The Clash were principled. They wrote real songs. They were goofy. They went to the edge and beyond. And they did what they did, made the world come to them, and felt guilty about it. They recorded the equivalent of nine records in six years, including two or three of the greatest rock-and-roll records ever, and possibly the greatest album of all time (London Calling) along the way. After the demise of the Sex Pistols, they remained the reigning aesthetic embodiment of an authentic, radical art movement rife with provocations and contradictions. And they had Top 40 hits.
That would have unthinkable at the band’s early days, when they made their name being the Sex Pistols’ less nihilistic cousins, barking out punk aperçus like “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” the avatars of a scene whose very name was synonymous with uncommerciality.
As time went on, we could suss the group out: a slightly poetic and deceptively able guitarist, Mick Jones, tied to a diminutive but full-throated buffalo of a front man, Joe Strummer, whose lyrics were a maelstrom of political doggerel, but always (well, generally) with a deeply human heart. (For the most part, Strummer wrote the lyrics to Jones’s music, but on many songs those lines blurred.) They had a tall good-looking guy, Paul Simonon, on hand, who, somewhat miraculously, turned into a strong bass player, and, on and off, a powerful and appropriate drummer, Topper Headon. (“The band’s machine room,” as Strummer called him.)
And by the time of Sandinista! and Combat Rock, they were citizens of the world with the Late Cold War Blues, broadcasting on soi-disant pirate radio from New York, with a pair of guitarists, discomfited brothers, fighting among themselves, heroically.
And what happened after that? Well, read on.
What follows is an account of every song the Clash released, ranked in order from worst to best. It’s based on the British release history of the band’s albums and singles, with American alternatives, outtakes, and other stuff duly noted.
Many thanks to the band’s assiduous chroniclers. The tome The Clash, full of the group’s own oral history, was key. Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces are essential to understanding punk. I also deeply enjoyed Viv Albertine’s engaging memoir, Guitars Clothes Boys, and a monograph in the “Kill Your Idols” series called The Clash by David Quantick. I can also recommend Savage’s Kindle book The England’s Dreaming Interviews, a collection of the raw transcripts of his talks with dozens of those who were there when this mess all started.
Besides the stuff on YouTube, it’s worth tracking down the films: Don Letts’s The Punk Rock Movie and Westway to the World; Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten; and Rude Boy. (The last one has amazing early live footage of the band.) Another Julien Temple Clash doc, now available here, while highly Julien Temple–esque, has some great things in it.
The odd doc The Rise and Fall of the Clash, particularly, provides an unrelenting bleak view of the band’s downward spiral and the farce that was the post–Mick Jones album and tour. It is now forgotten, but I also want to acknowledge the The Boy Looked at Johnny, one of the very greatest of all books on rock and roll, and — I use these words advisedly — a punk-rock-worthy tale of the early days of punk rock.
But listen: London’s burning.
139. “We Are the Clash,” Cut the Crap (1985): Our story begins at a sad end, when Joe Strummer, firmly allied with manager Bernie Rhodes, kicked his former friend Mick Jones out of the band. (More on the causes of all that later.) Now, Jones was the guy who’d written most of the songs that had made the Clash the Clash — Strummer was more the lyrics guy — and was acknowledged by all for his creative and highly effective guitar arrangements on virtually all of the band’s best songs. Astonishingly, Strummer and Rhodes decided they could keep the band going themselves, and wrote and produced a new album together. (It’s kind of like Paul McCartney forming Wings with his wife Linda, except Strummer was no Paul McCartney.) Cut the Crap was based on drum sequencers and designed to sound hip and modern — ‘80s style! What could possibly go wrong? To this they added some other elements, one of them recurring backing choruses that sounded like they were recorded by crowds in soccer stadiums. But nothing could disguise the fact that they had replaced the strongest British rock songwriter since Keith Richards with a music-business operator whose music experience had consisted solely of watching rock bands. From the ugly title on down, Cut the Crap is a sordid and clumsy affair. Neither Strummer nor Rhodes really knew how to make records, and what they thought was radical, like running TV programs over songs, were just bad ideas. As for this track, recorded with almost comic incompetence, the rudimentary instrumentation and the faintly recorded vocals sink this long before you get to the desperately grasping chorus, “We are the Clash.” Docked 15 notches for obvious reasons.
138. “Play to Win,” Cut the Crap (1985): Some found sounds start this out. You patiently wait for the song to start, and then you realize you just missed the best part of this lame track. Once in a while Joe and that soccer crowd bellow something about “I long for the prairies.” The rest of the song is poorly taped conversations and aimless instrumental breaks. The nadir of the band’s recording career. While we dutifully account for all the shitty songs on Cut the Crap, we might as well look at how the Clash came to be the Clash. If I read his accounts correctly, Strummer, born John Mellor, is one-fourth Indian; his father was born in India, came to the U.K., and eventually entered the foreign service in some junior position. His mother was from the far, far north of Scotland, the rough equivalent of being from Nome. Strummer himself was born in Turkey. He also lived in Mexico, Egypt, and Germany before being sent back home to what he recalled was a repressive boarding school. (“It was a place when people hung themselves,” Strummer has said.) Despite once-a-year trips to exotic locales to see his parents, he was at that point decisively emotionally detached from them. At school he was, by his own account, a ringleader and one of the bullies, as opposed to the bullied. In the codes governing him and his fellows at the time, this background made him somewhat upper class, and he worked to suppress such leanings. He ended up in arts school, “the last refuge of malingers, bluffers and people who don’t want to work.” He played in a band called the Vultures, during which time he billed himself as “Woody Mellor” in homage to Woody Guthrie. He was eventually thrown out of school; on his way home that night, he tossed his portfolio into a garbage can.
137. “Fingerpoppin’,” Cut the Crap (1985): Just as the second half of Combat Rock was a disturbing downturn from the first, on the second side of Cut the Crap, with any echoes of “This Is England” long gone, things get worse. And worse. This song is about “Fingerpoppin’,” which I guess is U.K. speak for snapping one’s fingers. The first few verses are literally about fingers snapping, and the rest of it is Joe trying to get people out onto the floor to dance, which, from a guy with his emotional agitation at the time, is less than festive. The instrumentation and mixing could be used in a class about how not to mix and produce a record competently. Back to our story: Mick Jones was born in the 1950s but still grew up among the ruins of the war in Brixton, in south London. In a poignant memory, he remembers his grandmother taking him down into his building’s bomb shelter — to get away from his parents’ fighting. He was ultimately essentially abandoned by them, and grew up with the grandmother, a great-aunt, and a great-step-aunt in a “council flat,” or public housing, in a Shepherd’s Bush high-rise. He ended up at an art school in Wales — until a friend introduced him to reggae. Holy shit, he thought, and went back to London. He was obsessed with music and would even follow the Faces or Mott the Hoople around England, sneaking into shows. He eventually fell into Hammersmith Art College, where he met other musicians like Keith Levene; Viv Albertine, later of the Slits; and an American expatriate named Chrissie Hynde. Jones formed a band, called London SS; it’s unclear if this aggregation actually ever played anywhere, but you have to tip your hat to the name, offensive even by punk standards.
136. “Dictator,” Cut the Crap (1985): The leadoff to Cut the Crap — and boy is that a bad album title — is a bizarre endeavor indeed. This one-note, unsubtle rant — it really is about dictators, with lines like “Yes, I am the dictator / I satisfy the U.S. team,” etc., etc. — seems to have been constructed by a raving psychotic egged on by someone trying to be a demonic Rasputin, which is basically what was going on in the band at the time. A tape of voices from radio or TV is run over the entire song, a device that gets annoying quick.
By this time, all of the figures in our story are denizens of Shepherd’s Bush, London, a run-down area then, just west of Notting Hill Gate. Future Clash bassist Paul Simonon and Jones were attending the nearby Hammersmith Art School. Mellor had reinvented himself again, as one Joe Strummer — suddenly glaring at anyone who called him John or Woody — and was leading a band called the 101ers, named either after the address of someone’s squat or the terrible room from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was the time of grimy ’70s London, where kids broke into abandoned apartments, lived as squatters. and lined up for checks from the dole. Meanwhile, a strange couple, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, were purveying odd clothes out of a boutique with an ever-changing name on Kings Road, in Chelsea. Various members of bands who would soon become notorious worked there. (Chrissie Hynde did too; if you ever had a desire to see Hynde and Westwood’s bare asses, click here to see a contemporary photo shoot.) One day, Jones and Simonon, having checked out the 101ers and wanting to ask Strummer to join their group, spied on Strummer as he lined up to pick up his check from the dole office. Strummer saw them lurking outside and figured he was about to get jumped. He sized up which one to kick in the balls first.
135. “Dirty Punk,” Cut the Crap (1985): By the second song on Cut the Crap you got the message that this was not going to be a good listening experience. After “Dictator,” a song about a bad dictator, came “Dirty Punk,” which is about a dirty punk. Over the instrumentation, which is the sound of Rhodes and Strummer try to reestablish the band’s punk bona fides, came the lyrics, which match Mick Jagger’s ’80s output, bland cliché for bland cliché:
I could hear your momma scream
She’s gonna waste herself away
When your daddy smashed that TV screen
I understand what he had to say
134. “Are You Red … Y,” Cut the Crap (1985): Agitated, poorly produced nonsense. Violence was averted that day, and Strummer was eventually brought to meet Jones formally through a mutual friend named Bernard Rhodes, who, depending on whom you ask, was either a key part of the Malcolm McLaren brain trust, or his driver. The ultimate verdict on Rhodes remains open. The band ultimately fired him — and produced its best work, London Calling and Sandinista! — before, fatefully, bringing him back to restore some order to their organization. Still, Rhodes helped bring Strummer and Jones together, and was a voice, among others, for writing songs about politics, real life, and society rather than the pop verity of girls girls girls. This lesson, as we shall see, Strummer and Jones learned very well. Everyone in the band says the Clash would not have been the Clash without him. Rhodes was known for having an apartment whose sole furniture was stacks of Marxism Today used as chairs, and was also by most accounts a somewhat rude person, with schemes upon schemes going on at any given time. Albertine thought he was a fraud; when the Clash would meet in her apartment Rhodes would push past her without saying hello. “It was like he was running a military operation in which some people were expendable,” she would recall. (It should be noted that while everyone in the scene has had his or her say about Rhodes, most of it making for a convincing megalomaniacal portrait, he himself has kept his own counsel through the ensuing decades.) Meanwhile, the band would work on its act in a now-celebrated Camden Town space that was entered via an alley through a door labeled “Rehearsal Rehearsals.” The facility was a former warehouse for jukebox repair, a powerful metaphor indeed.
133. “Movers and Shakers,” Cut the Crap (1985): Another tedious Rhodes-Strummer track, with the usual group chorus and some squeaky instrumentation buried in the mix. Sometimes I wonder if Strummer (primarily a lyricist) wrote the music on Cut the Crap, Rhodes the lyrics. That would explain why on this album, with the band having lost only the musical half of its songwriting team, both the songs and the lyrics are terrible.
The Clash and the Sex Pistols formed around the same time; the Pistols opened for the Clash at their first show at their squat, and the Clash opened for the Pistols soon after. The scene was remarkable; besides Hynde, you had Siouxsie Sioux (later of Siouxsie and the Banshees), Shane MacGowan (later of the Pogues), Poly Styrene (later of X-Ray Spex), Tom Robinson, Paul Weller (later of the Jam), the Buzzcocks down from Manchester, and the guys who would turn into Adam Ant and Billy Idol, all running around playing gigs and alternating rooming at each others’ houses and sneering at each others’ bands. (Recalled Captain Sensible, of a deranged outfit called the Damned: “I used to live in a squat in Acton with Sid Vicious and Soo Catwoman [whose iconic visage graced the sleeve of the Pistol’s “Anarchy in the U.K.” single]. We used to sleep together in the same bed, farting contests all night long.”) Patti Smith and Johnny Thunders were in the city then too, as was future director Julien Temple, grabbing artful footage of things like an early Clash rehearsal.
