Quite simply, the Clash were among the most explosive and exciting bands in rock and roll history. They played a major role in creating and defining the punk movement. If the short-lived Sex Pistols were glorious nihilists, then the Clash expressed punk’s impassioned political conscience. Their explosive, uptempo punk-rock manifestos were unleashed with pure adrenaline and total conviction. Following the Sex Pistols’ dissolution in January 1978, the Clash became the central voice of the punk movement and remained at the forefront for five years. Their albums - The Clash (1977), Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) - captured the tumult of the times with unerring instinct and raw power.
The Clash possessed an indefinable chemistry that makes for a great band. Rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer wrote most of the words and lead guitarist Mick Jones generated with much of the music. Bassist Paul Simonon’s background in painting and sculpture helped shape the band’s aesthetic overview. Topper Headon was a journeyman drummer who found his niche powering the Clash. “As a mix of personalities,” noted writer Lenny Kaye, “the Clash was a perfect engine.” They ran hottest on a concert stage, where all their political zeal and undaunted idealism found expression in music erupted with an exhilarating forcefulness. Lester Bangs described the Clash in concert as “a desperation uncontrived, unstaged, a fury unleashed on the stage and writhing upon itself in real pain that connects with the nerves of the audience.” Only a month before his untimely death in 2002, Joe Strummer recalled the Clash onstage in similar terms: “It was like a fireworks display,” he told writer Jon Weiderhorn. “It was like, ‘Bang!’ As soon as that first tune came in it seemed to us like three seconds before we hit the last chord of the last tune. It was like a psychedelic, kinetic blur.”
Fittingly, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer met on a dole queue (unemployment line). The group formed in June 1976 when Strummer left his pub-rock band, the 101’ers, to join Jones, Paul Simonon and guitarist Keith Levene - members of the Jones-led London SS - in a new project. Terry Chimes (a.k.a. “Tory Crimes”) was picked to play drums, and Levene left a few months later, eventually forming Public Image Ltd. with Johnny Rotten. When the Clash came together in London, Strummer was living as a squatter in a communal house, while Jones shared his grandmother’s flat. Both were well-situated to write about the rampant boredom, poverty and class warfare that guided the punk outlook. Bassist Simonon suggested they call themselves “the Clash” after noticing how frequently that word appeared in a newspaper he happened to be perusing. With its insinuation of conflict, they couldn’t have picked a better name.
Their landmark first album, The Clash, was cut in three weekends and released in Britain in April 1977. It included such punk-rock anthems as “White Riot,” “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” and “London’s Burning.” Their reworking of Junior Murvin’s reggae classic “Police & Thieves” signaled an early recognition of the common ground between the punk and reggae communities. The Clash has been called “archetypal, resplendent punk,” and it was one of those paradigm-shifting albums that forever altered the course of rock. Ironically, it was not initially released by the band’s American label, Epic, which deemed it “too crude.” (As a further irony, the label would later sticker Clash releases with these words: “The Only Band That Matters.”) Word of mouth and favorable press made The Clash one of the best-selling imports in history and Epic released a bastardized version of the album in 1979.
In late 1977 and early 1978, the Clash issued a series of non-album singles - “Complete Control,” “Clash City Rockers” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” - that connected like a series of street communiqués. Their second album, 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, found the group tightening its sound on such quintessential tracks as “Safe European Home” and “Stay Free.” The group’s acknowledged classic, the double album London Calling, appeared in December 1979 in the U.K. and January 1980 in the U.S. Appropriately, it brought the best aspects of 1970s punk - slamming energy and anti-establishment attitude - into the new decade with a fresh sense of engagement and intelligence. Produced by Guy Stevens, London Calling was one of the essential albums of the 1980s. The Clash charted their first American hit, “Train in Vain” (Number 23) from London Calling - although, in iconoclastic Clash fashion, the song was added at the last minute and went unlisted on the jacket. Intentional or not, this omission suggested that the band meant to distance itself from the machinations of fame - or at least have control over the process. Rude Boy, a 1980 film about the Clash and their punk-rock milieu, contained concert sequences that demonstrate why they were considered one of rock’s greatest live acts.
The Clash followed London Calling with Sandinista!, another multi-sided opus. The Clash agreed to a diminished royalty rate so that the triple album could be affordably retailed. Despite the enormous body of material, song quality remained high throughout Sandinista!, which included the Clash classics “The Magnificent Seven” The Call Up,” “Police on My Back,” and ”Washington Bullets.” London Calling and Sandinista! both fared well in America, charting at Number 27 and Number 24, respectively - impressive showings for a double and triple album.
The Clash’s final album, Combat Rock, ushered them out with a somewhat qualified bang. Released in 1982, Combat Rock peaked at Number Seven on the album chart and yielded a Top 10 hit, “Rock the Casbah.” It also included “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” a garage-rock homage. Nine years later, the song would go to Number One on re-release in England, belatedly giving the band its only Number One hit in their homeland. By the time of Combat Rock, the Clash were feuding internally, and it’s perhaps appropriate that this pioneering punk band fractured on the cusp of stardom. The original foursome performed for the last time at a 1983 California rock festival. Shortly thereafter, Jones left the Clash, resurfacing with Big Audio Dynamite. A reconstituted Clash, including only Strummer and Simonon from the original group, released Cut the Crap in 1985 and disbanded the next year.
The three founding members - Strummer, Jones and Simonon - cooperated in the compiling of a live album (From Here to Eternity) and video documentary (Westway to the World), released in 1999. If not exactly a reunion, it was a rapprochement. On November 15, 2002, Jones and Strummer shared the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, performing three Clash songs during the encore of a London benefit show by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. This raised hopes for a Clash reunion, which were dashed when Strummer died of a heart attack on December 22, 2002.