The Clash, an iconic British punk rock band, enjoyed their heyday in the 1970s and the 1980s, but their revelatory sound and passionate ideals left a lasting mark. For their music, the band drew extensively on numerous influences, including rockabilly, dance, soul, and reggae. They became a musical sensation in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
History of The Clash
Formed in 1976, The Clash was one of the first movers and shakers in punk music history. Drawing on their own musical influences, the band did a great deal to spearhead the punk genre and launch it to the eyes and ears of the public, where it gained many passionate devotees. The Clash infused their music with passionate ideology in which they condemned injustice perpetuated against the working class and demanded social change.
Formation of the Band
In 1974, Joe Strummer, who would become lead vocalist for The Clash, played in a pub-rock band which he called the 101ers. Around the same time, Mick Jones, who would become lead guitarist for The Clash, was active with a punk group known as London SS. Strummer was impressed with the sound of London SS and left the 101ers to play with them. Paul Simonon was inspired to learn how to play bass guitar when he heard the band perform. After Strummer and Simonon were brought aboard, Mick Jones renamed the new group The Clash since the word "clash" seemed to dominate newspaper headlines.
The Clash was made up of four main members: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. Terry Chimes and Keith Levine also played with the band, as well. The success of the band can be attributed to the incredible chemistry of the band members and how they complemented one another so well.
- main songwriters for the band, along with Mick Jones. Strummer loved playing hard rock and got his start with the 101ers, a band he formed in 1974. When he heard the Sex Pistols, he fell in love with punk music, and his band played a couple of gigs opening for the Pistols, after which he met Jones and Simonon and founded The Clash.
- Mick Jones - Mick Jones can be thought of the other frontman for The Clash. He co-wrote songs with Joe Strummer, played lead guitar, and contributed vocals. Before co-founding The Clash with Strummer, Jones played in several bands that were punk forerunners, including London SS where he met Paul Simonon, who became the bass guitarist for The Clash.
- Paul Simonon - Paul Simonon, bass guitarist for The Clash, played with Mick Jones in the proto-punk band London SS before joining The Clash. Simonon had never played bass guitar before meeting Mick Jones. Instead, he was studying at a prestigious art school. Simeon quickly learned how to play bass guitar, and he stayed with The Clash from its inception to its breakup.
- Topper Headon - Topper Headon came aboard The Clash as its second drummer, and he stayed with the band until 1982, when he was fired because of his heroin addiction. As a musician, he started out with a passion for jazz and soul, and he drew on those influences for his work with The Clash, lending the punk band a distinctive sound that helped speed them along to success.
- Terry Chimes - Terry Chimes, also known as Tory Crimes, was the first drummer for The Clash, recording with them on their debut album that was released in 1977, then leaving the band. After Headon was fired in 1982, Chimes rejoined the band around the time their fifth album, Combat Rock, was released. He made an appearance in the music video for their hit song, Rock the Casbah.
- Keith Levene - Keith Levene played guitar with Joe Strummer in the 101ers before the two musicians left to help found The Clash. He only stayed with The Clash for its first year, appearing in the band's first concert when they opened for the Sex Pistols in 1976.
The Clash only released six albums during the decade they were active, from 1976 to 1986. Sonically, they set a high standard with their musical skill and adventurousness, and lyrically, they were politically progressive and revolutionary. The band became a force to be reckoned with, defining the punk rock genre and influencing countless bands that would follow.
The band released their self-titled debut album in 1977 in the United Kingdom where it won instant acclaim, hitting number twelve on the charts. Though The Clash was the top-selling import album in the United States, CBS executives did not think it was radio friendly, so it wasn't officially released in the U.S. until 1979. Four of the songs from the U.K. album were removed from the American version and replaced with singles.
- Style and Content - The Clash is a raw, fiery album that has held up well over the decades since its release. Many punk bands tended to be long on passion but short on skill, but The Clash didn't fit that mold, with Mick Jones' aggressive reggae chops. On The Clash, the band criticizes American imperialism, speaks out on race relations and unemployment, and on the song Career Opportunities, they empathize with frustrated, alienated young people, urging them not to lose hope and to take a stand against injustice.
