The Clash

Turning Rebellion Into Money

Strongest album: London Calling
Must to avoid: Cut the Crap

The great rock'n'roll contradiction of trying to turn what's basically teenage dance music into a forum for political statements was one the Clash could never escape or try to make much sense of. It all comes down to Mick Jagger's gleeful/frustrated shout of "It's only rock'n'roll, but I like it!", I suppose - if a horde of idealistic Woodstock-era bands failed to change the world, what hope could a lone British punk outfit do against the burgeoning tide of Thatcher/Reaganism? Indeed, the Clash's politics were an extension of the original Britpunks' roots in glam - guerrilla chic, if you will; according to interviews and articles, the Clash were as concerned with clothes as they were with communism vs. capitalism. As Sting once remarked, the Clash's flirtation with Marxism was a great marketing strategy. No, you can't credibly spark a revolution from a major corporate label; the Clash were never as rebellious as they pretended to be. That all said, however, you can inspire a lot of people with art - lord knows how many people's lives were changed by the first Clash album. On that level, then - the individual one - the Clash were anything but a failure. They encouraged young punks to look a little beyond beer and mohawks, and - hell, why am I talking about punks for? Any young person receptive enough can hear the Clash dramatize their frustation and anger at the complacent injustice of a world that leaves a handful of undeserving elites with the keys to power and parties, and the rest of us rubbing our hands together in the cold. Kind of like the Who in '66, only faster, louder, and more consistent. In all this, one should realize that the Clash are speaking to and for a quite specific audience - namely, lower-middle/upper-working class white males in their teens and 20s who feel an articulate, idealistic rage (as opposed to the inarticulate, nihilistic rage of the genuine lower classes, the underclass that the Sex Pistols spoke for) at society with its essential unfairness and hypocrisy. I can still remember vividly just how much the Clash's music reflected my frustration, working to make somebody else rich and feeling powerless. It's funny that the politically correct speak of white males as powerful and privileged, when the anger that a lot of white males feel when they are young is essentially rooted in a feeling of powerlessness and lack of privilege. Just goes to show how really bigoted and uninformed political correctness really is, because it ignores the fundamental issue of class. Funny that this is articulated by a group of successful rock stars, but that's the essence of the Clash, and probably rock'n'roll itself - modern contradictions evaded, bypassed, and steamrollered by the power of the music.

There are several Clash pages out there. Here's the Clash Zone.

The Clash (1977; 1979) *****

Raw and trebly, this is the one punk album to buy if you only buy one. Actually, let's expand that - this is the one hard rock album to buy if you only buy one - fuck metal/classic rock/punk/etc. categories. Blows away Zeppelin, the Who, early Kinks, AC/DC, even, it pains me to admit, Mott the Hoople, who these guys took a lot from - guitarist Mick Jones once spent a summer following Mott across England. One of the very rare albums without a single bad, nay inessential, non-brilliant cut. I can't rave about this album enough - Robert Christgau may very well have been on the money when he said that, cut for cut, this might be the greatest album of all time. Perhaps not, since its mood doesn't exactly vary: anger at the class system, anger at unemployment, anger at racial problems, anger at teenage alienation, anger for anger's sake, even ("Hate And War"). But let me tell you, when I was 14, this album was my life, which weren't exactly a bowl'o'cheeries. If your adolescence wasn't nervous, tortured misery, then you won't like this album or anything the Clash did. Frankly, you won't like any of the bands I like, either, and I doubt you have much of a soul - you have to suffer to get one, you plastic yuppie Prozac robot Ken-&-Barbie Doll.

There are two versions of this album. The original 1977 British version wasn't released for the American market, allegedly because it sounded "too crude" - oh excuse us for not being as "good musicians" as Journey and Toto - and subsequently became the biggest selling import of all time. Shows you how much record companies know about what people really want. Anyway, two years later CBS belatedly released The Clash in an altered form. Cut for cut, the 1979 version is stronger, but lacks the flow and gestalt of the original 1977 version - call it a draw. Gone from the 1979 version are "Cheat", "48 Hours", "Protex Blue", and "Deny", the weaker cuts from the original, but still excellent classics (they can be found on the compilation 1977 Revisited. In their stead are "Clash City Rockers" which nicks its riff from either the Who or the Kinks (probably both); "Jail Guitar Doors", Jones' whiny rock-star plaint; the amazing "Complete Control", an indecipherable, white-hot hard-rock landmark; a spirited rip through Bobby Fuller's outlaw anthem "I Fought The Law And The Law Won"; and "White Man In Hammersmith Palais", one of the most honestly confused and incisive statements about being a whitey in love with a black culture to which you will always be an alien outsider peering in.

