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Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: The Clash


Photo by Bob Gruen

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: The Clash

By Steve Hochman

The Only Band That Matters.

That was the tag given the Clash, emblazoned on a sticker affixed to the cover of the landmark 1979 album London Calling. It was brash on several levels, brazenly echoing the Rolling Stones’ “The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band In the World” stature. The Clash’s like-minded gesture was just as cocky as the image on the cover itself, a soon-to-be-iconic photo of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision Bass onstage at the New York Palladium, evoking the cover of Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album.

The ultimate in punk swagger? Or, given that the slogan and sticker emanated from the corporate offices of CBS Records, a brilliant bit of marketing?

Maybe both. And while it would be easy to see this as a contradiction, that would be wrong. It’s entirely consistent with the Clash’s roots and approach throughout its time, checkered as it seemed at times. This is a band that stood against centralized power, yet recorded for a giant multi-national corporation. This is a band that railed against the commercialism of culture but sold hit song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for a jeans commercial. A band with an us-against-the-world cockiness, torn apart with us-against-each-other shockwaves.

And on an artistic level, London Calling is indeed held alongside the Stones’ Exile on Main Street not only as rock’s best double-album ever (that’s two vinyl LPs), but perhaps also rock’s best album, period. Yet its often-messy, restless sense of reach and ambition and the internal fractions that ultimately destroyed the Clash might more readily suggest references to the Beatles. And no, those comparisons are not mere hyperbole, at least in the context of the Clash’s time and place.

That time effectively began one night in London in 1976 with a gig by a band called the 101’ers, fronted since 1974 by one John Graham Mellor, who, after having busked the London subways (sometimes as “Woody”) took the musical everyman moniker “Joe Strummer.” The group played pub-rock; a back-to-basics U.K. movement among lovers of U.S. rock and R&B that made them misfits in the slick ’70s — not exactly a full-fledged scene, but one that would prove an effective breeding ground/place holder for what was to come. And what was to come reared its head that night in the form of the opening act, an unknown and unkempt quartet called the Sex Pistols.

Guitarist Mick Jones was already in the Pistols’ sphere; his band London SS (which never made it past rehearsals) was managed by Bernard Rhodes, an associate of Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren. Seeing the Pistols in early ’76 had given Jones a new sense of urgency; a sense that something was about to happen. Soon, egged on by Rhodes, he assembled a new band with bassist Paul Simonon and guitarist Keith Levene (later a founding member of John Lydon’s PiL).

Strummer — who’d already impressed Rhodes, Jones and Levene in the 101’ers — had the same urgent feelings. Rhodes and Levene met him after a spring ’76 101’ers show, giving him one night to consider joining the new band. Strummer accepted. Drummer Terry Chimes joined and, as the Pistols and London simmered on the edge of an explosion, Simonon came up with the perfect name for a band of the times: the Clash.

The band debuted on July 4, 1976, opening for the Sex Pistols at a club in Sheffield. The next night the members saw the Ramones in London — along with pretty much the whole nascent U.K. punk community — and then hunkered down to tighten its playing and focus before reemerging a few weeks later. Further focus happened with Levene’s departure. The band’s signing to CBS in January 1977 was decried in some quarters as a sell-out; the “death of punk.” But few outside of small circles even had a clear sense of what punk was, and those in the circles were inflicted with tunnel vision and vested interests.

 
 Photo by Bob Gruen

The term was perhaps even more ill defined, or too defined as a safety-pinned caricature when debut album The Clash was released in the U.K. in April. But however it did or didn’t fit any definition, it was a statement. Or statements. And it was full of seeming contradiction: confrontational and brash, yet embracing of a multitude of cultures and sounds; even affectionate in that regard. In many ways it’s a relatively complete reflection of London of the day; a contrast to more commonplace one-dimensional views. “White Riot,” the first single, has pressure-cooker intensity packed into three-chord rock, with spat-out lyrics calling on neglected youth and neglected classes to rise up. “London’s Burnin’” took the next step, while opener “Janie Jones” painted the portrait of a real-life faded pop singer turned famous madam. “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” lashed out at the biggest target even as the Clash may have been setting its sights on a Stateside profile. A cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” heralded a continual exploration of reggae and dub. “Remote Control” takes on big business and authority in general, ironically and infuriating to the band when CBS chose it as the second single without the band’s approval.

