In the final analysis, the first wave of British punk rock left us with a brief, fractious cacophony. The Sex Pistols imploded quickly and with a famously ferocious violence. Sham-69 and X-Ray Spex were awesome, short-lived standard bearers for as long as their incandescent intensity would carry them. No one seemed, at least from lip service, to be in it for the long haul. Nobody except The Clash, who maybe in history’s rear view were never really a “punk” band after all.
As far as rock and roll goes, The Clash were never committed agents of destruction. When they declared, “No Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones / In 1977,” it seems fairly apparent that they were protesting just a little too much. By the time the band had formed, frontman Joe Strummer was a longtime veteran of the rockabilly-flavored pub-rock outfit The 101ers and pretty well fixated on the iconography of the 1950s, from Sun Records to James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Mick Jones was a pop-savant with an abiding love for Bowie and the Beatles, fully apparent in his gorgeous and carefully arranged lead and backing vocals, soaring guitar playing and indelible melodies as beautiful as any to be heard on Rubber Soul. Far from dancing on the perceived grave of rock and roll, it seems possible, with their embrace of world music, hip-hop, dub, and jazz that they represented the final great classic rock band, one which alighted countless ways to a new, unwritten future. If the Pistols thought of themselves as the logical end of the rock and roll experiment, it seems fair to say that the Clash imagined themselves as something more like the end of the beginning.
Their self-titled first release was conspicuously raw enough to ward off their American label affiliate for more than a year. But by the time The Clash had become the largest-ever English import album in the American market, CBS Records relented, and the expanded album they eventually authorized was even better than the original.
Slow to come around at the beginning, the industry shortly understood that this was a band with the potential to equal radio stalwarts like the Who and the Stones. The band redoubled this faith by recording their second full-length album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, with trusted commercial producer Sandy Pearlman — best noted for his work with the reliable classic-rock warhorse Blue Oyster Cult. It was a step forward sonically, but a mild regression in terms of songwriting.
For all of the restless examination at the time of what could truly be construed as “punk rock,” there was really no preparing for the tour de force that was London Calling — a two-disc set so overstuffed with inspiration and variety from beginning to end that it rendered any such arguments utterly moot. From the epochal opening chords of the title track to the culminating white soul classic “Train In Vain,” London Calling was an ingeniously rich and risky sonic brew that threw together reggae, new wave, power pop, rockabilly, and straight rock with a careless insouciance and utter confidence that left the listening audience delicately picking their jaws up off the floor. Produced by the relatively insane but utterly brilliant Mott The Hoople helmsman Guy Stevens, it was the sort of generational landmark that comes around perhaps once in a lucky decade — the two most obvious comparisons being the Stones’ stunning 1972 creative peak, Exile On Main Street, and Prince’s career-defining 1987 masterpiece, Sign O’ The Times, both of which also employed the double-album format to take audiences on a pulse-racing, genre-hopping and ultimately cathartic ride through all of pop music’s myriad great possibilities.
The vaulting ambition of London Calling led to the arguable hubris of Sandinista!, a THREE-disc set which for the first time in the band’s career proffered material that was by nearly any metric, worthy of remaining on the cutting floor. Having said that, the highs on Sandinista! are stratospheric and, as with the Beatles’ White Album, it is difficult to imagine the best, most realized material existing without the freedom and general chaos that allowed for lesser ideas to force their way onto the release. Overall, with three decades of hindsight, Sandinista! seems smarter and more courageous than ever. It is a fascinating document, ripe for a thorough reconsideration, and contains more than a handful of the band’s greatest work. As a two-disc record, it might well have rivaled London Calling for sheer impact. Perhaps knowing that, the more diffuse force of three sprawling discs was a deliberate attempt to slow down the assessment and elevate the dialogue: a slow-grower that prized patience over immediacy.
Combat Rock was, for any meaningful purpose, the final Clash record. It was great, too — finding the band firing on all cylinders, their commercial ambitions at their highest without compromising the artistic restlessness that had long defined them. It was also a peculiar thing for a last record to be one that feels transitional. The disappointment of Strummer and Jones’ splitting up the band in 1983 at this point is secondary to the sadness of Strummer’s too-soon passing at the age of 50 in 2002. Mick Jones went on to convene the formidable Big Audio Dynamite, which featured great songs in a dance context that one could have easily imagined a next-generation Clash exploring. Strummer even provided some lyrics on BAD’s second record, Number 10, Upping Street. In recent years, both Strummer and Jones had expressed regret that the band broke up in the first place and this feels right — as a creative unit, they were far from out of steam.
