The Clash

TrackAlbum / Single
Complete ControlCBS 5664 single A-side
(White Man) In Hammersmith PalaisCBS 6383 single A-side
London CallingCBS 8087 single A-side
Safe European HomeGive 'Em Enough Rope
Police On My BackSandinista
Armagideon TimeCBS 8087 single B-side
Police & ThievesThe Clash
Rudie Can't FailLondon Calling
ClampdownLondon Calling
Janie JonesThe Clash

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Contributor: Neil Waite

My life has been lived in two halves: pre-punk and post-punk – though I’m defying the laws of maths as the second half has become somewhat larger than the first. The dividing point was the moment I first heard The Clash’s first album at my cousin’s house (see Undertones toppermost #272). Before this I was listening to bands like Mud, Suzi Quatro and The Sweet. This new music sounded so much more exciting.

I saved my pocket money to buy the record and once I had enough I cycled the 10 miles to Subway Records in Southampton. As I rode home in happy anticipation it hung in a bag from the handlebars, but in the wind the vinyl disc flapped around and got caught in the spokes. At the time, going over the handlebars seemed secondary – I was gutted about the Clash record. It took two months to save up to for a replacement but the second time I took the train.

The Clash were formed in 1976 with Joe Strummer, who had been in The 101ers, Mick Jones, from a proto-punk band called London SS, and Paul Simonon and Terry Chimes, who were also on the music circuit and had both tried out for London SS.

The first album was just so exciting (much as my parents disliked it) and many, including Mick Jones, see it as their best. The classic line-up wasn’t yet in place. Terry Chimes, though a full-time band member, decided it wasn’t for him just before the album photo shoot in a Camden Market alleyway, so he doesn’t appear on the cover. All of the songs were short and catchy with forceful guitar and great lyrics. Remote Control and White Riot were the UK single releases. Career Opportunities and London’s Burning were particularly good but I most like Janie Jones and the Junior Murvin and Lee Perry song, Police & Thieves, brilliantly arranged with two guitars sparring over a reggae beat. The album wasn’t considered radio-friendly in the US and only when the second album came out was it pressed over there. The US release (with a blue rather than green sleeve) is better as it includes Complete Control, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, I Fought The Law and Jail Guitar Doors, the latter being a great reworking of the Strummer composition Lonely Mother’s Son originally played with the 101ers.

After Chimes the Clash auditioned many drummers – Strummer claimed they tried out 205 before recruiting Nicky Headon, who had played briefly with London SS. He was soon nicknamed ‘Topper’ due to a resemblance with Mickey the Monkey in a Topper comic book. Topper was to The Clash what Keith Moon was to The Who. Just listen to his drumming on I Fought The Law or Tommy Gun and you’ll see what I mean.

The first song Topper recorded with The Clash quickly became my favourite. Complete Control is a brilliant composition with a blistering guitar riff and fired-up singing. I love the way it goes into an arpeggio with Strummer saying “This is Joe Public speaking; I’m controlled in the body, controlled in the mind”. Then it builds up to the chant of “C-O-N control”.

According to Strummer, the next single, Clash City Rockers, had a ‘rockers in reggae rhythm’. It wasn’t their best, but the next one blew me away. I knew from Police & Thieves that reggae could be on the menu but, even so, Strummer and Jones’ own reggae song, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, seemed an exotic dish. For stylistic departures kept The Clash fresh all through their career. The song recounts Strummer’s disappointment at an all-night reggae show in Hammersmith Palais headlined by Dillinger and Leroy Smart where he found the acts too ‘pop’ and short on reggae roots, and takes a swipe at ‘new groups’ in ‘Burton suits’, ‘turning rebellion into money’.

Hammersmith Palais flier

The song was one of Strummer’s favourites and I was lucky to see him perform it brilliantly with the Mescaleros just before his untimely death in 2002.

After White Man I eagerly awaited the next album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, released at the end of 1978. It was not quite as good as the debut but not far off. The production was what dragged it down; the producer, Sandy Pearlman, was said not to like Strummer’s voice, so he mixed the drums louder than the vocals. I noticed this straight away in the single, Tommy Gun. The two best tracks were Stay Free and Safe European Home – Stay Free is a brilliant composition by Jones about his school friend Robin Crocker who, after a jail sentence, became a roadie for The Clash. But my toppermost choice is Safe European Home with its heavy guitar and Jones’ trademark backing vocals.

