Perhaps the most celebrated band to emerge from the 1970s punk movement, The Clash started as a straight-out punk band. But their music soon expanded, incorporating the reggae and dub they heard on London’s streets, as well as venturing into radio-friendly rock, hip-hop, and pretty much everything in between. As a white boy growing up in a sheltered musical environment, The Clash were an important gateway band for me in my late teens, opening my eyes to lots of different musical forms.
The core of the group was the writing partnership of guitarist Mick Jones who wrote the music and charismatic vocalist Joe Strummer, who was able to articulately write about political and social issues. They were ably supported by their rhythm section. Paul Simonon was recruited because he looked like David Bowie, but quickly developed into a fine bass player, and he wrote and sang lead on the revered ‘Guns of Brixton’. Drummer Topper Headon was in place for most of the band’s tenure, and with a jazz background, he’s a top-class player, while he also wrote and recorded the music for ‘Rock The Casbah’, one of the band’s biggest hits.
The Clash were a great band, although you could argue that they failed to meet their enormous potential fully, given that they only made two essential studio albums – their 1977 debut and 1979’s London Calling. Part of the reason for their uneven discography was record company pressure – they were forced to go for a more commercial rock sound on 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope while releasing the bloated triple Sandinista! in 1981 helped them speed through a difficult ten album contract.
The band splintered before 1985’s Cut The Crap, widely used as an example of a terrible album by a great band – Jones was fired, while Headon was pushed out because of his addictions. I’ve covered most of their recordings below, with the exception of Cut The Crap.
The Clash Album Reviews
The Clash (US Version)
The Clash’s debut album was recorded in three weekends but was considered too raw to be released to the US market, although it achieved the highest-ever sales for an import album. Eventually, a modified version was released in 1979, replacing four of the lesser songs from the original with five non-album singles and b-sides, as well as substituting ‘White Riot’ with a newer version.
The resulting album is less coherent than the original but more accomplished. I rate it as the group’s strongest recording; The Clash has a conciseness and energy which is missed by its follow-ups. Iconic tracks like ‘Janie Jones’ and ‘White Riot’ still bristle with energy. Singles ‘Complete Control’, ‘I Fought the Law’, and the reggae cover of ‘Police and Thieves’ provide diversity. The highlight is the epic ‘White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)’ which brilliantly mixes rock and reggae to preach about punk, race relations, and politics.
This bastardised version of The Clash is of historical significance in defining a genre and is the most important work by a seminal band.
Give ‘Em Enough Rope
CBS made an effort to make The Clash more palatable for American tastes, bringing in mainstream rock producer Sandy Pearlman to oversee Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Pearlman bought a perfectionist ethic to the recording sessions, causing Paul Simonon to become so bored that he requested that war films be projected onto the wall in between takes. Most of the liveliness in the recording is drained, as the band slow down from the fast tempos of the debut, even though new member Topper Headon’s drumming is significantly stronger than Terry Chimes’ from the debut.
CBS sent Strummer and Jones on a trip to Kingston to write songs for the album, where they remained terrified in their hotel room for a week, inspiring the excellent opener ‘Safe European Home’ (“I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery.”). The reworking of a folk standard for ‘English Civil War’ is terrific, while the aggressive ‘Tommy Gun’ and the reggae-tinged ‘Safe European Home’ are also up to the standard of their best work. With the best three songs are at the front, the album feels very front-loaded; while there are other exciting songs like Jones’ spotlight on ‘Stay Free’, there’s a lot of middling material played at sluggish tempos with an unflattering mainstream rock sound.
Give ‘Em Enough Rope is disappointing and well below the standards of the albums that proceeded and followed it.
London Calling has been massively praised ever since its release; it’s won album of the decade awards for both the 1970s (when it was released in the UK) and the 1980s (when it was released in the US). It’s eclectic, dynamic, and a stunning rebound after the artistic dead end of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and is light years away from the stripped-down punk of the debut, but all the critical praise has given London Calling a reputation that no album could live up to.
