When punk swaggered onto the scene in the mid 1970s, few could predict how explosive it proved to be; challenging regimes, sneering at the politicians in their ivory towers and, best of all, taking the music scene by storm. One of the frontrunners of British punk was aptly-named The Clash; led by energetic frontman, Joe Strummer. With guitarist (and occasional lead singer) Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon, the classic line-up was complete. Though the band would later go on to fracture down the road, in the meantime, the world was theirs to set alight.
From the band’s 1977 eponymous debut, they had the younger generation hooked, with cynical commentary on the state of their homeland; rebellious lyrics, dystopian imagery and promises of revolution. London Calling, the band’s third release, broke the American market, and firmly established the fierce foursome as a force of unstoppable nature. The youth had enough. And though their guillotines were swapped for six-stringed riffs, The Clash would set the world to rights.
Such a band have explored the rich tapestry of music; though their mainstay would always be the unrivalled fuzz and fury of punk, they’ve written ska songs, reggae songs, hard-edged rockers and poppy masterpieces alike. Rockabilly, funk, new wave, all have knelt at the altar of Strummer and co. What then, are such a band’s greatest achievements? Their best tracks, standing out among the rest? Well, I’ve done my best to pick them – the result of a lot of listening, and a lot of headbanging.
As always, I start such a list with the band’s honourable mentions; their timeless tracks that just weren’t quite enough to make the final list, but worth a note, nonetheless. Though I feel honour is an arbitrary concept made up by those in power, so for this list, we’ll dub them dishonourable mentions. There.
Career Opportunities – 1977’s The Clash
(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais – 1978 stand-alone single, later featured on the 1979 US release of the band’s debut, The Clash
Safe European Home – 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope
Spanish Bombs, Train in Vain – 1979’s London Calling
Police on My Back – 1980’s Sandinista!
We Are the Clash, This Is England – 1985’s Cut the Crap
Combat That Rocks: The Top Ten:
Without further ado, the main event. Ten* tracks which stood out above the rest.
11. Somebody Got Murdered (1980 – Sandinista!) – *Yes, I’ve put this at number eleven, but I felt guilty excluding anything from the band’s Sandinista! album in the final list. The 36-track record – originally released as a triple LP – has more than its fair share of filler, admittedly, but this track is so chillingly indifferent. The soft, almost juvenile rhythm, fused with some of Jones’ quietest vocals, make for a haunting comment on the state of the UK at that time. Somebody got murdered, and no one really cares. Undeniably one of their best.
10. London Calling (1979 – London Calling) – This had to make the list, it just had to. The track proves Bowiesque in how damn relentless it is; pummeling the idea of apocalyptic Britain into our minds, with references to nuclear warfare, police brutality, drugs and a general sense of decay. ‘London calling to the Underworld…’ is such a powerful line, delivered by Strummer in the best way possible – over the top and desperate, in stark contrast to our previous choice. Those opening chords from Mick Jones will forever be etched into music history.
9. The Guns of Brixton (1979 – London Calling) – Few bands can utilize the singing potential of three of their members. This track, amongst the most reggae The Clash have ever gone, was written and sang by bassist Paul Simonon, and its sublime. Though written before the infamous 1981 Brixton riots, it encapsulates the boiling point of the area at that time; focusing on a paranoid Black man who has to witness brutality on the streets every day. It’s a poignant slice of contemporary life, and one Simonon captured flawlessly. You can hear the emotion, the fear, the urgency in every verse. ‘You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you’ll have to answer to, oh, the guns of Brixton’.
8. Rudie Can’t Fail (1979 – London Calling) – Another reggae track, this time as a duet between Strummer and Jones, promising one of the deeper cuts of London Calling. It praises the attitude of the younger generation in Jamaica decades earlier, who challenged the beliefs of their elders, and generally acted as they wanted to. The stuff punk was made from. The title phrase appears in a bombastic beat, and never fails to invoke a sway or two. It’s one of the best songs on an already impressive record.
