How can one explain the tremendous importance of the Clash? The Londoners were not, by any means, virtuosos on their instruments, but they had what makes rock & roll big, raw energy, rage, fury, heart, and most importantly, the songs. In a way, they were the face of the rebirth of rock & roll through punk. They were also the band who best knew how to break the restrictions of the genre, taking punk as more of an attitude than a musical style, drawing from all possible sources, with a mix that reached the four corners of the world. Somehow they lived up to the myth that said they were “the only band that matters”. Much of the credit can go to the leading man in this article, Mick Jones, the musical brain of the band over the lyrical heart of Joe Strummer. If the latter wrote the message, Jones and his guitar put in the hooks.
Mick Jones was born in London on June 26, 1955, and grew up in the troubled south end of the city, getting into all kinds of problems alongside his school mate Robin Banks. The only chance they had to escape a life without a future was through music and crime. Jones took the first, Banks the second. Their childhood idols were the usual suspects, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, and the rest, but when he became a teenager he was crazy about Glam rock. The first band he followed all over England were Mott the Hoople, but the ones who stole his heart were the New York Dolls. After seeing them he decided it was time to get a Les Paul Junior like Johnny Thunders, locked himself in his room with his favourite records until he was able to play them. Shortly after he formed his first band, The Delinquents, still clearly glam rock. In 1975 his mate Tony James joined the group and they changed the name to London SS. In addition, Bernard Rhodes became their manager. Rhodes was an associate of Malcolm McLaren, the man who was creating the Sex Pistols, and Rhodes wanted his own band.
In February of ‘76, Jones saw the Sex Pistols live for the first time and everything changed for him. It’s ironic how he saw the future open up by seeing a band whose most memorable slogan rejected it. The future was in front of him and there was no turning back, he had new values and a new scene, his long hair was gone and his guitar was harder and sharper. When London SS broke up, Rhodes stuck with Jones and got together with Keith Levine and a kid who hardly knew how to play bass but had the perfect look for the new revolution that was cooking, it was Paul Simonon. At the start Jones took charge of guiding him, by painting the chords on the frets so he would not go wrong.
One day Rhodes told them he had found the perfect frontman for the band, Joe Strummer, a veteran of the pub rock scene with the 101ers. Jones and Simonon went to see him and found a soulmate, Strummer had also seen a before and after in the Pistols . When they got together there was no way back, like starting from scratch, with no past, just a future. They shut themselves in a room and great ideas began to emerge. In one of their first rehearsals they began to play a song Jones had written about his girlfriend, I’m So Bored with You, from there Strummer turned it into I’m So Bored with the U.S.A., the love songs were over, from then on they would speak of things that really mattered, becoming punk’s ideologists, if the Pistols only offered anarchy the Clash would offer answers to a bored youth with no opportunities.
On July 4, 1976 they played their debut as backup for the Pistols in Sheffield. In January of 1977, with punk all over the media and Levene out of the group, the band was signed by CBS for 100,000 pounds, the mosto orthodox fans of the movement declared it “the day that punk died”. However, signing with a multinational didn’t slow them down a bit, in March they put out their first single, White Riot, in what they called the uprising: “All the power's in the hands Of people rich enough to buy it / While we walk the street Too chicken to even try it”. Musically it was a torch as vivid as its message, bringing back the excitement of the first rock & roll of the 50s, with Jones sounding like Chuck Berry.
Their debut album didn’t take long and was released the next month, it was as exciting as their introduction single. The record confirmed them as the thinking heads of punk. If the Sex Pistols were anarchy and desperation, The Clash were rebels with a cause. The album is still one of the best examples of the fierceness of the genre, full of militant hymns like Janie Jones, White Riot, Remote Control, and Career Opportunities but from the beginning the Clash were forging their way with a broader musicianship than most punk bands without worrying about showing how much they liked rock & roll or reggae with a cover of Police & Thieves by Junior Murvin. On the recording, Jones plugs in his Les paul Junior Double Cutaway, with the P-90 pickups, an Ampeg V4 and 4x12 cabinets, his interaction with Strummer’s expressive rhythms on his Telecaster was one of the hallmarks of the genre and his solos, as in London’s Burning; they were the ones who put rock in punk.