Everything was random: John Lydon, later Johnny Rotten, was basically pulled in off the street into McLaren’s shop to be told he was now in a band with a couple of burglars, and that’s how the Sex Pistols got started. Lydon was of course a force of nature in his own right, but Strummer was on a par; he focused his anarchistic tendencies but never shared Lydon’s determination to tear everything down. “While others took their rebellion and ran, the Clash made their mission a better world,” as Ira Robbins, the editor of Trouser Press, put it in a long retrospective on the band’s career.
The very first punk shows in England featured the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash, as well as Subway Sect, Siouxsie Sioux’s band, the Slits, and a few others. Most of these groups, along with Thunders, in exile from New York, all joined up for a merry tour of the U.K. in December of 1976. Everything was going great until the Pistols and a few friends — including Sioux and a nitwit wearing a swastika armband — appeared on an early evening talk show. The segment saw a host with the Dickensian name of Paul Grundy provoke the group — until the segment, which lasted all of two minutes, disintegrated in a hail of foul language. This desecration of a great nation’s dinner hour was picked up on by the irrepressible tabloids, which turned punk rock into a household name and a menace to society. Most of the shows of the tour got canceled.
132. “Sex Mad Roar,” single (1984): You had to feel for Joe Strummer: He was going to keep acting like he was still in the Clash, even to the point of adding a non-album track to a single, which is to say, thinking that there was actually a sentient being out there who cared about a Cut the Crap outtake. This was the B-side to “This Is England.” It’s just about as annoying as most of the other songs on the album. For the record, I think there are other late-Clash songs on a later rerelease of Cut the Crap, but I could never get past marveling at the thought of a rerelease of Cut the Crap.
131. “Listen” single (1977): This was the B-side of the free “Capital Radio” single given out to readers of the U.K. music mag NME, or New Musical Express. It consists of an interview the magazine did with the band, laid over a rousing instrumental track they supplied to go with it. To make matters worse, the chat was conducted on the subway. It’s basically unintelligible. The interview was by Tony Parsons, who would go on to write The Boy Looked at Johnny with his buddy Julie Burchill. It’s kind of what you’d get if Lenin wrote rock criticism and had a sense of humor, sort of. The first sentence is: “Bob Dylan broke his neck. Close, but no cigar.”
130. “North and South,” Cut the Crap (1985): This song is disconcerting; it has a sweet feel and there’s something like a melody in there. But the instrumentation is weird, with some odd sounds percolating in the background. It’s always reminded me of something, and I finally figured out what it is; it sounds like two different songs being played at the same time.
Back to our story: For the first three months of 1977, a club called the Roxy gave the bands free rein to play. (Don Letts, the club’s DJ, filmed many of the performances and cobbled them together for The Punk Rock Movie. Letts is the guy with the dreads on the cover of Black Market Clash, and later formed Big Audio Dynamite with Jones.) While, again, the Sex Pistols were in an anarchic class by themselves, you could see the Clash were already a taut live aggregation indeed. The scene coalesced around this venue during these months. Outside, national hostility to the punks after the Grundy appearance, egged on by the tabloids, was explicit. It was actually physically dangerous to be a punk. Leaving aside the guys with the swastikas who you could say got what was coming to them, virtually all of the denizens of the scene at the time have stories about being jumped or assaulted in one way or another. “It was incredibly vicious and dangerous,” Strummer has said. (Johnny Rotten was slashed with knives in one serious attack.) We should remember that being a punk in London at the time, much less going on tour to the unwashed north, required a personal and quite brave commitment, over and above the loving rain of spit the band’s’ fans decided was an appropriate way to show appreciation for their performances. (Strummer ended up in the hospital with hepatitis after taking one affectionate load in the mouth.) The punks responded in their own way. Captain Sensible would sometimes announce that the band wouldn’t play unless everyone with a beard left the room.
129. “Mensforth Hill,” Sandinista! (1980): Sandinista! (much more later) was a three(!)-record set the band released in 1981. It is a testament to the band’s talent that we were halfway through side five before things went wholly off the rails, with a sound collage from hell that no one had asked for. It seems to be a replay of a previous Sandinista! song, “Something About England,” perhaps played backward, with lots of other stuff ladled on. Okay!
128. “Three Card Trick,” Cut the Crap (1985): Some faint reggae at the beginning makes this sound like a Sandinista! outtake; then it gets all bouncy and poppy and the drum machines kick in, and it becomes the worst reggae track the band ever offered its fans.
Now, before we get into the songs from the Clash at their height, we need to explain punk a little. Punk, which this many years on seems pretty basic, was actually pretty complicated, with any number of glancing and sometimes clashing aesthetics in the mix. First, as far as music went, you had to have a contempt for the state of rock and roll; it was flaccid and overdone, its
’60s heroes a joke. Punk was shorter, faster, tighter, and about real things. The Ramones, from the U.S., and to some extent Patti Smith, had shown the way forward in the wake of early ‘70s punk progenitors like the Stooges and the New York Dolls, which of course had spawned Thunders.
Some people, like Pistols impresario McLaren and possibly Rhodes, were familiar with goofy bands of philosophical malcontents like the Situationist International and the Lettrists, descended in some ways from the Dadaists and sometimes adumbrated by Marxists, whose manifestoes might reductively be described as demanding opposition to established political and aesthetic forces, ideally by means of an absurdist spectacle. (The Sex Pistols on the Grundy show and the ensuing national furor was a Situationist Hall of Fame event.) The more political punks advocated violence when necessary, casually or explicitly. Some punks, Jones and Simonon prominent among them, were getting into reggae; expressing solidarity with the Jamaicans and West Indians they knew from the streets around them. This also worked as a sort of political prophylactic from charges of racism stemming from the movement’s contempt for the blues, which was associated with the Stones and Eric Clapton and the like.
Then you had the admixture of fashion; it doesn’t get talked about too much by music critics, and American punk bands were less concerned with this, but both the Sex Pistols and the Clash, for starters, devoted a lot of time to the carefully prepared “looks” they presented to the world. (McLaren’s wife Vivienne Westwood, of course, went on to become a noted designer.) This is why the Clash, god love them, often dressed derangedly. “I know in America people think it ridiculous that one can fight to the death over articles of clothing, but in these islands it’s a different story,” Strummer once said. This both inspired and reflected the confrontational fashion that grew, virtually week by week, at the first punk rock shows.
Sociologically, there were a lot of deprived kids running around, and a lot of them were just this side of thugs. (Steve Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, for example, were in fact gainfully employed as burglars, helpful skills when all your poor friends were getting into bands and needed equipment.)
A species of shock feminism was growing too, embodied by X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene. Sioux toyed with S&M gear and offered a confrontational sexuality. (She had a shirt with holes cut out for her breasts to show. Ari Up, the lead singer of the Slits, wore her underwear outside her pants.) And even the punks who didn’t understand or even know about the Situationists were looking to do what they do could to kick a sacred cow or two in the groin. Sioux, for example, sported swastikas on her face not to express sympathy with Nazis but to provoke the previous British generation, who in the punks’ worldview had become bor-rrring with their talk about their victory over Hitler. (Johnny Rotten put it, “We wanted to offend all of the people we were fucking fed up with.”)
And that brings us to the final element of the scene, and an important one not to forget, which is that the participants were in most senses of the word children … and were all, we in America have to remember, deeply affected by their upbringing and unsure of their way forward in a compromised former empire then very much on the fritz.
127. “Shepherds Delight,” Sandinista! (1980): And finally, after the kids singing “Career Opportunities,” we say good-bye to Sandinista! with song number 36, a lulling, slowed-down take on “Police & Thieves.” There are no words, just the chord changes. It’s all nice until the last minute, which is filled with what seems to be grinding car noises. Highly stupid.
126. “Sean Flynn,” Combat Rock (1982): This is a ridiculous, pretentious song, named after but not referencing photojournalist Sean Flynn, who was killed during the Vietnam War. This mood is pretty vague, and Strummer’s wailing doesn’t really bring anything to the table. The second side of Combat Rock was rough going. After Sandinista! the band didn’t know what to do. Jones’s version of Combat Rock, titled Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg and designed to be another epic release, was rejected by the others and the label. They ultimately turned the tapes over to the talented engineer Glyn Johns. Johns himself says he’d heard that there were two mixes of the album done and that CBS (in the guise of Muff Winwood, brother of Stevie) hated both of them. Johns junked most of what the band had and fashioned the rest into the best record he could, given what he had to work with. (“Sean Flynn,” for example, which seems to go on forever, was supposedly cut down from a much longer version.)
125. “Cool Under Heat,” Cut the Crap (1985): Despite the awkward title, there’s a good riff and a decent chorus buried deep in the mud of the mix; otherwise, more declaiming from Strummer, that infernal group shouting that permeates this album, and poor recording. Where Strummer used to be spitting hellfire, now he was offering bland pronouncements to an audience he imagines cares what he says.
124. “Version Pardner,” Sandinista! (1980): One of the dubs on side six of Sandinista! Here we have a dub take — that is, a Jamaican-style remix — on the earlier “Junco Pardner.” It takes a while to get going. The band’s dubs, even with help from Mikey Dread on Sandinista!, were a mixed bag. Strummer feels like he needs to make his voice all Jamaican, which is unfortunate.
123. “Koka Kola,” London Calling (1979): In the end, the worst song on London Calling. Another rant about advertising, about which the band felt keenly, but “Lost in the Supermarket” had covered the issue quite well already. Lots of jokes about Coke, and heavy-handed irony in the chorus: “I get my advice from the advertising world.” Strummer does his best to drum up excitement. The bridge is lousy.
122. “The Equaliser,” Sandinista! (1980): Heavy dub, with tiresome lyrics articulated from the point of view of Jamaican farm workers. Or something.
121. “One Emotion,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope outtake (1978): An unnotable song released on The Clash on Broadway, the group’s first boxed set. “Midnight to Stevens” aside, there didn’t seem to be much in the ol’ Clash archives — not surprising since at one point they released five albums’ worth of material in a two-year period.
120. “Idle in Kangaroo Court,” Combat Rock outtake (1982): A nothing song, originally known as “Kill Time,” and much more reminiscent of the band on Sandinista!, released on the massive box set Sound System a few years ago. (“Sound system,” incidentally, refers to the Jamaican practice where DJs would set up a bank of amplifiers to play songs in public squares, almost like a guerilla radio station.)
119. “The Magnificent Dance,” single (1981): A funky 12” dance mix of “The Magnificent Seven.” The original single is a momentous work, and some of the band’s remixes are interesting, but this strikes me as tedious. (I think someone should have slinked the whole thing down a bit into Ibizan chill music.) Later turned up on Super Black Market Clash. (The nine-track Black Market Clash came out in the U.S. after London Calling, collecting some U.K.-only songs, including the earlier Cost of Living EP, which had introduced the world to the band’s cover of “I Fought the Law.” Super Black Market Clash, with 21 tracks, was a much-expanded version of this, pulling together almost all of the band’s non-album work, in 1993.)
