The Clash

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.

Comments (83)
  1. “Spanish Bombs” was the right answer.

  2. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” is top choice. The song is so dope 311 even covered it. Now that’s coming original.

  3. There’s a reason why the absent “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” might be their biggest hit and it’s because it’s bloody awesome.

  4. this is radio clash?

  5. i was ready to crap all over this list but I reached the end and was pleasantly surprised.

  6. liking the slight dig at arcade fire (at least i assume it is) in ‘supermarket’ (my favorite clash song btw).

    • why is this being downvoted. thats the best thing ive read all day

    • I didn’t really see why that was necessary. A lot of people really liked The Suburbs. As someone who was raised there, I spent my senior year of high school driving through mall parking lots with that album as a soundtrack. The Clash are undeniably a greater band, but there’s no need to diss a merely great record at the expense of a classic one.

  7. Really glad Spanish Bombs and Lost in the Supermarket made it, would have liked to see Somebody Got Murdered!

  8. By growing out of the punk stereotype and consistently being an adventurous and political force, I would argue that The Clash were the MOST punk band of the whole ’77 lot. But what it really means to be punk is a conversation for another day.
    Being the band I grew up on, I’m very glad to see The Clash get some recognition on the ‘Gum, and I’m also very glad to see Spanish Bombs at the top there. A very fine list.

  9. I thought I was the only person who thought so highly of “Clampdown.” I’m pleased.

  10. By breaking out of the punk mood and experimenting with all those different genres, I would argue that The Clash were MOST punk band of the UK ’77 lot. But what it means to be punk is a conversation for another day.
    Being the band I grew up on and still very much love, I’m glad to see The Clash get some recognition on the ‘Gum. Also very glad to see Spanish Bombs at the top there. A very fine list, amigos.

  11. I was so, so happy to see “Spanish Bombs” as the top pick.

  12. Love all these songs, but “Guns of Brixton,” should be on here. And more of the reggae influence fusion from the Sandanista! era, please.

  13. “Death or Glory” and “Rudie Can’t Fail” or GTFO.

  14. Let’s face it, The Clash should get a 50 best songs list.

  15. It really sucks that Spotify is not available in Canada. The Clash were the only band that mattered.

  16. This is a perfectly adequate list. Yes, there could’ve been 50 other choices, but all the songs on this list are worthy of top ten status.

    I’m very partial to “Guns of Brixton” “Police and Theives” and “Hitsville UK,” but to each his own.

  17. This list is pretty great but should be longer. Other Clash songs I love: “Janie Jones”, “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” (a Clash Disco song!), “Death or Glory”, “I’m Not Down”, “The Card Cheat”, “Garageland”, “Car Jamming” (that crazy jungle beat), “Magnificient Seven” (AN ITALIAN MOBSTER SHOOTS A LOBSTER).

  18. I like this list…needs The Guns of Brixton and Hateful, though.

  19. My favorite is “Julie’s been working for the drug squad”.

  20. The music they made such as Punk, Pop, Rock and Reaggae, all the classics songs they wrote, their 5 LP’s (and one of them is a triple!) in 6 six years existence (or something) as a band, broke up right after that and never reunited. For all those reasons The Clash is probably the definitive rock band in the history.

  21. up in heaven was a pleasant surprise. Sandinista! doesn’t get nearly enough love

  22. “and the expanded album they eventually authorized was even better than the original”

    That’s a pretty big statement to be making.

    • The 1979 American version comes with “Clash City Rockers”, “Complete Control”, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, “I Fought The Law”, and “Jail Guitar Doors” in place of “Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”. So personally I’d say the American version, having included that handful of excellent singles in place of what, for me, are the lesser songs on the British version, is definitely the better album.

      • I don’t think it can be denied that, compared side by side, the US version has the better individual songs. But as a unified piece of work I think the UK original’s shorter running length works better and has more of its own “feel”.

        • True that. I guess the Brit version (obviously) gives a better snapshot of the band at that stage, and I definitely prefer the first version of White Riot. Both have their advantages, but the US version will always be my #1.

        • The British version is clearly the better album with the better songs to me. “Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours” are so much more raw, punk, fitting, and powerful than the comparative lame-wristed poppy tracks like “Clash City Rockers,” “Complete Control,” and “Jail Guitar Doors.” Not claiming those tracks are bad by any means, but I’m extremely partial to the British Tracks.

          I got into The Clash originally from a copy of Clash On Broadway, kind of an eclectic collection of their tracks. Later, after having fallen in love with the U.K. version and not knowing the U.S. version at all, I remember thinking the U.S. version tracks on Clash on Broadway must have been written much more late-period Clash, maybe even after London Calling. Those tracks always had a more sugary, theatrical feel to me, though now they kind of make sense to me as spiltting the difference b/w Give Em Enough Rope and London Calling, which I am again reminded that’s when they were written by the Wikipedia page.

          Side note, this is pretty corny and lame but I literally cried the first time I heard the first album U.K. version in a “this is all I’ve ever wanted in music” moment.

          And sorry to be pedantic, but it’s “No Elvis , Beatles, OR THE Rolling Stones.”

          • For the record, all the extra US tracks were released as singles in ’77/’78 before Give ‘Em Enough Rope except I Fought The Law, which came out on The Cost Of Living EP in ’79. I can see where you’re coming from though.
            And it’s okay to cry. There was a year in 7th grade where I flat-out refused to listen to any band but The Ramones.