Time has proven remarkably kind to The Clash. Their best-known songs have managed the neat trick of emerging as classic rock staples while never feeling like clichés. Meanwhile, even their most left-field genre experiments — the proto-rap of “The Magnificent Seven,” the mournful dub of “Armagideon Time,” or the ersatz gospel of “The Sound Of The Sinners” — seem thoughtful, exhilarating, and forward-looking today. Perhaps what comes across most powerfully in revisiting the Clash is the extraordinary compassion and humanity of their music. Many bands over time have deeply identified with life’s underdogs, but very few so routinely and powerfully gave an articulate voice to such a large swath of society’s outcasts. From the embattled union worker to the down-in-the-dumps former matinee idol to the orphaned child born during the Vietnam War to the hopelessly outmanned Spanish freedom fighters attempting to stave off fascist rule, the Clash possessed an indelible capacity to tell these stories with humor, vigor, excitement, and an uncynical romanticism that somehow never veered into preachiness or cheap sentiment. How they managed this highwire act has become more intriguing over time, as many have attempted to replicate their surpassing alchemy of profound hope and revolutionary impulse. In a sense the achievements of the Clash are reminiscent of HBO TV series The Wire — presenting a fully formed critique of the ills of modern society into such an addictively consuming package, so exciting that sometimes it was easy to forget or overlook the fact that while listening to them you were also learning: learning about the deprivations of others, about long forgotten revolutions, about the ways in which different styles of music could be cobbled together to manifest entirely new forms. Joe Strummer’s premature death was one of those that hurt badly when it occurred, and yet somehow feels even worse 10 years after the fact. So much has happened since then that you wish the Clash were here to help make sense of, and to set into unforgettable song. As Craig Finn astutely put it on the Hold Steady anthem “Constructive Summer”: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer / I think he might have been our only decent teacher.”
What we are left with is a lot of what-could-have-beens, coupled with the incredible legacy that was vouchsafed us. To distill The Clash into merely 10 great songs is a fool’s errand — they had nearly that many on every release — but here is an effort at acknowledging all that they gave us.
10. “Safe European Home” (from Give ‘Em Enough Rope)
The lead track from The Clash’s second full-length is a wry acknowledgment of the unintended pitfalls of their world music leanings set to one of the most insinuating rock anthems to date. The true tale of Strummer and Jones visiting Jamaica for inspiration only to walk away intimidated and frightened by the level of criminality is a great exemplar of these multi-cultural seekers recognizing their own limitations in an actual third-world setting. The chorus, “Sitting here in my safe European home / don’t wanna go back there again” relays both a deep affinity and almost comedic alienation from some of the Clash’s greatest influences from Rastafarian to Brian Ferry.
9. “Train In Vain” (from London Calling)
Mick Jones’ gorgeous, lovelorn plea “Train In Vain” was initially considered too obvious a target for top 40 radio and was thus unmarked as a secret track on the running order of 1979’s London Calling. The gambit never really worked. The impossibly catchy “Train In Vain” moved its way into the public consciousness and became one of The Clash’s best-loved songs. It comes as no surprise, given the inescapable anguish and perfect melody that Jones renders while relaying the case of a trusted paramour who ultimately surprised him with her infidelity. The simple yet devastating refrain “Did you stand by me? / No not at all” are worthy of the most desperate laments of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding.
8. “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)” (from Sandinista!)
An overlooked track from the frequently frustrating Sandinista!, “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)” is a melancholy, neo-realist cousin to London Calling‘s “Hateful.” Its remarkably catchy, synth-driven narrative paints a devastating story of tenement home living in London, suggesting the worst for those unfortunates relegated to subsidized housing. There is deep and resonant sadness here: “When the wind hits this building, this building it tilts / One day it will surely fall to the ground.” There are shades of Katrina and Haiti and Sandy — the homes of the most vulnerable get crushed.
7. “Lost In The Supermarket” (from London Calling)
The moving “Lost In The Supermarket,” written by Strummer and sung by Jones, remains one of the most exacting accounts of suburban alienation and rings true for any teen suffering the stultifying go-nowhere realities of an estranged life lived far from any meaningful truths. Here, the details are crucial: The first sound ever experienced by the singer is domestic strife and his first supposed comfort is shopping. This is a painfully honest discussion of the suburbs, far more poignant and truthful than other meditations of a more recent vintage.