118. “Corner Soul,” Sandinista! (1980): The band didn’t have a real producer on Sandinista!; if they had, he would have had the thankless task of reining in sonic misfires like this. It all seems labored in pursuit of giving meaning to this track, which seems to be about Asian and South American peasants and their music somehow being the soundtrack to revolution.
117. “First Night Back in London,” single (1982): The B-side of the “Know Your Rights” single is a pretty boring affair, a dub track that sounds like it was the band’s first experiment with the form, rather than one of the last. The song’s about a black cab driver who gets hassled for drugs while you the (presumably white) passenger are the one carrying.
116. “Let’s Go Crazy,” Sandinista! (1980): Lots of Jamaican drums. Another one of the Sandinista! songs I think has so-so sound. Seems to be a tribute to Jamaica but isn’t good enough to make you care.
115. “Cool Confusion,” single (1982): Things were bad when even the band’s reggae attempts felt careless and indulgent. The B-side of the “Should I Stay or Should I Go” single and collected on Super Black Market Clash.
114. “The Leader,” Sandinista! (1980): A throwaway on the first side of Sandinista!’s six sides. Not produced well and needlessly agitated, and lyrically it’s just a litany of espionage and sex scandals. The chorus is a blast at the press: “You gotta give the people something good to read on a Sunday.” (Cf. Joe Jackson, “Sunday Papers.”)
113. “Life Is Wild,” Cut the Crap (1985): Lyrically, it seems to be a little punk-rock self-help book, but one of the better songs on this lousy record.
112. “The Street Parade,” Sandinista! (1980): Another incredibly bizarre construction; as the last song on side five, it’s the end of the album proper, and nothing like the album deserved. And yet, after the harshly recorded Jamaican drums recede, there’s an unmistakable power in the chorus. So you start paying attention, and it seems to be a strange meditation on existence, trying to retain an individuality in the midst of modern life. With all respect for that the band was trying to do, though, I think this is another poorly engineered and produced song whose effects just didn’t resonate.
111. “Lover’s Rock,” London Calling (1979): I’m not sure I understand this song. Strictly speaking it may actually be the band’s first love song, sliding in just before “Train in Vain.” But it has much more the feel of a sexual instruction manual, at least until the chorus line about “the thing she had to swallow,” which is either about birth control or something grosser. The beginning is very promising, but it never goes anywhere. With “Koka Kola” and either “Four Horsemen” or “I’m Not Down,” the only real evidence you can point to that London Calling was too long.
110. “The Beautiful People Are Ugly Too,” Sound System (1982): A labored mess from the Combat Rock sessions. There’s nothing here to make you care what it’s actually about.
109. “1-2 Crush on You,” single (1978): This is reputedly one of the first songs the band worked on together, obviously before the memo went out about the counterrevolutionary nature of love songs. Hard to believe Strummer wrote these lyrics, so I assume it’s Jones. An interesting early pop-punk artifact however. Put out for some reason as the B-side of the “Tommy Gun” single in 1978, and later collected on Super Black Market Clash.
108. “Ghetto Defendant,” Combat Rock (1982): Were “Straight To Hell” not on Combat Rock, this might have been the focus for those who’d want to argue for the album’s depth, and it’s a good thing, too. Musically, this is a spooky journey indeed (though not of course as spooky as the one in “Straight to Hell”). Strummer’s late-career fixation with “the ghetto” feels dated and a bit condescending these days. The point seems to be that if you’re living in the ghetto you’re automatically on trial, but in typical Strummer fashion he doesn’t let the denizens off the hook, and there’s a lot about the evils of heroin, which if I read the thing correctly Strummer thinks is all that’s standing between the underclass and mass insurrection. Yeah, I know it’s all a little received and perhaps a bit clichéd. On the other hand, it was the Clash’s job to talk about what was going on in the world, and drugs were a problem in the poor areas of New York. And of course Strummer’s intent was sympathetic. The second half the song ramps it up with a complex tale of Rimbaud, with Allen Ginsberg (needlessly) on-hand to intone this or that biographical detail. The second side of Combat Rock was a disaster. The backing track is pretty memorable, though.
107. “Midnight Log,” Sandinista! (1980): This is a funny song that lets Strummer riff and Jones mark his words with some echoey harmonica. Not sure what he’s talking about though.
106. “Stop the World,” single (1980): A spurt of Cold War paranoia, and kind of a mess. The second B-side of “The Call Up” single, collected on Sound System.
105. “Protex Blue,” The Clash (1977): I have no idea what the intent of this song is, but it’s possible that history (“Mick Jones’ song about a brand of condom”) is a little unfair to what might be a self-deprecating, even Townshendian, tale of teenage onanism.
104. “Lightning Strikes (Not Once but Twice),” Sandinista! (1980): Strummer loses me here; it’s a romp through New York, via a straightforward rap. The net effect is just herky-jerkiness, and nothing near as kaleidoscopic as “The Magnificent Seven.”
103. “Long Time Jerk,” single (1982): This is a throwaway, and has an irritating bubble sound throughout, but it’s kind of catchy. The B-side of “Rock the Casbah.”
102. “Cheapskates,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): This is a somewhat funny song; apparently the band is lashing back at the folks in the British music scene harrying them for this and that. Rope was produced by the Blue Öyster Cult’s Sandy Pearlman, and this sounds a little BOC-y.
101. “Something About England,” Sandinista! (1980): After the extraordinary London Calling, the Clash, out of a mixture of arrogance, creativity, mischievousness and, not least, a misunderstanding of their recording contract, gave us a three-record set. Famously, it sold for not much more than a single disc, and in the end unfortunately did not reduce their obligations to Columbia by three albums. (Why the band didn’t just ask a lawyer before embarking on this legal maneuver is of course a mystery.) No one should release a three-record set, of course, and particularly not a punk band. But one of the reasons we love the Clash is that release a three-record set they did; and you will find many fans who love it more than London Calling for its restless creativity, jokey mishmash, and sprawling, almost Whitmanesque magnanimity; for its indulgences, misfires, and despite all of that, great song after great song after great song. The realities of this last mean that we’re going to get to the dross first. The biggest problem is that they didn’t have Guy Stevens or a comparable genius to help them make their songs work on record. The band definitely had vision; but making records is a special art and their innate genius didn’t always pull them through. This poorly produced track is another sign that the band should have had more efficient oversight on the album; I don’t like the double-tracked vocals, nor the echo, and there are too many pianos and other things going on the background. It’s too bad because the conception — “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” basically, told by a homeless man Jones meets on the street — had promise. But it’s really a mess.
100. “Jail Guitar Doors,” single (1977): Mick Jones’s tribute to Wayne Kramer (of the MC5), Peter Green (the original guitarist in Fleetwood Mac), and Keith Richards, all of whom had had legal trouble. An early Clash song that was released on the B-side of “Clash City Rockers” and was then stuck on the U.S. version of The Clash. Eh.
99. “Look Here,” Sandinista! (1980): We’re in the wilds of Sandinista! now; the second side is all over the map. Why Joe Strummer felt he had to cover this odd minor hit from the tres suave white American jazzbeau Mose Allison is a mystery. It’s another one of those Sandinista! songs that wasn’t mastered right, but listen closely and you can hear a jammin’ piano and Simonon doing a jokey walking-the-dog in the background. The overlaid talking isn’t necessary and neither is the guitar. Less than three minutes, so there’s that. Here’s the thing about Sandinista! though. Songs like this are kind of ridiculous, but, aside for one or two crummy songs we’ve already discussed and some of the aimless dub stuff, they aren’t bad. There are more than three-dozen tracks on the thing, about a third of the band’s total recorded output! Here’s something Strummer said about the album I think I agree with: “There are some stupid tracks, there are some brilliant tracks. The more I think about it, the happier I am that it is what it is.”
98. “I’m Not Down,” London Calling (1979): Mick Jones’s attempt at a “My Way” statement of defiance and strength. It’s fine, but a little monochromatic on London Calling.
97. “Atom Tan,” Combat Rock (1982): I have always assumed an “atom tan” is something you get after a nuclear explosion. The song offers a triptych of scenes, gussied up by a weird call-and-response structure and united in their bleak banality. You can see the evolving split between Strummer and Jones play out on this record. Fort Bragg had been Jones’s work, and he wasn’t happy about having it rejected by the label. Glyn Johns’s involvement, to hear the producer himself tell the story, was received well by Strummer, who showed up at the studio on the appointed day to work on the album with Johns. Then this happened:
At around seven p.m. [wrote Glyn Johns in his memoir], the control room door opened and in walked a somewhat disgruntled Mick Jones. I welcomed him, sat him down and played him the mixes I had done that day. He sat unmoved, and when asked how he felt about what he had just heard, said he had several changes that he would like to make to each of them. I politely informed him that that was a shame as I had finished them and had he taken the trouble to arrive at ten a.m. along with everyone else that morning, his opinion would have been gratefully received and adhered to. However, as he chose not to be there, he had missed the boat, as I was not about to do them all over again. He left even more displeased than when he arrived.
Jones took himself out of the process, and Johns and Strummer worked together on what became Combat Rock. The result is great-sounding but exactly half of a great album, with all the good songs helpfully placed on side one. The Clash’s career might have been much different if they’d done a bravura one-disc follow-up to London Calling, and retained some of the Sandinista! songs to make Combat Rock a better album.
96. “The Crooked Beat,” Sandinista! (1980): A Simonon vocal on Sandinista!, an homage to the music he’d grown up with. Kind of a mess — what’s that organ? What are those horns? — but another of the tracks that gives Sandinista! its ever-surprising charm.
Simonon grew up in Brixton slums, and knew West Indian kids from an early age. Then there came the day his father announced he was leaving — and a stepfather moved right in. But they eventually spent a year in Italy. Back in London proper, he fell in with kids in west London. One was Mick Jones. Simonon wanted to play in a band, but had never touched an instrument. Jones suggested bass. Simonon balked. Look, Jones said, there’s a painting exhibition by one Stuart Sutcliffe. He’d played with the Beatles, Jones said, and couldn’t play bass either. Simonon’s growth was amazing; as early as the first album, his playing had a lucid and explosive punch. (Check out “White Riot,” for example.) Remember that the Clash was one of the very greatest live bands of all time, and you don’t get to be one of those without a great bass player. It was he who came up with the band’s name and logo, and helped design some of its earliest outfits.
95. “Junkie Slip,” Sandinista! (1980): Another one of those tracks: You can roll your eyes and hit skip, or pay attention and find a real song here, a bleak drug portrait. Make no mistake: The Clash were anti-drug; maybe I’m forgetting something, but I don’t recall them ever romanticizing the issue. This is set to a monotonous rhythm and what sounds like a recurring hiccup, and a vocal by Strummer that finds yet one more wholly new approach to music on the out-of-control Sandinista! Particularly on the band’s early punk tracks, Strummer’s voice is abrasive; but like just about everything else with the band, he grew — and became one of rock’s great vocalists. He could howl like Dylan. He could pull off sincerity and sarcasm like Warren Zevon. And on the band’s most expansive tracks and particularly live, he was capable of Springsteenian storytelling and some pretty high comedy.
94. “Return to Brixton,” single (1990): A dance mix of “Guns of Brixton,” released as a dance single years after the band’s demise with a few other remixes and the Simonon original.
93. “Four Horsemen,” London Calling (1979): I just don’t know what this song is about. Definitely some energy, but it fails to connect with me. For the record, London Calling was eventually reissued in a supposed deluxe edition with an extra disc of early versions and other songs, but it’s all pretty rudimentary, and none of the previously unheard stuff really rises to the level of outtake.
