The Clash were an English punk rock band that formed in 1976 as part of the original wave of UK punk. Along with punk rock, they experimented with reggae, ska, dub, funk, hip hop and rockabilly. For most of their recording career, The Clash consisted of Joe Strummer (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Mick Jones (lead guitar, vocals), Paul Simonon (bass, backing vocals, occasional lead vocals) and Nicky "Topper" Headon (drums, percussion). Headon left the group in 1982, and internal friction led to Jones's departure the following year. The group continued with new members, but finally disbanded in early 1986.
The Clash were a major success in the UK from the release of their self-titled debut album in 1977. Their third album, London Calling, released in the UK in December 1979, brought them popularity in the United States when it came out there the following year. It received wide critical acclaim; a decade later Rolling Stone magazine declared it the best album of the 1980s.
The Clash's politicized lyrics, musical experimentation, and rebellious attitude had a far-reaching influence on rock, alternative rock in particular. Their record label's A&R director dubbed them "The Only British Band That Matters," which fans picked up and transformed into "The Only Band That Matters". In January 2003 the band—including original drummer Terry Chimes—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked The Clash number 30 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
After London SS broke up in early 1976, Rhodes continued as Jones's manager. At the instigation of Rhodes, Jones contacted Simonon in March, suggesting he learn an instrument so he could join the new band Jones was organizing. Soon Jones, Simonon on bass, Keith Levene on guitar and "whoever we could find really to play the drums" were rehearsing. In late May, Chimes was asked to audition and became the band's full-time drummer.
The act was still searching for a lead singer. Rhodes had his eye on Strummer, with whom he made exploratory contact. Strummer, for his part, was primed to make the switch. In April, he had taken in the opening act for one of his band's gigs. That act was the Sex Pistols. "I knew something was up," Strummer later explained,
so I went out in the crowd which was fairly sparse. And I saw the future—with a snotty handkerchief—right in front of me. It was immediately clear. Pub rock was, "Hello, you bunch of drunks, I'm gonna play these boogies and I hope you like them." The Pistols came out that Tuesday evening and their attitude was "Here's our tunes, and we couldn't give a flying fuck whether you like them or not. In fact, we're gonna play them even if you fucking hate them."On 30 May, Rhodes and Levene met surreptitiously with Strummer after a 101'ers gig. Rhodes gave him 48 hours to make up his mind whether he wanted to join the new band that would "rival the Pistols". When Rhodes rang him up a day early, demanding an immediate answer, Strummer agreed. Simonon later remarked, "Once we had Joe on board it all started to come together."
Strummer and Jones shared most of the writing duties. Strummer took the lead vocals on the majority of songs; in some cases he and Jones shared the lead. Once the band began recording, Jones would rarely have a solo lead on more than one song per album, but he would wind up responsible for two of the group's biggest hits. Simonon—who eventually sang lead on a few songs—came up with the band's name after they had considered alternatives including The Weak Heartdrops and The Psychotic Negatives. Simonon explained the name's origin: "It really came to my head when I start reading the newspapers and a word that kept recurring was the word 'clash', so I thought 'The Clash, what about that,' to the others. And they and Bernard, they went for it."
After rehearsing with Strummer for less than a month, The Clash made their debut on 4 July 1976, supporting the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield. The band apparently wanted to make it onstage before their rivals in The Damned—another London SS spinoff—made their own scheduled debut two days later. The Clash would not play out again for another five weeks. In early September, Levene was kicked out for never showing up to practice. On 21 September, the band performed at the 100 Club Punk Festival, sharing the bill with the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Subway Sect. Chimes left in late November; he was briefly replaced by Rob Harper as The Clash toured in support of the Sex Pistols during December's Anarchy Tour.