Mid-1979 saw the release of The Cost Of Living EP with four great songs. The main number was Sonny Curtis’ superb I Fought The Law but I thought Groovy Times was the best, having evolved from the Rope sessions. An underrated song with harmonica and a great acoustic guitar break. Sadly, The Clash never performed Groovy Times live.

The next album, the double, London Calling, is arguably their best. It coincided with a US tour in September ‘79 and I was thrilled to read in NME that they were being supported by my favorite band, The Undertones. Regrettably, the pairing lasted only a few dates and didn’t happen over here.

The Clash and Undertones

Everything came together in London Calling; the brilliant songs, Penny Smith’s iconic photo of Simonon smashing his bass on the Elvis Presley style sleeve and Guy Stevens’ brilliant production. Stevens was a bit of a nutter by all accounts, with a drink and drugs problem and an unconventional production style involving throwing chairs and on one occasion swinging a ladder in the studio. But compare his studio production of the song London Calling to any other version and you’ll see what a fine job he did. The title track charted at number 11, their biggest hit to date. London Calling was the BBC World Service call sign and the lyrics went through many drafts before Strummer was satisfied. They speak of his concerns about nuclear power (“A nuclear error, but I have no fear”), Thames flooding (“Cos London is drowning, and I live by the river”), police brutality (“We ain’t got no swing, except for the ring of that truncheon thing”) or drugs (“We ain’t got no high, except for that one with the yellowy eyes”). The stylish video was shot on a rainy night on the Festival Pier over the Thames at Battersea. I got the single with a green sleeve (others were yellow and red) picturing a couple of teenagers sitting on the floor with records strewn about listening to a Dansette-style record player. This was the image used by Columbia Records as their standard sleeve but here the records on the floor became ones by Elvis Presley, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Sex Pistols and, of course, The Clash.

London Calling single cover

The B-side to London Calling was a stylish reworking of Willi Williams’ reggae hit Armagideon Time full of nifty work on echo guitar and organ. The story goes that Strummer believed the best singles were under three minutes and so during the many takes he told the controller to stop them before they went on too long. Towards the end of a brilliant take the controller shouted through the intercom, “Time’s up, let’s have you out of there!” and you hear Strummer shouting back, “Okay okay, don’t push us when we’re hot!” Luckily the take went on to the end.

London Calling was full of potential singles, like Clampdown and Rudie Can’t Fail. Clampdown opens with Spike Milligan’s Q5 phrase, “What are we gonna do now?” and builds up to a catchy tune with little pauses for the driving drumbeat or a few well-placed notes on the guitar. Rudie Can’t Fail is another reggae take and became a live staple both for The Clash and for Strummer and the Mescaleros in later years. Funnily, the song was adopted by Newcastle United in the 90s and sung on the terraces with reference to their manager Ruud Gullitt.

The next album, Sandinista (1980), got mixed reviews. It was diverse in style and the main criticism was that it had many fillers, padding it out to three records. But I loved every track. It came with a three-page foldout “Armagideon Times” which I would read for hours while listening to the songs. In the Clash documentary Westway To The World Strummer says, “The fact is we recorded all that music in one spot, at one moment in a three week blast for better for worse… That’s the document.” Sandinista was a triple-vinyl for the price of one. One of the best tracks was the cover of The Equals’ song Police On My Back, with lots of mock police sirens on guitar.

The next album, Combat Rock, contained the band’s biggest hits but also precipitated their downfall. They were already getting on badly, with Simonon not talking to Jones. What’s more this was the first Clash record that I didn’t rush out to buy. The singles, Rock The Casbah and Should I Stay Or Should I Go, were hits when re-released, and the latter reached No.1. But I found them too commercial and they don’t make my topperten. The album has grown on me over the years and I have re-bought it on vinyl, having lent my first copy to someone who didn’t return it.

For Clash purists that’s where it stops. Topper was sacked before the release of Combat Rock due to his drug addiction, with Terry Chimes standing in until Pete Howard took over. In September 1983, Mick Jones was also fired. He went on to find success with Big Audio Dynamite.

Strummer and Simonon remained and brought in Nick Sheppard and Vince White, but the magic was lost. They embarked on a busking tour, playing unannounced in city centres. I witnessed one of these happenings while shopping. A crowd had gathered round some buskers but I didn’t bother to investigate. I realised my ghastly mistake when I read the local paper a week later.

Cut The Crap (1985) was unfortunately poor; the best track was the single release, This Is England, but it was the best of a bad crop.

