By Gillian Gaar
On April 8, 1977, the British punk act the Clash released its debut album on CBS Records in the UK. Simply titled “The Clash,” the album featured 14 cuts in the short-sharp-shock tradition of the day, most of which ran under two-and-a-half minutes. Though the British fanzine Sniffin’ Glue lamented “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS,” the album has gone on to become a classic of the punk era. At the time of its release, it reached No. 12 in the U.K., and has since regularly landed on “Best Punk Albums” lists in both U.S. and U.K. publications. Once heralded as “The only band that matters” in an early promotional slogan, it’s clear that the band’s legacy still matters to music fans today.
Now U.S. fans will be able to experience “The Clash” in both its original format — vinyl — and its original U.K. running order (which differed greatly from the U.S. version of the album) with a new reissue on Omaha, Neb.,-based Drastic Plastic Records. “When we decided to actively pursue bringing classic punk and post-punk titles back into print on vinyl we wanted to begin with something essential, as well as a recording that we all felt personally close to,” explains Neil Azevedo, general manager, A&R, at Drastic Plastic. “The Clash’s debut was our top choice.”
The original album came out more than 30 years ago; now, 21st century music fans can be introduced (or re-introduced) to the band’s timeless brand of righteous punk rock.
The Clash came together in 1976, as a new generation was in the process of transforming the musical landscape in Britain. John Graham Mellor was a member of that new generation, a rock fan who’d dropped out of art school to become a musician. His first band, The Vultures, was based in Wales; when that group broke up in 1974, he moved to London and formed pub-rock outfit The 101’ers, named after the address where the band members squatted, in an abandoned house. Mellor, guitarist and vocalist in the band, had by then taken on the nickname “Woody,” after Woody Guthrie, and by mid-1975, he’d adopted a new name, Joe Strummer. It was part of a continual process of crafting a new identity; John Mellor came from a well-off family and had been sent to private school. “Joe Strummer” was a name, and a personality, that had more street credibility.
The 101’ers played rough-and-ready covers of songs like Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and Chuck Berry songs, along with original numbers, like “Keys To Your Heart” (released as a single on U.K.-based Chiswick Records). But things were about to change dramatically for Strummer. On April 3, 1976, The Sex Pistols opened for the 101’ers at London’s Nashville club. Strummer was blown away. “As soon as Johnny Rotten hit the stand, right, the writing was on the wall, as far as I was concerned,” he said. “They came out and they just, just cleaned me out.” Strummer became an instant devotee of punk, and the days of the 101’ers were numbered.
What Strummer didn’t know is that he was already being eyed by a new group of musicians. Bernard Rhodes was a friend of Malcolm McLaren, The Sex Pistols’ manager, and he was looking to work with a group himself. He’d become friends with guitarist Mick Jones, who had also been mightily impressed by The Sex Pistols, and was struggling to get his own band, London SS, off the ground (the group would eventually split without having played a single live show). Jones had now joined forces with Keith Levene (later of Public Image Limited) on guitar, and Paul Simonon on bass, but they had yet to find a permanent lead singer or drummer.
Jones had seen the 101’ers perform and liked the power of Strummer’s performance. Rhodes encouraged him to speak to Strummer about joining his group, but Jones demurred. So Rhodes took it upon himself to approach Strummer at another Sex Pistols show at London’s 100 Club on May 25, asking him to considering throwing in his lot with a new band. On June 1, Strummer arrived where Jones and Simonon were living. “We were all terrified,” Mick Jones remembered. “He was already Joe Strummer, he was already somebody … It was a big deal getting Joe Strummer.” But the musicians hit it off from the beginning, and they were soon working on songs, including “Protex Blue” and “I’m So Bored With You.” Both would later appear on “The Clash,” the latter number rewritten as “I’m So Bored With the USA.” The 101’ers would play their last show on June 5.
Terry Chimes, who’d played in some of Jones’ previous bands, was finally brought in as a drummer. On July 4, the group played their first show, opening for The Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield. It was Simonon who thought up the group’s name — the Clash, inspired by newspaper headlines that kept mentioning the word. The group also worked on establishing a new visual, as well as a musical, style — not surprising, given that Strummer, Jones, and Simonon had all attended art school. Gone were the flared jeans of the early ’70s; tight, drainpipe trousers were the new look (“Like trousers, like brain,” Strummer joked to Sniffin’ Glue). They also spattered paint on their clothes (following the “drip paint” style of Jackson Pollock), or wrote stark slogans like “Creative Violence” or “Heavy Duty Discipline” on them.