Big Cheese looks at THE CLASH‘s singles collection and peels back some of the layers surrounding punk rock’s most vital band….
The Clash’s singles signposted a generation. They may never have been proper big hits, the band’s refusal to play the ‘Top Of The Pops’ game prevented most of them from even being in the top 20 but each one was a gem. They carried the consciousness of punk rock in each brilliant salvo, each one a missive from the rock ‘n’ roll frontline telling the band’s adventurous journey from punk rock machine gun guitars to New York rap-influenced salvos and all with a staccato heartfelt beat.
Bursting onto the scene in mid ’76 they were the sound of punk positive- if the Pistols did the necessary and brutal nihilistic thing scouring the bland pop world of the mid seventies the Clash set about with the rebuilding.
Each single was an education in itself: searing heartfelt lyrics from Joe Strummer coupled with Mick Jones’s genius guitar and arrangement skills. The rhythm section of Paul Simonon’s dub-influenced grooves and mostly Topper Headon’s killer drums were crucial as well.
The early singles that punctuated punk’s heyday sound deceptively simple, but are complex little beasts rushing round with an amphetamine-fed fury and sharp intelligence that has set the template for just what a punk rock song. Even 30 years later you can hear their influence all over bands from Rancid to Green Day to the Libertines and many more- a pretty bizarre catchall of guitar gunslingers who owe something to The Clash who are still perhaps the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band that ever stalked the earth. The recently released ‘Singles Box Set’ has all the singles, b-sides and remixes, a potted history of a band who never once rested on their laurels, who mixed and matched every rebel music there was into a huge sprawling collection of music that still make you want to get up off your arse and create. How perfect is that?
As opening salvos go this is pretty much perfect. ‘White Riot’ is the Clash at their most 1-2-3-4. This song sums up 1977-staccato guitars played fast, sped up by the momentous Ramones gig at the Roundhouse in 1976 that made all the nascent British punk bands get up to speed. The Clash’s original garage band sound of souped-up sixties hipster rock ‘n’ roll went through a metamorphosis after Da Brudders’ sonic salvo. Much misunderstood, the song details the Notting Hill Riots that were chanced upon by Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon during the long hot summer of 1976 and asks why couldn’t the white man fight back as well.
1977 was in full revolutionary swing and the Clash are the heroes of the counterculture, so what does the record label do? It puts out a single without telling the band. The Clash are furious- suddenly they realise that signing to CBS is not going to be the way they envisaged it. ‘Remote Control’ is a fine song but hardly the incendiary broadside required for the summer of hate. While The Pistols were releasing ‘God Save The Queen’ the Clash were being made fools of by the limp-wristed meddlers of the record label. It was going to be worth it though…
The band’s reaction to the ‘Remote Control’ debacle was fantastic, for many this is the finest punk single, a song about being trapped by your record label, a song of defiance and one of the first Clash songs that detailed their own battles. ‘Complete Control’ has it all: it’s anthemic, it’s heartfelt, it’s got a fantastic guitar solo and an amazing outro where Joe Strummer’s ad-libs sound like a man who has completely lost it as he rants and raves like a madman. It was sort of produced by the inventor of dub Lee Scratch Perry but you can’t really tell-it’s a nice link though between the vanguard of punk and the mastermind behind the genius Jamaican music.
CLASH CITY ROCKERS
In which the Clash go overboard on their own mythology and somehow it works. Great rock ‘n’ roll songs should celebrate the band as a gang and few bands have looked a much like a gang of street smarts as The Clash. Now widely recognised as the number one punk band after the Pistols’ messy auto destruction, The Clash swagger like all great rock ‘n’ roll bands should with a zigzag riff half-inched from The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’. It’s another song of defiance from The Clash- a subject matter instantly understood by the put-upon punk rock generation.