- Critical Success - The Clash has received rave reviews throughout the years since its release, winning acclaim as a seminal punk album. Robert Christgau, rock critic for the Village Voice, places the album at number one on his personal list of the best albums of the 1970s. Rolling Stone ranked the album number 77 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, calling The Clash a "machine gun blast" of tunes.
Give 'Em Enough Rope
Released in the U.K. in 1978, Give 'Em Enough Rope offered more fierce punk music with lyrics that spoke stridently to current events. The album debuted at number two on the U.K. charts. It was also the first The Clash album to be released in the United States where it reached number 128 on the Billboard 200 chart. Topper Headon, the drummer who stuck with the band the longest, made his debut on this album, lending his jazz influence and further enriching the band's sound.
- Style and Content - While Give 'Em Enough Rope has a slicker sound than the band's first album, The Clash still has their angry edge. The band polished their musical skills and widened their influences, too, since the album not only has its reggae moments but also some rockabilly in the form of honky-tonk piano. On Give 'Em Enough Rope, the band rails, in furious yet insightful lyrics such as those in Guns on the Roof, against the horrors of war and the evils of hungering for money and power in a chaotic, dog-eat-dog world.
- Critical Success - The album was highly acclaimed, with both Rolling Stone and Time Magazine voting it 1978's Album of the Year. NME ranked Give 'Em Enough Rope at number 87 on their 1993 list of the best albums of all time. Writing for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus praises the band for their "fast, noisy style" which, in their lyrics, combines a quirky sense of humor with scathing criticisms of a world gone mad.
Widely considered The Clash's breakthrough album, London Calling features, on its cover, a shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar onstage at the Palladium in New York City. The band found a new studio to record the album, but they found themselves faced with writer's block. To overcome it, they experimented with even more varied musical influences, including hard rock, reggae, funk, and New Orleans rhythm and blues, and they wound up with enough material for a double album. London Calling cracked the top ten in the U.K. and peaked at number 27 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200.
- Style and Content - On London Calling, the Clash shows that they have reached the top of their game. The music itself is a sonic buffet, mixing rhythm and blues, reggae, and hard rock with their in-your-face punk sound. Lyrically, the songs are as angry and revolutionary as ever, whether the band is railing against fascism, detailing the horrors of drug addiction, or, as in the song The Guns of Brixton, criticizing heavy-handed police tactics.
- Critical Success - After its release in 1979 in the U.K. and 1980 in the U.S., London Calling garnered tremendous accolades far and wide, including a vote for best album of 1980 in Pazz & Jop, a panel of music critics in the United States. Rolling Stone named London Calling the best album of the 1980s. Tom Sinclair of Entertainment Weekly praised London Calling in 2004 for its continuing relevance as "groundbreaking" and "explosive." Writing for PopMatters, Sal Ciolfi lauded the album's "drunk, joyful vitality" that permeates the band's anger and inspires hope in the hearts of their fans.
Sandinista!, released in late 1980, was a triple album filled with music that the Clash recorded in a fever pitch of creativity that lasted all day and all night for three weeks straight. The band had reached a point in their development and confidence where they were able to pull from more and more diverse musical influences, including rap, hip-hop, folk, calypso, and disco. The result was an album that was a veritable sonic buffet. The band wanted the album priced as low as possible so their fans wouldn't have a problem affording it.
- Style and Content - Writing for Rolling Stone, John Piccarella calls Sandinista! a "post-punk leap of faith" for its broad musical range. The album reflects the band's willingness to try on as many styles as possible, and they all fit remarkably well while defying listener expectations. On Sandinista!, you'll hear instrumentation that ranges from bagpipes to violins to harmonicas. One of the singles, The Magnificent Seven, has a strong hip-hop vibe. The lyrics on the record, named after the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, are as adventurous as the music, exploring the Cold War and political apathy.
- Critical Success - Sandinista! was widely appreciated, both immediately following its release and over the decades since. Slant Magazine ranks the record number 85 on its list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s, praising its epic musical experimentation and calling it an "album without borders." In 2000, Alternative Press included Sandinista! on its list of ten essential political-revolution albums.
