer exhilarating rush of speeding down the Westway. Kent settled back to watch this band. He suddenly felt involved in this music. Of course, the kids in the front were going apeshit now. Pushing each other over, tossing beer every-which-way...living on zombie-time, as ever.
Suddenly Joe Strummer stopped between numbers, "Stop throwing beer at me! I don't like it," he stated in a decisively no-bullshit way. Kent dug that. After all, even Iggy hadn't told the arse-wipes at Aylesbury, involved in said activity, to "quit it". A cool guy. this Strummer.
The three-pronged Clash visual was great too. Guitarist Mick Jones pushing himself physically to the limits, bassist Paul Simenon like something straight out of Muscle Beach Party, succeeding on bass exactly like the Richard Hell of Television days when Patti Smith wrote of the latter, "his bass playing is total trash but he has this way of approaching the instrument that is so physical it comes off sounding real sexy."
And Strummer dead centre, very, very authoritative. Strummer's stance sums up this band at its best, really: it's all to do with real 'punk' credentials – a Billy The Kid sense of tough tempered with an innate sense of humanity which involves possessing a sense of morality totally absent in the childish nihilism flaunted by Johnny Rotten and clownish co-conspirators. That is what Eddie Cochran had, what Townshend had...not some half-baked feelings about anarchy or any of that other jive.
"To be outside the law you must be honest" isn't just some hip piece of rhetoric: it adds up perfectly and always will just as long as human beings need to take up a rebel stance.
The Clash's music is taking on other dimensions as the band moves on, too. It's no longer just a Ramones-ish adrenalin spitfire rush, there's a rock steady readjustment here and, like I said about the single, a sharp commercial bite to the numbers that, combined with the best new wave lyrics/sentiments currently in town courtesy of songs like 'Janie Jones', '1977', 'Protex Blue', 'I'm So Bored With The USA' (the only recent I'm-so-bored rock declaration Kent could even halfway stomach), and the new 'Garage Land', that makes for truly subversive rock.
As they left the stage, Kent thought The Clash took up exactly where Ian Hunter's Mott The Hoople left off, anyway – a perfect rock critic analysis, that. He was just leaving the cinema, thoughts of self-sacrifice conspicuous by their absence, when he noticed some yob approaching. "I'm Bruce Lee's son – what are you going to do about it?" he muttered.
Nothing happened, of course. It took him at least a minute to remember he'd heard the line coming from Joe Strummer's lips only half an hour earlier.
© Nick Kent, 1977
The Clash: Town Hall, Middlesbrough, UK. Written by Phil Sutcliffe, originally published in Sounds, 25 November 1978.
Perspective: The Clash are heroes, but not mine.
They are the market leaders (see album chart). They are sorely harassed people (whose dealings with big business have been as unhappy as their political stance must have led them to expect). Unlike most bands they mean a lot more than any review of a gig is about to relate – for instance the fact that they pull out a date at a students-only college venue is more important than if they did it and played the most storming set of their lives. So in a certain sense this proficient night of Clash-rocking in Middlesbrough felt a bit anticlimactic.
They began with 'Safe European Home' and with a sound almost perfectly clear (bass and drums for structure, vocals for lead line, rough edge of guitars mixed very low) they proceeded to drive hard through 'I Fought The Law', 'Jail Guitar Doors', 'Drug Stabbing Time' and 'City Of The Dead'.
Momentum was high but the landscape rather featureless and I find myself seeking the something extra they had to have by watching Joe Strummer: shoulders hunched like Rocky Marciano's as he clasped the mike in both hands, a remarkable man all right among the punk archetypes.
Oddly enough I would say this first third of the set was excellent but not satisfying. It was only with 'English Civil War' and 'White Man In Hammersmith Palais' that they began to get to grips with the songs and the crowd and make the evening something more than an event.
Jones did another of his enjoyable Cockney-charm vocals on 'Stay Free', the lightest piece they played, and the closing minutes were studded with their best numbers and most powerful communications. 'Police And Thieves' always was different, but now it's been given startling acres of space in which there is both a threatening tension and the freedom for Mick to play a solo combines his usual restraint with some impact (it's one thing not being self-indulgent and another being so minimal you say nothing). 'Capital Radio' blasted out that old-time punk energy in the set's most vigorous and fitting moments.
It was a good concert. Very nice in fact and I'm not grinding about that. Middlesbrough Town Hall is the best medium sized rock venue I've seen and everything was thoughtfully handled. There was no punk paranoia from the stewards and it was pleasant to see a good time being allowed to happen.
