The British Punk scene sprouted organically in dark and dingy London pubs, initially sustained by passionate fans who spread the word through DIY fanzines. In August 1975, in the back room of a BDSM shop on Kings Road, the future Johnny Rotten, wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt, auditioned for the soon-to-be-called Sex Pistols by doing a semi-karaoke to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.” Six months later, the Pistols opened for Eddie and the Hot Rods at The Marquee, and the mainstream music press began to pay the movement some attention.
The Establishment had been in denial about the new phenomenon because punk was an emphatic rejection of all that had gone on before in music: in style, in attitude, in philosophy. Long hair, love and peace and progressive rock were to be replaced by short hair, hardened realism and no-more-than-three-minute songs with simple chords that anyone could play. To join a punk band, you had to have the attitude, the look, and the ability to play your instrument as if you wanted to destroy it. As Steve Jones of the Pistols put it, “Actually we’re not into music. We’re into chaos.”
Futurist Joel Barker said it best: when a paradigm shifts, everything goes back to zero. Everything people thought they knew about the way music should be played and the way performers should behave suddenly became irrevocably irrelevant. The Huns were swarming over the gates of London and all the denial in the world couldn’t stop them.
The Clash played their first gig in support of the Sex Pistols on July 4, 1976, after having played together for about a month. By this time, the Pistols had become the enfants terrible of the media thanks to the fights and brawls that accompanied their performances, and the British press fanned the flames by likening the advent of punk to Armageddon. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and the noise surrounding punk attracted the attention of nearly every major label. None of the major players wanted to become the 1970’s version of Decca, infamous for their decision to take a pass on The Beatles. The suits descended on the punk scene like locusts.
The Clash signed with Columbia (CBS Records) only six months after their first gig, an event that created tremendous angst in the punk community, who were justifiably concerned that signing with a big label would result in the chlorinization of punk. “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS” wrote Mark Perry, founder of the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue. While The Clash would certainly pay the price for their deal with the devil in the form of record company interference at various junctures in their relationship with CBS, an objective observer must have wondered was whether or not the signing of The Clash was an example of frenzy substituting for reason. What the hell was a major label doing spending £100,000 on a band that had been together for a little more than half a year? How on earth could such rank amateurs produce a credible record?
And even after The Clash produced that first album, those in denial still had their day. The American chapter of CBS refused to release the album in the United States, saying it was “not radio friendly.”
Today, of course, everyone recognizes The Clash as one of the great début albums of all time. No, the band wasn’t polished. Paul Simonon kept the bass parts simple because he was still learning the instrument. Joe Strummer was still finding his voice. The drummer renamed Tory Crimes on the album credits had quit the band before the album’s release, and his drumming was largely unremarkable. The sound is rough, raw and raucous. Like The Beatles, The Clash essentially filled their first album with the live set they were playing at the time and wrapped up in a jiffy.
The first album was recorded so quickly I can hardly remember doing it. We went in, bashed the songs out and left. (Paul Simonon)
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1170-1173). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
The immediacy of the recording is part of what is so appealing about The Clash. The energy in the performance explodes in your headphones. This is music stripped to its essentials, like the early recordings of Robert Johnson. The Clash is no-frills, no-bullshit, in-your-face, delightfully raunchy rock, a ringing declaration of freedom from the contrived and often meandering tendencies of progressive rock.
EMI’s decision to drop the Sex Pistols after one single left them scrambling for a record deal, so The Clash hit the shelves six months before Never Mind the Bollocks. It would have been nice had they both come out on the same day, because beyond the superficial similarities (short songs loaded with social criticism played at high-speed with minimal instrumentation), the lyrics on the two albums reflect completely different approaches on how to use music as a tool for social change. The Sex Pistols’ lyrics are angry and brutally unforgiving. As I wrote in my review of Never Mind the Bollocks, the Pistols “offer no first aid, no solace, no comfort.” The Clash shared the anger but took a more satirical approach to social commentary, often using humor rather than unbridled anger to get their point across. The ethos of many of their best songs was captured in Joe Strummer’s throwaway line near the end of “Lovers Rock” on London Calling: “Ridiculous, innit?” The Clash were more likely to puncture social convention by pointing out the absurdity of inhumane conditions than engage in polemics.