This may have sparked the Clash just as the Clash sought to spark England’s youth. This was personal. So when a re-jiggered version of the debut album finally came out in the U.S. two years later, “Remote Control” was put in the can’t-miss second slot, followed immediately with new song “Complete Control,” an answer song that made the band’s position on this and other such matters perfectly clear. On the other hand, this collection — in some ways a jumble of English B-sides and such shuffled in with about half of the U.K. version, yet an equal set in its own right — ended with a spirited cover of the ultimate rock-rebel-defeated-defiance anthem, the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law.” Make of that what you will.

In any case, with two versions of the debut album and a growing sense that there was indeed something going on here beyond punk’s novel nature, a perhaps odd choice was made to pair the Clash with producer Sandy Pearlman, probably best known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult. Despite the latter’s mix of subversive wit with arena-rock stature (perhaps the very reason Pearlman was chosen), cries of “sell out” increased before a single note from the sessions was heard. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that Give ’em Enough Rope, the product of that collaboration, seemed largely a disappointment when released. It did introduce the classic Clash lineup, however,, with drummer Chimes replaced by Nicholas “Topper” Headon. It also set the stage for the first U.S. tour, which in turn set the table for things to come.

And what a thing it was. London Calling, to repeat, stands up with rock’s best. Its strengths were legion — diverse, brash, supremely confident and with an eye both on the moment and on history past and future. “London is drowning and I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I live by the river,” Strummer croaks on the title cut, sounded boastful rather than despairing, as if he was willing the water to wash the city clean, or maybe just wash it away.

And in the wake came a new world in which anything was possible, especially with producer Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople) setting the tones: nitro-fueled rockabilly (a cover of Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac”), colorful tales of colorful outsiders (“Jimmy Jazz” and ill-fated actor Montgomery Clift in “The Right Profile”), breezy dismissals of modern alienation (Jones’ rolling “Lost in the Supermarket”), pointed history lessons (“Spanish Bombs”) and applications of those lessons into current events (“Clampdown,” “Death or Glory” and Simonon’s clunky but incendiary “Guns of Brixton”). All of this came in a rainbow of rock from forceful to seductive, with heavy doses of ska-soul-reggae (“Rudie Can’t Fail” and a version of the Rulers’ “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”) and more. And to cap it off there was Jones’ heartbeat loyalty paean “Train in Vain,” which became a huge radio favorite. Any doubts after Rope were wiped out here, and the blustery sticker on the front was lived up to and then some.

If London Calling showed that anything was possible with the Clash, late 1980’s Sandinista! took the notion to its logical (or illogical) extreme. Three vinyl discs of, well, anything. Indulgent? Excessive? Cluttered? Unfocused? All applied, and all were applied by fans and critics, who felt perplexed, infuriated and even betrayed. But another term also applies, if you listen with the right frame of mind: exhilarating. Listen to Sandinista! today, removed from the expectations that had mounted of its time, and it’s a rush of ideas with each song an experiment in sound, in fusions and, in, well, clashes. Think of, oh, Prince’s Sign O’ the Times as a comparable collection. Failures? You bet! But glorious, even in whimsy if nothing else: A little girl (daughter of guest keyboard player Mickey Gallagher, on leave from Ian Drury’s Blockheads) hiccuping through a reprised bit of “Guns of Brixton.” The same girl’s brothers singing “Career Opportunities” from the Clash’s debut album. Strummer re-living his busking days with ex-partner Tymon Dogg fiddling on “Lose This Skin.” Jones enlisting his then-girlfriend, American singer Ellen Foley, to duet on the charming Motown tribute “Hitsville U.K.”  Tim Curry (uncredited) in a cameo as the voice of a priest. Headon taking the mic for the first and only time on the funky “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”? And so on.