If this sounds tepid I can only suggest that perhaps there was no way the electrifying presence of The Clash in their first year could be sustained, simply because they are no longer a surprise. The band and the movement couldn't keep on running trailers for the revolution without ever being able to show the film.
But I'm sure their progress as charted by Give 'Em Enough Rope and their present tour is based on some cool and constructed self-assessment. More content. More music. A communication less wild but hopefully deeper. They are shit kickers. And there are plenty of shits around to kick.
Power to them.
© Phil Sutcliffe, 1978
The Clash: Give 'Em Enough Rope. Written by Ira Robbins, originally published in the Trouser Press, January 1979.
The Clash have been through a lot since they last released an album, almost 19 months ago, and so has the scene that they emerged from in early '77: The Pistols have broken up; the new wave has died; America has gotten its chance to choose and has turned thumbs down.
Meanwhile, the Clash have released a brace of tremendous singles, been busted a few times, traveled to Jamaica and the US, fired their manager, and finally recorded their second album, with American producer Sandy Pearlman.
Among people who love the Clash, there have been two major fears about this album. First, could they still cut it as a band after all this time; and second, would Pearlman turn them into the Cockney Cult? Those fears can be laid aside with one listen to Give 'Em Enough Rope – there's nothing wrong here. What Pearlman has done is, as the title says, allow them enough studio freedom through expertise to make an album the way they see fit. While their first record was produced by an engineer with limited creative abilities, Pearlman has done enough records to know how to get a sound when needed. In no way has he forced an approach on them – from firsthand observation, I can attest as to who was listening to whom in the studio.
Give 'Em Enough Rope is Americanized only to the point of bringing the vocals up, recording and mixing the instruments to a clean combination, and pacing the songs so that any sense of repetition inherent in the band's writing is minimized. Enough of the technical – this album succeeds just as much as the first, but for somewhat different reasons. While The Clash burned with the band's political rage primarily through screamed lyrics, Give 'Em Enough Rope amounts to a great rock album first, with the lyrics second. The approach is vastly more melodic and creative (although the first album has a lot more musicality than casual listeners gave it credit for) this time 'round, and the results are that much more thrilling. Of 10 songs (all new), a couple are out and out spectacular ('Safe European Home' and 'Stay Free'), a half dozen are merely great, and a pair are dispensable ('Julie's in the Drug Squad' and 'Drug Stabbing Time').
The sound is amazing – cascading guitars layered on top of each other for a thick cutting edge that clearly displays Mick Jones' unheralded abilities as a rock guitarist in the Ronson tradition. Strummer's voice has more range and variety than ever before; in spots it's hard to tell his throaty lisp from Jones' whiny plaint.
To further describe Give 'Em Enough Rope would be futile. It would be easy to point out the 'Can't Explain' riff on 'Guns on the Roof', or the use of 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home' on 'English Civil War', but I'll leave that for the less perceptive writers who have nothing else to cling to. This album will not change any of your precepts about rock'n'roll – it sure ain't Bruce Springsteen – but the Clash do what few bands can do – make music that explodes with both fury and venom.
© Ira Robbins, 1979
The Clash: London Calling (CBS). Reviewed by Garry Bushell, from Sounds, December 15th, 1979
"The hell with it! Let chaos reign! Louder music, more wine, the hell with the standings, the top rungs are up for grabs. All the old traditions are exhausted, and no new one is yet established. All bets are off! The odds are cancelled! It's anybody's ballgame! And out of such glorious chaos may come some nice new fat Star Streamer Rockets that will light up the sky."
Transplanted, Tom Wolfe captures the feel of '76 punk with an unnerving accuracy. The old ways were dying on their bland, boring bourgeois feet and punk was gonna build a new Everything. "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977" Strummer sneered in 1976, and we believed him.
We didn't realise that by the winter of '79 Elvis would be advertising the third Clash album, its cover a Presley pastiche, its content a sad justification of escalating jibes about 'The Rolling Clash' as Strolling Bones clones...
No, back then it was possible to believe that punk was gonna change things and that the Clash gave the whole movement real meaning, tempering wasteful nihilism with revolutionary optimism and destructive fury with angry humanism.
The white riot was against apathy and for social justice, while the music was pure unadulterated rock 'n' roll energy, blistering brain-bashing dance music free of cliche and slovenly superstar condescension. Their debut album The Clash, now over two and a half years old, still towers above everything else released this decade.
