I can only recall shedding a genuine tear upon the death of two people that I didn’t actually know. One was the Ipswich Town footballer Kevin Beattie, a boyhood hero whose absolute genius was cruelly cut short by injuries. The other occasion was when I heard the news that Joe Strummer had died. Joe Strummer and the Clash remain the most important and influential band of my life. Certainly, I loved their music, but they also influenced me in so many other ways. It is not over emphasising the point to say that they fed into my attitudes and outlook on life, my politics, and my willingness to open up to new sounds.
I left school, aged 16, in 1977, the so-called summer of punk. I can’t pretend that I was in the vanguard of the movement – I wasn’t. I was too young and lived in Suffolk, a long distance both physically and culturally from the Roxy and the Vortex in London. I do remember hearing my first punk record though, as I secretly listened on headphones to John Peel’s late night radio show whilst lying in bed. It was The Damned and it felt like being hit by a truck. I started spending any money I had on punk singles: Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, The Adverts and of course The Clash. Punk was essentially a singles driven movement. As much as it thrilled and fired me as a teenager, looking back now it produced very little in the way of great albums or even enduring artists. Of those that have stood the test of time most were detached, in one way or other, from the raw punk scene. Artists like Paul Weller and Elvis Costello were literate songwriters and astute social commentators, able to progress and develop their music as time moved on. The American alternative scene also produced bands that were able to establish a more lasting legacy: The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television etc.
British punk bands made some scorching singles. Even now I still get a thrill from pulling out my old punk singles and hearing ATV, Swell Maps, The Killjoys, Johnny Moped etc. It was music for that moment. That moment has stayed with me, I can relate to it, I can remember it, I can relive it. I would however concede that anyone listening to those records with fresh ears now, might not get it. My son is music mad, plays guitar and writes his own songs, yet he regards those old singles as quite primitive and is as equally baffled as to why I enjoy them, as he is when I put on an old Lefty Frizzell or Johnny Horton record.
The one enormous exception to my analysis so far is The Clash. Yes, they made great singles; ‘White Riot’. ‘Remote Control’, ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’, ‘Clash City Rockers’, but there was far more to them than most of their contemporaries. This band were not about spurious and vacuous ‘life’s shit and I hate the world’ platitudes. There was anger, real anger but there was also the ability to offer an analysis and to foster not just anger, but an understanding of the causes of that anger and a consequent contempt for authority. Their debut single ‘White Riot’ was written after Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon were involved in the riots at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival. The song was misunderstood by some and mischievously construed by others as advocating a race war. Nothing was further from the truth. The song observes black youth fighting back against discrimination and oppression “black man got a lot of problems/but they don’t mind throwing a brick” and goes on to contrast that with white working-class lethargy “and everybody’s doing/just what they’re told to” before going on to advocate their own direct action “White riot, I wanna riot/white riot, a riot of my own”. In the middle of all this Strummer observes that “All the power’s in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it” and in doing so validates his call for white youth to rise up alongside their black counterparts.
When the first Clash album was released in April 1977 it set a standard that few of their punk contemporaries were able to follow. On a personal level it was like a revelation. As a 16 year old about to leave school with a handful of worthless CSEs (remember them), the song ‘Career Opportunities’ struck a particular chord, “they offered me the office, they offered me the shop/they said I’d better take anything they got” and “Career opportunities, the ones that never knock/every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock”. As a disillusioned youth, The Clash were speaking my language. Education was never seriously contemplated. I failed my eleven-plus and was therefore sent to a dull secondary modern school (but don’t get me started on that unless you’ve got a few hours to spare). There was no family pressure, nobody had ever done anything but go to work after leaving school. I did the same, a job at the local poultry processing factory. When I turned up, I was greeted by a picket line. There was a strike, I didn’t cross and thus spent the first three days of my working life on strike. It all fed into my politicisation which had already begun thanks to The Clash. I became involved in Rock Against Racism and The Anti-Nazi League.
Back to the music though. That first Clash album was full of great songs ‘White Riot’ as already mentioned but also ‘Remote Control’, ‘Janie Jones’ and ‘Garageland’. The song ‘Hate and War’ was another stirring call to action, “Hate and war/The only things we got today/And if I close my eyes/They will not go away/You have to deal with it”
The album regularly tops or features highly in greatest punk/rock/all-time lists – and it would certainly be in mine. Yet, for the angst, the anger and the vitriol there is one track that for me marks a real watershed in my own musical education. The cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ was the catalyst for a lifelong love of reggae (even though Junior Murvin hated it himself). The Clash not only opened that particular door but also opened my mind to sounds beyond white men thrashing around on guitars (pre-punk my favourite band was Hawkwind and I still love them today).