Frontman Joe Strummer barks like a rabid bulldog - often incomprehensible, but you don't have to understand the words for the syllables to impact. Mick Jones slings his six-string as a guitar hero who doesn't waste time on penile solos, and Paul Simenon throbs his bass along with martial rythm. As does the drummer, whose name I forget and they kicked out for heroin abuse, anyway (not heroine abuse - these boys hardly ever talk about girls. Too busy playing with their G.I. Joes). Before I turn this brief review into a full-fledged essay and start rambling off about every song, let's acknowledge the debt these limeys owe to the music of West Indian immigrants. Specifically, what they borrowed from reggae was the "drop-out" technique whereby some instruments stop for a breather, leaving only the throbbing pulse of bass-drums rythm, and then the guitars come crashing back in for maximum impact. Oh, and they also do a great cover of Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves". As the Ventures say, run, don't walk to your nearest record store if you don't have this.

I've got that Ventures quote backwards? Have you ever tried to play a Ventures record backwards? Sounds exactly the same.

Give'em Enough Rope (1978) ****1/2

Produced by Sandy Pearlman of Blue Oyster Cult fame, punk purists derided this as a heavy-metal sell-out. Which meant that even in the early days, the elitist hardcore was trying to straightjacket punk into a yobbo stereotype that devolved punk into tuneless, boring straight-edge posturing in the '80s (and unbelievably, '90s punk sank even lower). Pearlman's production is not the problem. In fact it helps matters by beefing up the drums and sculpting Jones' guitar into relief - the (relative) sonic detail's as compelling as the first album's blurry buzz. The problem's the material, which doesn't compare to the debut - none of these songs grab you by the throat like "Remote Control" or "What's My Name", and a couple are outright duds ("Julie's In The Drug Squad"). But that's compared to the first Clash album. Compared to everything else, and yeah I still mean Zeppelin, the Who, etc., it's a fookin' masterpiece, brother (insert cheap Cockney accent here). In other words, the second greatest hard rock album of all time. So what if it sounds a bit like Blue Oyster Cult - all Blue Oyster Cult needed were more than three or four good songs per album, and the Clash double that ratio here. "Safe European Home" continues the saga of Joe Strummer's fascination with third world black people, as he takes a trip to a place where they've got killer weed and "every white face is an invitation to robbery". "Tommy Gun"'s military stop-starts sound pretty corny, but it's a great song anyway, and "The Gang In Town"'s a bit melodramatic, but Strummer's "you're Kentucky Fried chicken" is priceless. The Clash open their minds beyond the "English Civil War" for the great geopolitic world outside, and their music opens up likewise from compressed two-minute ravers to more expansive material, though admittedly some of these songs go on too long. The charming Jones spotlight, "Stay Free", allows a much-needed breather of tenderness in an adress to a friend just released from jail. The album ends with a reply to Mott the Hoople, "All The Young Dudes" rewritten as "All The Young Punks" in which Strummer admits that rock'n'roll may be a lump of coal but "It's better than some factory/Now that's no place to waste your youth". The Clash's only underrated album.

London Calling (1980) *****

The acknowledged classic, the album that removed all doubts that the Clash belonged on the same pedestal as Dylan and the Beatles, perhaps the greatest double album in rock history, in a fluke of good taste Rolling Stone voted this the best album of the '80s, and I'm not going to argue with that assessment. After a punk album and a heavy metal album, the Clash make their classic rock album - they sound like a totally different band, with a slight energy/volume loss made up for by and increase in diversity and ease on the ears. After this it was all downhill, but on London Calling Strummer and Jones convince you they're capable of any genre they want to tackle (except love songs, of course, and classical operettas, but hey everybody's got limits). Starts with an anti-nuclear two-chord vamp that contains the laughably inaccurate line, "phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust", and proceeds to a rockabilly chestnut 'bout how your baby runs off with a slicker with a fast car. Then comes a New Ahwlins (insert cheap Creole accent here) cafe shuffle; a massed-acoustic guitar putdown of drug abuse; ska horns celebrating drinking brew for breakfast; and a melodramatic ballad about the Spanish Civil War. And that's just the first six songs! You get 13 more numbers of a similar eclecticism. Some of the songs, admittedly, suck ("Wrong'Em Boyo", "The Right Profile" about Montgomery Cliff (?!)). But hey, all albums except for a couple dozen or so have songs that suck, and here the bad stuff has a purpose in pointing up how great the good stuff is. Jones' warm vocal turns the otherwise ordinary anti-consumerist "Lost In The Supermarket" into a classic. Paul Simenon proves that he knows his reggae in "The Guns Of Brixton", which boasts an unforgettable bass line. "Every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world/Ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl," spits out Strummer in "Death Or Glory", on of the Clash's best three-chord anthems (which says a lot, considering just how many great three-chord anthems they wrote!). Oh, and it contains their first American hit, "Train In Vain", the final track, which isn't listed on the credits because they put it on at the last minute before the printers could correct the error! Consider it the first "hidden" bonus track. A great album that's the pinnacle of the punk era, even if it doesn't really sound "punk".