In short, The Clash had a sense of humor. Except for Sid Vicious’ version of “My Way,” the Sex Pistols weren’t all that funny.
You hear the humor in the first cut, “Janie Jones,” a sassy rocker that is not about the legendary cabaret singer/brothel operator who famously displayed her jugs at a film premiere, but about the kind of guy who would admire such a daring celebrity: a guy who only wishes he could be half as daring, for then he wouldn’t be stuck in a shit job with an asshole for a boss. Our hero survives the daily ennui through the traditional means of compensation for the emptiness of modern life:
He’s in love with rock’n’roll woaahh
He’s in love with gettin’ stoned woaahh
He’s in love with Janie Jones woaahh
But he don’t like his boring job, no . . .
An’ he knows what he’s got to do
So he knows he’s gonna have fun with you
You lucky lady!
Joe Strummer’s delivery of “You lucky lady” tells us everything we need to know about the poor bastard. He’s doomed to a role as a stand-in for the kind of guy his date really wants—her version of Janie Jones. The relationship is mutually utilitarian; both parties are using the other to compensate for boredom. His relationship with his boss is equally utilitarian, but he’s got to have the job to get the car to impress the ladies . . . we all know the drill:
An’ in the in-tray lots of work
But the boss at the firm always thinks he shirks
But he’s just like everyone, he’s got a Ford Cortina
That just won’t run without fuel
Despite Mick Jones’ passionate urging at the end of the song to “Let them know,” I seriously doubt that the guy’s got the balls enough to confront the boss and “really let him know exactly how he feels.” “Janie Jones” is the British version of “Take This Job and Shove It,” a story of working class fantasies springing from the soil of daily humiliation. And while we laugh at the cliché situation—shit, we’ve all lived it—The Clash have awakened us to our complicity in the misery of the workplace. The compensators provided by the capitalist system in the forms of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll make us tell ourselves, “Hey this ain’t so bad,” but as The Clash are there to remind us, “It’s pretty bad!” While some may point out that the band isn’t particularly tight, the performance is cheeky and energetic, and loading a two-minute song with a complete storyline steeped in witty social consciousness is a pretty fucking impressive achievement.
In contrast, “Remote Control” is social commentary delivered by a blunt instrument, more sloganizing than satire. Pissed off about having concerts canceled by various powers by local governments, The Clash do battle with various forms of official oppression (government, the police, big business, the Parliament), but do it by bitching about it, leaving the listener unmoved. “Remote Control” is more interesting for the shifting tempos than the lyrics, and for the line, “‘An’ you are so punk,” reminding us that the earlier meaning of “punk” was “young, inexperienced person who doesn’t know dick.” It’s not uncommon for movements to adopt the pejorative nicknames flung at them by their adversaries, as the word “queer” demonstrates.
The Clash get back on track with “I’m So Bored in the U. S. A.,” Joe Strummer’s marvelous abduction of a Mick Jones’ number originally written about a break-up. While there are plenty of songs about relationships going down the dumper, and while mid-60’s American folk is full of songs about the evils perpetrated by the American government, The Clash flung the ultimate insult at self-satisfied Americans: YOU’RE BORING! This novel perspective seemed to infuse the band with energy—you can hear it in Mick Jones’ ripping guitar work, the unison vocals on the chorus and surprisingly, in Terry Chimes’ drum work. From my perspective, the most insightful verse has to do with the flood of American cop shows that hit British telly in the 70’s:
Are always on the TV
‘Cos killers in America
Work seven days a week
I’ll bet no one in America saw exporting crime shows as anything but selling harmless entertainment to foreign markets in order to make more money. It’s unlikely that anyone in the States thought at all about how people in other cultures might wonder, “What the fuck is the matter with that country?” While some could argue that crime shows dominated programming in the 1970’s because Americans were concerned about rising crime rates, that argument falls apart when you look at programming in the years around the turn of the century when crime rates were plummeting. Law and Order and CSI became franchises with multiple versions airing each week, and when I popped over to the States last month, I noticed that both traditional and cable network lineups were loaded with crime, crime, crime. The presence of Yankee detectives on TV has nothing to do with crime statistics and everything to do with American paranoia, racism and its dying passion for guns and more guns. I’ve given up watching American films because I find the amount of gratuitous violence in those as deeply offensive as propaganda for the NRA. I am FUCKING BORED with the U. S. A . . . bored and frightened.
