A review of the Clash's career through their studio records

By Sergio Ariza

The Clash were one of the most important punk bands to emerge in England, but their career became iconic because they were able to shed the restrictions of the genre and open up to other music. Their influence was such that during their short career they were known, among fans and critics, as "the only band that matters". Their composing duo, with Joe Strummer's combative lyrics over Mick Jones' melodies, was one of the best in history, leaving behind a trail of classics. From the '77 riots to the bittersweet breakup of 1985, through the new testament of rock, this is our look back at the band's six studio albums: 

The Clash (1977)

Joe Strummer and Mick Jones saw the future of rock'n'roll in a band that sang "No Future". After discovering the Sex Pistols, they knew that punk was the best medicine to rekindle the flame of the most rebellious rock & roll and to give some attention to certain stars who were stagnating in their own excesses. Their career, once they got together was dizzying, in July 76 they gave their first concert as the support band for, how could it be otherwise, the Pistols. In January, CBS signed them for the fantastic sum of 100,000 pounds (a moment that the most orthodox of the movement saw as "the day punk died"). In March, their first single, the dizzying White Riot, appeared, and the following month their debut album appeared, seven months ahead of the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks. The album confirmed them as the ‘thinking heads of the movement’, becoming rebels in the cause of punk. The Clash is one of the best examples of the fierceness of the genre, full of militant and vitaminic hymns like Janie Jones, White Riot, Remote Control, I'm So Bored With The USA and Career Opportunities. It is a record that leaves you breathless but, from these early moments, one can see that the Clash are forging their way with a musicality that is broader than that of most punk groups, without worrying about showing how much they like 50s rock and roll or reggae, with the inclusion of Junior Murvin's version of Police & Thieves. This was a song that would bring the Jamaican influence to countless groups and that would make Bob Marley himself quote the band favorably in the expressive Punky Reggae Party. For this album, Mick Jones plugged his Les Paul Junior Double Cutaway (a guitar he bought for his admiration of
Johnny Thunders), with a single P-90 pickup, into an Ampeg V4 and 4×12 screens. His interaction with the expressive rhythms of Strummer's Telecaster is one of the genre's hallmarks, and his solos, like on London's Burning, were responsible for bringing rock to punk.

Being a review of the band's discography I can't help but recommend that in addition to the original version, released in the UK in 1977, you should look for the American version of the album, released in July 1979, which removed four songs but included some of the band's best singles such as Complete Control, from 1977, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Clash City Rockers and Jail Guitar Doors, from 1978, and their cover of I Fought the Law, from 1979. Of course, you can also choose from one of their compilations of singles and enjoy other songs like Bankrobber or This Is Radio Clash.


Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978)

The band's most classic album, a more rock sound, courtesy of the producer, Sandy Pearlman, and Mick Jones' new guitar, none other than a '58 Les Paul Standard. It was on this album that the Clash began to make it clear that for them punk was more of an attitude than a simplistic musical concept, the more classic influences being mixed with hits like Tommy Gun, one of their best singles, and Cheapskates, with a raging Jones on guitar. If you want to know what rock & roll is, listen carefully to the moment he reacts to "What we supposed to do?", channeling
Chuck Berry into the solo. The lead guitarist's enormous influence is also evident in the inclusion of one of his best solo songs, Stay Free, a thrilling reminder of his adventures with his childhood friend, Robin Banks, who served time in prison. His Les Paul plugged into a Table/Boogie Mark 1 seems almost excited when Jones sings "But go easy...step lightly...stay free" and responds with one of the best moments of his career. Give 'Em Enough Rope is the most underrated record of the band’s career, a time bomb that opens with the unstoppable Safe European Home, about Strummer and Jones' trip to Jamaica in late 77, and it contains jewels like those mentioned or the wonderful Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad, with Allen Lanier from Blue Öyster Cult showing off on the piano, Last Gang In Town, the folk touches, passed on to punk, from English Civil War or the tribute to Mott the Hoople in All The Young Punks.


London Calling (1979)

By 1979 the punk formula was over and the genre was drowning in its own postulates, as after the first wave of 1977 the grain had been separated from the chaff. Many punk bands didn't have enough quality to have a career (some not even for a single) but the Clash had proved that they were a different matter. The band was the most committed group of their generation (for some the only committed one) and they had always understood that the importance of punk lay in the attitude and not in the simple three-chord songs. Nina Simone could be punk and Bob Marley could be punk. With London Calling the prejudices were over and Strummer and Jones decided that Jimmy Jazz, a song with big band airs, or Brand new cadillac, a rock and roll number by Vince Taylor, could be as valid as White Riot. It wasn't 1977 anymore and even the Stones had been rejuvenated by the movement and had released their particular reaction album, Some Girls.