Yeah, but we played the hand wrong, you don't change the world with music alone and divorced from real political muscle the radical assault of the best punk was diverted relatively easily by the system, while, with media assistance, the movement itself degenerated into safety-pin and bondage pants plastic posing and sickeningly stupid swastika/death-trip schtick. At its best punk became just the most vigorous music on offer, at its worst it wasn't worth talking about.
It's funny how fan worship can blind you. One of my colleagues recently compared the blossoming Jam unfavourably with the Clash, claiming that Joe's gang were driven by world-conquering no-compromise ambition. The sad reality however has been that the Clash turned out to be the laziest bunch of mothers going. When we needed them most, after the Pistols had split and the disintegration really set in, they blew it, not CBS or Bernie Rhodes, but the Clash, whose meagre output and coke-snorting indolence was made worse by the squandering of vital months in lavish Stateside recording studios.
But this time last year they roared back fighting with Give Em Enough Rope, a magnificent fiery rock album, brimming with metal attack and renewed purpose. Yeah, give 'em another another chance, they'd junked the charlie and were coming on as punk saviours and, and, and... punk was all Sid Vicious stupid by then. The band failed to resurrect the movement, they lost their optimism and renounced their followers.
And while 'headbands' sprang up in opposition to the UK Subs pogo genre and the unpretentious Mod/Ska 'live fun' axis (shame about the revivalist/powerpop elements) The Clash devoted two tours to conquering the place they were so bored with, played a handful of disappointing London gigs and recorded London Calling.
On the face of it the album's great value for money – 19 tracks (one unlisted) for the price of one album, a double lp for just one crisp Lady Godiva. Ah but here's the rub, bub, it ain't even worth plundering the piggy for.
Side one is the best side on offer, opening with the single 'London Calling' a fine irrepressibly catchy melodic groover – the most impressive new number here. Next comes Vince Taylor's old R&B workout 'Brand New Cadillac'; followed by a sort of Fats Wallery jest called 'Jimmy Jazz' that sounds like Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby ought to be toasting over it; then a catchy Stones-do-Bo-Diddly number 'Hateful'; followed by 'Rudie Can't Fail' a cross between the Stones reading of Eric Donaldson's 'Cherry Oh Baby' and 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais'.
The mood of second-rate Stones copyists is set from the start with the Clash resorting to feeble old-fashioned formulas justified by a mask of 'progression'.
Side two follows suit with the lightweight pop of 'Spanish Bombs'; hoary old horny rock on the Ian Hunter soundalike 'The Right Profile'; the Al Stewart type pop-rock of 'Lost In The Supermarket' with Mick Jones trotting out his best Jagger take-off; the truly embarassing bloodclot 'Guns In Brixton', Simonon's limp vocals gracing a feeble reggae setting for more of the Clash's degenerating 'guns and gangs' outlaw vision – lumpen lyrical fantasy world populated by druggies, crooks, gambling dens, dingy basements and gun-toting niggers. A vision only interupted once on this side with 'Working For The Clampdown', Clash rock in the style of Rope with a necessary put-down of EVIL fascist cul-de-sacs, repeating the Clash's always vague alternative – 'Kick over the wall/Cause governments to fall'.
Shame that one of the Clash's biggest failings has been their inability to link their righteous sentiments with the power struggle in the real world. Like, shouting "Long live the revolution" don't make it come, y'know.
The nine tracks that follow are even less interesting, featuring more variations on standard Stones formulae best of which being the unannounced 'Train In Vain' which sounds like a Stones bash through an early sixties Tamla number (maybe a nod to producer Guy Stevens' mod dj past...)
Elsewhere there's the uninspired plod 'I'm Not Down'; the confused pop of 'Koka Kola'; a couple of covers – a pretty gutless reading of Jackie Edwards and Danny Ray's 'Revolution Rock' (not in the Armagideon Time'/'Police And Thieves' league) and a cover of a reggae version of 'Stagger Lee' called 'Wrong 'Em Boyo' which sounds like the Selector avec 'Sea Cruise' type of sax. Leaving just the ropey Rope out-take sound of 'Four Horsemen' which, you guessed it, sees the band as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
As a Clash fan the impression I'm left with after two days of solid playing is overwhelming disappointment. There's no hunger here, no vision or coherence or charisma, no killer punches, no sense of fighting to be heard, nothing that makes you go 'wow'.
Ironically, they're condemned by their own words on 'Death Or Glory' – 'I believe in this, and it's been tested by research/That he who fucks with nuns will later join the church'.