P.S. The cover's pretty great, too.

Reader Comments

Samuel Day Fassbinder,

I used to listen to this band a lot in the early 1980s, but LONDON CALLING is the only Clash album I still own. The Clash were talented enough to crank out a great set of tunes (especially with LONDON CALLING) but were too strident, too half-baked, and not really serious about whatever it was we were all so stridently INTO way back then in the 1980s, when I imagined myself to be a young Clash-listening budding leftist. Y'all thoroughly cover the Clash's penchant for doing lots of rock music styles, but I still haven't seen an indepth look at what the Clash were trying to do lyrically. LONDON CALLING offers the best attitude the Clash could muster -- the glorification of left-wing adolescent rebellion. SANDINISTA was maybe more "mature," but not by much. With SANDINISTA one has to endure a triple album (or 2 CDs) laden with dub reggae (I'd rather hear it live) to hear that the Clash recognize American imperialism ("Washington Bullets"). Trust me, Bruce Cockburn did it better.

As for LONDON CALLING: The title song offers an ecological scare that is more relevant today than when it came out, "Lost in the Supermarket" presents the dilemma of global civilization in a nutshell, "Clampdown" reminds us that Europe invented Fascism, "Revolution Rock" gives one the idea that maybe the Clash are trying to continue what the Jefferson Airplane did when they recorded "Volunteers". The rest of it is Brit charm, done extremely well.

It's sobering to consider that when the Clash toured the American South, there were lots of adolescent redneck boys at the Clash concerts waving Confederate flags. It's easy to conclude, therefore, that adolescent rebellion does not really count as serious politics; read William Finnegan's book COLD NEW WORLD if you want more evidence of this conclusion. But listen to LONDON CALLING, it's the best album within the fashionable pose it once represented.

Sandinista! (1981) ***1/2

I notched this up half a star after listening to this all the way through yesterday. If you doubt that's an accomplishment, you try sitting still for two and a half hours of failed experimentation and incompetent dub reggae. There's one great album stretched out over three albums - for every knockout there's, oh, three cuts they should have left on obscure Japanese B-sides. Excess unmatched until Guns'n'Posers released the even more self-indulgent quadruple album Lose Your Delusion a decade later. After subjecting yourself to it several times you'll eventually find the good stuff - this time round I discovered "Kingston Advice" and Simenon's "The Crooked Beat". And luckily the good material's only a shade lesser than the best of London Calling. I wish they had placed all the good stuff on one or two sides so I could ignore the rest, though - there aren't any listenable stretches, you have to keep skipping from worthwhile song to worthwhile song. This is a problem for me since my format is two cassette tapes, which means I'm in danger of wearing out the rewind/fast-forward buttons whenever I play this. If you go for CD or vinyl (always an option, don't forget, and a very cheap one these days) that's preferable since you can jump from track to track. The final third, which I believe consists of the fifth and six sides on vinyl, is practically worthless anyway, with guest Ty Dogg's "Lose This Skin" like Rush with violins - even worse than it sounds. Let me help you newcomers out here by listing the decent songs. The album starts off with "The Magnificent Seven", an okay sub-George Clinton groove with typically great Simenon bass lines. "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" has neat sound effects if dated Cold War lyrics (ridiculous as it sounds, the left in the West used to say stuff like, "Oh, the Russians aren't that bad! Why, America's the same - we should get along and learn from them! So what if they're fascist imperialist butchers!" about as serious to take these days as that other extreme of McCarthyism). Of course America does have its imperialist side, and I'm gratified that the Clash support the Sandinistas - "For the very first time ever when they had a revolution in Nicaragua/There was no interference from America", delivered more musically than it reads in "Washington Bullets", which also rightly chastises the Chinese in Tibet and Russians in Afghanistan. Ever heard of John Walker? Read your history books, then, and you'll understand just why Latin America rightfully resents the U.S., which has invaded and/or subverted half the democratically elected governments there at some point in the past century.

