The Clash (illustration by Andy Friedman)
The Clash were no mere rock 'n' roll band. A tempest of punk, reggae, funk, and sociopolitical fury, the "only band that matters" elevated protest songs to the raucous realm of punk-lashed anthems, roiling with intelligence and passion.
Over the course of a decade and six studio albums (plus B-side collections, singles, and EPs), the Clash aggressively tackled the inequity of capitalism, the scourge of racism, the threat of the National Front, xenophobia, political corruption, warfare, fascism, corporate and governmental greed, unemployment, and global instability. Even their first single, 1977's snarling indictment "White Riot," was a missive aimed at the political passivity of the white club kids who would one day clamor to see them.
The voice of an aggrieved and aggravated generation coming of age in the late Seventies, the Clash demanded a better, fairer world that challenged the status quo and they persuaded their fans to do the same. Some 40 years after the release of the Clash's eponymous debut album on April 8, 1977, the band's defiant songs are still persistent—and prescient—reminders of the power of music in galvanizing resistance and revolution.
The core lineup was critical to their bravado and brilliance: singer and rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer, singer and lead guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Nicky "Topper" Headon (who replaced Terry Chimes). The volcanic quartet shook up the British (and American) guitar rock of the Seventies, choosing a far more multicultural landscape that reveled in reggae and loping dub, like The Clash's propulsive cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," Eddy Grant's "Police on My Back" on Sandinista!, or the keening cry of the 1980 single "Bankrobber."
They weren't alone in that exploration—bands like X-Ray Spex, the Police, the Ruts, the Specials, the Jam, and the [English] Beat would also alter the topography of British post-punk, seeking a deeper understanding of reggae, dub, calypso and soul. But the Clash led the way, embracing reggae culture and studying the work of pioneers like Lee "Scratch" Perry (who later produced their single "Complete Control") and Mikey Dread, a frequent collaborator and tourmate. While the band's early inspirations included the Ramones and the Sex Pistols—the Clash's first gig on July 4, 1976 was a support slot for the Pistols in Sheffield (before a crowd of 50) and the following night most of the band caught the Ramones at Dingwalls in London—the Clash swiftly surpassed their forebears as songwriters. The genius of the sophisticated, biting lyrics of Strummer and Jones and the musical alchemy of Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon was hard to rival.
Taut, nervy shouts like "Know Your Rights," "Clampdown" or "Complete Control" were rock 'n' roll reveilles and calls to action spurred on by Strummer's gutteral bark, Jones's reedy wail, the giddy tandem assault of their guitars, Simonon's sinewy bass lines, and Headon's soulful, articulate drumming. The Clash knew that they had something important to say and dared other bands to keep up.
There was no verboten topic: the Clash mocked terrorists ("Tommy Gun"), protested the draft ("The Call Up"), and spoke for the working class trapped in crumbling council estates ("Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)"). They thrived on the harsh poetry of a provocative, searing and meaningful line. The Clash's transformative third album, 1979's London Calling, pushed far beyond post-punk perimeters, railing against Thatcherism with a raw vulnerability and wrath; the dystopian title track still remains as relevant today.
They followed London Calling, an astonishing double album, a mere year later with a triple-album masterpiece, 1980's Sandinista!—an effusive, shapeshifting, 36-track political manifesto that dipped into just about every global music genre. It all improbably worked too, from Jones's jaunty Motown takeoff "Hitsville UK" (a duet with Ellen Foley) to Strummer's marimba-splashed "Washington Bullets."
Nothing sounded like the Clash on the radio: their first proper US single, 1979's "I Fought the Law," was a punchy cover of a Bobby Fuller Four cover of a Sonny Curtis song. By 1982's Combat Rock (the last before the departure of Jones and Headon), they had a proper dance club hit via "Rock the Casbah," written by Strummer and Headon. Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie once told the Guardian that "The Magnificent Seven" reminded him of a "punk version of Chic."
In fact, following his sacking from the Clash in 1983, Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite with Don Letts and their genre-shattering debut album of sleek grooves and sampling, This is Big Audio Dynamite, crossed easily into dance clubs with singles like "E=MC²" and "Medicine Show." Strummer reunited with Jones on the second BAD release, No. 10, Upping Street, as a songwriter and co-producer, but sought his own path post-Clash. He was briefly an actor, appearing in films like Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train." He produced the Pogues and hosted his own radio show for the BBC. During those years Strummer was also trying to extract himself from a legal tangle with Epic Records. By the late '90s he was finally able to record as Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros and toured the world until his death in 2002.
Both Jones and Simonon collaborated and toured with Damon Albarn in the guise of Gorillaz on 2010's Plastic Beach. Simonon is also a member of The Good, The Bad & The Queen with Albarn, Simon Tong and Tony Allen. (They're recording a second album this year after a decade-long hiatus.)
Strummer was just 50 when he died in 2002, just three days before Christmas, of a heart attack after walking his family's dogs near their home in Somerset. Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon had allegedly considered a reunion for their 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony; instead, Strummer's surviving bandmates eulogized their friend. Strummer's widow, Lucinda Mellor, set up a music charity in his memory, the Joe Strummer Foundation (Strummerville). And one of the greatest biopics of all time is a 2007 documentary about Strummer, directed by his close friend Julien Temple, called "The Future is Unwritten."
"The Clash were the greatest rock band," said Bono at the time of Strummer's passing. It's tough to disagree with the U2 frontman or cite another band that so instinctively and artfully understood the confluence of rock, politics, and resistance quite like the Clash, this week's FUV Essentials.