The opening title track is the highlight of the set, with plenty of quotable lyrics from Strummer: “don’t look to us/phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” or “a nuclear error but I have no fear/’Cause London is drowning and I live by the river”. Other highlights include the rock anthems ‘Clampdown’ and ‘Death or Glory’, Paul Simonon’s first song for the group (‘Guns of Brixton’, with a killer bass line), the ska-inflected ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, and ballads ‘Train in Vain’ and ‘The Card Cheat’. The horn section that features on some of the tracks sounds fantastic, and there are also compelling excursions into rockabilly (‘Brand New Cadillac’) and rock (‘Spanish Bombs’).
London Calling is not as perfect as its reputation would suggest, as it drags in the final quarter with songs like ‘Lover’s Rock’ and ‘Revolution Rock’. But the range of material that The Clash tackle while staying true to their punk roots is incredible.
London Calling was a double album, but it’s less than half the length of its follow-up; the triple album Sandinista!, released less than a year later. Named in honour of the Nicaraguan revolution, part of the reason for the excessive length of Sandinista! was a ten-album contract that The Clash had signed with CBS. By releasing three albums at once, they were able to reduce this obligation substantially, even though the group themselves made little money from the set, taking the fan-friendly stance of releasing it at a price marginally higher than the going rate for a single LP. Of course, it would have been even more fan-friendly to trim this set to a manageable length; there’s a really good double album or even a sensational single album hiding among the filler.
The dreck includes a children’s choral version of the debut’s ‘Career Opportunities’, and a dub version of ‘One More Time’ immediately after the original. A lot of this material should have been left as b-sides or unreleased, but there’s also plenty of tier-one material. Sandinista! starts strongly with ‘The Magnificent Seven’, one of the first excursions into rap by a white group. ‘One More Time’ is an accessible piece of reggae, while The Clash explore gospel in ‘The Sound Of The Sinners’. The fourth side of the set is arguably the best; ‘Police On My Back’ is the hardest sounding The Clash get on the entire album, ‘Washington Bullets’ is a brilliant piece of political commentary set to a jaunty Caribbean rhythm, while ‘The Call Up’ and ‘Broadway’ are both gorgeous.
There’s plenty of great music on Sandinista!, but it’s also very uneven and difficult to sit through; it’s such a huge chunk of the Clash’s discography that fans need to track it down, even though it’s a very frustrating listen.
After a sprawling triple album, you’d think that a stripped-down single record would be a relief. Combat Rock was a pared-down version of a proposed double album titled Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg. Even as a single disc, it plays very much like the unfocused Sandinista! Combat Rock is a disjointed album, with radio-friendly singles sharing space with esoteric, trippy material.
Combat Rock opens with the didactic ‘Know Your Rights’, which probably rates as the most obnoxious Clash song; I don’t disagree with the sentiments, but they’re presented in a humourless way, with routine musical backing. In the same way, ‘Overpowered By Funk’ could have been fun, but it just sounds tired and routine. The two radio-friendly hits – ‘Rock The Casbah’ and ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’ – both stand up well, with memorable tunes and lyrics. Drummer Topper Headon wrote and recorded the music for ‘Rock The Casbah’ by himself, while Mick Jones fronts ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’ ‘Straight To Hell’ is a great album track, a tender tale of three social justice issues (the three verses cover the shutting of steel mills in the UK, the fathering of children by US soldiers in Vietnam, and the plight of immigrants), even if I prefer the more streamlined live version on From Here To Eternity.
Combat Rock was the best-selling Clash album on the back of two accomplished singles, but it’s often weird and often unfulfilling.
Cut The Crap
The Clash’s final album was made without musical lynchpin Mick Jones and ace drummer Topper Headon. Jones was fired for musical differences after he started experimenting with drum machines and synthesizers. While The Clash recruited new members, Cut The Crap was created in a cheap Munich studio by manager Bernie Rhodes and Joe Strummer, dominated by drum machines and synthesizers. There’s one strong song, the world-weary ‘This Is England’, but you need to wade through dreck like the failed anthem ‘We Are The Clash’ and the third-rate ‘Fingerpoppin”.
Super Black Market Clash
An expanded version of 1980’s Black Market Clash, Super Black Market Clash collects the b-sides released by the group during their tenure. It’s one of their stronger releases and to recommend it above most of their studio albums; the first half features excellent songs omitted from their first two records, while the second half documents their exploration of reggae and dub. The material on the first half is generally less serious than their studio albums, and some of the later B-sides resort to dance mixes of their A-sides, but it’s an enjoyable compilation.
