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Fore runners of the British Punk scene, The Clash have been one of very few bands who actually survived the disintegration of Punk and leapt successfully into the eras that followed. New wave, as we know, had been the watered down, commercial idea of the media to calm Punk down. What society had failed to do was disperse the crowds of adoring fans that still hung desperately onto their Punk heroes. The Jam, The Stranglers and The Damned remained true to their roots only on a handful of occasions daring to step gingerly over to the world of commercialised pop just to make a buck or two out of the British charts.
Born from an era of futureless lives, Punk had been the ‘anarchic noise’ that the youth had wanted to hear. It was bands like The Clash, that fuelled the rebellion of the young who were faced with unemployment and bland existences. Angry, pessimistic and anti-establishment, these bands were despised by the older generation and feared by heads of State. Loved, worshipped and adored by the youth, it was to be obvious that Punk, as we saw it, was to be short lived. The young grow up, and in a matter of only five, or so years, it was all over.
The Clash adapted their Punk sound to fit each generation. Those who jumped wildly to the riffs of ‘White Riot’ and ‘I Fought The Law,’ were preceded by those of my generation who sang, out of tune and loudly to ‘Rock The Casbah,’ and ‘Should I Stay Or Should I go,’ Both groups of listeners heard two totally different sounds from the same band. For the youth of then, they created an anthem for all; Punks, Rockers and Pop freaks alike.
‘The Singles,’ gives us a tour through the career of The Clash. We can look back over the growth of this immature, young Punk outfit with their disorientated tracks and abusive lyrics to the end which saw them polished, tuneful and highly respected by their contemporaries. The album was released in 1991, and failed anything higher than number 68 in the album charts, a poor place to be for such a front lining band who marked out the road for bands to followed their style, technique and ability to move from genre to genre. The album includes lyrics, (excluding, ‘I Fought The Law.) and the blue/black negative prints of the band in various ‘live’ poses throughout their mind blowing career.
Triggered by the tragic and untimely death of front man Joe Strummer only in the last couple of years, it only added to the immortalisation that has occurred over recent years in wanted to dip them in Formaldehyde and cast them for eternity. We take a look now at the outstanding history of a band whose humble beginnings in London, 1976 could only lead to greater things.
They had dipped their Punk toes in just about every genre going, along the way but it was their energetic Punk recordings from the early days of the band, that we will remember them for. Noting that all primary fans are now middle aged men with children, a nagging wife, a boring office job and a battered Mondeo parked on their suburban drive, it is this image that gives away the length of the band’s career. It is thirty years ago next year since The Clash thumped us good an hard in the groin with their first massive Punk anthem. At a blastful two minutes long, it was enough for The Clash to make one of the greatest explosions onto the music scene ever by a British act.
‘White Riot,’ had been noticed for sure by the ‘powers that be’ in the Punk world, although their release of the song in April 1977, failed to climb any higher than number 38. It’s simple ‘noise’ chorus was about the level of intelligence to hard core punks of the time. It was perfectly Punk and easy to shout to. We head banged our way to concussion with this track and it firmly placed The Clash on the map of madness. Fast and furious, this track is followed on this album by the slightly slower and yet, also quietly tuneful ‘Remote Control.’ With it’s hand clapping theme, it appears to be an attempt from the band to impress the general public rather than their Punk princes. This short riffed whining, foot stomping theme was released as a single in May 1977, but failed to achieve any chart position. The band took note and saved the more realistic tuneful talents to a later date. Their fast growing Punk fan club was multiplying and their needs had to be met before the band could embark on anything of a mainstream nature. Now listening to this track, it features a, immature rolling Duane Eddy drum beat that was right for the retro era of rock and roll that was already taking shape, but to the Punk fans, it didn’t kick the right spot.
The next track on this featured album was the similarly titled ‘Complete Control,’ which hit that infamous spot for both the Punk scene and the Pop world alike. Still keeping in with their Punk roots, it features all the noticeable thrashing cymbal sections and distorted, lingering guitar riffs that Punk brought, yet at the same time, it was pleasant enough on the middle of the road ears to digest and accept as something produced by a band who was developing to suit all markets. Strummers wailing and tonsillitis making vocals were a unique feature. Perhaps some would argue that there had been essentially not difference between The Sex Pistols and The Clash, but what was noticeable about the latter band was their knowledge of producing a track that was appealing. The Pistols, could be now seen as dated, out of their depth in any music collection (although, they do make a brief appearance in mine.) This particular track was a justified hit for The Clash in October 1977 and reached number 28. Creeping up the charts and slowly making a permanent dentations in the minds of the audience, it was obvious that this band were on the move.