They had become part of the magic punk pair together with the Pistols, something like the new Beatles/Stones, but their drummer Terry Chimes wasn’t down with the philosophy of the band, he wanted to get rich, so he ended up leaving the group. That was how Topper Headon, an amazing musician who could play jazz and funk and several other instruments, entered the scene, becoming the 4th legendary member of the band. It didn’t take long for him to be noticed, in May the label released Remote Control as a single without telling the band. Not long after the Clash responded with Complete Control, one of the best punk singles in history, where they attack their own label and Jones showed that the hours he put into playing at home had paid off. At the beginning of 1977, fully immersed in the punk pathos, he declared “I don’t believe in guitar heros”, in less than a year, Joe Strummer would exclaim ecstatically in Complete Control: “You’re My Guitar Hero!”.
Their horizons broadened in 1978, first with (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, a song that opens with an powerful guitar by Jones which gives in to a slower ska rhythm, punk was beginning to mix into other genres, in this case Jamaican reggae and the Clash started to expand their musical vocabulary, scandalising their hardcore fans. By the end of the year they cut their 2nd album Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and many saw this as a sellout to rock, especially because they hired Sandy Pearlman (famous for his work with Blue Öyster Cult) as producer. But that wasn’t even the case, it’s true that the record is not as direct as the debut, but is much more varied musically, and Jones especially shines, showing his love for Mott the Hoople on All the Young Punks, with his sharp solos on English Civil War and Cheapskates, the jazzy arrangements in Julie’s Been Working for a Drug Squad, and a one-note solo on Tommy Gun, the most direct and punk song on the album. And let’s not forget one of the jewels in the crown, Stay Free, also sing by him where he recalls his childhood days with his mate Robin Banks who wound up in jail. The solo at the end of the song is perhaps his best musical moment. On this record his gear is much more ‘classical’, replacing the Junior for a 1958 Les Paul Standard, plugged into a Mesa/Boogie Mark 1. Strummer also changed his guitar for a Gibson ES-345 because his beloved Strat was being repaired.
But if there were changes in 1978, 1979 brought the tsunami named London Calling. It was anticipated by one of its best singles, a cover of I Fought the Law, which shows Jones’ genius as an arranger, making the song his own. Then in December of the same year when punk was fading, London Calling appeared. The Clash knew that the importance of punk was in the attitude, not in simple 3-chord songs. They all had big ears so the prejudices were over and Strummer and Jones decided that Jimmy Jazz, a song with ‘big band’ sound, the pop bits on Spanish Bombs and Brand New Cadillac, a rock and roll number by Vince Taylor could all be as punk as White Riot. To do away with their own restrictions, they close the album with Train in Vain, another gem sung by Jones, which is nothing more than a love song. This time the Standard was replaced by 2 Customs and a Stratocaster, as well as another basic element of their sound, the Roland Space Echo.
The record was their absolute best and Rolling Stone Magazine called it the best album of the 80s (released in January of 1980 in the USA). It also opened a new market in America and the band went to New York to record their next offering. Jones fell in love with the upcoming hip hop and included new musics into the mix, but this time it was too much. To outdo London Calling Strummer and Jones launched themselves into a triple album experimenting with dub, rap, reggae, calypso, and anything that popped into their heads. Unlike London Calling, Sandinista! has too many things going on but the good ones definitely outdo the low ones. Any record with Police On My Back (where he does the sound of a police siren on his guitar), The Magnificent Seven, Somebody Got Murdered and Washington Bullets, is a good record.
With hardly any time they got down to work on what was to be their next record, Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, Jones was the one most in favour of experimenting and looking for new horizons and he wanted a new double album but the rest of the band didn’t. Glyn Johns was hired to cut it down to a single record, and the result was Combat Rock. It was their most successful record and had 2 of their most popular singles Rock the Casbah and Should I Stay or Should I Go?, another song sung by Jones that became strangely prophetic. Before the record was released, Headon was let go for his drug problems, but the biggest blow was in September 1983, when Jones was fired by Strummer. They went on without him, but even Strummer knew that the Clash without Jones didn’t make sense.
As for Mick Jones, he never stopped trying new things, putting his guitar into danceable music with Big Audio Dynamite and other projects. But the magic of “the only band that matters” would never reappear. As Strummer himself explained, the chemistry of the 4 components could never be replicated again. Despite overcoming their differences soon enough, they never reformed the band, although when Strummer died in 2002 they were about to get together to perform at their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same year Strummer and Jones did get back onstage and the old chemistry emerged again, Joe didn’t need to say what everyone was thinking: “You’re my guitar hero!”.