Mickey Foote, who worked as a technician at their concerts, was hired to produce The Clash's debut album, and Terry Chimes was drafted back for the recording. The band's first single, "White Riot", was released in March; the album, The Clash, came out the following month. Filled with fiery punk tracks, it also presaged the many eclectic turns the band would take with its cover of the reggae song "Police and Thieves". Though both the single and album charted well in the UK—"White Riot" reached number 34, The Clash number 12—CBS refused to release either in the United States, saying that the sound was not “radio friendly”. A US version of the album with a modified track listing was released in 1979, after the UK original became the best-selling import album of all time in the United States. Chimes left the band again soon after the recording, so only Simonon, Jones and Strummer were featured on the album's cover, and Chimes was credited as "Tory Crimes". In the documentary Westway to the World, Jones referred to him as one of "the best drummers around". Chimes, who had no great wish to make a career from music, said, "The point was that I wanted one kind of life—they wanted another, and why are we working together, if we want completely different things?"
The band went through several drummers, with Jones handling the duties for a time. They finally recruited Nicky Headon, who had played briefly with Jones's London SS two years before. Headon was nicknamed "Topper" by Simonon, who felt he resembled the Topper comic book character Mickey the Monkey. An excellent musician, Headon could also play piano, bass and guitar. He originally planned to stay briefly, gain a name for himself, and then find a better band. Realizing The Clash's potential, he changed his plans. In Westway To The World, Strummer noted, "If we hadn't found Topper, I don't think we'd have got anywhere". Headon's first recording with the band was the single "Complete Control"; it was produced by famed reggae artist Lee "Scratch" Perry, but the result was pure punk rock. Released in September 1977, it rose to number 28 on the British chart and has gone on to be cited as one of punk's greatest singles. During this period, members of The Clash were arrested for various misdemeanors ranging from vandalism to the stealing of a pillowcase.
In February 1978, the band came out with the single "Clash City Rockers". June saw the release of "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais", which surprised fans with its ska rhythm and arrangement. Before The Clash began recording their second album, CBS requested that they adopt a cleaner sound than its predecessor in order to reach American audiences. Sandy Pearlman, known for his work with Blue Öyster Cult, was hired to produce the record. Although some complained about its relatively mainstream production style, Give 'Em Enough Rope received largely positive reviews upon its November release. It hit number 2 in the UK, but it was not the American breakthrough CBS had hoped for, reaching only number 128 on the Billboard chart. The album's first UK single, the hard rocking "Tommy Gun", rose to number 19, the highest chart position for a Clash single to date. In support of the album, the band undertook its first, largely successful tour of the US.
The Clash planned to record and release a single every month in 1980. CBS balked at this idea, and the band came out with only one single—an original reggae tune, "Bankrobber", in August—before the December release of the 3-LP, 36-song Sandinista!. The album again reflected a broad range of musical styles, including extended dubs and the first forays into rap by a major rock band. Produced by the band members with the participation of Jamaican reggae artist Mikey Dread, Sandinista! was their most controversial album to date, both politically and musically. Critical opinion was divided, often within individual reviews. Trouser Press's Ira Robbins described half the album as "great", half as "nonsense" and worse. In the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, leading critic Dave Marsh argued, "Sandinista! is nonsensically cluttered. Or rather seems nonsensically cluttered. One of the Clash's principal concerns...is to avoid being stereotyped. The album fared well in America, charting at number 24, even though it had no catchy single and, in the increasingly conservative environment of album-oriented rock (AOR) radio in the US, received minimal airplay.
During 1981, the band came out with a single, "This Is Radio Clash", that further demonstrated their ability to mix diverse influences such as dub and hip hop. They set to work on their fifth album in the fall, originally planning it as a 2-LP set with the title Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg. Mick Jones produced one cut, but the other members were dissatisfied. Production duties were handed to Glyn Johns, and the album was reconceived as a single LP. Though Combat Rock was filled with offbeat songs, experiments with sound collage, and a spoken word vocal by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, it contained two "radio friendly" tracks. The leadoff single in the US was "Should I Stay or Should I Go", released in June 1982. Another Jones feature in a rock and roll style similar to "Train in Vain", it received heavy airplay on AOR stations. The follow-up, "Rock the Casbah", put lyrics addressing the Iranian clampdown on imports of Western music to a bouncy dance rhythm. (The singles were released in the opposite order in the UK, where they were both preceded by "Know Your Rights".) The music for "Rock the Casbah" was composed by Headon, who performed not only the percussion but also the piano and bass heard on the recorded version. It was the band's biggest US hit ever, charting at number 8, and the video was put into heavy rotation by MTV. The album itself was the band's most successful, hitting number 2 in the UK and number 7 in the US.