6. “Complete Control” (from The Clash)
“Complete Control” first appeared on the American version of The Clash (almost two years after the UK release of the same album), and it was a reaction to label interference and general misdeeds on behalf of their would-be benefactors. In fact, nothing from their label was as advertised and out of this came this extraordinary airing of grievances, a desperately catchy cataloguing of the many ills visited upon a young band experiencing its first forays into corporate culture. Over the song’s stunning, ascending major-key opening, the Clash affirm a bit of insider pool: “They said release ‘Remote Control’ but we didn’t want it on the label.” From there, we have the unexpected sound of a band untethered from its industry handlers with a magnificent and forceful melody, and then Strummer has the audacity to say, “This is Joe Public speaking, I’m controlled in the body, controlled in the mind.” It wasn’t a gambit to get played on top 40 American radio, but it was some of the most earnest truth telling of its era and one of the catchiest songs ever written.
5. “London Calling” (from London Calling)
The stunning lead track from the Clash’s definitive masterpiece, “London Calling” posits a world on its last legs and suggests a fearlessness that could only have come from Cold War survivors who experienced the theoretical end of days as part of their daily school ritual, hiding under desks and waiting for the enemy to do its worst. Born into an England recovering from the devastation of heavy bombings and fully in the throes of Cold War paranoia, the Clash had made eminent death part of their personal brand by 1979. Most powerfully, Strummer and group make no claim toward being peace-seeking soothsayers. Unlike their hippie forbearers, they accept no responsibility for any looming disaster: “Don’t look to us / phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” A welcome final reversal to the trite optimism of the flower child movement, “London Calling”is all for one and none for all.
4. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” (from The Clash)
This great, early commingling of reggae and punk yearns for a revolutionary racial unity in order to overturn an oppressive status quo. Speaking of their shared predicament, Strummer fairly begs, “White youth, black youth / Better find another solution” — a young band’s mature recognition that economic class, perhaps even more than race, is what truly divides us. It’s not all maturity though — as Strummer’s memorable self-depiction makes clear, “I’m the all night drug-prowling wolf / who looks so sick in the sun” — sometimes the smartest guys at the party are also the most dangerous.
3. “Clampdown” (from London Calling)
The tradition of great union songs dates from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly to Billy Bragg and Pete Seeger, but perhaps no one has ever quite captured the unique cocktail of earnestness, frustration, and communal love quite like the Clash’s “Clampdown” — an anthem so powerful that it nearly inspires a militant fervor. The soundtrack to Ayn Rand’s worst nightmares, this is a song that encourages underpaid workers to fight back against those who would gleefully steal the best years of their life: “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power / Do you know that you can use it?” And if you didn’t think the stakes were high enough, consider the outro aside: “begging to be melted down.” This could be an historic reference to the indignities of industrial production, the holocaust, or simply a suicidal ideation. As powerful as protest music has ever been before or since.
2. “Straight To Hell” (from Combat Rock)
Combat Rock‘s centerpiece is a startling and arresting third-person account of those rarely considered victims of the Western world’s adventures in Southeast Asia. Placed over a mournful, Eastern-style beat “Straight To Hell” lays bare the fate of those children left behind by American GIs who coupled with Vietnamese women: “Ain’t no asylum here / King Solomon, he never lived round here.” Nearly every aspect of the pathetic miasma that was Vietnam has been explored in its aftermath, but on this inventive, moving song Strummer and company shine a light on the most anonymous sufferers.
1. “Spanish Bombs” (from London Calling)
The exhilarating and hook-laden melodic beauty “Spanish Bombs” is a formidable example of the Clash’s capacity to render an indelible pop song. The fact that it happens to also convey the tale of a condemned group of Spanish freedom fighters in the 1930s, attempting to stave off the yoke of fascism, simply underscores the remarkable brilliance of the Clash at their peak. This is like the best of Hemingway set to music. In many ways, this is the perfect metaphor for The Clash themselves: an account of proud, deeply convicted, possibly doomed individuals willfully setting their lives on the line for what they believe in, who have burnished themselves in the annals of history for their legendary efforts.