92. “City of the Dead” single (1977): This early B-side (to the overwhelming “Complete Control”) is one of the early signs of the band’s musical restlessness; with its blaring sax and jaunty beat it reminds you of later things like “Gates of the West,” as opposed to the band’s darker reggae-tinged side, exemplified by “White Man.” It’s a portrait of the dark side of the punk lifestyle, with a shout out to Johnny Thunders.
91. “Drug-Stabbing Time,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): This is some sort of riff on a big drug bust, I guess, but I don’t get the part about “working on the Ford line.” Begins with some great guitar sounds, but it all becomes a blur.
90. “Cheat,” The Clash (1977): Another good example of Strummer’s careful, logical approach to social comment. He acknowledges the contradictory and quite unfair pressures on youth, and then offers a defiant chorus: “Cheat / No reason to play fair.” It’s less a statement of nihilism than an exaggerated example of what the social costs are of an unfair system. And check out Jones’s phased guitar on the outro.
89. “Red Angel Dragnet,” Combat Rock (1982): The Guardian Angels were a volunteer group of neighborhood-watch volunteers back in the day, something of a cultural phenomenon in New York City. Cops didn’t like them, for various reasons, one of which may have been that they were often people of color. One ended up getting shot by an NYC police officer. That led to this odd track. “Who got shot tonight?” a ghostly chorus asks, as Paul Simonon blurts out some hep streetwise phrases. Things aren’t helped by a voiceover from the group’s irrepressible PR guy, Kosmo Vinyl, who recited lines from Taxi Driver over the mix.
88. “All the Young Punks,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): A companion piece to “Cheapskates” on Rope, also very Ian Hunter-esque, that ingratiatingly tries to tell the story of the band from its point of view. But it’s one of the worst-sounding songs on this so-so-sounding album, and comes across a lot like a demo.
87. “Kingston Advice,” Sandinista! (1980): The fifth side of Sandinista! is when you really started to appreciate what the band was pulling off. “Lose This Skin” and “Charlie Don’t Surf” were head-snapping numbers; then came the bullshit sound collage of “Mensforth Hill” and the goofy “Junkie Slip.” But then came this thing, a swoony track reflecting on political crackdowns around the globe. And while Strummer understood that the North Vietnamese were Russian, or rather Soviet, proxies, it didn’t hurt that they were fucking up the U.S., and hence symbolic of the wins that could be made elsewhere using creative tactics. The Clash were firmly in favor of that. In any case, “Kingston advice” is “don’t beg for your life” — i.e., fight. Particularly the U.S.
86. “Revolution Rock,” London Calling (1979): The Clash’s version of this reggae track by Danny Ray & the Revolutionaries starts out humming — an explosion of happiness not heard in the original — but I gotta say it never goes anywhere. Strummer’s at his most bleaty. You can check out the original here:
85. “Silicone on Sapphire,” Sandinista! (1980): Great beginning, dark and ominous, before we launch into a dub version of “Washington Bullets,” with maybe a Theremin up top and with all sorts of random phrases about the parlous human condition of the time.
This is my micro instruction
… I am a Texas Instrument.
Wonder what Joe would have thought about Facebook.
84. “Career Opportunities,” Sandinista! (1980):
The dubs on side six are interrupted by a remake of an early Clash classic by the children of keyboardist Mick Gallagher, from Ian Dury and the Blockheads, who provides a very pretty melodic setting for their vocals. It’s kinda funny.
83. “Pressure Drop,” single (1979): A nice guitar line, recorded punk style, plainly and roughly, a simple statement of allegiance to the Toots & the Maytals song. This was the b-side to “English Civil War.” Nothing gussied up here but the track has an undeniable force — the knife edge of punk’s embrace of reggae. Originally collected on Black Market Clash.
82. “Overpowered by Funk,” Combat Rock (1982): This is a decent effort at nuclear-powered white-boy funk, not entirely an embarrassment if put next to, say, Talking Heads’s efforts in this realm at the time. (And the Clash didn’t have Bernie Worrell around.) Note the very hep use of the phrase, “I’m down by law and that’s a fact,” from graffito star Futura 2000, a sometime Clash collaborator.
81. “One More Dub,” Sandinista! (1980): The sixth side of Sandinista! was reserved for dub tracks; but for some reason they added a dub version of “One More Time” right after “One More Time” on side two. I think it would have worked better without Strummer still portentously intoning “one more time in the ghetto,” but it’s still a great listening experience, courtesy of Mikey Dread, a pioneering Jamaican DJ and recording artist, who worked and toured with the Clash for several years in the early 1980s. Most notably, he produced the scorching “Bankrobber.” He’s credited with “version mix” on Sandinista!, which is probably why all the dub remixes on the sixth side sound so good.
80. “Groovy Times,” The Cost of Living EP (1979): Following “Stay Free” came this almost mainstream-sounding song, at least until Joe starts singing. There’s even an acoustic guitar solo. The title is highly ironic; the scene here is a post-riot cityscape with a final blast, as I read it, at a vapid pop culture that couldn’t have foreseen such a landscape. Later collected on Super Black Market Clash.
79. “Every Little Bit Hurts,” Sandinista! outtake (1981): This is a weird Motown cover, an emotional torch song voiced by Mick Jones, and you have to admit he really delivers on it. Supposedly a product of the Sandinista! sessions. That record had room for a lot, but not something like this. Ultimately released on the box set The Clash on Broadway.
78. “Hate & War,” The Clash (1977): A lesser song on The Clash, with a title too obviously pattered against “peace and love,” is bruising and cutting nonetheless. This seems to be a Jones lyric, judging by the earnestness of the words; Strummer chimes in at the end to illustrate the voices heard on those mean streets.
77. “One More Time,” Sandinista! (1980): This song, along with say “The Call Up,” is one of the best sounding tracks on the unrelenting Sandinista!. I have a problem with Strummer’s faux Jamaican accent, but this is a powerful, forceful arrangement. The lyric is a bleak look at ghetto life, from Strummer’s perspective of course. I know, I know, all this talk about “the ghetto,” and always delivered with a little hep frisson, is a little melodramatic from our perspective today. That said, you weren’t hearing such stuff from the Police, the Go-Go’s or the Cars. The rap is by Dread.
76. “Deny,” The Clash (1977): A grim anti-drug song, directed at a user. Words of reproach used in innumerable love songs are here repurposed and directed at what seems to be a woman hooked on heroin: “Baby, you ain’t got a hope,” Strummer says. Here again, you didn’t hear sentiments like that in many other rock band songs about drugs. Jones comes in at the end with one of his signature distinctive backing vocals. (I don’t mean this as faint praise: Jones supplied any number of decisive backing tracks to the band’s oeuvre, from “Complete Control” to “Rock the Casbah,” from “Safe European Home” to “I Fought the Law.”) It sounds like a demo, and is all the more powerful for it. I forgot to mention Headon, the drummer, who joined after the first album, and became, with Simonon, part of a pretty persuasive rhythm section. Headon broke a leg while he was in high school, and was laid up for six months. His parents got him a drum set; with no lessons he taught himself to play. When the band was cooking, Headon was there stirring. In certain ways, though, he was much more of the proletariat, let’s say, than the other guys, and found himself on tour hanging out with the crew. Eventually he became a junkie. One day Headon and Strummer were in an elevator, Strummer standing in front. “How can I be singing anti-drug songs with you sitting behind me?” Strummer asked. Later, he slept with one of Headon’s girlfriends. Headon eventually left the group.
75. “Tommy Gun,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978):
This is another one of those so-so songs on the second album. Many could be forgiven for thinking the song celebrates Tommy guns, when in fact Strummer is actually mocking such bravado and pointing out the pointlessness of most human conflicts. I’ve always imagined it’s directed at clowns walking around toting machine guns in news footage of civil wars. Jones is showing off the guitar fills and song arrangements that the band would soon master. But the so-so sonics and middling melody make this a second-tier track.
74. “Time Is Tight,” Black Market Clash (1980): A groovy take on the Booker T. & the M.G.’s instrumental classic, surfed up a bit and devoid of keyboards, and ultimately quite pleasant.
73. “If Music Could Talk,” Sandinista! (1980): Half reggae, half a dream. A lazy, jazzy groove marked with a very long half-spoken vocal track by Strummer. I haven’t the faintest idea of what he’s talking about, but I assume he’s just illustrating the title concept. This is probably the band’s most verbose song. It’s kind of like Marvin Gaye doing reggae. Mikey Dread is given a writing credit.
72. “Mustapha Dance,” single (1982): A largely instrumental dance mix of “Rock the Casbah” with some remixed vocals here and there. A very cool dance-club track at the time.
71. “This Is England,” Cut the Crap (1985): History allows that this is the one successful track on Cut the Crap. The sound collage and the gentle, troubled synth lines undergird the song unerringly, and for once the group-shouted chorus, though still overloud, conveys some wan meaning. The guitars chug, with both a point and a bit of majesty. This can’t have been a good time for Strummer, and you can hear it in his voice, as he sings the fuck out of this, which — with the possible exception of “Love Kills,” the concussive solo track he had on the Sid and Nancy soundtrack — was Strummer’s last great song.
70. “The Sound of Sinners,” Sandinista! (1980): Sandinista! just kept getting weirder, more out of control. Here, a dream of a punk-gospel hymn, brayed by Strummer:
After all this time
To believe in Jesus
After all these drugs
I thought I was him!
I think that the band didn’t know how to record the gospel backing chorus, but I have to say its ghostly effect stays with you.
69. “Death Is a Star,” Combat Rock (1982): The band does Dietrich, attempting to pull off what I guess can only be called a punk torch song, on Combat Rock’s last track. The instrumentation is odd — a strummed guitar, a rambling piano, and maybe some synth strings. The song I think isn’t recorded crisply, except for Strummer’s unadorned, off-pitch voice. We are back in Vietnam, for a while, and perhaps in a movie theater, “by chance or escaping from misery.”
68. “Version City,” Sandinista! (1980): Here we are on the sixth side of Sandinista! — where things really get weird. Version is a reggae word for a dub remix; the side is filled with dub versions of other Sandinista! songs. Don’t expect too much, and you’ll have some surprises. “Version City” is the song that explicitly introduces the side. It has a percolating, almost Caribbean beat, with a bizarre beginning, stops and starts, and a spare instrumentation over the band’s chanting. It’s an affectionate paean to music, recording, and even Robert Johnson:
We went straight through Syndrum Inc.
Up an’ over the Acapella Pass
Then Gibson Town and Fenderville
All stations to the Mesa Boogie Ranch
We saw that soul out on the cross roads.
67. “Inoculated City,” Combat Rock (1982): A cheery tune, sung double-tracked by Mick Jones, and the penultimate track on Combat Rock. Lots of odd beats and sound effects, along with an unsubtle but funny TV commercial thrown into the mix. (Toilet cleaner, hahaha.) The song, articulated it might be said in heartfelt fashion, is about everyone following orders. The tune as a whole is probably the farthest-seeking song musically the Clash did, and points directly to Jones’s post-Clash outfit, Big Audio Dynamite.
66. “Living in Fame,” Sandinista! (1980): This is a dub version of side two’s “If Music Could Talk,” with Mikey Dread taking over vocals and toasting the Clash and other early punk bands, including the Nipple Erectors, notable for having been Shane MacGowan’s first group. It’s the best of the crazy shit the band threw on its epic’s final side.