But enough of that. Sorry for going off on a political tangent, but it's kind of hard not to do with the Clash, you know? "The Leader"'s particularly appropriate these days with Jones and Lewinskys and sleazy media vultures - "You gotta give people something good to read/On a Sunday!". As is "Something About England" if you move it to Mexicans in the Southwest. "Somebody Got Murdered" and "Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)" thankfully rock, you know with guitars, which shows that the Clash shouldn't abandon their roots for blackface sub-funkiness - unfortunately, they did just that on the next album. A cover of Eddy Grant's (remember "Electric Avenue"?) "Police On My Back" rips even better, with Jones' guitar imitating siren wails. "Charlie Don't Surf" is quite melodic. And those are the great, or at least pretty good, songs. Good luck digging them out.

Reader Comments

Jack Meoff,

Oh come on! You totally dropped the ball on this one, though I agree with the ***1/2 *'s, you didn't give nearly enough credit to some of the great songs. Hell, you didn't even mention: Hitsville U.K., Something About England (which reminds me of Ray davies, a great compliment), One More Time, and Sound of the Sinners. Granted, "One More Time" suffers from having the awful One More Dub following it, but how can you fault a song that has a line as hilarious as, "The little baby knows Kung-Fu, 'Huh', he tries it on those he meets"! Ah, but you rock anyway.

Combat Rock (1982) **1/2

You would think that cutting down to single-album length after double and triple albums would put the Clash in focus and enable them to deliver a tight knockout. Wrong. This is as consistent as a pair of Sandinista sides, which is to say not consistent at all, with a lot of unlistenable crap, particularly on side two, which I just played for the first time in a year or so yesterday and have no desire to play again for another 12 months. Side One's a bit better, with a public service announcement that manages to capture a fraction of the early Clash's energy and rage, which at this point is an accomplishment. Of the two hits, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" is more a great catchphrase than a great song, and "Rock The Casbah" is a sheik-yerbuti meisterpiece that equal opportunity skewers bickering Jews and Arabs, at least in the hilarious video (when are those children in the Middle East ever going to grow up - Maddy Albright's dead right on that one)(forgive yet another political rambling). The rest I could live without and is sometimes downright annoying - Allen Ginsberg has no business reciting bad poetry on a supposed rock'n'roll record (neither does Patti Smith, for that matter, not to mention Jim Morrison, but hey those are other reviews). Ah, hell, Martin Scorsese's more of a poet than Ginsberg could ever hope to be, and I kinda like the Taxi Driver narration. And even though Strummer employs a patronizing cartoon-Asian accent, "Straight To Hell" balladicly reminds us of the Vietnamese boat people, the way protest music since Woody Guthrie is supposed to. Buy it cheap if you can - think of it as the "Rock The Casbah" single with eleven weird B-sides. Otherwise, don't waste your money - you worked to hard for it to throw it away on this crap.

Reader Comments

Scott Andrew Kohler,

I picked up the Clash's Combat Rock album yesterday (I only paid five bucks for it, don't worry), and BOY, were you ever right. I listened to it this afternoon, and side two is nearly a full side of complete garbage; I was listening to it on my walkman while I was walking; otherwise, I don't know if I'd have been able to make it through. Rock the Casbah is a really great song, though; I had never heard it before today. The "message" in "Know Your Rights" struck me as funny, because it seemed pretty self-righteous and heavy-handed. I don't know how familiar you are with Boogie Down Productions, but it reminded me of some of KRS-One's "social commentary" songs (some are good, but a good number of them are completely over the top and unintentionally funny). All I had heard of the Clash before was London Calling, which I love; luckily, I should have my copy of The Clash in a week or so, since I'm just waiting to get it from a music club.

"Rock the Casbah" single with eleven weird B-sides? You said it.