After their epic triple-album Sandinista!, the Clash tightened their focus for Combat Rock, which was released in 1982 and became their bestselling record in the United States. The album shot up to number seven on the Billboard 200, and one of its singles, Rock the Casbah, cracked the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. While Combat Rock isn't as sprawling as Sandinista!, the album retains the former record's post-punk, adventurous style. Sadly, though, it would be the last Clash album to feature the core lineup of Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon.
- Style and Content - The Clash infused Combat Rock with a wide variety of musical influences, lending depth and dimension to their sound. Listening to the album, you'll hear reggae, funk, rock and roll, disco, hip-hop, and rockabilly, tribal beats, saxophone wails, and juke joint piano. Lyrically, the band has never been stronger than on this album. In cohesive and insightful lyrics, they voice their opposition to war, imperialism, and consumerism, exemplified by the song Know Your Rights.
- Critical Success - Combat Rock remained on the Billboard 200 for 61 weeks and received Double Platinum status from the RIAA. The album received rave reviews, though some people criticized the band for selling out because of the success of the singles. As Douglas Wolk from Blender put it, the record, with its dance club vibe, boasted "audaciously bizarre arrangements" and their provocative lyrics had never been smarter. Robert Christgau praised the band for their musical evolution and "pizazz."
Cut the Crap
The enormous success of The Clash led to tension between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, and Jones was fired from the band in 1983. Cut the Crap was released in 1985, after both Jones and Headon were gone. Guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard and drummer Pete Howard came aboard to replace Jones and Headon and help record the new album. Despite praise for one of the singles, This is England, Cut the Crap lacked the adventurous, ambitious feel of the previous albums, and The Clash fell apart in 1986.
- Style and Content - Part of what had made the Clash so successful was the songwriting magic between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, and in the wake of Jones's departure, Strummer was at loose ends. Strummer wound up writing the songs for Cut the Crap with Bernie Rhodes, their band manager. The production for the album is generally regarded as poor, and the band's musical sparkle is considerably dimmed. You'll hear drum machines and uninspired guitar playing, and the lyrical edge is duller, too.
- Critical Success - Cut the Crap got a lukewarm reception, at best. Writing for Rolling Stone, David Fricke gave the album a negative review, saying that in their music, the Clash had gone back to "buzzsaw basics" and that the album is "stiff and unconvincing." Along with Fricke, Richard Cromelin from the Los Angeles Times bemoans the booming chorus effect used on several of the songs and deems the album "so-so" and "anemic."
The Clash Videos
The Clash wrote, recorded, and performed a number of truly unforgettable songs, each with a strong, resounding message. In their heyday, the band, never content to be confined in narrow categories, always strove to push the envelope, both sonically and lyrically.
White Riot was The Clash's first single from their self-titled debut album. The song packs a punch at just under two minutes long with its three chord pattern that's played with speed, fire, and fury. The catchy melody hooks you right in. The song has its roots in the rioting that took place at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. Strummer and Simonon sympathized with the Jamaicans who were lashing out against oppression, and White Riot is a call to disenfranchised young white people to stand up against oppression, as well. In 2005, Q Magazine ranked the song number 34 on its list of the 100 greatest guitar tracks.
Tommy Gun, one of the singles from The Clash's 1978 album Give 'Em Enough Rope, was born when Joe Strummer thought about how terrorists and killers probably enjoy reading news of the atrocities they commit. The song is like a full-blown sonic attack with drums that sound like machine guns blaring over aggressive guitar power chords. The lyrics condemn violence and the never-ending revenge ethos of "kill or be killed." Tommy Gun peaked at number 19 on the U.K. Singles Chart.
Train in Vain
Subtitled Stand by Me, Train in Vain, from the 1979 album London Calling, scored The Clash their first top 40 hit in the United States when the song reached number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song is a love song, which sets it apart from most of The Clash's politically charged work. It sports a chugging rhythm that brings to mind a train, and with its country and western influence, it has shades of Tammy Wynette's song Stand By Your Man.
