There are bands that most of us take for granted. You just “know” about the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Aerosmith, and Nirvana. They have been with us most of our lives, some even ALL of our lives. But then we start hearing them on classic rock stations and today’s top artists do not know who they are (see Billie Eilish and Van Halen). Obviously there are bands that no longer put out new music and therefore, may be lost on younger audiences. In the interest of education, and because it’s a crazy story, I present one of the bands you need to know about: The Clash.
We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of their renowned “London Calling.” (FORTY years?! How?!) The band hooked up with the Museum of London to create an exhibit about the making of “London Calling.” A tour of the exhibit is available online, but first, how did we get there…
Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes, and the soon-to-be dismissed Keith Levene created The Clash in the summer of 1976. With Strummer on lead vocals and guitar, Jones on vocals and lead guitar, Simonon on bass, Levene on guitar, and Chimes on drums, they were together for just a month when they opened up for the legendary Sex Pistols. The two bands became the fathers of British punk rock and often “sparred” with American punk bands like The Ramones in a chicken versus egg debate: did punk rock start in the UK or USA? (Answer: we can say both.)
After that live performance, the guys got to work to create their debut album and hone their performance skills. They played a private gig at their recording studio and got the attention of music journalist Giovanni Dadomo. He said The Clash was a “runaway train … so powerful, they’re the first new group to come along who can really scare the Sex Pistols shitless.”
In August – still the summer of 1976! – they joined forces with the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks for another show that helped launch the British punk movement.
A month later, Levene was out (see, I said it would be soon!). Chimes left in November, but would drum off and on for the band. At this time though, Rob Harper took over drum duties for the band on their tour as support to the Sex Pistols.
As 1977 began, punk was taking off in the UK. The Clash was signed to CBS Records in a deal that would go down in history as a learning experience for bands everywhere; described by music writer Keith Pille as “breathtaking in its shittiness.” While new bands may be coerced into sign a five-album deal, this contract was for an insane 13 albums. Add in the responsibility of paying for their tours and recordings, and giving up royalties, and you have a contract that would cause stress in even the best of band situations. This deal was negotiated by Bernard Rhodes and by the end of this article, you will like him even less.
The self-titled debut album was being completed though, and the band released their first song, “White Riot” in the spring of 1977. “The Clash” was released in the UK a month later, but would not hit the US until 1979. Even though we had to wait two years for it, our version included “I Fought the Law,” so it was worth it.
After a rotation of drummers, Topper Headon took over and the band hit the road in May to promote the album. The tour was peppered with arrests for Strummer and Headon: a stolen pillowcase here, a spray painted wall there. Punk rock is real!
The guys went back to the studio for work on their second album, but were told by their label to have a “cleaner” sound to appeal to American audiences. The band felt the recording process was “nitpicky” and did not enjoy it as much as their first album. It also ended with the firing of Rhodes who disagreed on the direction of the band and tried to control every aspect. “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” may not have fit their usual punk rock bill, but it included “Tommy Gun” and lead to a successful tour of North America in 1979.
In the fall of 1979, the band began work on what would become a legendary album. Not just “their” legendary album; “a” legendary album. Released as a double album in the UK, “London Calling” made them legit in the US and became the Best Album of the 1980s per Rolling Stone.
With that accolade, Rolling Stone called it “an emergency broadcast from rock’s Last Angry Band, serving notice that Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten at the core, and rock & roll needed a good boot in the rear… the Clash stormed the gates of rock convention and single-handedly set the agenda — musically, politically and emotionally — for the decade to come.”
Recorded in seclusion and featuring the iconic cover of Simonon smashing his bass, “London Calling” features the classics “Brand New Cadillac,” “Train in Vain,” “Rudie Can’t Fail,” “Spanish Bombs,” Clampdown,” “Lost in the Supermarket,” “The Guns of Brixton” and of course the title track. (By the way, if you’d like to see that bass in person, it is on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
Now dubbed “The Only Band that Matters,” they intended to release a single a month in 1980. But their record company was not a fan of that plan and they only got “Bankrobber” out.
Fortunately, audiences got a ton of Clash in December when they released the three-LP, 36-song “Sandinista!” Featuring a range of musical styles – including rap, disco, jazz, and funk – the album was labeled as controversial musically and politically. Songs the received critical acclaim include “Charlie Don’t Surf,” “Hitsville UK,” “Rebel Waltz,” and “Somebody Got Murdered.”
The band insisted on it having a “single album” price point, which helped add to their ever-growing debt to CBS Records (both in royalties and number of albums needed to fulfill their contract. Thanks to Rhodes!).
The album included “The Call Up,” “Police on My Back,” and “The Magnificent Seven.”
The following year, the band released another classic song, “This is Radio Clash.”
In early 1981, Strummer fought to get Rhodes back as their manager. “We were drifting and I saw my chance,” Strummer said. “We wanted some direction to the thing because Sandinista!” had been a sprawling six-sided…masterpiece. You got to get out there and fight like sharks – it’s a piranha pool. And I wanted to reunite the old firm, like in The Wild Bunch. Get the old gang together again and ride again. I knew we had something in us.”
