Members: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon
The Clash were an English rock group that existed from 1976 to 1986. One of the most successful and iconic bands from the original wave of punk rock in the late 1970s, they went on to incorporate punk with reggae, rockabilly, dance, jazz, ska, hip hop and eventually many other music styles into their repertoire. They were legendary for their uncommonly intense stage performances.
From their earliest days as a band, The Clash stood apart from their peers with their musicianship, as well as their lyrics; the passionate, left wing political idealism in the lyrics of frontmen Joe Strummer and Mick Jones contrasted with the anarchic nihilism of the Sex Pistols and the basic simplicity of The Ramones. Although they were a major success in the U.K. from the release of their first album in 1977, they did not become popular in the U.S. until 1980.
Their third album, the late 1979 release London Calling is considered by many critics one of the greatest albums in the entire history of rock music; it was then released in the U.S. in January, 1980 and a decade later Rolling Stone magazine declared it the best album of the 1980s.
The Clash's attitude and style, as much as their music, has strongly influenced countless other bands, such as U2, Public Enemy and Green Day. In 2003 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1976-1978 FORMATION AND BRITISH SUCCESS
Originally composed of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Keith Levene and Terry Chimes (credited, as a pun, on their first LP as "Tory Crimes"), the Clash formed in Ladbroke Grove, west London in 1976 during the first wave of British punk. Levene (later of Public Image Ltd.) was a friend of Mick Jones and served as guitarist and songwriter with The Clash, but never recorded with the band and left under ambiguous circumstances after only five gigs.
Strummer, had previously been in the pub rock act The 101'ers (his stage name at this point was Woody Mellor; soon he would rename himself "Joe Strummer"); Jones and Simonon were (briefly) in legendary proto-punk band London SS. At the behest of their manager Bernie Rhodes, Jones, Levene and Simonon recruited the slightly older Strummer from the 101'ers. "You're great," they told him, "but your group is shit." Rhodes then allegedly gave Strummer a couple of days to think about joining the project, but then called him only a day later in a panic. Strummer agreed and the group became The Clash, the name being supplied by Simonon after seeing the word repeatedly in newspapers.
The new band had their first gig on July 4, 1976, supporting the Sex Pistols, and that autumn the band were signed to CBS Records. In early September, Levene left. Chimes left in late November. Chimes, however, was soon drafted back to enable the band to record their debut album. They released their first single ("White Riot") and first album (The Clash) in 1977 to considerable success in the UK. However, CBS initially declined to release either in the United States, waiting until 1979 before releasing a modified version of the first album in the US, after the UK original had become the best-selling import album of all time in the United States.
Following the release of their first album, Chimes left amicably due to personal differences with the remaining members. In the documentary Westway to the World, Mick Jones referred to him as one of "the best drummers around", but Chimes, who had no great wish to make a career from music, said "The point was that I wanted one kind of life - they wanted another, and why are we working together, if we want completely different things?" Chimes later joined heavy metal group Hanoi Rocks.
The band experienced a period of changing drummers (auditioning many including Jon Moss who formed London before forming Culture Club). Mick Jones recruited Nicholas Bowen Headon, who was nicknamed "Topper" by the band, due to his resemblance to a cartoon monkey, and "The Human Drum Machine" by the producer of Give 'Em Enough Rope, Sandy Pearlman, due to his impeccable timing and skills; the musically-gifted Headon was planning to stay only briefly in order to gain a reputation, so that he might find a better punk group. In the process, the band's potential became apparent to him and, realizing that he wouldn't find a better band, he changed his plans and decided to stay.
Initially, The Clash were particularly notable for their strident leftist political outlook and distinctive clothes, self painted with revolutionary slogans, such as "Sten Guns in Knightsbridge," "Under Heavy Manners," and "Red Brigade". Throughout 1977, Strummer and Jones were in trouble with the police for a range of minor crimes ranging from petty vandalism to stealing a pillowcase, while Simonon and Headon were arrested for shooting racing pigeons with an air gun from the roof of their rehearsal studio.