(WHITE MAN) IN HAMMERSMITH PALAIS
Perhaps the closest The Clash came to a signature tune and the song that always had the whole crowd singing along at Joe Strummer’s gigs right up to his heartbreaking death, ‘White Man…’ distilled everything that was perfect in the Clash vision. Many talked about reggae but The Clash were the first punk rock band to cross its intoxicating rhythms with their own spiel. On their debut album they covered Junior Marvin’s ‘Police And Thieves’, stripping the song down for a six-minute workout that was perfect in its simplicity. With ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ they went one further and wrote their own roots rock radical punky reggae party. Strummer writes about the alienation he felt at a reggae gig at the Hammersmith Palais that he went to with Clash mate and key player Don Letts in 1977 and also how he felt let down by the lack of revolutionary fervour coming from the stage. The song then addresses the punk generation and warns the revolutionaries that ‘the British army is waiting out there’. It’s a brilliant contradictory lyric that captures the confused and dangerous politics of the time, a time when revolution was in the air and a generation believed that if they listened to the records hard enough then the massed ranks of Doc Marten-ed youth could take the world. The Clash made music that made you feel like that.
ENGLISH CIVIL WAR
You had to be there to believe how militant we all felt. Walking down the streets dressed as punks was like asking for a civil war of your own, there was plenty of kick offs – Britain in the late seventies was a violent place – a place of lairy drunks battling punks, the inherent violence was driven right through the state. The song addressed the military, the British violence and the counterculture clashes. Based on an older Irish folk song, from around 1802, called ‘Johnny We Hardly Knew You’, which was almost forgotten until the American Civil War of the mid 1800’s when it was resurrected (and still sung in America) as ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’. The Clash took the old folk song and turned it into a punk anthem, subtly making the point that punk was also the only genuine English folk music that could be heard.
I FOUGHT THE LAW
The first sign of the new Clash was this cover of Sonny Curtis of the Crickets garage band staple that was a hit for Bobby Fuller in 1966, hitting the top of the charts the week that Fuller himself was found murdered. The song is a wry take on hassle with the cops – The Clash had run-ins with the law but it was mainly for minor on-the-road stuff like nicking pillows from hotel rooms and minor drug busts. But out there on the British streets the thuggish old guard of cops were making their presence felt and many a young punk could identify with this song’s brilliant chorus.
The initial punk scene had burned out in spiral of bad drugs and nihilism. 1979 was a scary year – apocalypse and right wing governments were the order of the day. The Clash returned to the scene looking for an escape route from punk’s studded straightjacket. Suited and quaffed-up looking like punk rock Mafiosi, it was the coolest look they ever came up with and one that the surviving band members return to this day. Apocalyptic fervour ruled the day, there was a darkness on the edge of town and people genuinely felt that there was going to be a nuclear war. The Clash caught all that paranoia in this, the title track of their upcoming double album. Hinting at the darker territories of the newly-emerged Joy Division, the song is a rumble of dark thunder, a brilliant evocation of cold war paranoia over a slashing guitar motif. An absolute classic.
Now really daring to break the mould, The Clash made this extraordinary record, a huge billowing cloud of dope-fuelled melodrama that unrolled a romantic spliff-driven drama about a bankrobber. The Clash never sounded so romantic as the song sprawls out and tells its atmospheric Bonnie and Clyde on the streets of Brixton tale. Recorded in Manchester surrounded by a bunch of 13 year old kids who would grow up to be the Stone Roses, ‘Bankrobber’ was a surprisingly huge hit and underlined The Clash’s potential escape route from the punk style that they had patented.
THE CALL UP
Further adventures in dub from the first single to be released from the band’s wholly ambitious triple album set, ‘Sandinista!’ The song may have been a laidback groove, another big sprawling epic like ‘Bankrobber’ but its succinct lyrics looked at the call up, warning of taking heed of the world situation and how it may come home to roost, the band’s anti-war left wing politics were still firmly in place as the cold war started to heat up.
Another release from ‘Sandinista!’, an odd choice as well, for the first time since ‘Remote Control’ the Clash had a single that sounded better as a key album track, a song that celebrated the plethora of small labels that had sprung up in the white heat environment of DIY punk, ‘Hitsville UK’ was one of the least known Clash singles.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
If punk tore up the rulebook for rock ‘n’ roll, rap was doing the same kind of thing on the streets of the USA. Always hip to the ghetto soundtrack, The Clash were instantly attracted to the new rebel sound literally pouring off the streets of New York City. ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is perhaps the first attempt by a white rock band to harness the new rhythms, the new attack, coming off the streets and although they never get the credit for it, The Clash were first and foremost in introducing this new culture to many millions of ears.