The case could be made that with some truly glorious songs (“The Magnificent Seven,” “Hitsville U.K.,” “Somebody Got Murdered” and the Equals’ “Police On My Back”) there was an amazing and coherent single album in there somewhere. CBS Records did in fact make that understandable case by sending just such a thing to radio and the press, to the band’s understandable ire. But whatever the label’s needs, the album is best served by experiencing it in its messy entirety. As scattered as it might seem, there is a thread running through it — a thread of Dread: Mikey Dread, the Jamaican producer who was enlisted to give many of the songs at least some level of dub textures. His contribution was playful more often than not, but not to the point of undermining the material, and at best enhancing it. At once global and subversive, Sandinista! is a monument to unfettered ambition, if also fractious band dynamics.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Clash returned with a single-disc release, Combat Rock, powered by what would become its two biggest hits: Strummer’s “Rock the Casbah” and Jones’ “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” CBS and many fans breathed a sigh of relief. Funny thing, though: Outside of those two songs, Combat Rock is just as sprawling and incoherent as its predecessor.  It was in fact originally planned as a double album, and the final sequence comes off as a hodgepodge of scattered sessions with some sonic and cultural side trips (“Overpowered by Funk,” a collaboration with New York graffiti artist Futura 2000, who also contributed to the album cover graphics) and honored if perhaps out-of-place guests (Alan Ginsberg on “Ghetto Defendant”). Even the two other songs that made some radio noise were little more than experiments: dub/hip-hop weave “This is Radio Clash” and the somewhat hectoring but pointed and witty-enough “Know Your Rights.”

 
  Photo by Bob Gruen

Combat Rock affirmed the Clash’s spot at the top of its generation, further anointed as such by no less than the Who, who brought the band along on its massive 1982 U.S. stadium tour. This was a double-edged sword for a rebel image, of course, as was having that position highlighted in a jeans commercial.

It also was the end of the Clash. The band did go on, but in some ways the less said of that the better. Headon, increasingly unreliable due to substance issues, was pushed out shortly after the album was released. Chimes re-joined for the stadium tour, but it was a short stay, as he was unwilling to put up with the increasing tension between the other members, particularly Strummer and Jones. A May 1983 performance at the US Festival in the California desert, marked by band members getting into a fight with security, would be Jones’ last in the Clash. Strummer fired him that September. A new patchwork lineup with Strummer more or less in charge toured in 1984, with a new album, Cut the Crap, released the following year to largely negative reviews. The Clash, belatedly perhaps, then crumbled for good.

Jones gigged with a few acts before forming dub-rave ensemble Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D.), which scored decent success in the U.K. and Europe and moderate U.S. success. Simonon reemerged in short-lived trio Havana 3am. Strummer toured with folk-punk outfit the Pogues for a while, and seemed renewed, re-energized and happy to just be part of a very good band. He took this spirit to a new band, Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, which drew on a wide range of folk, world and rock elements and featured his old mate, Tymon Dogg.

In London on Nov. 15, 2002, a week after it was announced that the Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jones performed three songs with Strummer at a Mescaleros benefit performance. Speculation then ensued that Jones, Strummer and Headon were considering a one-show reunion (with Simonon, apparently opting out). Just over a month later, though, on Dec. 22, Strummer collapsed and died from a congenital heart defect. He was 50.

In 2008 Headon sat in with Jones’ new band, Carbon/Silicon, for spirited versions of “Train in Vain” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and the two teamed again with Billy Bragg on a recorded version of an obscure early Clash song, “Jail Guitar Doors.” Simonon and Jones both appeared on 2010 Gorillaz track “Plastic Beach” and toured with the band.

The real spirit of the Clash, though, lives on in a wealth of other bands — stalwarts such as Rancid (whose Tim Armstrong produced reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s 2011 album, which includes a cover of “Guns of Brixton), Rage Against the Machine, Green Day and many others. International stars such as French-Spanish firebrand Manu Chao and Algerian rocker Rachid Taha also proudly carried the Clash banner. And maybe bringing things full circle in the world of committed yet personal rock, the Wallflowers featured Jones and a core sample from “The Magnificent Seven” on “Reboot the Mission,” the first single from 2012 Wallflowers reunion album Glad All Over.

That, clearly, is a legacy that matters.

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