What should have been an incredible time for them became the beginning of the end. Jones was increasingly unhappy with his band mates, and Headon was plunging himself into heroin and cocaine. Plus there was the ongoing money situation with CBS. Despite these issues, they began recording their fifth – and most successful – album, “Combat Rock.”
The band members debated how many songs to release and how many discs the album should have, but eventually edited it down to one disc. Released in May 1982, “Know Your Rights” was the first single, but “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah” are still in rotation on radio and satellite stations today. Honestly these songs are heard in every entertainment medium you can think of. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was even a featured song in Season 1 of the Netflix juggernaut, “Stranger Things.“
Headon actually wrote the song and lyrics for “Rock the Casbah,” but was fired from the group over his drug abuse.
The video featured the return of original drummer Chimes and was heavily favored on that new little music video channel, MTV.
With Headon gone, the drama between Strummer and Jones escalated. The Clash toured, even opening up for The Who, but the tension sent Chimes away and he was replaced by Pete Howard. (We should have done a member scorecard…) The band made an appearance at the history-making Us Festival with David Bowie and Van Halen.
Arguments with promoters over ticket costs and a brawl with security staff tainted the day. The constant need to put out albums and try to recoup money did not give the band time away from each other, which is essential to some relationships.
The stress was pushed further as Rhodes encouraged Strummer to fire Jones and Jones had stopped making an effort to show up. In September of 1983, he was canned. (Side note: Jones then started General Public, but then left them during recording of their first album.) The end of 1983 brought the arrival of Vince White and Nick Sheppard as replacements for Jones. With Jones gone, surely things would be calm…
The next release, “Cut the Crap,” was not a smooth recording process. Strummer and Rhodes (remember our villain?) were recording in Germany, using studio musicians, with band members coming in later to record parts. Strummer and Rhodes had a power struggle for control and Strummer eventually gave in by leaving. He had just become a father, his own father died, and his mother was fighting cancer, so with all that on his plate and his absence, Rhodes remixed most of the songs. “Cut the Crap” was released in November 1985 and became The Clash’s sixth and final album. It did not receive much love and is frequently missing from best of or compilation sets (Rhodes!!).
Strummer refused to do any promotion for the album and dissolved the band. That said, two songs actually took off from that album. They were “This Is England” and “Do It Now.”
“This is England” was more of a melodic feel that was meant to instill pride in their roots. Whereas “Do It Now” was much more uptempo and had that live punk-ska feel that the newer punk-ska crowd really got into.
According to Keith Pille, “The firing of Mick Jones in 1983 was the critical incident in the bust-up of the Clash. … when Jones was shown the door it was for all intents and purposes over.” Obviously the other members of the band had talent. All members helped with creating the songs and everyone contributed something essential. “But Jones had always functioned as the band’s musical director, dominating the arrangement and recording process.
Jones’ musical and arrangement skills had been the element that made these songs Clash songs. With Jones (and Headon) gone, the rump entity remaining might call itself the Clash, it was just a name, and the fans and critics weren’t buying it.”
By this time, Jones had a new band, Big Audio Dynamite [“BAD”]. Strummer approached him to reform The Clash, but instead they worked together on Big Audio Dynamite’s second album and the soundtrack to the “Sid & Nancy” movie. Strummer and the other past Clash members moved on to solo projects.
Jones had much success with BAD with hits like “The Bottom Line,” “Harrow Road,” “The Globe,” “E =MC2,” “Medicine Show” and “Rush.”
Whereas Strummer stuck gold again with solo hits like “Trash City” and “Love Kills.” What has become a part of his legacy was a cover he did of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
The years passed with no new music, but re-mastered discs, documentaries, and books.
“The Rise and Fall of the Clash” documentary features interviews will the band members discussing their versions of the end. The BBC documentary is also a must see.
Also worth checking out, the book “Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer.”
In November 2002, it was announced that The Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. There was talk of a reunion show for the Hall of Fame celebration, and Jones even shared the stage again with Strummer and his band, The Mescaleros.
Sadly, the reunion would never be as Strummer died December 22, 2002 due to an undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
Strummer, Jones, Simonon, Chimes, and Headon were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2003.
The surviving members did gather together in 2013 to release “Sound System,” a 12-disc box set. Their studio albums were re-mastered and tons of additional material added, plus a DVD of previously unseen footage. Basically, everything that you could ever want of The Clash is there in one set for you.
The Clash accomplished so much in their short time as a band, even landing at spot 28 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Artists of All Time. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic said, “The Sex Pistols may have been the first British punk rock band, but the Clash were the definitive British punk rockers.” Their legacy lives on in almost every style of music – British punk rock, post punk, new wave, reggae, funk, ska – influencing artists like U2, Rancid, Public Enemy, Bad Religion, Green Day, No Doubt, Sublime, 311…and on and on. And like the essential ‘80s icon they are, their music has been featured in Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
Ok, now that you have had your history lesson, visit The Clash London Calling Exhibit online:, do yourself a favor…