1978-1982 US SUCCESS
The band's second album, the Sandy Pearlman-produced Give 'Em Enough Rope, was the first to feature Headon on all cuts. It was released in 1978 and debuted at number two on the British charts, though failed to enter the Top 100 in the United States. In the UK, it met with a disappointing reaction from critics, who felt it was too over-produced and slick in comparison to the raw excitement of the debut album. However, it was still received well by the British public.
Give 'Em Enough Rope was the first Clash album officially released in the U.S. (though the UK release of the first album was a best-selling import in the U.S.), and the Clash went on their first tour of the U.S. to support it in early 1979. Their first album eventually got an official release in the U.S. in July 1979, in a changed form from the version that was released elsewhere, dropping some tracks and instead including some singles released between the original 1977 release of the debut and Give em enough rope . These included a roaring version of Bobby Fuller's "I Fought The Law" (later released on their Cost Of Living EP) and the iconic "White Man in Hammersmith Palais".
The third album London Calling, a double album sold at the price of a single album at the insistence of the band, was released in 1979 and marked the height of their commercial success, although, initially, it was greeted by their original fans in the UK with suspicion, since double albums were associated with overblown prog rock groups. It featured a wider array of musical styles and influences than the earlier albums, including American-style rockabilly and Jamaican reggae works that resonated with the dub and ska styles popular in Britain. The album is considered one of the best rock albums ever produced, appearing at #8 on Rolling Stone's recent "Top 500 albums of all time." It was also named #1 on Entertainment Weekly 's "Top 25 Albums of the last 25 Years". Tracks such as "Train in Vain", "Clampdown" and "London Calling" show up regularly on rock stations to this day; "Train in Vain" also became the band's first American Top 40 hit, although it was initially an uncredited extra track at the end of the original vinyl release. The lettering font on the album cover is a homage to Elvis Presley's self-titled debut RCA LP, while the photo is of Simonon smashing his malfunctioning bass guitar in frustration at a show at the Palladium in New York, 1979, taken by renowned rock photographer Pennie Smith. According to Simonon, who initially was reluctant to have the picture used as the album cover, it was the only time he smashed a guitar on stage and he still keeps the pieces.
In late 1980, The Clash followed the double London Calling with a triple album entitled Sandinista!, (with the catalog number FSLN1, from the Spanish initials of the Sandinista political movement, Frente Sandinista de Liberaci?n Nacional). Again, the band insisted it should be released at the same price as a single album - paying the difference out of their own royalties.
Sandinista! was even more stylistically varied, and was met with a more mixed reaction by critics and fans, some of whom felt the album was messy, unfocused and very self-indulgent. Despite this, it still topped The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop list of the best albums of the year. Recording every idea they had, the band became less interested in the traditional punk stance as they delved further in their experimentation with reggae and dub ("Let's Go Crazy") and expanded into other musical styles and production techniques that included jazz ("Look Here"), hip hop ("The Magnificent Seven"), chamber music ("Rebel Waltz"), gospel("Hitsville U.K."), ("The Sound of the Sinners"), vocals by keyboard player Mickey Gallagher's baby son, and "Mensforth Hill," a tape loop collage similar to The Beatles "Revolution No 9".
"That's why it had to be a triple album," says Strummer in Westway to the World interview, which devotes twice as much screen time to Sandinista! as it does to London Calling. "Even though it would have been better as just a double album...or a single album...or maybe an EP! Who knows? The fact is that we recorded all that music, in one spot, at one moment. In a single three-week blast. For better or worse, Sandinista! is the document."
Fans were confused and sales were down, although they fared better in the U.S. than in the past, mainly on the back of the previous sucess of London Calling. Following the release of Sandinista!, The Clash went on their first world tour, including venues in eastern Asia and Australia. The combination of an exhaustive tour schedule and the recording of a new album saw escalating friction between band members.