In 1983, Chimes left the band after the end of the Combat Rock Tour, due to the in-fighting and turmoil. He was replaced by Pete Howard for the US Festival in San Bernardino, California, which The Clash co-headlined, along with David Bowie and Van Halen. The crowd of roughly half a million was by far the biggest of The Clash's career. This was Jones's last appearance with the group. In September 1983, he was fired. The following year, he played guest guitar on the debut album by General Public.
Nick Sheppard, formerly of the Bristol-based Cortinas, and Vince White were selected as The Clash's new guitarists. Howard continued as the drummer. The reconstituted band played its first shows in January 1984 with a batch of new material and launched into the self-financed Out of Control Tour, traveling widely over the winter and into early summer. At a striking miners' benefit show ("Scargill's Christmas Party") in December 1984, they announced that a new record would be released early in the new year.
After a gig in Athens, Strummer went to Spain to clear his mind. While he was abroad, the first single from Cut the Crap, the mournful "This Is England", was released to mostly negative reviews. "CBS had paid an advance for it so they had to put it out", Strummer later explained. "I just went, 'Well fuck this', and fucked off to the mountains of Spain to sit sobbing under a palm tree, while Bernie had to deliver a record." However, critic Dave Marsh later championed "This Is England" as one of the top 1001 rock singles of all time. The single has also received retroactive praise from Q magazine and others.
"This Is England", much like the rest of the album that came out later that year, had been drastically re-engineered by Rhodes, with synths and football-style chants added to Strummer's incomplete recordings. Although Howard was an adept drummer, drum machines were used for virtually all of the percussion tracks. For the remainder of his life, Strummer largely disowned the album, although he did profess that "I really like 'This is England' [and album track] 'North and South' is a vibe." Other songs played on the tour remain unreleased to this day, including "Jericho" and "Glue Zombie". The Clash effectively disbanded in early 1986.
After the breakup, Strummer contacted Jones in an effort to reform The Clash. Jones, however, had already formed a new band, Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D.), that had released its debut late in 1985. The two did work together on their respective 1986 projects. Jones helped out with the two songs Strummer wrote and performed for the Sid and Nancy soundtrack. Strummer, in turn, cowrote a number of the tracks on the second B.A.D. album, No. 10, Upping St., which he also coproduced. With Jones committed to B.A.D., Strummer moved on to various solo projects and screen acting work. Simonon formed a band called Havana 3a.m. Headon recorded a solo album, before once again spiraling into drug abuse. Chimes drummed with a succession of different acts.
On 2 March 1991, a reissue of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” gave The Clash its first and only number 1 UK single. That same year, Strummer reportedly cried when he learned that "Rock the Casbah" had been adopted as a slogan by US bomber pilots in the Gulf War.
In early 2008, Carbon/Silicon, the new band founded by Mick Jones and his former London SS bandmate Tony James, entered into a six-week residency at London's Inn on the Green. On opening night, 11 January, Headon joined the band for The Clash's "Train in Vain". An encore followed with Headon playing drums on "Should I Stay or Should I Go". This was the first time since 1982 that Headon and Jones had performed together on stage.
In April 1978, The Clash headlined the Rock Against Racism concert in London's Victoria Park for 80,000 people, where Strummer wore a T-shirt bearing the words "Brigade Rosse" with the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) insignia in the middle. He later said that he wore the shirt not to support the left-wing terrorist factions in Italy and Germany, but to bring attention to their existence.
The band's political sentiments were reflected in their resistance to the music industry's usual profit motivations; even at their peak, tickets to shows and souvenirs were reasonably priced. The group insisted that CBS sell their double and triple album sets London Calling and Sandinista! for the price of a single album each (then £5), succeeding with the former and compromising with the latter by agreeing to sell it for £5.99 and forfeit all their royalties on its first 200,000 sales. These "VFM" (value for money) principles meant that they were constantly in debt to CBS, and only started to break even around 1982.
| 1977-1982|| |