In the Clash's case the church is the good ol' wanked-out rock tradition – the sicko corrupt mythology built up from fatboy Presley to the Stones, the antithesis of what they said they set out to be.
No, aside from sporadic spurts of brilliance (like one every six months) the Clash seriously dried up well early on, losing their perspective and momentum. Unable to go forward they've clutched at straws, ending up retrogressing via Strummer's r&b past and Jones' Keith Richards fixation, to the outlaw imagery of the Stones and tired old rock cliches.
Sure London Calling will be their biggest hit to date, and sure this album'll sell and sell and I bet you play it to death till you're convinced it's great though I wouldn't play it in close succession to The Clash if I were you.
Hey, maybe if we're lucky they'll still be playing 'White Riot' as an encore in a few years time. Y'know just like the Stones drag out 'Street Fighting Man' for you to clench your fist to at Earls Court. After all's said and done it's only rock 'n' roll after all, and now the Clash are only another rock 'n' roll band... but just think what they could have been.
©Garry Bushell, 1979
The Clash: Revolution Rock. Written by Michael Goldberg, originally published in Downbeat, December 1982.
It's an ugly voice: Gruff, guttural, uncouth, barbaric at times. Joe Strummer can't sing, not like an Al Jarreau or a Joni Mitchell, anyway. Lyrics are shouted out in a harsh nearly unintelligible cockney snarl. At times this voice rips at the ears like an exploding letter-bomb. It cries out for justice in an unjust world. It nags at the soul like the memory of those nuns killed in El Salvador, like the memory of Allison Krause gunned down at Kent State by the National Guard. Joe Strummer's voice demands to be heard. Surprisingly, it is.
Strummer is the singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for the Clash, the most popular punk rock band in the world. You've probably heard of the Clash. You've probably read that some rock critics think they're "the greatest rock & roll band in the world," as Village Voice critic Robert Christgau announced a few years back. Or maybe you noticed that their LP London Calling captured the Rock/Blues Album of the Year in the '80 Down Beat Readers Poll.
But if you've only heard of the Clash, and haven't actually heard their music – listened to the five albums and the EP that they've released in the US – you may still be wondering what all the fuss is about. You may still be dismissing the Clash as one of those foul-mouthed punk rock bands that made a lot of media noise – and not much else – in the late 70s.
Dismiss them no longer. If you listen to one rock & roll band during the next year make it the Clash. You will discover music and lyrics as rich as anything that Bob Dylan or the Roiling Stones created 'n the '60s, back when rock & roll mattered, back when rock was more that the uptempo elevator music one mostly hears by bands like Journey on the radio today.
At the beginning of their most recent album, Combat Rock, Joe Strummer spouts out: "This is a public service announcement... with guitars!" That single line does a good job of summing up the Clash. This is a band that makes rock & roll with a message. For the Clash, the message is as important as the rock & roll and vice versa.
"We're dealing with the power of music here" says lead guitarist/songwriter and occasional vocalist Mick Jones, who is thin and gaunt and wears his black hair short and greased back. Jones looks like a cross between a 50s rockabilly singer and a '50s hood – and that seems to be his intent. "Music can sooth furrowed brows and all that stuff." he continues "and it works and it's true and it really can make you feel better when you have the blues. I have a lot of faith in it. The music, as a really good force."
Those are calm and reasoned words from a member of a band that has a punk reputation for being taciturn, moody, rude, even hostile. Jones, as well as his mates – Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Terry Chimes (the original Clash drummer, who played on their first album, was replaced for four years by Topper Headon, but began performing again with the Clash following Headon's heroin bust earlier this year) – can certainly adopt a tough pose. Yet beneath the surface bravado and "punk" attitude that they often present to the public and the media, these are dedicated, courageous musicians. Unlike a large number of other punk bands, the Clash have never trafficked in nihilism, never jabbed a safety pin through their ears, either literally or metaphorically The Clash have always had more in common politically and idealistically with politically aware hippie rockers and folk singers of the '60s like Country Joe McDonald, Joan Baez, and the young Bob Dylan, than with the other angry young men of punk.
The bottom line for the Clash is a belief in the human spirit, in the ability of men and women to do good. And in all their music, in the 100-plus songs that the Clash have recorded in a five-year period, this positive spirit is clearly felt. The Clash may agree with another punk band that sings "the world's a mess," but despite the darkness, they continue to have hope.
The Clash's songs are infused with a sense of social responsibility. "Hate and war – the only things there are today/And if you close your eyes/They will not go away," sings Strummer. "You have to deal with it/It is the currency." Such a refusal to close their eyes to the atrocities played out day by day around the world, and an insistence on writing about those atrocities in their songs, helps to make the Clash one of the few contemporary rock bands that truly matter.