THIS IS RADIO CLASH
At one time the Clash planned to have their own radio station. The radio then as now was at war with the white heat creatives, and typically boring. Punk rock was not getting a look in and with wild-eyed abandon Joe promised us a Clash funded radio station that would try and redress the balance. Of course it never came to fruition, but that was the beauty of the Clash- they dared to dream. This song is all that’s left from the grand idea. It’s another brilliant document of the band going native in New York City in the early eighties – another rap/punk crossover way before anyone else ever did it.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Joe’s new mohawk meant business: The Clash had been out of the picture for some time. Music had slumped into a morass of New Romantic tomfoolery, you either went with the flow or fought back. And the Clash only knew one way. The Clash’s new look was combat fatigues and big fuck-off boots, this was The Clash at war with everything, with everybody. The Clash were back snarling and angrier than ever and this song, one of the great Clash songs, was the manifesto. The Clash had been wandering: ‘Sandinista!’ was a sprawling fog of different sounds and styles, sounds and styles they brilliantly executed but many yearned for a return to the short sharp shock of the classic Clash. I can still pinpoint the minute when I first heard ‘Know Your Rights’, this was the Clash stripped down and back in action, a call to arms, it was the closest they every got to releasing their political manifesto but "with guitars" as Strummer sang. From Mick’s clanking guitar chords in the intro to the spaghetti western guitar break- this is one of the great Clash singles, the electric buzz of excitement was everywhere and after the triple album set of ‘Sandinista!’ the news that The Clash were doing a stripped down single album, ‘Combat Rock’ made many feel that the band were going back to their roots.
ROCK THE CASBAH
Topper Headon was the best drummer of his generation. He made the complicated sound simple- just listen to those records again, those drum rolls are blissful – Topper also wrote the odd song, including this, the Clash’s biggest ever hit. He played all the instruments as well. Joe dashed off a lyric about the religious and cultural tension in the Middle East and the Clash had their only top ten hit in America ready to roll.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO
Mick’s rock ‘n’ roll anthem sounded more like the Rolling Stones than The Clash, but then what’s the point of the Clash if they can’t play classic rock ‘n’ roll as well as hip hop and punk rock. The riff was actually pinched from one of Mick’s pre-Clash favourites, the Sharks, the swaggering stub toed riff that the song rides in on. This was the Clash at their most stadium friendly, a jukebox classic with accompanying video footage from the Shea Stadium support with the Who that shows the Westway wonders taking their rock ‘n’ roll to the masses in USA. The song is still a staple on American classic radio and still cuts through after all these years. Proof that the Clash were more than able to cut a populist rabble-rousing anthem if they felt like it.
THIS IS ENGLAND
The Clash’s epitaph. After the worldwide success of the ‘Combat Rock’ album Mick had been thrown out and the Clash had toured as an expanded five piece. The last album was a shoddy affair, mainly because of the bizarre production – an attempt to coerce Joe’s rudimentary punk anthems into some sort of Malcolm Maclaren style hip ‘Duck Rock’ hip hop extravaganza by people who didn’t know what they were doing. Joe is barely there and Paul is not there at all. It’s a shame as live bootlegs point to the songs’ capacity for great rowdiness and there are some brilliant lyrical twists and turns. They may lack Mick’s smart touch but there was still a good band lurking in the last line-up of the Clash. But despite all this, one song managed to survive the studio mauling. The Clash’s last single is Joe’s heartfelt paean to England, a sentimental and sad song of a country sold to the dogs – an anthem for the dispossessed and the broken that came out in the middle of the miners’ strike as the last great bastion of working class pride in the UK was crushed by Thatcher’s droogs. ‘This Is England’ is a lament to a tough time, a bruised yet patriotic song. It works perfectly and is an oddly suitable sign-off for the band as they staggered to a halt in 1985.
‘The Clash: Singles Box Set’ is out now on Sony/BMG