Tensions and conflicts within the band lead to considerations of disbanding, especially since drummer Topper Headon was rapidly becoming unreliable due to heroin addiction. However, the band managed to record more, while touring and their next album Combat Rock turned to be the worldwide best-selling of all of their records, although sales were not too good in the UK. Featuring the singles "Rock the Casbah" and the double a-side "Should I Stay Or Should I Go/Straight to Hell", it broke into the American and British top ten. "Ghetto Defendant" featured beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and "Red Angel Dragnet" referenced the film Taxi Driver.
1982-1983 TENSIONS AND DISINTEGRATION
After Combat Rock, the Clash began to slowly disintegrate. Much to the band's chagrin, Topper Headon left the band just prior to the release, unable to cope with his ongoing heroin addiction, which had an effect on both his health and drumming. The true reason for Headon's departure was covered up by manager Bernie Rhodes as a "political difference". The band's original drummer, Terry Chimes, was brought back for the next few months. (For a period, Headon sank into severe depression, only to resurface with a solo album, then entering prison briefly for fraud, before finally cleaning up and kicking the addiction by the end of the decade.)
The loss of Headon brought much friction, as he was an essential part of the band and well-liked by the others. Jones and Strummer began to feud, although it is often said that some of the friction between the two arose because manager Bernie Rhodes disliked Jones and thought him arrogant, and was promoting Strummer against him. The band, although still touring arenas and opening up for The Who in stadiums on their tour in 1982, barely spoke to or even glanced at each other, both during the concerts and backstage. The band continued to tour but by 1983, after years of constant touring and recording, the strain took its final toll. Bandmembers later explained that this was partly because of their still young age - Paul and Mick were still only 26 and 27 respectively and Strummer was 30 - and their relative inexperience to cope with such difficult and tension-plagued situations. Simonon, a long term friend of Jones, felt inclined to side with Strummer because he became frustrated with Jones' musical experimentation.
Chimes left the band after the 1982-1983 Combat Rock tour, convinced that the band could not continue with in-fighting and turmoil. In 1983, after an extensive search for a new drummer, Pete Howard was recruited and performed with the trio at several low-key US dates and before The Clash's largest audience at the US Festival in San Bernardino, California ? Jones' last appearance with The Clash.
In September 1983, prompted by Rhodes, Strummer and Simonon sacked Jones from the band, citing his problematic behaviour and divergent musical aspirations (Jones went on to found Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) with Don Letts). For a time, fans thought that Headon and Jones would work together, but the former's severe drug addiction prevented him. The loss of two key members was the crucial factor in the band's quick demise.
After a series of auditions, the band announced Nick Sheppard, formerly of the Bristol-based Cortinas, and Vince White would be the band's new guitarists. The band played its first shows in January 1984 with a batch of new material and launched into a self-financed tour, dubbed the Out of Control tour.
Musically, the new band was capable of almost re-creating the fire and intensity of the original line-up, but chemistry and trust between the old guard and the new were often strained due to circumstance and simple unfamiliarity. Regardless, the band toured heavily over the winter and into early summer, with Strummer taking a hiatus until autumn to tend to personal matters. At a striking miners' benefit show ("Scargill's Christmas Party") in December 1984, he announced the band had a new record and would be releasing it early in the new year.
1983-1986 CUT THE CRAP AND THE FINAL DEMISE
The album's recording sessions were chaotic with manager Bernie Rhodes scrubbing Howard's drumming in favour of a drum machine, drastically re-engineering the songs' live arrangements. Other songs aired on the tour remain unreleased: "Ammunition", "Glue Zombie", "In the Pouring Rain".
Strummer took the band busking across Northern England and Scotland, playing for free on street corners and in bars. The Clash played their final shows at European festivals in 1985, with Strummer eventually calling his bandmates together and disbanding the group.