Often, the Clash use sarcasm to make their point. In 'Know Your Rights', on their recent LP, Strummer sings, "Know your rights, all three of them." He goes on to detail those "rights." "Number one: You have the right not to be killed/Murder is a crime/Unless it was done by a policeman or an aristocrat.../Number two: You have the right to food, money/ Providing of course you don't mind a little humiliation, investigation and (if you cross your fingers) rehabilitation/Number three: You have the right to free speech/As long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it."
Since 1978, when Jones and Strummer came to San Francisco to record vocals for their second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, I've spoken with them on several occasions. One overcast afternoon, I met them for the first time. They were wary, antagonistic, and mostly impenetrable. Strummer, a short, stocky man with a rotting, chipped front tooth that added menace to his sneer, slouched in the corner of the small lounge where the interview was to take place. He wore dark glasses and a black motorcycle jacket and had short, oily brown hair.
"So how much ya gonna make on this story anyway," badgered his buddy, Mick Jones who was pumping away on a pinball machine. He looked over at Strummer and they both laughed.
"I don't think we should do this interview," continued the guitarist. "I don't either," muttered Strummer, turning away.
But they did continue the interview. I discovered later that this was just the Clash's nature. In America for the first time, they were particularly suspicious of Americans, who they thought were not to be trusted. In the Clash's camp, one was always suspect until proven innocent.
During that first interview, asked about the problems occurring in England, Jones snapped, "Not as bad as it is here! That's definite. You've got your Hershey bars and your Dr. Peppers. There's a lot more fucking work to be done here than England. Everyone watching TV. It reminds me of the Roman Empire. And every American I meet is a bullshitter. This place tends to look not very real."
Those impressions of America as a land where the reality of the problems faced by the rest of the world do not often penetrate, came out in the Clash's song 'Guns On The Roof (Of The World)', in which Strummer sings sarcastically, "And I like to be in the USA/ Pretending that the wars are done."
When I spoke to Strummer and Jones more recently, they were no more enchanted with the US and the complacency of Americans. The group's personal manager, a young man who calls himself Cosmo Vinyl said, "Nobody in America wants anything to question or upset what they might personally be. Ted Nugent never gives anyone a hard time. He's just like his fans, he never causes them to think things should be different, that things aren't right."
"I agree with him, really," said Mick Jones. "I get depressed at the thought of 50 million people worshiping Ted Nugent." Then Jones cracked a smile and said in an exaggeratedly proper English accent "We're only doing what we can to impress upon them that there is something better going on. By being here, it can only help."
I've been talking a lot about the politics of the Clash, and politics isn't what Down Beat is usually about; Down Beat is about contemporary music. But with the Clash, one can't avoid talking about politics. The Clash don't see music as something isolated from the rest of life; they see music as a part of life. For anyone who recently lost his job – or knows someone who lost their job – and happened to hear Gary US Bonds' recent hit, 'Out Of Work', the ability of music to tie into the rest of one's life should be obvious. Don't think, however, that the Clash's music is inconsequential, just because, as is often the case, interviewers and reviewers spend more time considering why the band called an album Sandinista! or what they think of Margaret Thatcher, than discussing the Clash's music.
The Clash make magnificent rock & roll. In concert their music roars along like a train whose brakes have worn out, Huge, raw chunks of guitar noise tumble out of Jones' amplifier, Strummer barks out the lyrics, all the while bashing at his own guitar, as if the fierceness of his strum alone determines its volume On a good night the Clash are like a team of rock & roll guerrillas. With guitars for weapons, they seem determined to show the world that nothing will stop them, that they will win the good fight and keep the fires of truth burning.
It was in 1976 that the Clash formed, inspired by that other famous punk band, the (now defunct) Sex Pistols. Joe Strummer's previous experience as a musician included "playing to earn a living in subways... I had low overhead. No rent and stuff like that. Squatting in empty buildings. Busking. You play and you have a hat and they like what you play and throw money into the hat." When he got busted by the police, Strummer formed a band, the 101'ers. His band became popular on the London pub circuit. Guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon were impressed by Strummer and eventually talked him into joining the new band they were starting, which Simonon wanted to call the Clash.