The similar crashings of the thunderous Punk anthem, ‘Clash City Rockers,’ takes a noticeable British Invasion edge of the Sixties. The familiar rolling drum beat with its echoes of old dancehalls on a Saturday night, will strike memories of youngsters, sweating it out in suits and thin ties on the stage in front of winkle pickers and Bouffant hairdo’s. The band, here were already showing us their keenness to adapt and working their way into other genres. They felt a need to experiment that was practically forbidden with Punk bands. Their had been lines that bands didn’t cross. Punk was a closeted way of life. Nothing could break in from the outside and nothing could be excused for treading on popular shores. A classic example of this had been the beginnings of Billy Idol who was shunned by his Generation X fans went he branched away from Punk and joined the rock scene. It’s release in March 1978, saw the position encountered as being a rather disappointing number 35.
Moving from Punk, The Clash brought us ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.’ Which, in the title alone, we find the date of this track, as we have lost count how many times this venue has changed it’s name over the years! Counted in like a live set, this track features the soon to be familiar backing vocals of ‘football hooligans,’ all woo wooing. With its reggae theme, the Punkness of the Prince himself, Mr Strummer features still heavily in his voice and never failed throughout his career. The sound comes to us as a Specials track, little tongue in cheek and racially probing in its title. Aware of the scene in society at the time, they wrote lyrics of reality and truth, ..’White youth, black youth, they won’t notice anyway, they’re all too busy fighting for a good place under the lighting.’ It tells the story of a society under indifference and shallowness. London, during the rage of the Punk era, was a place, I can recall with nervousness and also disillusionment. The Clash, here, were reality tellers of the time. Their tracks had been used as anthems of forces agonist their messages of racism, but Punk had been considered ‘white’ music. It was Ska that came out of it, on a watered down theme, the same as new wave, who introduced white and black artists appearing in the same bands. Released in June 1978, it only struggled to number 32.
‘Tommy Gun, and ‘English Civil War,’ also featured the opinions of the band members on certain issues raised in the late seventies. The latter used the same based tune as ‘The Animals Went In Two By Two,’ but in Punk, anything was possible. We may snigger but who can forget The Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’? Highlighting issues of War and racism, both topics, they felt strongly about, these were songs produced probably for their own benefit. The overriding Punk anthems, by this stage in their careers were becoming merely a soundtrack to get them heard. What I felt they were afraid of, was actually not being heard. I did think that Punk’s hind legs gave in quickly due to the issues that were being raised by such bands as The Clash. Being shunted into the same category as The Sex Pistols, won’t do any wonders for anyone’s career, especially when you feel that you have something to say that is not abusive, but yet of social awareness. The first released in December 1978 and the latter in March 1979, they reached 19 and 25 respectively.
It was a surprise that when we are introduced to such tracks that now follow like ‘I Fought The Law,’ and ‘London Calling,’ which were fundamentally a leap from their dead end Punk into rebellious mainstream, their were far enough from Pop to still be regarded as leaders of their youth generation. Tackling now clashes with youth and the ‘law,’ that generated the riots of places like Brixton, they curved their Punk themes with more tuneful rock. Strummer still kept his youthful, strained vocals but the anger in his voice was now overshadowed by strength and determination to push his opinions across.
The latter had been the ‘first hand,’ story of the riots. Powerful in it’s simple fusion of Punk and rock. It was produced as a permanent chant, and like the memories of the riots, it stuck. ‘I Fought The Law’ wasn’t released until March 1988 after a flop in July 1979. Second time around, it failed to make any more of an under impressive number 29. Surprisingly as it has gone down in history as one of the true Clash anthems and is still regarded as a classic today. ‘London Calling,’ on the other hand, made the best position yet after it’s release in December 1979 and timely as regards to the troubles in South London. It reached number 11 first time around, then again in June 1991, it reached a poor number 64.
Perhaps some were pleasantly surprised and others disappointed beyond belief when ‘Train In Vain,’ was recorded. The introduction to this track, many will recognise from Garbage’s’ Punk retro track, ‘Stupid Girl.’ Released in March 1980, it failed to make the chart grade, not truly amazing as it was a significant departure form the rocked, Punked up stompers that we had come to know and love as the voice of The Clash. With it’s touch of disco element, it appears more like a Squeeze B side and fails to ignite any long lost rebellion in any Clash follower. There never should have been any romanticism in a Clash track. The only positive thing about it, is that is proved, in a strong argument, that Joe Strummer, actually could sing. Move over Aztec Camera, this track would have fitted in well.
Echoing ‘Ghost Town,’ by the emetic Specials, this dirty reggae them fresh from the streets of South London, it is tuneful on a repetitive scale. Not unpleasing to the ear, it is simple in its subject. Again, touching on certain social issues of the era, it was a time of looting, petty crime, drugs and black market. The lyrics, ‘..Daddy was a bank robber,’ this line, using the title of the track was released in June 1980, again a them very much of the uncertain life of a Londoner. By August of that year, it had reached an impressive number 12 in the charts.