Their first B-side, ‘1977’, is arguably their most iconic; “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977” Strummer sneers. It’s a measure of their productivity at this time that they were able to relegate it to b-side status. Similarly significant, ‘Capital Radio’ was their response to a lack of radio play (Strummer spray-painted the lobby of a station), originally coming out in New Musical Express as a promo singles in extremely limited numbers. The version on Super Black Market Clash, ‘Capital Radio Two’ was recorded in 1979 after the original was being sold for 40 pounds. The nine-minute ‘Justice Tonight/Kick It Over’, is one of the group’s best recordings, and their most convincing exploration of dub. ‘Radio Clash’ is the b-side of ‘This Is Radio Clash’; it was originally intended as one song, but was cut into two halves after it was discovered that it was too long to fit on a single.
Black Market Clash is an interesting alternative career overview for The Clash, and it’s more consistent than most of their studio albums.
From Here To Eternity
With a charismatic and energetic approach and some terrific songs in their back catalogue, it’s hardly surprising that The Clash had a strong live album; if anything it’s only surprising that it didn’t appear until twenty years after their peak. Rather than a single concert, it’s a compilation of songs from live performances throughout their career; mostly later in their tenure, some featuring Terry Chimes, reinstated after Headon’s sacking for his heroin habit.
Arranged in chronological order, similar to the track list the band would use in concert, it’s effective as a career retrospective, drawing heavily on their strongest albums (The Clash and London Calling) at the expense of their other material. There’s nothing from Give ‘Em Enough Rope (less surprisingly, there’s also nothing from Cut The Crap), and only one song from Sandinista!.
As you’d expect, it’s very entertaining and enjoyable, even if a lot of the songs, especially those from the debut, don’t sound particularly different. It would have been great to hear The Clash play material from Give ‘Em Enough Rope, without the blemish of that album’s slick production, or some of the dub material from Sandinista! like ‘One More Time’. It would also be interesting to hear the live four-piece take on ‘Rock The Casbah’ without a pianist. On this album it’s much more interesting hearing the more ambitious and eclectic material like ‘Straight To Hell’, ‘Armagideon Time’ and ‘The Magnificent Seven’ rather than the straight punk like ‘Career Opportunities’ and ‘What’s My Name’, as energetically as they are delivered here.
That’s just wishful thinking though, and this set does capture The Clash’s charisma; Jones’ emotional reading of ‘Train In Vain’ is probably the most effective performance on the album, while his backing vocals and guitar leads are constantly energising. Strummer’s onstage persona is also endearing, especially his vocal ad-libs in ‘Capital Radio’ (“I’d like to hear the song “Wool-ey Bull-ey”), while the rhythm section are ultra-tight and professional.
From Here To Eternity is an excellent live document of The Clash, and it’s among the upper echelon of live albums.
Cincinnati Babyhead Says:
One of the Bands that I had to have all their music. Always lots of stuff for me to dig.
(Give ‘Em Enough Rope) This was my intro to the band so it has a real strong place in my pile. Seen them tour this. I’m pretty sure they started their North american tour where I was living at the time. I knew woman (girl at the time) who’s band was one of the openers. “Tommy Gun’ was the first tune I ever heard and it still gets me going. I probably like this record a little more than you do.
(London Calling) I wore my copy out.
(Sandinista!) A little change in direction but I was a fan so I dug it. There’s so much on these kinds of albums. I always thought about it as a mish mash but I like hearing that stuff from bands I like. I think you hit the nail on head with your take. “Contract” obligations etc. I’ve seen bands do this before. Your last paragraph sums it up pretty good.
(Combat Rock) It was still better than a lot of the music that was being made at the time. Ant time I could get a band I Liked on the Radio I was a happy CB. Also seen them on tour with The Who and T. bone Burnett at this time.
Ten Favourite Songs by The Clash
Justice Tonight/Kick It Over
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
The Guns Of Brixton
Train In Vain
The Magnificent Seven
Rock The Casbah
Safe European Home
One More Time
This Is England
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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