With the Pistols and the Clash at the forefront, a British punk movement sprang up as a gut response to both ever-worsening conditions in England and to a rock music scene populated by elitist and wealthy superstars who had become complacent and, as Strummer railed in one song, "fat and old." Punk was firmly anti-star. "They [the audience] could be up there as easy as me," says Strummer. "In a way, we were just there. And that was it. You feel lucky. Why you? Instead of him. Why you? Don't know why. Don't ask me the fucking meaning of life 'cause I don't know it."
Yet the Clash now find themselves caught in a bind, treated like stars when they tour America despite everything they can do to prevent it. "I find it humiliating," says Jones. "I try not to be anything other than just a human being. But you can't just say I don't want to sign autographs if there's a hundred people there."
"We feel a bond with our audience, but we hate them too," says Strummer candidly. "Best way to explain it is imagine if you were standing on the dock of the bay and lots of fish come. 10,000 fish and they all came to look at you and opened their mouths. You know what I mean?"
The Clash recorded their first album, The Clash, in 1977. Because the Clash emerged as part of England's punk movement, their rock & roll sophistication was initially overlooked. The rudeness of punk was mistaken for musical inability and ignorance. In the U.S. the Clash's label initially refused to release their first album because of what one Epic Records executive called "the tin-can sound."
But in fact, when one listens a few times to The Clash, one discovers much more than the sound of buzzsaw guitars and sour voices. One finds brilliant vocal arrangements that contrast Strummer's ultra-real, man-of-the-street voice against the chanted background vocals of the rest of the band. One finds inventive, concise revisions of the classic Chuck Berry guitar style, savage, but well placed, rhythm guitar work and, overall, a dramatic return to the high energy style of early rockers like the Who and the Kinks. Only this time, instead of singing about how 'You Really Got Me', the songs are about unemployment and injustice, war and racial tension.
Right from the start the Clash demonstrated a tremendous knowledge of rock music, and an uncanny ability to remake the music into an intense, highly original sound. In a song like 'White Riot', which is basically about the need for middle class whites to rebel against the unchallenging lifestyle that the government endorses, Strummer turns in one of his most embittered vocals as he sings, "All the power is in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it/While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it." The rest of the band counters with background voices singing "White riot, riot of my own," that are obviously derived from the purposely "off" horn sections on Jamaican reggae and ska recordings. In a rock & roll context, this juxtaposition works perfectly, both in terms of the sound, and as far as getting the message across.
Since making that first album (which some critics have flatly stated is the best rock & roll album – period), the Clash have certainly become better musicians, yet they refuse to let technique replace emotion. With honest, uncompromising lyrics they continue to render the ravaged and decaying modern world like punk Picassos detailing their own version of Guernica.
The Clash's music often sounds like a violent revolution. At times it is a thunderous roar that filters bits of the Rolling Stones, reggae, the Who, Chuck Berry, rockabilly, marching soldiers, gunfire, and a brawl at some London pub into a crashing wall-of-sound But there's a mellower side of the Clash too. 'Jimmy Jazz', from London Calling, is reminiscent of Tom Waits, or even Mose Allison. (The Clash included a version of Allison's 'Look Here' on Sandinista!) And over the course of their five albums, they have recorded a lot of reggae, from the gutsy 'Police And Thieves', to more subtle pieces like 'One More Time, One More Dub'. The Clash have also fit straightforward rockabilly, gospel, blues, and both classic and modern soul music – funk and rap – into their bag of tricks. 'The Magnificent Seven', the group's first rap number, was played by some of the more adventurous black stations in the U.S.; this greatly pleased the band, who felt that they were connecting directly with an audience that could appreciate their songs about oppression.
"We're not minimalists." says Mick Jones. "Where they [most punk bands] tend to keep themselves in one line, we tend to go out in every line possible – all sorts of sub-tracks." In fact, the Clash's embracing of numerous kinds of international music, and their commitment to keep that music alive in the minds of their fans, is a very important part of what they have accomplished. Particularly now, when American radio is more specialized than ever, when jazz, soul, country & western, reggae, and rock are each isolated and never heard on the same radio show, the Clash continue to demonstrate on each album (since London Calling) that music, like people, should not be segregated.
Of course the fact that politics are such a part of what the Clash do begs the question: Can political rock & roll actually accomplish anything? The Clash try to be realistic, if not optimistic. "Maybe it won't change anything," says Mick Jones, "but I still believe in it, as something worth doing. Perhaps we're too ambitious a band. I would say rock & roll can contribute toward some minor change." Then he adds stubbornly, "But it ain't gonna tell the politicians what to do. It ain't gonna save people from wars."
Adds Strummer with finality, "But we'll have a go at it."
©Michael Goldberg, 1982