1986-PRESENT POST CLASH-CAREERS
In 1986, Strummer collaborated with ex-bandmate Jones on BAD's second album, No. 10 Upping St., co-producing the album and co-writing seven of its songs. Strummer acted in a few movies, notably Alex Cox's Walker, and Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train. He became known in this period for his work on movie soundtracks (notably "Love Kills" for the film Sid and Nancy), and later for co-producing the successful Grosse Pointe Blank soundtracks with John Cusack) and experimented with different backing bands with limited success. In 1989, he resurfaced in the music scene, releasing the first of his solo albums. Earthquake Weather was neither a commercial nor critical success. He did however tour with a new backing band, The Latino Rockabilly War, and released the single, "Trash City." In 1991/92 Strummer joined The Pogues after their split with former frontman Shane MacGowan for a series of concerts across Europe. Finally in the late 1990s, Strummer gathered top-flight musicians into a backing band he called The Mescaleros. Strummer signed with the California punk label Hellcat Records, owned by Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, and issued an album co-written with Anthony Genn, called Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. A tour of England and North America soon followed; sets included several Clash-fan favourites. Genn left The Mescaleros in the middle of recording sessions for the second album, Global A Go-Go, which included violinist, guitarist, and longtime friend of Strummer's Tymon Dogg, who contributed the song "Lose This Skin" to Sandinista! Following the release of Global A Go-Go, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros mounted a 21-date tour of North America, Britain, and Ireland. Once again, these concerts featured Clash material ("London Calling", "Rudie Can't Fail"), as well as classic covers of reggae hits ("The Harder They Come", "A Message To You, Rudie") and regularly closed the show with a nod to the late Joey Ramone by playing The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop".
In December 2002, Strummer died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50. The Mescaleros album he was working on at the time, Streetcore, was released posthumously to critical acclaim in 2003. It was very bad fortune for the band, as Jones commented in the press that after the brief reunion on Westway to the World in 2001 the foursome were seriously considering reuniting for a tour, and that it looked likely to happen.
After his expulsion from The Clash, Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite (often shorted to B.A.D.) in 1984 with film director Don Letts who directed various Clash videos and Westway To The World) The band's debut album, This is Big Audio Dynamite, was released the following year with the song "E=MC2" receiving heavy rotation in dance clubs. The next album, No. 10 Upping St. reunited Jones with Strummer. Mick released three more albums with Big Audio Dynamite before reshuffling the line-up and renaming the band Big Audio Dynamite II. The band was later renamed Big Audio in the mid-90s. Shortly before Strummer's death, Jones performed an encore onstage with Strummer and the Mescaleros in late 2002. Jones featured on the two studio albums by The Libertines as producer and also produced the debut Babyshambles album. Jones is currently touring and recording with his new band, Carbon/Silicon.
Following the break up of The Clash, Simonon formed a group called Havana 3am, which recorded only one album in Japan and quickly folded. Then Simonon returned to his roots as a visual artist, mounting several art-gallery shows and contributing the cover for Jones' third BAD album, "Tighten Up Vol. 88". Simonon's reluctance to play music again has largely been cited as the reason why The Clash were one of the few 1970s British punk bands that did not reform to cash in on the punk-nostalgia craze of the late 1990s. Bruce Springsteen reportedly offered to stand in for Simonon for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the performance never materialized. It is widely speculated that Paul Simonon has not played the bass in more than a decade and he was quoted in Westway to the World as saying that The Clash are over and that "suits him fine".
Headon's contribution to The Clash was by no means limited to his drumming for the band; he composed and performed the music for "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" and "Rock The Casbah" almost entirely by himself, the latter becoming the band's biggest hit in the U.S. when it reached #8 on the Billboard charts in 1982. By this time, however, Headon had been dismissed by the rest of the band due to the heroin addiction which has dogged him for most of his adult life. His addiction stood in the way of any musical alliances he tried to form, and eventually landed him in jail for supplying a user who later overdosed and died. Except for forming a short-lived R&B band (in 1986 he recorded a LP called "Waking Up" as well as a 12"E.P. titled "Drumming man"), Headon disappeared from the music business until the filming of Letts' retrospective documentary about The Clash, Westway to The World; Headon also attended a subsequent presentation to Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon of a Lifetime Achievement British Music Award. After many years of unsuccessfully trying different forms of rehabilitation, he has now apparently kicked his habit and is performing live again. It was during one of his live performances that he heard the news of Strummer's death, in 2002.