Later, The Clash would develop a less humorous approach towards The Evil Empire in the song “Washington Bullets,” but we’re getting way ahead of our story.
Although Mick Jones would distance himself from the song and refuse to play it (leading to a punch-up with Joe Strummer), “White Riot” remains an intensely powerful piece about one of the most pressing human problems: race. The message is delivered in short, raw punk form and the lyrics are packed with anger and frustration. What makes the anger work is that it’s empathetic anger—anger about the oppression of people of color and the poor of any race, and frustration that white people refuse to use their privileged position to take action against the oppression.
Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick
An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!
That’s the rub: white people are too “chicken” to engage in action that could spoil their reputations, careers and privilege. Instead, white liberals pander to people of color for their votes but never get around to doing much about racism except give speeches dripping with useless concern. The Clash challenge white people to actively join the fight against racism in the name of common humanity, for the sake of righting a grievous wrong that remains with us to this day.
One of the things I love about The Clash is that their music is squarely focused on reality: the world as is, not the world we’d like to believe it is. “Hate and War” is the antidote to the love-and-peace message of the 60’s, a depiction of the ugly reality of working class people who spend their lives at the lower reaches of the capitalist grinder far removed from any fantasies of a better world:
An’ if I close my eyes
It will not go away
You have to deal with it
It is the currency . . .
I’m gonna stay in the city
Even when the house falls down
I don’t dream of a holiday
When hate an’ war come around
It is important to note that “Hate and War” is a dramatic monologue, a story told in the first person by a working class hero. The reality of the working class is one of survival through any means and all “others” are enemies trying to take what you’ve got:
I have the will to survive
I cheat if I can’t win
If someone locks me out
I kick my way back in
An’ if I get aggression
I give it to them two times back
Every day it’s just the same
With hate an’ war on my back
Hate and war – I hate Englishmen
Hate and war – they’re just as bad as wops
Hate and war – I hate all the politeness
Hate and war – I hate all the cops
Ironically, “Hate and War” is one of the more melodic songs on The Clash, more classic rocker than grinding punk, with greater chord movement. Mick Jones gives a spirited vocal performance, his best on the album.
“What’s My Name” is another dramatic monologue with a memorable surf-like opening guitar riff. The narrator is a young man in search of identity and acceptance who finds himself rejected at every turn and comes home to a life of domestic violence. It’s followed by “Deny,” a song that contains a strong anti-drug (actually anti-junkie) message, a theme The Clash would return to in later works and would eventually lead to the loss of their best drummer. “London’s Burning” closes Side One, a tale about existential boredom in a city enslaved by traffic and television.
“Career Opportunities” is a more comprehensive look at the situation encapsulated by the Pistols in the repetition of “no future” in “God Save the Queen.” The Clash point out the problem with any employment system is that it’s a system: an impersonal, inhuman creation of human beings staffed by other human beings who don’t give a shit about your individual talents or ridiculous ambitions.
Has anything changed since 1977?
They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you off the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock
We live in a system where finding a job is an end it itself, not a door that opens possibilities of reaching one’s potential. The system doesn’t care what job you have as long as you have a job and aren’t making trouble for the people who run the show. Once you have a job, they’ll get you hooked with all sorts of consumer delights to keep you fat, dumb and happy, then one day you’ll realize that you’re deep in debt, hate your job and have absolutely no chance of going anywhere . . . except to another fucking job:
They’re gonna have to introduce conscription
They’re gonna have to take away my prescription
If they wanna get me making toys
If they wanna get me, well, I got no choice
The melody is perfect for group sing-alongs and the satiric tone of Joe Strummer’s vocal makes you laugh at the absurdity of it all.