65. “What’s My Name,” The Clash (1977): A searing statement of confused punk ethos, which Green Day would make a lot of hay (and money) with when denatured and suburbanized ten years later. He’s got acne, and couldn’t get into the Ping-Pong club; and now he’s coming ‘round to your house to … well, probably just steal something. The rant “What’s My Name” remains a powerful statement of (non)identity. The song retains a writing credit, the only one, I think, for Keith Levene. He was the band’s original guitarist, and an intimate of the very first British punks. But he has been derided, fairly or not, in the remaining histories as too druggy for the Clash. In any case, he turned up a few years later playing on Johnny Rotten’s incredible post-Pistols work in Public Image Ltd.
64. “Midnight to Stevens,” Clash on Broadway (1991): Jones’s Mott the Hoople fixation brought him to Guy Stevens, who in the course of a, uh, colorful music-industry career had produced that group’s best ’70s work. (The band, led by Ian Hunter and often featuring Mick Ronson, was a Stonesian outfit marked by Hunter’s affecting ruminations on rock and roll.) Stevens had a hand in the band’s original work for The Clash, its first album, but the relationship didn’t take. He came back for London Calling, the production of which has to be considered one of rock’s greatest triumphs. He was unquestionably the guide out of the punk world the band needed, and he led them to the pantheon, with a lot of screaming and chair-throwing along the way. He freed the band’s creativity, but also put it in service of great songs, and on virtually every track you can get a sense of spaciousness, humor, drama, a musical narrative, and a deep, deep understanding of the band’s music. It was as if he envisioned how a band like the Clash could both deliver a masterpiece and remain true to its reason for being. He seems to have been able to maintain some authority in the Clash’s presence; it’s conceivable that the band’s career would have been much different had they continued to work with him, but he died soon after his work on the album. Strummer did this tribute to him, which was finally released on the Clash on Broadway compilation. It has a graceful, uplifting guitar line and given its provenance has always been the hep Clash fan’s outtake of choice, but in the end it’s a bit monotonous. Stevens would have spruced it up.
63. “Radio One,” single (1981): A pretty straight reggae song by Dread thrown on the back of the U.K. “Hitsville U.K.” single.
62. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): A well-publicized drug bust was the inspiration for this catchily mordant tale. The band captures both the comic nature of the operation as well as the undeniable human cost. While the Clash were in some ways stars in the U.K., CBS didn’t know what to do with them in regards to America, where punk had gone nowhere and the kids were more into John Travolta and Peter Frampton. Epic, a CBS subsidiary in the U.S., figured they could benefit with a smart American rock producer, and brought the band Sandy Pearlman, a brilliant guy who’d created Blue Öyster Cult and produced that band’s (intermittently awesome) records. Long story short, Pearlman managed to get himself punched in the band’s dressing room, or so the story goes, and in the end Give ‘Em Enough Rope, while it has its partisans, is a crummy-sounding record.
61. “Robber Dub,” Super Black Market Clash (1993): Mikey Dread’s full-on dub deconstruction of “Bankrobber,” and a model of the form. Crank it up!
60. “48 Hours,” The Clash (1977): In contrast to “1-2 Crush on You,” this is a ferociously played Joe Strummer take on youthful relationships, told from the point of view of a punter looking at his 48 hours of weekend. He reports that the girls are “bound to be rude” (as opposed to the prize that is the singer). You have to remember that portraits of youth this bleak were not the norm at the time. The Ramones were goofballs in a lot of ways, and the Pistols up to no good. The Clash were earnestly trying to give voice to an underclass and happy to lecture or point if they saw a way out.
59. “English Civil War,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” Strummerfied, complete with echoes of collaboration and clandestine communication. When fascism comes, it’s time to fight.
58. “London’s Burning,” The Clash (1977): From Jones’s grandmother’s high-rise apartment, the group looked down on a city, boasting seemingly nothing but car headlights and traffic lights. “London’s burning with boredom now,” they sang. All very energetic, and Strummer is perfecting his bark of a voice. Docked ten notches for being a song about not having anything to do in fucking London. Kids, Jesus.
57. “Last Gang in Town,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): Somewhere, the Clash got the idea that it was cool to sing about themselves as outlaws or gunslingers. Here’s an early example of this mythmaking in the title. The song itself is another complex, multifaceted dissertation on black youth and white youth, rebellion and conformism, with Strummer’s usual combination of idealism, romanticism, and a little bit of racial melodrama:
A black sharp knife never slips
And they never say to one another
That tomorrow we might kill our brothers.
If you say so, Joe. But he also realizes how dumb it all is: “It’s all young blood / Flowing down the drain.” Another Give ‘Em Enough Rope song that sounds terrible: The vocals and the guitars are mixed down; the bass line and the solos are too far up.
56. “Guns on the Roof,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): While recording the second album, drummer Headon, who was into guns, brought air rifles to the studio; he and Simonon and some hangers-on went to the roof to shoot pigeons. Two highly amusing things quickly transpired. First, the local mechanics who owned the birds, which it turned out were racing pigeons, came over, took away the guns, and started hitting the musicians with them; second, a police helicopter arrived to find out who the snipers were. The guys ended up in Brixton prison. The band was also later arrested and spent a weekend in jail for stealing pillows and towels from hotels. This song isn’t really about that, just another ferocious fusillade against the societal structures that keep the rich rich and the poor poor and vulnerable.
55. “The Prisoner,” single (1978): The B-side of the concussive “(White Man) In the Hammersmith Palais,” released on the original Black Market Clash. The prisoner is a kid just like the Clash themselves — aimless, flirting with drugs, and overall somewhat lame, particularly compared to his parents, who actually work:
Hanging out the washing and clipping coupons
And generally being decent.
I don’t remember Mick Jagger offering up a sentiment like that.
54. “Remote Control,” The Clash (1977): A charming, somewhat light song about the pointlessness of doing anything, sung keenly by Mick Jones. CBS thought this was a single, and it became the band’s second, over its objections for various reasons. (It was actually uncool back then to put out as a single a song that had already been released on an album.) That act’s contribution to history was catalyzing the writing of a little ditty called “Complete Control.” A live or just different version of “London’s Burning” was on the B-side.
53. “The Cool Out,” single (1980): This is an instrumental version of “The Call Up,” and quite powerful, tossed onto the B-side of the single for “The Magnificent Seven.” It’s mesmerizing.
52. “Justice Tonight/Kick It Over,” single (1980): I think this was part of an extended B-side to a “London Calling” single, probably a 12-inch, and then collected for the U.S. market on Black Market Clash. The second side of that album began with “Bankrobber” and segued into a “Bankrobber” dub, before offering “Armagideon Time” and then this long and extravagant dub of that song — arguably the most powerful of the band’s experiments with the form. The entire side remains an adventuresome and highly enjoyable listen.
51. “Jimmy Jazz,” London Calling (1979): You either hate this bizarre song about informing (and possibly an execution), or think it’s okay. It was plainly the oddest song the band had yet recorded, and it was there on the first side of London Calling to let us know that the next four sides were going to be filled with surprises. Stevens makes it come alive, with those goofy horns and an arrangement that makes it all sound deliberate. Note how Strummer totally delivers the outlandish vocal: He really was one of the very greatest rock singers of all time.
50. “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” Sandinista! (1980): We are amid the dog-end days of the Cold War, remember, with nuclear fears heightened and cartoony political figures (Reagan and Brezhnev, for starters) running the world. All one could do was respond with a cartoon, which is what the band did with this track, complete with comically deployed machine guns, howitzer barrages, and the occasional big boom. (The lyrics are rendered as a cartoon on the three-LP set’s original insert.) That voice you heard is drummer Headon’s. The arrangement and instrumentation are part of Sandinista!’s mind-blowing variety.
49. “This Is Radio Clash,” single (1981): A bit of mythmaking, another interesting and arguably quite innovative amalgam of rock, rap, and reggae, and a killer recording. Some people think it’s silly; for what it is — a goofy throwaway that on a deeper look manages to capture the usual Strummer marks of paranoia, revolution, and the salvation of media that became a radical dance-floor track back in the day — it’s pretty impressive. There’s a 7-inch and a U.K. dance 12-inch with a total of three B-sides: “Radio Clash,” another version of the main song; “Outside Broadcast,” a crummy dance mix that tries waaay too hard; and “Radio Five,” more of the same. It didn’t see an album release until the ’90s, which kept it one of the more mysterious major Clash tracks in the ’80s.
48. “Gates of the West,” The Cost of Living EP (1979): One of the band’s most open-hearted lyrics, sung with punk wonder by Mick Jones, the tale of what seems to be a rock star turning his back on England, approaching the new grimy glories of New York City. This is not a haughty or prideful song. The Clash wrote about real life, and New York was where they were. The guitars, particularly the highly musical break, are great.
47. “Junco Partner,” Sandinista! (1980): The band’s history of covers is remarkable, from scorching (“I Fought the Law”) to the utterly insane, like this one. “Junco Partner” is an old blues song. It’s history is fairly well-attested, though the band listed it as “writer, at present, unknown” on the lyric sheet. (It’s been covered by folks like Professor Longhair and even Harry Connick Jr. — and Dylan may have taken the title of his album Knocked Out Loaded from the song.) Strummer turns the tune inside out and upside down, into something like a dub but with a carousel of sound from a sawing fiddle and burbly organ, and all against a strident reggae beat. Here again he shows his skills as a gifted mimic and comedian, willing to go just about anywhere vocally to sell a song.
46. “Rockers Galore … UK Tour,” single (1980): A tour de force dub version of “Bankrobber” by Mikey Dread with a pretty funny rap. The title comes from this key line: “I’m jammin’ with the Clash on a U.K. tour / See faces and place I’m-a never seen before.” The B-side of the “Bankrobber” single.
45. “Rebel Waltz,” Sandinista! (1980): A ghostly waltz, with touches of reggae, jazz, and even country. Leaving aside Strummer’s voice, this could be Sufjan Stevens:
So we danced with a rifle, to the rhythm of the gun
In a glade through the trees I saw my only one
Then the earth seemed to rise hell hot as the sun
The soldiers were dying, there was tune to the sighing
The song was an old rebel one.
Sandinista! wasn’t really produced, other than just letting any member of the band seemingly do anything he wanted. But sometimes the audacity worked.
44. “Capital Radio,” The Cost of Living EP (1979): Begins with a melodic, too pleasant riff; we soon see that it’s a feint, just a mocking example of radio-friendly modern music before a full-bore attack on the commercial London radio operation of the title, supposedly run by Richard Attenborough. It’s not subtle. (First line: “It’s time for the Dr. Goebbels show!”) The guitar break is one of the band’s best. Strummer’s rant at the end is hilarious: “The drummer’s in the box office … and he’s counting allll the money!” Later, he’d go to the operation’s offices and spray paint “WHITE RIOT” on the wall. The song was a special single given out though the New Musical Express and later rerecorded for the Cost of Living EP, which is why you’ll see track listings for “Capital Radio One” and “Capital Radio Two” on later compilation sets.
43. “Broadway,” Sandinista! (1980): On Sandinista! the crazy comes at you from every angle. This is a jazzy, ululating interlude. Strummer comes out on the street to hear a hard-luck story from, I guess, a street bum, eager to tell him of his life, formerly in the ring, and reflections on the city around him. Not the greatest production in the world, but another adventuresome track, with unmistakable Jamaican instrumentation and rhythms in what is really a quintessential New York song. At this point, the Clash had adopted the city as their own, and Sandinista! is in some ways their Some Girls. Minus, of course, the girls. (For some reason, the song concludes with a snippet from the child of one of its production team members singing part of “The Guns of Brixton.” “That’s enough now,” she eventually says, which it was.)