The Clash were around, properly, for five years. Their songs stayed fresh by incorporating so many styles: punk, funk, reggae, jazz, gospel, rockabilly, folk, dub, rhythm & blues and even calypso. They weren’t pigeonholed or worried about being experimental. Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon found an unrepeatable chemistry that stands the test of time and has inspired many others.

I was so upset on that fateful day when the first album hit the spokes of my bike, but if I’d known what there was to look forward to I wouldn’t have worried.

 

The Clash – The Official Website

The Clash Blog

Don J. Whistance’s The Clash Site

The Clash biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #317

7 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    Jul 15, 2014

    Many thanks for your insights Neil, a great 10. From your comments, I think Bankrobber may have been nowhere near your list but would have been the first name I’d have written. BBC London’s Robert Elms spent a year following The Clash around the UK in their early days, I wonder what he’d make of this post? You may like to know (and the irony is not lost on me) London Calling is played at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium just before the teams emerge from the tunnel.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jul 15, 2014

    Neil, thanks for this great list… Would probably have to have ‘Spanish Bombs’ in my top ten, though. It brings out the political aspect of The Clash, which was an important element of their appeal to me…

  3. Peter Viney
    Jul 15, 2014

    Delighted to see the sleeve references … I suspect Paul Simonon was behind a lot of the art. They had great designs. The Clash are fascinating in many ways. “London Calling” is the punk album that people who disliked punk bought and there is a lot more to it than punk. Reading The Clash by The Clash, it was more thought out than publicity suggested.

    Should I Stay or Should I Go was not a #1 hit until 1991, as part of the Levis campaign. It was originally a double A with Straight to Hell, which had the front sleeve, nine years earlier. Why I’d choose Should I Stay or Should I Go is that it sits in the Levi campaign with The Joker, C’Mon Everybody, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Mannish Boy, Piece of My Heart, Stand By Me, and you can’t see any joins. It’s just pure classic rock and it was also the beginning of the Levis classic ads. Mick Jones says “It was our attempt at writing a classic. When we were just playing, that was the sort of stuff we’d play.” It worked. So OK, it’s my “What? No …”

  4. Alan Leadbeater
    Jul 16, 2014

    Neil – a fantastic posting, as all of yours are. In complete agreement with choices 1 to 8. However, it will come as no surprise, I would swap 1 and 2 . If only I could find a copy of that Hammersmith Palais poster! I remember going to a Jamaican Sound System in 1978 naively thinking that being a punk and liking reggae I would be welcomed with open arms – the lyrics “I’m only looking for fun, mister, please leave me alone” have a certain resonance. My changes would be firstly, Capital Radio (two) from The Cost of Living EP. The reason being, having heard this in 1977, trying to track down and afford a copy was impossible, so when it appeared on the COL EP my search was over. I prefer this version to the original, I love the acoustic intro and then 1-2.3.4, crash, bang, wallop! This (and The Members ‘Phone In Show’) perfectly capture what was happening at the time especially with ‘speak to a Doctor’ shows – “let us all in on the news”. I also love the inter-band chat on this track and the sly dig at Terry Chimes – “the drummer is in the box office counting all his money”. The final reason I like it is that The Adicts lifted the guitar rift for their ‘Straight Jacket’ another favourite of mine.

    My second change would be ‘Train in Vain’ – the so called hidden track on the London Calling LP – it was not listed on the sleeve. Apparently the story behind the song is that Mick Jones would frequently take the train across town to see his girlfriend Viv Albertine, but his visits were often fruitless as the meetings would seldom see Jones departing a satisfied and happy man. A classic Jones vocal performance and a top tune. I, like you, was lucky enough to get to a number of the early Strummer & Mescaleros gigs which were awesome (young people and Americans, please note this is the correct use of the word). 6th May 2000, Brixton Academy – best day of my life.

  5. David Lewis
    Jul 16, 2014

    ‘The Future is Unwritten’, on Joe Strummer is essential viewing. It’s brutally honest, but compelling.

  6. Keith Shackleton
    Jul 19, 2014

    I don’t know how you did it, I couldn’t commit! Some from my extended list… the one-two punch of the White Riot/1977 single, Janie Jones, simply because it’s side one, track one, and the first Clash song I lowered the needle on… Lost in the Supermarket was lurking in my head, one I play very often. As you so rightly say, Topper is the guvnor, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Live at Shea Stadium with Terry in the chair, he does a great job on that one. And for a little bit of Toppermost cross-pollination, I will refer to footnote #4 on my Mott the Hoople ten.

  7. Don J Whistance
    Jul 20, 2014

    Great reviews of The Clash can also be viewed on my website, The Clash Site.

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