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The Clash were once the only band that mattered

Before they rocked The Casbah, the Clash staked out ground as ‘the only band that matters’
Nicky “Topper” Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer. Photo courtesy Epic/Legacy/Hanauer/Sipa Press.

Nicky “Topper” Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer. Photo courtesy Epic/Legacy/Hanauer/Sipa Press.

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.

Photo by Bob Gruen

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.

Photo courtesy of CBS

Photo courtesy of CBS

Just seven months after the Clash’s first show, Rhodes secured the group a deal with CBS Records; the band signed the contract on Jan. 27, 1977. A few weeks later, on Feb. 10, the Clash entered CBS Studio 3 to record it first album. Having yet to find a new drummer, Terry Chimes agreed to come back for the sessions. Strummer insisted that Mickey Foote, who’d been the sound mixer for the 101’ers and The Clash, serve as producer — or more accurately, to make sure CBS didn’t foist a producer of its choice onto the group.

The band worked quickly, recording Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 27, completing the album in 12 sessions. The group was anxious that the songs not sound overly produced, and while the music does lack the roughness of the band’s live performances, the album still has a brash freshness that’s invigorating. The Clash eventually got off to a rolling start with “Janie Jones,” with a near-rockabilly beat that gives way to a barrage of guitar riffing, telling the story of a man stuck in a dull job who only lives for rock ’n’ roll, dope and visits to Janie Jones, a famous London madam. “I’m So Bored With The USA” attacked American culture, with references to Watergate and the prevalence of cop shows on TV “’Cause killers in America work seven days a week.”

“White Riot” is one of the band’s finest moments, a whirling frenzy that clocks in at less than two minutes. Some misinterpreted the song’s demand for wanting “a riot of my own” as a racist call-to-arms, which the band strongly denied, explaining it was meant to point out that while blacks had their own culture, whites were reluctant to confront their problems, preferring to exist in a world where “Everybody does what they’re told to” as the song puts it.

The album’s most daring track stylistically was a cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae number “Police & Thieves.” The band members were all fans of reggae, but hadn’t thought of putting a reggae song on their album unless they could do it well. The respectful cover not only showed off the band’s diverse musical skills, it helped broaden their audience. Fine Young Cannibals’ lead singer Roland Gift later recalled how the track made him feel punk was equally open to blacks as whites.

Joe Strummer in 1982. Photo by Frank White

Joe Strummer in 1982. Photo by Frank White

Less than a month after the album’s sessions were completed, the first single, “White Riot,” was released on March 18. The single, in a new mix enhanced by the addition of a wailing siren heard at the song’s beginning and an alarm bell going off toward the end, reached No. 38 in the charts. The album followed on April 8. Though well-received in England, CBS initially decided not to release the album in the U.S., claiming the raw sound was not “radio friendly.” Frustrated American fans began ordering the U.K. album instead, with import sales reportedly topping 100,000, prompting CBS to finally release the album in 1979.

But the U.K. and the U.S. versions are very different, with songs cut from the U.K. version, replaced by newer songs (by then already released in the U.K.) for the U.S. version. The U.K. version’s running order is as follows: (Side One) “Janie Jones,” “Remote Control,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “White Riot,” “Hate & War,” “What’s My Name,” “Deny,” “London’s Burning” (Side Two) “Career Opportunities,” “Cheat,” “Protex Blue,” “Police & Thieves,” “48 Hours,” “Garageland.” On the U.S. version, the running order is: (Side One) “Clash City Rockers,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “Remote Control,” “Complete Control,” “White Riot,” “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” “London’s Burning,” “I Fought the Law” (Side Two) “Janie Jones,” “Career Opportunities,” “What’s My Name,” “Hate and War,” “Police & Thieves,” “Jail Guitar Doors,” “Garageland.” Initial copies of the U.S. album also included a bonus single, “Groovy Times”/“Gates of the West.” The U.S. version of the album reached No. 126 in Billboard.

The new tracks featured the band’s latest drummer, Nicky “Topper” Headon, who joined the group after the February 1977 sessions. Despite stating his intention to leave, Terry Chimes was in the photographs shot for the album’s cover, but was cropped out of the final image chosen for the record. He is credited as “Tory Crimes” (the Tory Party is Britain’s Conservative party) on the sleeve). Headon had briefly played in the London SS. Ironically, his previous band, Fury, had been offered a deal by CBS, who felt that Headon wasn’t a strong enough drummer, so he was kicked out. But he clicked with The Clash and was soon off and running with the group on its first headlining engagement, the “White Riot” tour, that began May 1, a punk package tour that also included The Jam, The Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, and The Slits.

A May 9 gig at London’s Rainbow proved to be a landmark date, the moment when punk decisively crossed into the mainstream. The Rainbow was a legitimate theater, not a club, and where early Clash shows had featured no more than three dozen people, they now faced an audience of more than 3,000. “That was the night punk really broke,” said Strummer. “The audience came and filled it. Trashed the place as well, but it really felt like — through a combination of luck and effort — we were in the right place doing the right thing at the right time. And that kind of night happens once or twice in a lifetime.” For the Clash, there was no looking back.

Now Drastic Plastic hopes to recreate the visceral thrill the band’s original fans received on first listening to The Clash. For Neil Azevedo, the reissue brings back memories of when he first bought the album in 1980 at a record store in a strip mall in Lincoln, Neb., while his friend picked up the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind The Bollocks” album.

“We took them home to my room in my parent’s basement and were subsequently f**king blown away,” he says. “And that was it, I never bought a metal or Top 40 record again. I fell hopelessly in love with music after understanding how powerful it could be. It shaped my thinking, my career and my politics in terms of feeling the need to be a concerned, aware citizen and effect social change when and where I could. We felt as though we were part of this bigger thing that made sense and was powerful and moral. Perhaps it sounds hyperbolic to suggest that listening to The Clash made me a better person, defined me as a person, but that’s exactly what I’m saying. And it’s true.”

It will mark the first time the U.K. version has been released in the U.S., in a limited edition of 5,000 copies pressed on 180-gram vinyl. Subsequent releases will include vinyl reissues of The Clash’s second album, “Give ‘’Em Enough Rope,” the 10-inch “Black Market Clash” EP, and the U.S. version of “The Clash.” All reissues are pressed from the original masters. Reissues of “Combat Rock” and “Sandinista” are also being considered. “London Calling” is available on vinyl through Sony/Legacy.

“Our mission here at the label, our guiding star if you will, is to recreate the original music experience physically, visually and audibly while offering an authentic — albeit 21st century — sound in terms of clarity and sonic quality,” says Azevedo. “We have endeavored to recreate an artifact that reveals a glimpse of the social and political movement that was the energy of 1977 England, not to mention one of the great records of all time. We feel we have risen to the challenge, and what I most want your readers to take away from that is the curiosity to listen to this recording. If they’re familiar with it, they are going to be genuinely surprised by the sound. If they’re unfamiliar with it, well, what a potent treat awaits them.”

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