42. “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here),” Sandinista! (1980): Life in the housing projects. I feel like this is a Jones song: He always wore his heart on his sleeve. He had the same instinctive defiance of the world Strummer did, but always spoke more plainly and sympathetically, and without cant or rigidity:
The wives hate their husbands and their husbands don’t care
Their children daub slogans to prove they lived there
A giant pipe organ up in the air
You can’t live in a home which should not have been built
By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt
When the wind hits this building this building it tilts
One day it will surely fall to the ground …
Note his moaning guitar at song’s end, just before the band recites some wan Marxist quote from an obscure Phil Ochs song.
41. “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” London Calling (1979): This is a crazy double-reverse cover, done in double- or perhaps triple-time by the frenetic Clash. The opening, which is in the original by the Rulers, is a quick look at Stagger Lee, a blues song with many variants that has been turned inside and out by many different artists over the years. (Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train has an in-depth look at it.) The song then lurches into a new song, a somewhat lachrymose look at the perils of gambling and cheating, which the band runs over at high speed. Here’s the original:
• 40. “Lost in the Supermarket,” London Calling (1979): Leave it to this band to write a song about the distinction between the people we are told we are in advertising and the people we actually are. This societal disconnect, which in Marxist terms creates a strain of melancholia undergirding capitalism, is here nailed with deadpan precision: “I can no longer shop happily / I came in here for a special offer / A guaranteed personality.” And yet it also places the singer (Jones) in a world in which you can’t blame advertising alone, a journey into working-class suburban life and its accompanying isolation, anomie, and fragmentation. The song accords the second side of London Calling with a much-needed bit of humanity and feeling; you don’t even remember anymore that a year previous the idea of the Clash producing a song this delicate would have been unthinkable. One of Jones’s best soft vocals.
39. “The Guns of Brixton,” London Calling (1979): The Clash wrote songs about a lot of things, but if there was one consistent political position it was this: If someone was coming to take you out — gang, government, whatever — it was always better to fight than to go meekly. It’s a somewhat easy position to take for white kids in a Western socialist country. But in the band’s mind, they were expressing solidarity with the nonwhites who did have to deal with serious government oppression. Written and (nicely) sung by Paul Simonon, who had started to catch on about publishing royalties, with creative guitar assists from Jones.
38. “Car Jamming,” Combat Rock (1982): A redolent look at a steaming NYC, suffused with the sensibility of Taxi Driver, sure, but much more of a street view, a font of gutter poetry spewed from a seat at the foot of a Jamaican food vendor:
Selling is what selling sells
But only saints on the seven avenues
Can sell the seven hells.
Funky multi-national anthem rocking from a thousand
King Kong cassette decks
And then a shyboy from Missouri
Boots blown off in a sixties war
Riding aluminium crutches
All of these words — blurted, cooed, ranted, in turn — are wrapped up in a tight, funkified beat with swooning melody lines and a manic band of backup singers that create a chattery, highly humanized world. Again, producer Glyn Johns, who actually knew how to mix albums, mixed Combat Rock, and rescued the band from continuing the mess that had been Sandinista!’s sonics.
37. “The Right Profile,” London Calling (1979): The phrase “needlessly cruel” keeps coming to mind when you think about this track, an exuberantly told tale about actor Montgomery Clift:
I see a car smashed at night
Cut the applause and dim the light
Monty’s face is broken on a wheel
“Is he alive? Can he still feel?”
You listen closely, and it really is needlessly cruel. It apparently has roots in a challenge from Rhodes to Strummer to write a song about the handsome, closeted actor, who famously had his face damaged in an accident and then drank and drugged himself to death over the next decade. In the context of London Calling, however, it was there as part of its swirling view of humanity to make a solid point: The Clash didn’t care much about the travails of rich people. That said, this is another irresistible track musicwise, another example of the guidance Stevens gave the band.
36. “Washington Bullets,” Sandinista! (1980): “The lyrics of Joe Strummer are like an atlas,” Bono once said. “They opened up the world to me.” The unsubtle title belies this track’s easygoing feel. The U.S. was responsible for a lot of pain and misery around the world from the 1950s to the 1980s. And it seemed like we were always on the wrong side: U.S. tax dollars went to support civilian-killers and nun-rapers. (One of the interesting things about the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is that, 20 or 30 years earlier, we would without question have been going in on Saddam Hussein’s side.) That’s what this song is about, and note that China and the U.S.S.R. get the treatment, too. This is a beautiful song, distinguished by a powerful marimba track and the memorable recitation of the album’s title. The sad thing is Strummer’s optimism about the then-current democratic election in Nicaragua. The country’s history is complex, and the Sandinistas weren’t ultimately an ideal leadership; but it’s also true that the U.S. had spent decades distorting the country’s politics, culminating in support for the Somoza dictatorship. Strummer didn’t know that the unspeakable Contra war under Carter and Reagan had already begun.
35. “Garageland,” The Clash (1977): After an early show, London critic Charles Shaar Murray recommended that the band go back to the garage it had sprung from, preferably with the car engine running. Strummer responded with this oddly sweet statement of defiance. Note how engaging the beginning is, only to be confounded by Strummer’s off-pitch vocals. You have to feel a bit for CBS; you can just hear an exec saying, “That would be a great song if someone else were singing it,” not knowing that that was exactly what the song itself was about, both lyrically and musically.
34. “Lose This Skin,” Sandinista! (1980): This frightful, undeniable track is written and sung by one Tymon Dogg, whom Strummer, then just trying to learn ukulele, met early on, busking in the subway and “collecting money for him like a Mississippi blues apprentice.” Dogg had already had some adventures on the 1960s rock scene, working with Apple (that is, the Beatles’ label) and touring with the Moody Blues, and remained a friend to Strummer for the rest of his life. The ferocity of his fiddle playing, the shriek of his voice, and Simonon’s bass playing together make this one of the best tracks on Sandinista!, which is saying something. Note that musically, tonally, and lyrically it is at odds with everything the band was doing, but that they generously included it on the record, even giving it the leadoff track on side five.
33. “Clash City Rockers,” single (1978): Even on this, another song about themselves, Strummer offers up some self-help lessons and manages to name-check David Bowie, Gary Glitter, and Jamaican DJ Prince Far I. A model of ferocious punk. The band’s fourth U.K. single, and included on the U.S. version of The Clash.
As I noted before, CBS (in the guise of the U.S. subsidiary Epic), didn’t know what to do with the band in the United States. No one thought anyone would like the U.K. version of The Clash, and so the label sat, with one hand holding one of the greatest albums ever made, and with the other firmly inserting a finger up its corporate butt. Time went by and Give ‘Em Enough Rope ended up being the band’s first U.S. album. Then someone noticed that the U.K. Clash was selling insanely on import. So Epic took off a few of its lesser songs and threw on some of the band’s non-album UK singles, which is to say they added several of the greatest rock singles ever recorded. Now, because the band’s vision was corrupted, the U.S. version of the album has always had something of a bad rap among critics, but in fact anyone not aware of this fact would simply be blown over by the force of the record. The U.S. version ended up at number three in the Pazz & Jop critics poll in 1979. London Calling and Sandinista! would come in first in the next two years.
32. “Police and Thieves,” The Clash (1977): The Clash loved a good reggae cover. This one is slightly less subtle than the original. Sometimes I’m not sure about Strummer’s reggae ululations, but he keeps them to a minimum here. The production is blistering; by far the best-sounding song on The Clash. Even on their first album, they were going places in several directions no other contemporary band was attempting.
31. “Armagideon Time,” single (1980): The b-side of the “London Calling” single. Originally a hit for Jamaican producer Willi Williams. The original is rather plain; the Clash heard something menacing in the skittering rhythms and I think Strummer threads the needle here in playing with a Jamaican accent. Spooky. Originally collected on Black Market Clash.
30. “Police on My Back,” Sandinista! (1980): Another venerable track blown to smithereens by Strummer & Co. MVP is Jones, who comes up with a guitar noise that sounds like a police siren. The song was written by Eddy Grant, later of “Electric Avenue” fame. You can see his original group, the Equals — an unusual biracial outfit — do a suave version on British TV here:
29. “Safe European Home,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978): Read the existing Rolling Stones biographies carefully and you can find some harrowing tales of the band’s ventures into the Third World, particularly Jamaica. But you’d never hear of it from the Stones themselves, particularly in their songs. Here’s a true-life tale of Strummer and Jones’s venture to Kingston:
I went to the place where every white face
Is an invitation to robbery
And sitting here in my safe European home
Don’t want to go back there again
Like other songs on this record I think the production is clotted — I think it’s only passable even on the remastered version. But there’s no questioning the force of the band’s attack, the chiming tension from Jones’s guitars, and the crazed coda, a spectacle in itself. With “Stay Free” this is the standout track on Give ‘Em Enough Rope. (The band’s later trip to Jamaica didn’t come off any better; they and Mikey Dread ended up hightailing it out of town just ahead of some bad hombres. And this wasn’t melodrama; Bob Marley had been shot and nearly killed the year before.)
28. “Janie Jones,” The Clash (1977): Another two minutes of punk ferocity, and yet every second is utterly enjoyable. The band stops and starts on a dime; even before Topper Headon joined, no one can question the work and practice that went into musical performances, and arrangements, like this. (Note Jones’s backing vocals.) This is not a love song, please note, despite the key line, “He’s in love with Janie Jones.” Jones was a minor U.K. pop singer who stayed in the news for ten or twenty years by means of various sex scandals. His affection is just another example of the subject of the song’s pathetic existence.
27. “1977,” single (1977): This was the B-side of “White Riot” single, the band’s first. What set groups like the Clash apart wasn’t punk rock. There were a lot of punk-rock bands. Most of them were, however, societally interesting and important, abysmal bands. This was an exemplary actual punk-rock song. Unfortunately, the song was extremely hard to find in the U.S.; it wasn’t officially released here until the 1990s. One wonders how its highly sacrilegious chorus would have gone over in the U.S. had it been on The Clash:
No Elvis, Beatles or the ROLLING STONES!
26. “Charlie Don’t Surf,” Sandinista! (1980): In which a stray cruel line in Apocalypse Now (from Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore) turns into a bleak meditation on hate, immigration, imperialism, and geopolitical absurdity in general. Note the very sweet melodic lines that open this song up. “Charlie don’t surf and he think he should” captures cultural imperialism precisely, making the brutal final line of the chorus (“Charlie’s gonna be a napalm star”) all the more sadistic. (“Charlie,” of course, was Nam-speak for the North Vietnamese.)
25. “Clampdown,” London Calling (1979):
A rousing anti-fascist number. Too many of this song’s lyrics are applicable today. The band’s solution, here as elsewhere: fighting back. It’s easy to take for granted the work and planning that went into the arrangement of this song and so many others on London Calling.
24. “Somebody Got Murdered,” Sandinista! (1980): I think I can tell Jones’s lyrics: They are more focused, sensitive, and nuanced, and often about observed real people rather than characters. This somewhat sentimental tale — it’s all there in the title — has a distinctive sound, great guitars, a dramatic keyboard from Mick Gallagher, and a backward narrative that, like the murder, “leaves you with a touch.”