‘The Call Up,’ was the first time we hear a featured synthesizer from a Punk band. The jingling bells rather not unlike an Abba track gives the record a strong OMD feel and doesn’t seem to fit the London Calling subjective lyrics from this band. Released in November 1980, the Clash, as we have noticed now, packed out their hits in such large quantities. I hear a strong influence of or from Big Audio Dynamite, a black and white set up who had such powerful hits as E=MC2. We begin, now to here where The Clash’s experimental days were coming into fruition. Now leaving their Punk roots firmly in the ground from whence they came, this band were showing diversity and were not afraid to explore along different sounds, thus appealing, as said before, to all listeners across the record buying public. The subject here is issue based, naturally, another item close to their hearts was the element of War.
‘Hitsville UK’ begins with a rolling, new wave pop them along the lines of The Sty6le Council. Happy clappy fans will wallow in self indulgence within in this angelic themed track. Using a multitude of female and male harmonies, it is regarded as one of those tracks that drifted between genre’s. Absurdly appalling and cheesy to the hilt, it feels along the same lines as Euro Pop meets The Kings Singers. It is too jolly, too mushy and too hopefully happy to be anything standing along side the riotous themes of true Clash tracks. Released, (how dare they!) in August 1981, it was a track that passed us by, thankfully and could never be regarded as a Clash record, we wonder what on Earth it is doing here. Jangle those tinkering bells, it’s all about wearing orange! The buying public of the time were far from being a daft bunch as it failed to reach anything higher than number 56. The following track is, only just a shadow of The Clash sound, but with its’ fine disco, funked up theme, it feels as though The Clash had drifted too far from their secure waters. Now out in the choppy seas of crap recordings, this track titled, ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ is was slightly more memorable than the last. Too Doobi Brothers for me, it was a single that never made it into my collection, even if there is a spare place next to Shalamar….Number 34, was as far as it went, you se, the public weren’t falling for any of this stuff…
The misunderstood youth of the early eighties were up to their eyeballs with baggy shirts and lip-gloss that they prayed heavily for some of the old Clash styles. Thankfully, they weren’t going to have to wait too much longer, although, another rapping disco theme was to come next, ‘This Is radio Clash,’ reminded us more of Wham’s first album. If you would like to try, when no one else is in the house, try singing the lyrics to Wham! Rap to this track, I will assure you, they will fit. The only downside to that, is you will probably find that there is too much Clash at the end of the lyrics..
This next track, was a sigh of relief. ‘Know Your Rights,’ was a Stray Catted track with tonnes of rockabilly stomping. We delighted in this chanting track. Strummer had found his youthful, angry voice yet again and the band had been given a Punk fuelled injection of rock. The fast flicking of the rockabilly riff fit’s the foot thumping backing track in perfect ‘Back To The Alley,’ style. It is a joy to hear, so let’s take that step back in time, don the DM’s and stomp to our hearts content. The Ska themed lyrics give a tribute to the chants of original Ska. Now, we are starting to get the feel of the greatest moments in their recording history.
‘Rock The Casbah,’ will undoubtedly be remembered as The Clash’s finest single. Punctured with self satisfaction, the band work closely with their drum machined backing track. Strummer rolls and wails with this anthemed lyrics. He pours himself in the deep depths of his vocal range. He twists his voice and winds it up and down the bars making this track a timeless piece of art fusing Punk, Pop and disco rock. Released primarily in June 1982, it had been an eye opened and ears were pinned back in vast amounts across the Nation. The British Invasion had returned with triumph paving the way for such artists to experiment with punk/disco lines. On it’s second release it pushed its way to number 1 in April 1991.
A piece to be adopted by every generation as so should this final track, we dip our hats as the genius of ‘Should I Stay Or Should I go?’ More moving towards the heavy rock anthems of the decade, it appears today on compilations along side Whitesnake and Meatloaf. It is hollowed out like a hundred year old Oak tree. The guitar riff leads the whole theme like Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You.’ An audience vocal puller, it draws the attention of the listener to its strength in definition and it’s powerful vocals by Strummer. It was the icing on the cake for this diverse band. Released, like the latter, twice. Firstly in September 1982 where it sat at number 17 and then again in March 1991, where it scored, for the only the second time in their lengthy career, that golden number 1 slot.
Strummer when on to achieve minor acting success in the late nineties before dying at his home of heart failure on the 22nd of December 2002. The epitome of his varied career and vast contribution to British music history came with the post release of ‘StreetCore’ in 2003. ‘His last musical will and testament,’ as it was said.
The legacy of The Clash reminds with us now and beyond. Their immeasurable talent and greatly diverse experimentalist ideas brought genre’s together. A feat that hadn’t been conquered before in any bands’ history. They surely leave behind an array of ‘singles’ that not just led us through the growth of the band from childhood to adult Dom but charted the path of British music history, and all from one purely amazing band.
To The Clash, we salute you.
Joe Strummer – vocals and guitar
Mick Jones – Guitar and vocals
Paul Simonon – bass
Topper Headon – drums.
All songs written by The Clash. Apart from ‘I Fought The Law,’ (Curtis)
Columbia Records 1991
Cost; Six pounds – Music Zone, Nine pounds – HMV. (CD)
©Michelle Hatcher 2006 (on dooyoo.co.uk and ciao, sam1942)
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write by Alma