But what do you do about it? “Cheat” gives you the answer: cheat! This is an often-overlooked song in the catalog that I think is an absolute hoot! It also features the strongest rhythmic performances on the album, with Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes and Mick Jones supplying the drive for Joe Strummer’s typically energetic vocal. The basic argument for cheating is established in two verses and the chorus:
I get violent when I’m fucked up
I get silent when I’m drugged up
Want excitement, don’t get none, I go wild
I don’t know what can be done about it
If you play the game you get nothing out of it
Find out for yourself—try bein’ a goody goody
You better cheat cheat
No reason to play fair
Cheat cheat or don’t get anywhere
Cheat cheat if you can’t win
The last verse, though, presents a conundrum. While the narrator seems convinced that “If you wanna survive you better learn how to lie,” he winds up acknowledging that getting around the rules is a lot like a rat trying to get out of a closed maze:
Don’t use the rules
They’re not for you, they’re for the fools
And you’re a fool if you don’t know that
So use the rule you stupid fool
Fuck! Is there any way out of this mess? Yes, and I just told you how: Fuck! Fuck night and day, day and night! Constant erotic stimulation is the perfect cure for excessive exposure to the system! But first you’ll need a condom and . . . well, how about this? Mick Jones is here to give you some handy consumer advice! Try a Protex Blue!
It’s a fab protective for that type of a girl
But everybody knows that she uses it well
It’s the therapeutic structure I can use at will
But I don’t think it fits my BD drill
I didn’t want to hold you
I didn’t want to use you
Protex, Protex Blue
All I wanna do
Ah, men, always bragging about the size of their BD drills! “Protex Blue” is another hoot of a song, and The Clash bring it on with fervor.
One of the most important songs on The Clash is the only cover song, “Police & Thieves,” for it demonstrates their willingness at a very early stage to ignore what was already becoming punk dogma regarding the three-minute song played loud and fast and to explore musical forms beyond three-chord rock. “Police and Thieves” is a reggae number that lasts a bit over six minutes, and it’s obvious from the thought they put into the arrangement that The Clash were dedicated musical explorers. You won’t find the connection between reggae and British punk in the music, but in the lyrics—lyrics that Joe Strummer himself might have written someday:
Police and thieves in the streets (Oh yeah!)
Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition
Police and thieves in the street (Oh yeah!)
Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition
The extended instrumental passage leading to the end of the song is an exciting give-and-take between Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, who gives his best performance on the album.
“48 Hours” was allegedly written in 24 minutes to fill the album, and while it’s not the strongest song on the record, it does contain a gem of a line about that dread that enters the soul when contemplating the start of another fucking work week: “Monday is coming like a jail on wheels.” The Clash close their maiden effort with “Garageland,” a response to critic Charles Shaar Murray’s review of their third live show. He described The Clash as “the sort of garage band who should be speedily returned to the garage, preferably with the motor running.”
Well! I can get snarky, but that’s pretty high-grade snark! Like so many critics (see Rolling Stone), Mr. Murray later revised his view of The Clash after they became more popular.
“Garageland” celebrates the rough edges of garage rock while decrying the hyper-commercialization of the punk scene by ravenous record moguls as described in the introduction above . . . but Joe Strummer said it best:
Meanwhile things are hotting up in the West End alright
Contracts in the offices, groups in the night
My bummin’ slummin’ friends have all got new boots
An’ someone just asked me if the group would wear suits
Mick Jones reached back into his experience as a Mott the Hoople fan for a few musical ideas, and the song makes more use of vocal harmony than the other songs on the album. The background for the bb lines in the verses (structured aabb) contain a touch of harmonica that when combined with the intense percussion transforms the sound into something more like a harpsichord. In a very prescient moment, Mick Jones explained to music journalist Kris Needs that “Garageland” had to end the album because “it indicated where we’re moving to next.”
You could make an equally strong case that “Police and Thieves” was the true needle on the compass, but since the reggae influence would not come into full flower until London Calling, I’ll let Mick win this round. The truth is that The Clash were more unpredictable than most bands, and that unpredictability is one of their most endearing qualities. There is no way anyone could listen to The Clash and compute a logical path to Sandinista! three years later . . . at least from a musical perspective. All Clash albums are linked by an undying commitment to social justice, a celebration of our common humanity and an empathy for those who have to endure the worst punishments of a seriously flawed social system.
Beneath the rough exterior, The Clash is a courageous artistic statement by a group of guys who had nothing to lose by giving it everything they had. That’s the sound you hear on The Clash: we’re going to fucking go for it and nobody’s going to fucking stop us.