Cut The Crap (1985) *

By this time, Jones had left the band to form the disposable Big Audio Dynamite, of which one of my friends said when he saw Jones' picture on a magazine cover, "I hate that motherfucker. All he does is steal other people's songs," which is what Jones had been reduced to when they started playing that "Baba O'Riley" ripoff hit of his in the early '90s (I forget right now the title of the Big Audio Dynamite "original"). Believe it or not, Strummer's post-Combat Rock work has been even worse. "We Are The Clash" - yeah, right. Worthless doggerel that regresses the Clash-in-rights-to-the-brand-name-only to mediocre first-album punk, only played a decade later by a crew of tired old men trying to recapture their youth like a middle-management type sporting an earring and dating a bimbo. Only "This Is England" makes an impression since it has strings, not that it's a good song or anything. Thankfully the Clash broke up shortly after this release. Unfortunately, Strummer decided to pursue a solo career - let's just say that, like John Doe of X, he has a good career as a supporting actor in various films. Paul Simenon churned out beer-commercial rock in Havana 3 A.M., and a song from their sole album actually turned into a beer commercial, believe it or not. All in all, a pretty depressing end to once-great talents, though admittedly not as embarassing as the various careers of the ex-Pistols ("only-member-of-the-band-with-any-talent-so-they-kicked-me-out" chief songwriter Glenn Matlock's Rich Kids excepted). Just what is it about punk rockers that makes them incapable of sustained careers, Paul Weller excepted?

1977 Revisited ***1/2

The Clash have several compilations out. Avoid the greatest hits packages like The Story Of The Clash and the box set The Clash On Broadway, since nearly all the essential material is found on The Clash, Give'Em Enough Rope, and London Calling - any one of those three albums is a better investment. This one's worth your time, though, since it collects odds and ends, chief among them the four cuts excised from the American version of The Clash - the anti-junkie "Deny"; the cynical "Cheat"; the Friday-on-my-mind "48 Hours"; and the pro-condom "Protex Blue", which ends with a cry of "Johnny, Johnny!" for some inexplicable reason. The other good stuff is duplicated on the CD Super Black Market Clash, except for the live B-side "London's Burning". Essential for the missing four songs, but otherwise redundant if you have the British version of the debut and Super Black Market Clash.

Super Black Market Clash ****

A collection of singles and outtakes released in 1980 as Black Market Clash, this has been expanded for the CD era. To tell the truth, most of the new stuff comes from the Sandinista/Combat Rock era, which means you can (very) easily live without it - maybe it's just me, but aren't outtakes from triple albums kind of, you know, unnecessary? So you can safely shut the CD player off after track 10 without missing anything. But you need this for those first ten tracks, which capture the fascinating transition from the early punk rawness to cosmopolitan classic rock. "The Prisoner", "City Of The Dead", "Gates Of The West", "Capital Radio Two", "Groovy Times", and "1977" are among the Clash's greatest moments, and to me are perhaps the pinacle of their music. A quibble: why couldn't they have put "Capital Radio One" on here, which was on the original Black Market Clash? If you don't know, "Capital Radio One" was a 1977 single that the Clash re-recorded in 1979 as "Capital Radio Two". The two versions are considerably different and both equally great, and if you want both you have to redundantly purchase Black Market Clash. The other song from Black Market Clash that is missing is "Bankrobber", presented here in dub form - I could do without that particular song, but completists should note its absence.

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Reader Comments

Damon Chetson,

I agree with nearly everything you said, except your comments on "The Right Profile" which is a great punk-influenced song. The subject matter has to do with punk - i.e. about a successful actor who smashed his face in a car accident and drank himself to death on the streets of NY.

Also, Train in Vain is the worst song on that album, in my opinion, and evidence of the stupidity of lots of Americans who sent it to the Top 40 when it was released as a single. In fact, I heard a different story about why it was untitled on the album - that after they wrote it and it was put on the album, they were so embarassed by it that they decided to keep it untitled. Don't know if that's true.


I'm with you 50% on this page. I was addicted to the first album when I was 17 and miserable, but if I never heard it again - no biggie? True - London Calling is one and a half great albums - out of many great lines in many great songs, REALLY listen to "Guns of Brixton". Dylan, Guthrie, Springsteen, nahhh, this song is the one song that really could have changed the world. I fear Sandinista - too long and crappy, but I remember a couple of good songs here and there. And, from a practical point of view, Combat Rock is a really listenable album. Sure the Clash betray their revolutionary roots by releasing such toe-tappers, but I'm in it for the music, first and foremost. Remember that the next time you write a glowing review of anything Prince put out. But you are right about Patti Smith. Nothing is lower than Patti Smith.

I'm so bored with this page