The Clash were a key band from the first wave of British punk in the 1970s. Built around the songwriting team of vocalist Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones, they quickly outgrew punk orthodoxy. The group topped their music with intelligent political statements – Strummer was a committed socialist. The Clash were labelled as “the only band that matters”, and enjoyed the adoration of UK critics.
Terry Chimes (aka Tory Crimes) drummed on The Clash’s debut, but left soon afterwards and later enjoyed a career as a chiropractor. The Clash classic lineup’s rhythm section of Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were nimble and inventive players who adeptly adapted as the band move before the four-to-the-floor, three chord constraints of punk. By 1980’s ridiculously long triple-album Sandinista! The Clash were dabbling in everything from disco to children’s choirs.
Despite their later eclecticism, their punk debut is my favourite Clash album. Alarmingly for purists, my preference isn’t for the original 1977 version, but the bastardised 1979 release. The original 1977 version of The Clash was deemed too raw for the US market, although the album sold 100,000 copies as an import. When it was belatedly released in the US in 1979, it was a reworked version, with four of the original tracks replaced by five songs from later singles, as well as a more recent version of ‘White Riot’.
This makes the U.S. version of The Clash a compilation. The new songs are obvious, with crisper production and the upgrade of drummer from Terry Chimes to Topper Headon.
Why the U.S. version of The Clash is their best album
For a beloved band, The Clash’s discography is patchy. They released six studio albums, but in my opinion there are only serious contenders for their best – 1979’s London Calling and The Clash. 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope suffers from a sterile corporate-rock sound, 1980’s overwhelming triple Sandinista! has a lot of great material and a lot of dreck, while 1982’s Combat Rock was accurately described by Brian Burks as “the ‘Rock The Casbah’ single with eleven weird B-sides.”
1985’s Cut The Crap was recorded after musical lynch-pin Mick Jones was ousted from the band, and is a textbook answer to the question “Name an awful album from a once-great band.” For me The Clash’s discography is spotty enough that The Clash’s out-takes collection Super Black Market Clash is their third best record.
The double album London Calling is loaded with great tracks – as well as the epic title track, there are classics like Mick Jones’ ‘Train in Vain’, Paul Simonon’s spotlight ‘The Guns of Brixton’, rockers like ‘Spanish Bombs’ and ‘Death or Glory’, and the ska of ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. It’s a terrific album and a half, but tails off towards the end.
The Clash maintains its intensity from start to finish, and the US version adds diversity, with the mainstream rock of the newer singles rubbing against the basic punk of the original album. It also might be fate – the US version of The Clash was released on 26 July 1979, almost exactly forty years ago, and two days before I was released into the world.
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
One of the new songs added to the US version, ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ is an incredible hybridisation of reggae and rock. It starts with a big rock riff, drops into a reggae groove, then alternates between reggae and rock, throwing in a harmonica solo.
It’s an ambitious piece but the tight band make it work. Topper Headon’s drum work is superlative, jumping between showboating rock fills and a chill groove. Joe Strummer’s vocal is charismatic, especially his rolled rs on “Onstage you ain’t got no roots rock rebel”. Strummer later said “we were a big fat riff group. We weren’t supposed to do something like that.”
In 2003, the British music magazine Uncut ranked ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ as The Clash’s best song, voted by a panel including Jones, Simonon, and Chimes.
Another strong song added to the US version of the album, ‘Complete Control’ blasts CBS records for releasing ‘Remote Control’ as The Clash’s second single without consultation. The song was produced by dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, and marked Headon’s first recording with The Clash.
This is Joe Public speakingJoe Strummer, Complete Control
I’m controlled in the body, controlled in the mind
Name-checked in High Fidelity as one of the five best track one, side one songs ever, on the US version of The Clash ‘Janie Jones’ is relegated to opening the second side. It’s one of the raw punk songs that characterise the debut,
‘Janie Jones’ was titled after a real person, a cabaret singer famous for her 1970s sex parties, who was jailed for “controlling prostitutes.” Members of The Clash played on her 1983 single ‘House of the Ju-Ju Queen’, while both Janie and Mick Jones appeared in the music video for Babyshambles’ 2006 cover of ‘Janie Jones’.
Police & Thieves
The Clash’s six minute cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae ‘Police and Thieves’ is an obvious outlier among the rapid-fire punk songs of The Clash. Simonon in particular was a fan of reggae, growing up in London neighbourhoods with large West Indian populations, and recording the cover was a show of solidarity for an immigrant group that had been systematically targeted by the police. Murvin’s first reaction to The Clash’s interpretation was that “They have destroyed Jah work!”
Do The Experts Agree?
Robert Christgau wrote in Village Voice that “Cut for cut, this may be the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured in the U.S. …. The U.K. version of The Clash is the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere.”