London Calling, from the Clash's 1979 album of the same name, hit number eleven on the U.K. Singles Chart and over the years, it has become one of the band's most beloved songs. Rolling Stone ranks the song at number fifteen on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, calling it a powerful "SOS from the heart of darkness." London Calling is also included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. Accompanied by sharp, jagged guitar riffs, the lyrics describe disasters whether factual or imaginary, from the accident at Three Mile Island to a nightmare scenario of the Thames River flooding and overwhelming London with water.
The Call Up
The Call Up was the first single released from The Clash's 1980 album Sandinista!, and it's a five-minute tour de force in which the band's diverse musical influences are on proud display. Interspersed within the song, you'll hear military cadences and marching beats over which is layered a chorus with a decidedly reggae vibe. The guitar work on the song has clear elements of rhythm and blues and soul. It's a sonic buffet, all wrapped up in one song. The lyrics protest war, specifically the draft, saying there's more to life than going off to fight battles for those in power.
Rock the Casbah
Most of The Clash's songs were co-written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, but the music for Rock the Casbah, from the band's 1982 album Combat Rock, was penned by drummer Topper Headon. Strummer already had snippets of lyrics he wanted to use with a song, and when he fleshed them out, Rock the Casbah was born. The song has a catchy melody with an irresistible hook and a driving beat. The lyrics describe a fantastical scenario whereby an Arabian king has banned rock and roll, but the people listen to it and dance to it, anyway. The song was a huge hit in the U.S., reaching number eight on the Billboard Hot 100.
Should I Stay or Should I Go
Also from Combat Rock, Should I Stay or Should I Go was a smash hit in the U.K., reaching number one on the pop charts. Should I Stay or Should I Go is a straight-up rock song that features a captivating blues chord progression and backing vocals that are sung in Spanish by Strummer, giving it a fun, rollicking vibe that contrasts with the melancholy lyrics. Since Mick Jones was dismissed from the band soon after the release of Combat Rock, people speculate that the lyrics are about his departure, but Jones has insisted the song was simply the band's attempt to write a good, classic rock song.
After The Clash
Following the disbanding of The Clash, Joe Strummer spoke with Mick Jones about the possibility of reforming the band, but Mick Jones had gotten involved with a new project, Big Audio Dynamite, and wasn't interested, so the band never got back together. Jones and Strummer did collaborate, though, on music for Sid and Nancy, a film about the life of Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. Strummer also co-produced the music for Big Audio Dynamite's second album. The four core Clash members continued careers in music, some playing with bands and others working solo.
- Joe Strummer - After working with Mick Jones on the Sid and Nancy soundtrack, Strummer did additional soundtrack work for the films Walker and Permanent Record. In 1989, he started a new band called Latino Rockabilly War, and they released their first album, Earthquake Weather, but sales weren't good and the band tanked. Over the years, Strummer did studio and solo work. In 1999, he started another band called the Mescaleros which did well, and they released three albums. Unfortunately, Strummer passed away of a sudden cardiac arrest in 2002.
- Mick Jones - Jones found success with his new band Big Audio Dynamite, often called BAD, which put out seven albums from the time they formed in 1984 until their disbanding in 1995. Like the Clash, BAD became known as a post-punk band that brought in elements from a wide variety of genres, including reggae, hip-hop, and dance. BAD reunited in 2011 to play in London at the Royal Festival Hall. In 2002, Jones joined up with Tony James to form a punk duo called Carbon Silicon to share music for free on the internet, and they're still going strong.
- Paul Simonon - After the Clash split, Paul Simonon worked in the studio with Bob Dylan on his 1988 album Down in the Groove. He also joined Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite to be the band's bass player. In addition to his musical activities, Simonon has gone back to painting and has had a number of successful exhibitions of his work.
- Topper Headon - After being fired from The Clash in 1982 because of his heroin use, Headon recorded a solo album, Waking Up, that was released in 1986. He also helped produce albums for the Bush Tetras, a new wave band from New York City. He hasn't been on the music scene much since the 1980s, but he has gotten clean and has freely granted interviews over the years about his experiences with The Clash.
An Enduring Musical Legacy
The Clash's musical skill, passion, and willingness to experiment ensured they would leave a truly lasting legacy. In 2003 one year after Joe Strummer died, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for defining the punk genre and being one of the most exciting and important bands in music history.