23.”Bankrobber,” single (1980):
A striking step forward for the band after the triumph of the innovative but unquestionably rockist London Calling and “Train in Vain.” It’s an extravagant dub track focused almost entirely on Strummer’s slightly echoed voice wailing a new sort of gangster tale:
Daddy was a bank robber
But he never hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
And loved to steal your money
I like how Strummer made the obligatory point of about no one getting hurt, but then didn’t take the chance to say he was just stealing from banks, not people. The melody has the feel of British folk, which melds nicely with the modern gangster lyrics and the novel sound effects. The video is pretty great:
22. “Brand New Cadillac,” London Calling (1979): This is a cover of a rockabilly number by a guy named Vince Taylor, whose bizarre history is too complex to go into here. The 1958 original, it must be said, packs a punch, with its twist on the Peter Gunn theme and deathless first line: “My baby drove up in a brand-new Cadillac.” But Strummer’s barn-buster vocal takes this tale into another, molten dimension. At his best, as here, Strummer is one of those artists who seems to instinctively perceive the undertones in older music. For example, he discards most of the lyrics to focus on the unmentioned mystery deep in Taylor’s original: “Jesus Christ!” he howls. “Where did you get that Cadillac?” The version on London Calling is supposedly a practice run at the song that producer Guy Stevens put to tape.
21. “Train in Vain,” London Calling (1979):
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I swear it wasn’t a dream: I remember on a Sunday morning Casey Kasem, then the host of “American Top 40,” introducing his next song: “And next up, a song by a British rock group that some people say are” — and here I could tell he was looking at his cue cards in incomprehension, and turning a declarative sentence into an almost cosmic question about the meaning of life — “… the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world?!?”
The song, “Train in Vain,” wasn’t listed on the jacket of London Calling, not out of impossibly cool intent but because the band in typical haphazard fashion had decided to add an odd track they had on hand into the mix, and the covers had been already been printed. “Train in Van” seems to be a nod to Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” — that’s the song that begins, “The train left the station …” — but this isn’t a blues song but rather a cosmic shuffle, herky-jerky and unchanging, and yet irresistible. (The sameness of the arrangement tells you that Stevens didn’t get his hands on it.) The song is generally credited to Jones, and might be about his relationship with Albertine; his voice, spectacularly double-tracked, gets silky and pulls off the delicate dance of not quite being lugubrious but not quite being comical, either, even on the wailing parts. Strummer’s harmonica captures both the singer’s plaints and manages to hark back to similarly simple ditties two other British songwriters in a doomed friendship had pulled off a decade and a half previous. It’s the Clash’s best (and basically only) love song. When no one was looking, it became a hit, rising to No. 23 on the U.S. charts, which is how Kasem came face-to-face with it. (The fact that the hit song wasn’t listed on the label to help push the album was the kind of thing that drove record companies crazy.)
20. “Hateful,” London Calling (1979): Another one of London Calling’s audacious conceits: A joyous, heart-bursting song — sporting a chorus delivered with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”–like intensity — about a junkie who loves his dealer. Nice guitar work from Jones. London Calling’s cover is iconic; some folks don’t know it’s a twist on the cover of Elvis Presley’s first RCA album. That’s Simonon front and center; another subtle Clash signifier. (There was a hard and fast rock rule that drummers and bassists didn’t get to take up undue cover space, Paul McCartney of course excepted.) Strummer once said something to the effect of, “That bass hitting the floor was one of the best sounds we ever made.”
19. “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” Combat Rock (1982):
Jones pulls another hit song out of nowhere. This album sounds spectacular in parts, and nowhere better than on the singles. The drums and guitar are vibrant and alive, and so is Jones’s voice — and it’s not even double tracked. And to hear Jones and Strummer do their dog-and-pony-show vocals is to hear a couple of great friends having fun; we didn’t know the tensions behind the scene at the time. With, by most perspectives, Rhodes being a divisive rather than uniting presence, resentment in the band toward Jones was growing. He seemed to enjoy stardom more than the others, which might have been a philosophical issue; but more than anything else the thing that seemed to divide the band were his rock-star airs — and, most importantly, being late for everything. Rehearsals never started, buses couldn’t leave, shows couldn’t begin until Jones decided he was ready. “He wouldn’t show up and when he did it was like Elizabeth Taylor in a filthy mood,” Strummer said. Over time everyone in the band including the roadies began to hate him for it.
Anyway, the Clash were always dogged with challenges about having sold out, blah blah blah. That’s all forgotten now; notice how odd this supposed selling-out is. Big and crisp guitar work was highly out of fashion at the time (there aren’t too many guitars in “Dancing in the Dark,” for example) and then there’s the matter of the Portuguese or whatever the fuck it is Strummer’s reciting. I’m more offended by the improper use of “whom.” From the off-kilter stop-and-start beginning to the bizarre break to the killer double-time ending, this is a song that jumped out of the radio. Rock and roll.
18. “Rudie Can’t Fail,” London Calling (1979): What this song is about is a mystery; the arrangement and shaky beat is that of a jalopy about to fall apart. And yet, like so many of the lesser filler songs on London Calling, its charms, ingenious musical touches — like that giddy walking beat, those crisply recorded and très complex Jamaican horn charts, the touches of conversation, and don’t forget Jones’s fluty vocals — make this arguably the happiest track the band ever constructed.
17. “Career Opportunities,” The Clash (1977):
Another bruising classic, in one minute and 54 seconds. “I won’t open letter bombs for you” — Jones once had a job in the unemployment office opening mail. The IRA was at its creative height at the time, and governmental mailroom rats were the first line of defense against letter bombs.
16. “The Call Up,” Sandinista! (1980): Another humanistic portrait, this time in an anti-draft song. You’ll remember that Jimmy Carter, as the 1980 presidential election got underway, reinstituted draft registration, six years after it had ended with the close of the Vietnam War. This meant that every male in the U.S. had to send in a card with his Social Security number; the cards were helpfully available at U.S. Post Offices. Solipsistic U.S. boys may have been brought up short when the narrator begins to speak:
Maybe I want to see the wheat fields
Over Kiev and down to the sea;
It was a reminder that American men weren’t the only ones drawn into the recklessness of the Cold War maneuvering. The U.S.S.R., you see, was getting deeply involved in Afghanistan, and the CIA, enterprisingly, started arming the resistance. And we know how all of that turned out. Back in Clashland, after winning the Pazz & Jop poll twice in a row, the band was on top of the world, but at some point in the wake of the release of Sandinista! Strummer — in his own mind the keeper of the Clash’s conscience — began to take leave of his senses. He might have given the band an ultimatum: either Bernie Rhodes returned to the fold or he would leave.
15. “Know Your Rights,” Combat Rock (1982): A brutally funny, brutally played, exquisitely produced and arranged masterpiece of rock-and-roll polemics. “Know your rights,” Strummer barks. “All three of them.” The kiss-off: “And it has been suggested in some quarters … that this is not enough!” I don’t know what the music is — it’s like a hard-core song that had three-quarters of its guitar chords removed. Strummer’s greatest comic vocal — and how do you describe it? Chuck D. meets Joel Grey?
You can’t help noticing how the second side of Combat Rock fell off, but it was plain that the Clash in 1982 was formidable: the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world, and a commercial force as well. But for the Clash, or at least Strummer, this was a contradiction and perhaps even a warning. Had the band become everything they hated? Everything was upside-down. “We got bigger and bigger, but we were feeling worse and worse,” Jones said. Now, for the record, the band wasn’t that big: All the movies make a big deal out of the Clash’s appearance at Shea Stadium, but let’s remember that they were just the opening act — for the Who. In any case, Strummer, egged on by Rhodes and with the acquiescence of Simonon, kicked Jones out of the band. Remember that these were children who had grown up together. Strummer was, on the evidence, out of his mind, but Jones had done his part, as he has frankly acknowledged since. “We were a bunch of idiots thrown into the spotlight,” he said.
14. “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” The Clash (1977): The U.K.’s punk generation acutely felt the island’s inferiority but didn’t accept it the way they felt the previous generation did. The story goes that, in one of the band’s first rehearsals, Jones introduced a song. Strummer said, “Yes! I’m so bored with the U.S.A. too!” It turned out what Jones’s song was about a woman: “I’m so bored with you,” he was singing. But the song quickly became an extremely harsh account of U.S. misadventures around the world and a good helping of other of the country’s social hypocrisies. Key line: “But what can I do?” sung not with resignation but anger.
13. “I Fought the Law,” The Cost of Living EP (1979):
The band supposedly heard the original Bobby Fuller Four hit in a San Francisco bar. (It was written by Sonny Curtis, one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets, who — trivia alert — would go on to write the “You’re gonna make it after all” theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) The band turned it into one of rock and roll’s greatest covers, capturing the keening pain of the original but somehow turning it triumphant and defiant. Strummer particularly is en fuego, but the whole band is working it on out. It was included on the U.S. version of The Clash. (And that was supposed to have made the album worse?)
12. “White Riot,” The Clash (1977):
Strummer and Simonon were at a Carnival celebration in heavily East Indian Notting Hill at the moment someone threw a brick at a line of policemen. The resulting riot convulsed the area for days. The band members spent the time throwing bricks at police cars and, in Simonon’s case, at one point knocking a cop off a passing motorcycle, or so the story goes. And in one other oft-told bit of Clash lore, an inspired Strummer tried valiantly to set a car ablaze, only to find out it’s harder than it looks in the movies. They went home and wrote this song. In tense, allusive lines, Strummer manages to get nods in to the complexities of the time: blacks fighting the police for their reasons, while whites lived in a much different world and in his mind were too cowed to protest. Strummer was worrying the racial and social divide like a terrier, as the band bops behind him exemplifying the very pogo-worthy definition of punk rock, all with good humor, melodic ferocity, and high irony. And this was the band’s first single.
11. “Spanish Bombs,” London Calling (1979): A caustic war tale from another universe, where the Spanish Civil War is re-fought through the eyes of an unknowing tourist. (There are echoes here of Johnny Rotten’s trip to Bergen-Belsen in “Holidays in the Sun.”) As with “The Right Profile,” Strummer is taking something serious, and mocking it (here with a sort of mongrel Spanish) and yet offering a punk’s respects to desperate moments of romance and futility: “Trenches full of poets / The ragged army / Fixing bayonets to fight the other line.” (“The other line,” if you didn’t know, were Franco’s fascist forces, who won and weren’t nice about it.) The doomed Lorca is there too, of course; Strummer would make a pilgrimage to Grenada, where the poet was killed, in the years to come.
10. “Rock the Casbah,” Combat Rock (1982):
Drummer Topper Headon crafted the music for this mind-bendingly catchy song. Leaving aide the high comedy, the poesy Strummer set to it is highly Dylanesque, both in its manic spew and the contrarian unexpected turns. “The king said to his boogeymen / You gotta let that raga drop” is right up there with “There must be some way out of here / Said the joker to the thief” in its promise and mystery.
Like other Clash songs, this song requires some historical context: The U.S. and Great Britain ganged up on the democratically elected prime minister of Iran after he started being mean to the petroleum industry. They threw him out and jailed him, and helped the self-styled Shah (the son of a general, not quote-unquote real royalty) keep things under control for the next 25 years, notably via a highly torture-proficient secret police force trained by the CIA. Good people. The Shah was finally overthrown in 1979 in an Islamic revolution that saw the capture of several dozen American diplomats — that is to say, the official representatives of the country that had been training the secret police force to go out to capture and kill dissidents. (Boy, just wait till a famous Hollywood actor got his hands on that story!) This all ironically helped sink Jimmy Carter’s presidency and ushered in new no-goodnik-ness under Reagan. Amid the mix of this complex web of geopolitics and religion, Strummer focuses on the one thing he knew was more powerful even than revolution: music. “There’s no tenderness or humanity, in fanaticism — that’s what I was trying to say,” Strummer reflected later. This is one of the greatest rock singles of all time.