The follow-up album ‘Give’Em Enough Rope’ came 18 months later in November 1978. It was the first to feature Topper Headon on drums. He had replaced Terry Chimes (credited as Tory Crimes) after the first album. The songs were again strong but somewhat spoilt by Sandy Pearlman’s overzealous production. In particular he drowned out Strummer’s vocals (of which he was evidently not a fan) by placing Headon’s drums high up in the final mix. That’s not to say it’s a bad album, it’s a very good album, sandwiched between two extraordinary albums: the band’s debut and their third titanic album ‘London Calling’. Tracks like ‘Tommy Gun’, ‘English Civil War’ and ‘Guns on the Roof’ represented a continuation of political themes, only broader than the more personal anger of ‘The Clash’, dealing with themes of international terrorism and the rise of the far-right. ‘Safe European Home’ and ‘Last Gang in Town’ also added strongly to the growing arsenal of Strummer/Jones compositions.
The Clash’s third album is their masterpiece. When asked to name my favourite album of all time in any genre it usually comes down to the toss of the coin between ‘London Calling’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. I could write a whole separate article on the brilliance of ‘London Calling’ but I will try to contain my comments to a brief summary and the effect that the album had on me personally. By the time of the album’s release in December 1979 I was six months past my 18th birthday and my career opportunities had led me to a job in warehousing where I was earning decent money as a fork-lift truck operator (and spending most of it on records as I recall). I had matured a bit from the angry and frustrated 16-year-old that was so receptive to The Clash’s debut album and was now receptive to a broadening range of sounds. So for me, ‘London Calling’ was perfectly timed.
Where ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ had seen a slight departure from the pure punk sound of the first album, ‘London Calling’ represented a complete departure musically, whilst retaining The Clash’s lyrical radicalism and punk ethos. The finished double album was inspired by and incorporated a range of musical styles including reggae, ska, rhythm and blues, rockabilly and even jazz. The songs covered a mixture of themes and narratives, some real life and some fictional, that offered less of a polemic and more of a social commentary. I soaked it all in and almost literally grew up with the Clash. The album as well as being a wonder in itself, sent me off on all kinds of new musical explorations. I was already something of a music obsessive but had been following a quite narrow path. ‘London Calling’ took me on numerous diversions from that path. More than that though, it encouraged me seek my own new musical paths and to enter into a whole new world of musical discovery, a journey that I remain on to this day. Discovering new music remains a great passion whether that ‘new’ music is a new release or a 50-year-old previously undiscovered gem. Whilst on the subject of the Clash’s musical influence on me, it would be wrong not to mention the Clash’s live shows. Electric as they were, they also through their choice of support acts, allowed me to see music played live that I would otherwise not have been exposed to. Among the acts that I saw supporting the Clash were Matumbi, Suicide, The Special AKA and Joe Ely. I went out and bought a Joe Ely album after that – my first ‘Americana’ purchase.
The sprawling triple album ‘Sandanista’ was the 1980 follow-up to ‘London Calling’. It again crossed various genres and has the feel of a band experimenting. Some have argued that it should have been edited down to a double or even single album and that some of the content amounts to musical doodling. I couldn’t disagree more. There is absolutely nothing on the album that I wouldn’t have wanted to hear. There are outstanding tracks. but they are part of the whole body of work rather than something to be cut away from it. The album received mixed reviews at the time. I side firmly with the view that it was a record ahead of its time and a magnificent achievement. It has aged well and grows in stature with the passing of time.
The last Clash album to feature the classic line-up was 1982’s ‘Combat Rock’. It was also the band’s most commercially successful album, producing two of their more widely known songs ‘Rock the Casbah’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’. The band on this album explore many American themes such as the Vietnam War, its aftermath, US foreign policy and the moral decline of America. After the musical experiments of ‘London Calling’ and particularly ‘Sandanista, the album was based much more on a straightforward rock sound which along with its American themes led to accusations of blatant commercialism. That seems to me a bit unfair. The album certainly wasn’t flattering to the United States and ‘Know Your Rights’ and ‘Straight to Hell’ were as radical as any previous songs the band had recorded. Nevertheless, the tensions in the band at the time with Strummer and Simonon on one side, Mick Jones on the other and Topper Headon increasingly losing his battle with heroin, led to compromises on song selection, style and length. Very rarely does compromise make for good anything, certainly not music. The album has some fine moments but doesn’t reach the levels of excitement or innovation contained in previous releases.
The final Clash album ‘Cut the Crap’ was hardly a Clash album at all. Strummer and Simonon had dismissed Jones and Headon from the band and the resultant LP was widely regarded as a disaster. There has been some revision of that view in recent years but remains a blemish on an otherwise set of five albums that represent as good a body of work as can be found anywhere within rock music and which includes two bona fide classics.
I wrote earlier about my passion for discovering new music. The late great John Peel once drew a neat analogy between his (and my) twin loves of music and football. He said that whilst looking back at past glories could produce a warm glow, it was what was happening right now that really inflamed your emotions. I largely agree with that. Though I have to say that my warm glow for the Clash has never dimmed. I still play the records from time to time when the mood takes me, and they never fail to still stir my soul.