Sometimes, when introducing myself, I say my life was never quite the same after seeing The Clash. Like most self-made narratives this is , but it’s convenient shorthand: I’m from the punk rock generation, I like a certain grittiness to my music, I’m political and have a rebellious streak. Most of all, I hope it signals I am definitely not to be mistaken for a hippy. Of course, The Clash weren’t above a certain amount of self-mythologising themselves: they weren’t embarrassed to trade under the tag line of “the only band that matters” – a conceit second only to the Rolling Stones’ boast of being the “world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band”.
When I saw The Clash for the first time, in October 1981 at the hallowed Lyceum, I was eighteen, liberated by a student grant and free at last to see the musicians whose records had kept me afloat during my teenage years. I wanted to experience first-hand what I’d only been able to read about in the inky pages of the NME. On entering the theatre, it felt charged in a way I’ve never experienced at any other gig down the decades. I now put that down to being immersed in a vast ocean of testosterone – the audience was almost entirely male – primed and ready to explode. When the pin was pulled, I didn’t see much of the actual performance as I’m quite short; most of my energy was channelled into trying to keep vertical in the heaving crush of bodies. At one point I was carried along by a human tsunami to the front of the stage, close enough to be showered by Mick Jones’ sweat before being hurled back as human shingle once again.
Each member of the band had his own distinct aura on stage – Joe Strummer with his battered Telecaster, flamboyant Mick Jones, statuesque bassist Paul Simonon and drummer “Topper” Headon – but they were also a solid unit, like a tightly-knit street gang. From the get-go, they owned the stage completely and there was no mistaking that they were on a mission.
I first heard their debut album in 1977, when a would-be punk friend played me The Clash alongside The Ramones, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks and The Stranglers’ Rattus Norvegicus. I admired the razor-edged ferocity with which Joe Strummer spat out The Clash’s agenda of taking back control, but I wasn’t completely sold until I heard (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais the following year. That song still sounds quite unlike anything else: a Mick Jones guitar fanfare heralds a booming, echoey skank over which Joe Strummer documents his disappointment at a night that failed to deliver the hoped-for militant roots, rock and reggae, then meditates on the political slide towards fascism. The song has a granular quality, like a report from a frontline correspondent, a million miles from your average pop song.
When Topper replaced Terry Chimes after the first record, the band’s music evolved rapidly. Their second, Give ’Em Enough Rope, consolidated the achievements of the first, but it was the double LP London Calling that became a timeless classic. From the title track to the final, whistle-along Train in Vain, the songs come dressed in an assortment of different musical stylings, including reggae, ska, rockabilly and New Orleans R&B. The follow-up, 1980’s Sandinista!, a sprawling triple-LP, brought in other musicians to expand the palette. This clattering, playful album alerted many listeners to the emergence of hip-hop on the other side of the pond. The band would be reined in for Combat Rock two years later, produced by Glyn Johns, which went double-platinum in the States and yielded two monster singles: Should I Stay or Should I Go and Rock the Casbah.
While bands and fans alike often claim “it’s all about the music”, it seldom is. From the start, The Clash developed a strong, militant visual identity, using the distinctive logo and screen-printed reproduction of Kate Simon’s photo of the band, taken in the alleyway opposite their “Rehearsal Rehearsals” HQ in Camden. My own garb is nicked entirely off The Clash: usually a fedora and biker jacket, influenced by Pennie Smith’s arty black and white photos that peppered the NME. My older son describes it as “Indiana Jones meets punk”. One of Smith’s photos depicts Simonon in an uncommon fit of rage, wielding his Fender Precision bass like a battle axe while smashing it on the stage of the New York Palladium. He was frustrated at an unresponsive audience, who’d remained glued to their seats for the whole of the band’s performance. Chosen by Strummer for the cover of London Calling, the image perfectly encapsulated adolescent angst, fury and the promise of release that drives the best rock music. In his own droll tribute, street artist Banksy replaced Simonon’s bass with an office chair.
The Clash were a product of their West London home turf and the fag-end of the 1970s that brought in Thatcher. The ire in Strummer’s lyrics reflects the lack of opportunity and offers political direction – in particular, the band’s involvement in the Rock Against Racism (RAR) rally at Victoria Park. Though the band’s political focus sometimes wavered. They may have sung I’m So Bored of the USA, but in practice they were quickly seduced by the land of the free, almost from the moment they touched down at JFK.
The generosity extended by The Clash to their camp followers is legendary. As a teenage punk from Middlesbrough, my friend “Circus Lynn” followed the band devotedly. She recalls being bundled by members of the crew into various venues, even though she didn’t have tickets, and the band sharing their rider (generally booze and spliffs) freely. Strummer, she tells me, was no less friendly when, many years later, she found herself sitting round a campfire in a Somerset orchard and they shared an E.
Like most bands, The Clash had a messy ending. Topper’s increasing drug use, deteriorating drumming and subsequent sacking marked the beginning of the end. Strummer’s and Jones’ feuding escalated – in part over original manager Bernie Rhodes being brought back into the fold – until Jones was fired by Simonon and Strummer. Jones has half-joked that this left a hole big enough for the remaining two band members to replace him with two new guitarists. Like many others, I don’t really acknowledge that the short-lived Clash Mk II ever existed, nor their pretty dreadful album Cut the Crap under The Clash banner. Strummer finally called it a day in 1986 and disappeared to Spain to lick his wounds.
After the split, the band went their different ways, Mick Jones straight into commercial success with the musical mash-up that was Big Audio Dynamite. We also have him to blame for producing The Libertines’ debut album. Simonon focused on his painting, and a short-lived rockabilly-inspired band, Havana 3am, which lasted for just one album. In 2011, when I was working on the Greenpeace Save the Arctic campaign, he volunteered as assistant cook on the Esperanza (trust me, a tough gig) only revealing his identity during the protest-occupation of a Cairn Energy-owned rig.
Topper, as an addict, had a tougher time. At one low point in the 1980s, he was allegedly refused cash in exchange for a pile of gold records he brought into Record and Tape, the second-hand shop in Notting Hill. Nowadays he’s clean, still makes music, has helped set up Narcotics Anonymous and Hepatitis C support groups, and says he’s on friendly terms with other members of the band. Joe Strummer found his groove again with The Mescaleros, before dying of a heart-attack in 2002. This was just a few weeks after Jones joined him on stage for a three-song Clash encore at a benefit show for striking firefighters in Acton Town Hall.
Those who staked their allegiance to The Clash flag in the 1970s remain fiercely loyal to this day. Why? Perhaps because The Clash have one of the greatest runs of 45s of any band: from White Riot to the double whammy of the double A-side Should I Stay Or Should I Go / Straight to Hell, all jukebox keepers. Nor did The Clash turn into the Rolling Stones, going on forever with diminishing returns. Instead, they will forever be associated with a particular era and a strangely satisfying narrative arc.
And their myth keeps growing over time, perpetuated by fans and associates who are still re-telling stories from the trenches of the punk rock wars. Johnny Green, one-time road manager for the band, who now fills the more sedate role of “gentleman’s travelling companion” to John Cooper Clarke, nails it when he observes that Joe Strummer and The Clash were driven by “instinct not intellect” and their reputation endures because they showed their audience by example that they should not feel intimidated, but give their best shot, whatever that took. And that if they did that, the world would open up for them.
This is an article that I wrote for the February 2023 issue of Perspective Magazine - the original, much extended draft can be found in the blog section.