Like many early punk bands, The Clash protested against the monarchy and the aristocracy in the U.K. and around the world. However, unlike many early punk bands, The Clash rejected the overall sentiment of nihilism. Instead, they found solidarity with a number of liberation movements going on at the time. Their politics were expressed explicitly in their lyrics, in early recordings such as "White Riot," which encouraged disaffected white youths to become politically active like their black counterparts, "Career Opportunities," which expressed discontent less about the lack of jobs in the U.K, and more about the alienation of low-paid, production line style employment and the lack of alternatives, and "London's Burning," which vented at political complacency.
In 1978 at a Rock Against Racism show organized by the Anti-Nazi League, Strummer wore a controversial t-shirt bearing the words "Brigate-Rosse" with the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) insignia in the middle. He later said in an interview that he wore the shirt not to support the left-wing terrorist factions in Germany and Italy, but to bring attention to their existence. Still, he felt bad after the show, prompting him to write the song "Tommy Gun," renouncing violence as a means of protest.
The group also supported other musician's charity concerts, most notably at the December 1979 Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, presented by Paul McCartney. The benefit album released from the concerts features one song by The Clash, "Armagideon Time."
The Clash offered some support to the Sandinista and other Marxist movements in Latin America (hence the title of their 1980 album, Sandinista!). They were also involved directly with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism.
By the time of the December 1979 album London Calling, the Clash were trying to "square the circle" of maintaining punk energy while developing increasingly musicianly chops. They were especially wary of their own emerging stardom: they always welcomed fans backstage after shows and showed open-mindedness, genuine interest and compassion in their relationships with them.
The title of London Calling evokes American radio newsman Edward R. Murrow's catchphrase during World War II, and the title song announces that "...war is declared and battle come down..." It warns against expecting them to be saviours ? "... now don't look to us / Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust..." ? draws a bleak picture of the times ? "The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in / Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin" ? but calls on their listeners to come out of their drugged stupor and take up the fight without constantly looking to London, or to The Clash themselves, for cues ? "Forget it, brother, we can go it alone... Quit holding out and draw another breath... I don't want to shout / But while we were talking I saw you nodding out..." ? finally asking, "After all this, won't you give me a smile?"
The Clash are generally credited with pioneering the advocacy of radical politics in punk rock, and were known as the "Thinking Man's Yobs" by many for their politically astute take on the world. They were never driven entirely by money; even at their peak, tickets to shows and the prices of souvenirs were kept reasonable. Similarly, the group insisted that CBS retail their double and triple album sets London Calling and Sandinista! for the price of a single album each (then ?5), succeeding with the former and compromising with the latter by agreeing to sell it for ?5.99 and forfeit all their royalties on its first 200,000 sales. These "VFM" (Value For Money) principles meant that they were constantly in debt to CBS, and didn't start to break even until around 1982.
1977 - The Clash
1978 - Give 'Em Enough Rope
1979 - London Calling
1980 - Sandinista!
1982 - Combat Rock
1985 - Cut the Crap
Black Market Clash, 1980 (compilation of b-sides), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records
The Story of the Clash, Volume 1, 1988 (compilation, greatest hits collection), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records
Clash on Broadway, 1991 (3 disc box set containing several unreleased tracks and alternate versions), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records
The Singles, 1991 (singles compilation), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records
Super Black Market Clash, 1994 (compilation of b-sides and rarities), CBS Records CD release: Epic Records
From Here to Eternity: Live, 1999 (live recordings from 1978 - 1982), Epic Records.
The Essential Clash, 2003 (compilation, "essential" recordings), Epic/Legacy.
London Calling: 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition, 2004 (expanded with rehearsal tapes and making of the album DVD), Epic/Legacy.
Gray, Marcus (1995). Last Gang In Town: The Story and Myth of The Clash Fourth Estate Limited. ISBN 1857021460.
Green, Johnny; Barker, Garry; & Lowry, Ray (Ill.). A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day with The Clash Indigo. ISBN 0575400803.