          • Thanks, Brock ;) ;)

            Ah, I think you’re right about the extra tracks, the rare shortcomings of Wikipedia or perhaps my ability to read. The end of middle school is a great time to get into punk.

  23. Man, they should have given you 20 songs for this one.

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  25. Armagideon Time
    Magnificent Seven
    Overpowered By Funk
    Guns of Brixton

  26. woozefa  |   Posted on Dec 7th, 2012 +4

    wow, someone can’t get enough of the downvote arrow on this one.

  27. Spanish Bombs??? Are you joking? That wouldn’t even make my top 5 of songs from that album. #1 has to be “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”

    And sorry, as a Brit, I can’t get behind this notion that the US version of their first album is the better one. It’s like a frigging compilation album! And it has ‘I Fought The Law’ on it which was recorded years later when they sounded completely different.

    • I agree that I dislike the time lapse in recordings on the U.S. version, but the UK version omits Complete Control, White Riot, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais among others. So if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose the U.S. if only for those tracks that are some of the best on the record.

  28. Oh, and this: No one seemed, at least from lip service, to be in it for the long haul.

    Never heard of The Jam?

    • In my book, it’s The Jam – 5 at The Clash -4 (penalties after extra time)…

      I would swap something on the list for “Rudy Can’t Fail”. If the list was expanded to 15, I’d add “Garageland” “All The Young Punks” “The Right Profile”, “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Bankrobber” or “Robber Dub”.

  29. Me back in the day: “list sucks, tracks from the first album should take up at least 7 of the spots and NOTHING from Sandinista or later.”

    Me now: This is a pretty sweet representation of The Clash’s range. I would’ve chosen some different ones, “Straight To Hell” at #2 is questionable, but overall I’m looking forward to reading this more thoroughly and basking in The Clash’s greatness. Thanks, Stereogum!

  30. as if the sheer audacity of ranking their 10 best isn’t enough to me off, half these songs are not among my favorites. what gives?

  31. I’m glad to see “Lost in the Supermarket” get some love. I thought people didn’t like that one. “Rudy Can’t Fail” is also missing, but otherwise good list

  32. “Police & Thieves” should be in the mix somewhere. Always preferred The Clash version to the original. Wouldn’t have minded seeing “Bankrobber” in the list either, but that one may not be in the top 10 for most.

  33. Spanish bombs a deserved no. 1, but Guns of Brixton has to be in there

  34. I can’t really hate on any of the choices, or any Clash list PERIOD. But for me, Armagideon Time, Radio Clash and Rudy Can’t Fail would absolutely be in my own personal top ten.

  35. Not enough love for the first Clash album – Janie Jones, White Riot, come on guys.

  36. “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.”

    Great writing, and spot on.

    • “The Sex Pistols tried to destroy rock and roll, The Clash wanted to save it” – Julie Burchill, circa 1978.

      (She wasn’t complimenting The Clash, by the way)

  37. always thought you were gonna leave Clampdown off, phewww, my fav:)

    • ever heard the Strokes’ live cover as the b-side to the The End Has No End? very solid rendition. Lot of fun to hear drummer like Fab playing that song.

  38. I’m sorry but I cannot trust any Best of Clash list that does not include “The Card Cheat”, “Career Opportunities”, or “Radio Clash”.

  39. At least you guys got Safe European Home up there. THE BEST.

  40. I would put The Card Cheat in there

  41. Magnificent Seven????

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  43. Too hard to do a top ten, but a good list. Bankrobber and Guns of Brixton would be in my list though.

  44. “The Call Up” and “Death or Glory” are missing, but good list, good call on “Spanish Bombs” and “Clampdown”.

  45. I’d say “Hateful” is one of their best songs

  46. Needs “The Magnificent Seven”.

  47. not sure i understand the love for “spanish bombs” ….love seeing “clampdown” on here.

    “white man…” should be no 1 and you’ve gotta find room for “hateful” and “all the young punks” but it’s a solid list nonetheless

  48. WHITE RIOT !!!

  49. Rudy Can’t Fail and Rock the Casbah are pretty good jams as well. Not a bad list, nice seeing Spanish Bombs on top.

  50. this is a pretty damn good list. A band that made me the marxist anarchist I am today. A couple that were left off were Bankrobber (a life serving one machine, is ten times worse than prison), The Call Up (its up to you not to heed the call up, you must not act the way you were brought up), Guns of Brixton (when they kick in your front door, how you gonna come, with your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun, when the law break in how you gonna go, shot down on the pavement or waiting on death row).

    How do you not identify the best lines and point of The Clampdown-the meaninglessness of getting a job and how you have to “grow up”. its a song about the emptiness of modern work culture-”no man living with a living soul can work for the clampdown, The voices in your head are calling
    Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming
    Only a fool would think someone could save you
    The men at the factory are old and cunning
    You don’t owe nothing, so boy get runnin’
    It’s the best years of your life they want to steal

    Also the best lines in Straight to Hell is the brutally honest-(let me tell you about your blood Bamboo Kid. It aint Coca Cola/Its Rice. Wanna join in a chorus of the Amer-Asian blues.

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