The Clash were once the only band that mattered

Photo by Bob Gruen

Musically, Strummer and Jones were writing very fast, in an effort to catch up with the new musical scene they felt was exploding around them. Rhodes encouraged them to write about current events, avoiding what Strummer called “loveydovey stuff” — like “Keys To Your Heart.” “There was a lot of discontent, because that was really the first time that a generation had grown up and realized they didn’t really have any future,” Strummer later told biographer Chris Salewicz. “The ’60s were a booming time in England…science hadn’t reached any kind of dead end, and pollution hadn’t become a topic, and the economy was booming. By that time in the seventies the generation had realized that there wasn’t going to be a lot going for it. So we were really articulating what a lot of young people were feeling.”

The band’s songs had a raw energy that perfectly captured the prevailing zeitgeist. “1977” drew a generational line in the sand with its taunt “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977.” The dead-end life British youth had to look forward to was chronicled in “Career Opportunities” (inspired by scanning the want ads in the daily paper), and “London’s Burning,” with its chorus “London’s burning with boredom now.” Even criticism provided fuel for songs; after the group was slammed in the New Musical Express (“The Clash are the sort of garage band that should be speedily returned to the garage, preferably with the motor still running”) they responded with the song “Garageland,” which defiantly proclaimed “I don’t want to go to where the rich are going/They think they’re so clever, they think they’re so right/But the truth is only known by gutter snipes/We’re a garage band and we come from garageland.” The chaos of the riots at that year’s Notting Hill Carnival in London, where black youth battled with the police on the streets, was distilled into the fury of “White Riot.”

Strummer had clearly left his pub rock days behind him. “I was surprised that Joe could pull it off,” says Julien Temple, then an aspiring filmmaker who was already shooting footage of the Pistols.

Temple knew Strummer from his days in the 101’ers, “So I’d seen him in the hippie days,” he says, “and my first impression was, ‘How the hell can he pull off being a punk rocker like the Pistols?’ He did look a bit over-punked — too much bleach in the hair, he had a pink blazer like a kid’s school blazer. It did look like he was trying a bit hard. I think the other Clash members saw that, too, and had him turn it down a bit. But when they were on stage, it only took about two seconds to realize this was amazing. He did totally pull it off, and pull it forward. He was amazing.”

Mick Jones also lived in Temple’s flat for a bit, “so I was quite close to them,” Temple says. “I had a good relationship with all of them I think, even though I was more middle class — other than Joe! I had a little bit of a thing with Joe because it takes one to know one. He was trying really hard to be a reinvented street punk, and he didn’t want to have some idiot like me hanging around. Class was a huge mental thing at that stage, particularly in the punk movement, which was supposed to be very pure and rising up from the streets. But it takes all types to make a revolution.”

Temple also shot rehearsal footage of The Clash during this period, later used in the documentary “The Future Is Unwritten: Joe Strummer,” which reveals that the band’s intensity was present from its first performances. Temple also made videos for some of the group’s early songs. “Really hilariously primitive,” he says. “Like for ‘London’s Burning’ we used postcards of London Bridge and Buckingham Palace. It’s quite good, actually!”

By September, Levene was out of the Clash, Strummer simply announcing that “He’s not really a part of what we’re doing.” Jones took over on lead guitar, and the group continued building its reputation playing shows around London. Live reviews had prompted record labels to start taking an interest, and in November, they were offered a chance to record demos for Polydor Records. Working with producer Guy Stevens, the group recorded early versions of “Career Opportunities,” “1977,” “London’s Burning,” “White Riot” and “Janie Jones.”

The band wasn’t happy with how the demos came out (Strummer described them as “very flat … dull”), and a second blow arrived when Terry Chimes announced that he wanted to quit, his departure attributed to “ideological disputes.” Rob Harper filled in on the kit for the rest of the year, which included a spot on The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In the U.K.” tour that was slated to begin in December. But on Dec. 1, The Pistols appeared as last-minute guests on the U.K. television show “Today” and outraged viewers by indulging in copious swearing, live on air. Most of the tour ended up being canceled by nervous promoters as a result, but as The Pistols became increasingly embroiled in controversies that had little to do with their music, The Clash was able to come to the fore. Strummer later recalled that a Dec. 9 show at the Electric Circus in Manchester was the moment he knew the group would make it. “We were better than The Pistols,” he told Salewicz. “They had a really hard time following us. We blew them off the stage.” That Strummer had felt just as blown away when he first saw The Pistols a mere eight months previously says much about his growing confidence.

One thought on “The Clash were once the only band that mattered

  1. The Clash saved me from an absolutey boring life of being a high school teacher, married with two small children living in Lost Causes
    New Mexico. They were fresh, vibrant, angry, a bit snotty and British
    and there-in lies the difference between US & UK punk. The Ramones were also my favorite and I remember hearing the Sex Pistols LP the 1st time!!! WOWOWOWOWOWOWOW…British, not Scarsdale. I still have a sealed copy of London Calling…anyone? For me, the Beatles defined the 60′s, The Clash the 70′s and Video Killed the Radio Star…Ciao

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