The Clash recorded the album for a couple of months, with Jones and Strummer as the main composers of the 19 songs but with Paul Simonon, the group's bassist, making his debut in this section with one of the fundamental pieces of the album, the combative Guns of Brixton, a dub reggae with which he also made his debut as lead singer. In spite of being a double album, London Calling doesn't have a single second to spare, from the moment when Strummer's Telecaster and Jones' Las Paul Custom start hammering out the chords of the song that gives the album its title, to the moment when it closes with the effervescent Train In Vain, the album doesn't miss a beat. Here is Strummer's homage to the losing side of the Spanish Civil War in Spanish Bombs, the reggae of Rudie Can't Fail and Revolution Rock, the ska of Wrong 'Em Boyo, the wink to
Bo Diddley on Hateful, the unstoppable horns of The Right Profile, the explosive Clampdown, the chorus of Death Or Glory and the good vibes of Lover's Rock. The album was released in December 1979 in England but in the USA it wasn't until January 1980 that Rolling Stone magazine declared it the most important album of the 80s, something that doesn't sound at all exaggerated. But beyond their multiple recognitions and influences, London Calling turned the Clash into the most influential band of its time. The mixture of punk, reggae, ska, soul, pop and rock gave way to many groups getting rid of their inhibitions and flying free. The album, whose cover imitated that of Elvis Presley's first album, was to be called The New Testament but the company rejected it. It was a pity because the title fits like a glove, being a new beginning for rock music in which everything was allowed, as long as there was something to say (and Joe Strummer always had a lot to say).


Sandinista! (1980)

What do you do when you've released one of the best double albums in history? Joe Strummer and his guys had it figured out, to put out a triple. Sandinista! has two problems, the first is that it was the continuation of the great masterpiece of the Clash, London Calling, while the second is that this time there was really a lot of filling, as this triple could have perfectly been a double. Of course, the Clash put everything into it to outdo themselves, Strummer and Jones launched themselves into the abyss without a net with a record which experiments with dub, rap, reggae, funk, calypso and anything else they could think of. Maybe the world didn't need a cover version of Career Opportunities sung by the sons of keyboardist Mickey Gallagher, but any album with a cover as outstanding as Police On My Back (at the height of the mythical I Fought The Law), the Jamaican echoes of Junco Partner, the white funk of The Magnificent Seven, the tribute toMotown in Hitsville UK', The Leader's rockabilly, The Call Up's nods to reggae, the brilliant riff of Up in Heaven (Not Only Here), the irresistible Something About England, the reggae of Corner Soul, the gospel of Sound Of Sinners or the vindictive Washington Bullets, with marimba included, is a great album.


Combat Rock (1982)

The Clash's last record with Mick Jones still in their ranks should have been the band's farewell album. Had it been, they would have retired with a remarkable album featuring three of the best songs of their career, Should I Stay Or Should I Go, Rock The Casbah and Straight To Hell, a song about the mixed-race children left behind by American soldiers in Vietnam and whose iconic instrumental start would be the foundation for one of the best songs of the 21st century. M.I.A.’s Paper Planes. Combat Rock became the most successful album of their career, hitting number 2 in the UK and 7 in the US, and made them stars on both sides of the Atlantic. The album didn't just have this trio of aces, it started with Strummer shouting "This is a public service announcement with guitar" on Know Your Rights and contained things like Car Jamming, a kind of Bo Diddley beat passed through reggae, with an excellent performance by Strummer. There was also Red Angel Dragnet, sung by Simonon, another Jamaican dub in the style of his Guns Of Brixton. Overpowered By Funk saw them totally fascinated by contemporary black music, one of the songs in which you can see Jones' approach to the nascent New York hip hop scene, a New Wave funk that related them to the Talking Heads. Atom Tan shows, once again, how well the voices of Strummer and Jones combine, while in Sean Flynn they return to Vietnam - the shadow of Apocalypse Now was lengthy - talking about the disappearance of photographer Sean Flynn, son of the famous actor Errol. The song has a great sax solo by Gary Barnacle. In Ghetto Defendant the poet Allen Ginsberg appears, and musically they are once again fascinated by Jamaican dub. And they finish it off with the strange Death Is A Star, a kind of 1920s jazz song that would not have sounded out of place on a film noir soundtrack.


Cut The Crap (1985)

And then we reach the final low point, a poorly produced and uninspired album in which Jones' absence was very noticable, and in which the eighties sound was eating away at the band, with Strummer's voice buried in the final edition. Still, this is the Clash and there were at least three good songs on it, The Dirty Punk, a kind of return to the days of White Riot, This Is England, the last great song by the Clash, in Strummer's own words, and Three Card Trick, where they returned to reggae (although the programmed drumming on this song is a crime). But it's not enough to save Cut The Crap from being a wreck. It's a pity that the discography of one of the best bands of all times ends up in such a way, so it's better to recommend a more suitable closure, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros' Streetcore; the album that was released after Strummer's death in 2003, and recovers the essences of the golden age of the band he led so brilliantly.


© Massimo D'Angelo