9. “The Card Cheat,” London Calling (1979):
The whole band is credited with writing this somewhat mysterious song. Like Dylan, Strummer had an instinctive impulse to support whoever was being persecuted at any given time, even if the person deserved it. This is a simple story: A card cheat gets caught and is shot for his trouble, but the actual arc of the narrative is immense, from a simple existential truism (“There’s a solitary man crying ‘Hold me’”) to begin the song, all the way to a big melodramatic historical statement to wrap up (“From the Hundreds Years’ War to the Crimea / From the lance and the musket and the Roman spear …”). And in between, something almost out of Kurosawa, or perhaps just Peckinpah, in this honoring of a man — of any person — at his last end. And arguably Jones’s best vocal.
8. “Stay Free,” Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978):
This was the shocking song on Give ‘Em Enough Rope — how could a punk-rock band produce a track like this? Mick Jones, in I think his first bid for a distinctive personality, traces a friend who through bad luck is caught on a robbery spree and gets three years in jail. (Jones doesn’t discuss the bad luck of the people he was robbing.) Anyway, in the end Jones raises a glass. But the song’s really about the gossamer melody and four key words — “Go easy /Step lightly” — followed by a slicing guitar solo at the end that carries more emotion and danger than all of the band’s tunes about rebellion.
7. “Death or Glory,” London Calling (1979):
This is what you call postmodern rock songwriting, somehow adhering to all the verities of Springsteenian romanticism, but at first undercutting them, and then taking time to smack them upside the head: “Every gimmick hungry yob / Digging gold from rock and roll / Grabs the mic to tell us / He’ll die before he’s sold.” And in the end, Strummer scoffs, “We’ve already heard your song.” But then comes this song’s coda, where the drama builds, and then Strummer himself dares to make the same claim he was just deriding. Songs like this go a long way to explaining some of his later professional decisions, particularly the bad ones. He was trying to live up to his own crazy words. To my ears Stevens sensed something important about this song, and recorded both Strummer’s voice and the instrumentation with a certain dryness. This is a rock not a punk tune, but still one of the band’s most raw and emotional performances.
6. “The Magnificent Seven,” Sandinista! (1980):
This song stands, precariously, at some cosmic, almost hypnotic intersection of ’70s and ’80s and even ’60s and ’90s music; it was the greatest white rap of its time, and to this day stands as an uncategorizable triumph. The band recorded Sandinista! basically on its own; parts aren’t perfect, but with songs like this Strummer and Jones could say they were on to something no one else had even thought of. If the Great American Novel was supposed to be something big enough to encompass America in all its breadth and excess, maybe this is a (not the) Great Rock and Roll Album, a work that somehow reflects the music’s multitudes, fuckups and all — and this song, the opening track, was its calling card. This basically begins at the middle eight of “A Day in the Life.” Joe Strummer takes a most mundane moment (the “magnificent seven” is the alarm ringing at 7 a.m., remember, not a posse led by Yul Brynner) and in typical whirlwind fashion vacuums up, well, everything: life, work, love, marriage, Marxism, pacifism, celebrity — and budgie, too, it turns out. There’s a spectacular, spacious mix, with any number of delightful sonic touches that repay many listenings. The band’s voices come together on the choruses with a charming, roguish force. That unrelenting bass line becomes hypnotic; Jones’s plangent guitars parts are some of his finest moments.
5. “Complete Control,” single (1977):
Who ever heard of a band releasing a single the subject of which is a nuclear-strength attack on its own record label … for releasing the band’s previous single against its wishes? Among various other landmarks, the Clash made that contribution to musical history with this song. Production is credited to Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry; sources differ as to his influence, but it must be said this is a great-sounding record. The previous song was “Remote Control,” which CBS had put out as a U.K. single without telling the band. Jones and Strummer retaliated with this unbridled and ferocious assault on their label, band promoters and then, since they were in the mood, the police and their critics and some other things I’m forgetting. And yet this is still Jones’s song. None of that would matter if Jones hadn’t come up with his most undeniable guitar riffage; without ever losing its punk urgency it transcends the genre. (There’s also an overdubbed guitar line that sounds like something out of Tommy.) Then he delivers a blistering solo, which modulates as a tease before slamming back into the song. The second break tells you something bigger is going to happen, which turns out to be the finale, which features Jones’s own keening backing vocals playing against another ferocious guitar solo. Another one of the songs added to the U.S. The Clash and making it worse.
4. “Hitsville UK,” Sandinista! (1980):
This is essentially a hymn from the Clash to music. At the time, radio was still the conduit most humans heard music on. The calcification of the industry had created a string of corporate-rock stations across the country, known by the acronym AOR, which stood for “album oriented radio,” and playing, as you’d expect, mostly corporate rock, by which I mean that the vast majority of the music was paid for by the corporations that produced it. There was a federal law that said that broadcasting companies had to operate in the public interest (remember, they were using the public airwaves, and had gotten their licenses for next to nothing), and another that made it illegal to pay for airplay, but these laws were mostly ignored. And the stations themselves were run by arrogant dickwads — “The mutants, creeps, and musclemen,” as the band put it — using their power in the industry for predictable ends. “Hitsville UK” has to be seen in this context. For one, it made it clear that the band understood this situation, not because it affected their record sales, but because it had constricted their understanding of the culture growing up, and they knew that’s what a new generation was facing as well. “Hitsville” is a metaphor for something that, as Strummer puts it “blows a hole in the radio.” The song itself features then–Jones girlfriend Ellen Foley double-tracked, singing the words slowly and clearly with, I think, Jones tracked once, softly, beneath her, giving the whole thing an angelic feel. Line for line, the most beautiful, hopeful, and idealistic Clash track ever. Glorious.
3. “London Calling,” London Calling (1979):
I worked in record stores in college; I came back from my first Christmas break in January 1980 to see stacks of a new Clash album piled up on the floor of the local Tower. While the record had actually come out in England perhaps two weeks before, to Americans it was the first record of the 1980s. This was the title song. First ominous guitar chords, the bass rising like a submarine periscope; then came a message from the Clash to all of us: “London Calling!” The scenario is laid out with a self-conscious absurdism — wait, there’s an ice age coming and the sun is zooming in, and you’re still taking shots at the Beatles? — but that doesn’t mean the apocalypse isn’t at hand. Note how Guy Stevens has broadened everything about the band’s approach. Strummer’s voice, while still unmistakably him, and uncompromisingly so, is now multidimensional. He’s not a punk ranting anymore but an adult — a mischievous and canny one — speaking for a generation, even a world, and comfortable in the role. And did I mention it swings? This was the band we didn’t even know we were waiting for. Here they are on their first U.S. TV appearance, a show called Fridays, dressed like complete bozos and playing “London Calling” and “Train in Vain”:
2. “Straight to Hell,” Combat Rock (1982):
No single track makes you feel the demise of the band more than this one. On an album with fun and goofy tracks like “Should I Stay” and “Know Your Rights” came this utterly serious affair, a masterpiece of Cold War despair recorded on New Year’s Eve 1981. The instrumentation is the band’s greatest moment, an eerie soundscape evoking a sordid globalism set atop a rickety structure of drums and unearthly cascades of melody courtesy of Mick Jones. The band appeared on SNL to do this song, Strummer at the height of his Deerhunter/Taxi Driver/Apocalypse Now chic, complete with (insane-looking) mohawk. Because of that, this song has a Vietnam War ambience, but listen closely and it’s really about England, too. Consider:
Railhead towns feel the steel mills rust
In the generation
Clear as winter ice
This is punk poetry of the highest order, and maybe real poetry too. Like many of the best Clash songs, that’s just the beginning. The song scales up on a journey to Southeast Asia, where an American-Asian kid is disowned by his American father, just as the kid’s land had been. And then Strummer, making connections that seem almost random but really just make sense, when you’re thinking about vulnerable kids: to the junkies in the U.S., and then (and why not) to the plight of immigrants everywhere. Strummer knows they aren’t going anywhere; hell is where they are.
“Straight to Hell” could have been a passage to continuing powerful music, but what followed Combat Rock was a farce. Strummer and Rhodes teamed up for Cut the Crap, with horrific results, and then with Simonon in tow they took on three hired hands and went on the road, billing themselves as the Clash. Talk about the Great Rock and Roll Swindle! (The film The Rise and Fall of the Clash has priceless footage of the exasperated mopes who made up the rest of that less-than-illustrious aggregation band talking about the experience.) Strummer around this time may have been going through depression: He lost both of his parents in short order, and then lost Jones too. There’s a film of him, highly agitated, on some sort of TV interview, Simonon beside him passive. Strummer was sporting a ludicrous leather biker cap; with his shorn sides and pinched face, he looked like a Khmer Rouge member boasting of philosophical cleansing in a Cambodian village. He can’t have been happy.
After the faux Clash tour, Strummer, in a highly cinematic moment, decides to fly to Barbados, where he’s heard Mick Jones is recording with his new outfit, Big Audio Dynamite. He rides a bike, so the story goes, around the island until he finds Jones — and begs him to return to the Clash. But what could Jones do? He had a new band and a new life. (Strummer actually helped out on B.A.D.’s second album, but the results were nothing to crow about.) “Any man would have sacked him,” Strummer said of Jones later, “but I still regret that I was party to it.” He was tormented by what might be called the Mick Jagger Question: Should he have kept his band together, no matter how much of a fuckup his bandmate-cum–blood brother was? Strummer did soundtrack work, played with the Pogues, put out a couple of decent albums and an okay song or two (like “Trash City”), raised a family, and remained a respected figure. But he never caught the public or critical imagination again. He died in 2002, far too early, of a heart condition.
1. “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais,” single (1977):
Originally the band’s fifth U.K. single, which went to the top 30, and then put on the U.S. version of The Clash. It’s remarkable to think a band that a year before had been playing taut Ur-punk compositions like “Clash City Rockers” and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” had scaled up so suddenly on every front. “White Man” is why in the end I’ve always thought Give ‘Em Enough Rope was a disappointment; they’d already far surpassed it. (It’s the rough equivalent of the Stones having “Street Fighting Man” on their first album.) Gone was the cheap sarcasm, gone were the insularity and abrasiveness. Instead (after a screechy guitar fanfare) there was a groovy reggae beat, and a sinuous bass line from Simonon that starts things off cozily. There’s an almost tactile edge to the way the guitars are recorded. Then things get interesting. The song is about a Jamaican music night, which a lot of interested white British kids, like Strummer, had gone to see. The clash, when it happens, is not of violence, but … aesthetics. “It was Four Tops all night / With encores from stage right,” Strummer sings dismissively. (Back then, let’s remember, Motown was still sacred in the rock world, not something to be used as a term of derision.) And note how he isn’t going to give a band from Jamaica points just for being from Jamaica. Strummer is just getting started; he doesn’t like U.K. groups either: “The new groups … are too busy fighting / For a good place under the lighting.” The fan’s agitation grows; and after each verse, the sound becomes a little more nuanced, particularly with Jones’s wrenching guitar work, ominous harmonica bleats, and alarums of backing vocals. Then synapses (and guitars) start firing, and Strummer is lashing out in every direction: “All over, people changing votes / Along with their overcoats.” Jones’s vocals come raining down along with everything else, contributing to the chaos. What can the band do but bring it back down to themselves, with a matching deflation of sound.
I’m the all night drug prowling wolf, who looks so sick in the sun
I’m the white man in the Palais
Only looking for fun.
… and suddenly Strummer’s just a kid again, as aren’t we all. The journey we’d been on was an extraordinary one — expectations challenged, dashed, and then trumped musically and thematically. That’s what the band did in their best songs, and that’s sort of what Strummer and Jones ended up doing with their band, which, for a time, blew a hole in the radio and were everything a rock band could be.