7. English Civil War (1978 – Give ‘Em Enough Rope) – When Strummer learnt ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ (a traditional piece that emerged during the American Civil War) at school, he knew it needed an update. And with war ever on the horizon – ‘War is just around the corner. Johnny hasn’t got far to march,’ as the Clash frontman said himself – it came at just the right time. ‘English Civil War’ makes punk mincemeat of the original, with angry ‘Hurrah, Hurrah!’s contorting into a garbled mess after every couplet. The last thirty seconds are blistering. It’s an everyman song, and another great observation of society from the British bad boys.
6. Should I Stay or Should I Go (1982 – Combat Rock) – Certainly The Clash’s biggest, and possibly the poppiest they ever went. But it is catchy, and that riff is killer all these years later. It’s softer than the band’s earlier material, lyric-wise, but as vitriolic when posed to a potential love interest. ‘So come on and let me know!’ is delivered wonderfully. When the track picks up speed like a runaway train, aided by the backing vocals – in Spanish, for those curious – it becomes a classic rock track. It went on to go platinum in the band’s homeland, for good reason.
5. White Riot (1977 – The Clash) – The band’s debut is a raw mix of distorted guitar and Strummer off the leash. ‘Career Opportunities’, ‘Protex Blue’ and ‘Police & Thieves’ prove the eclectic sound of a band finding their feet. But it’s one of the album’s shortest, under two minutes, that’s the clear winner. ‘White Riot’ became the band’s first single, and with clattering guitarwork from Strummer and Jones, it’s clear why. It deals with race and class – leading many to misinterpret the song completely – and it does so in a beastly way.
4. Clampdown (1979 – London Calling) – Punk is all about challenging authority and telling the powers that be to, impolitely, fuck off. No better example of this in the band’s discography is ‘Clampdown’, a fast-paced anthem on the utter evil of the government. ‘Only a fool would think someone could save you’ embodies the track, which discusses the menial nature of youth work, controlling behavior and treachery of working for those who make others’ lives Hell. The chorus is downright infectious, and just what the country needed in the late ‘70s. A wake-up call. We still do.
3. Death or Glory (1979 – London Calling) – Yet another inclusion from London Calling, but it’s tough to deny that it remains the band’s best work; with surprisingly little filler and some legendary rockers. Enter, ‘Death or Glory’, one of the band’s biggest. Poking fun at the foolish notion of rockstars saying they’d rather die than grow old (Ahem, ‘My Generation’), it doesn’t hold back in its sheer rage. ‘He who fucks nuns will later join the Church’ is nothing short of genius, and ‘From every dingy basement, on every dingy street. Every dragging handclap over every dragging beat’ is such a satisfying line. For the Clash, it has real rhythm, direction, and will always be one of their best. No doubt.
2. The Card Cheat (1979 – London Calling) – Influenced by the poetry of Plath, co-written by every member, featuring a horn section and dealing with murder, ‘The Card Cheat’ is a masterstroke of a song. The opening piano is haunting; and the rest of the track is just as dark. The ‘Card Cheat’ in question is a gambler who pushes his luck too far and ends up being shot in the back of the head in the middle of the casino. ‘He only wanted more time, away from the darkest door’ paints a horrifying image. It’s one of those songs that builds and builds and builds, making for a truly hidden gem amidst the rest of London Calling. The first time I heard this, I was blown away.
1. Complete Control (1979 – US only release of The Clash) – By now, you should be familiar with Strummer’s iconic sneer and jeer at those above the working man. But even for the four boys from London, ‘Complete Control’ reaches the vitriolic stratosphere. Right out of the gate, the riff is untamable. ‘Remote Control’ was a track that appeared on the band’s debut, against their wishes, and the first line tells you all you need to know. ‘They said, ‘Release ‘Remote Control’’, but we didn’t want it on the label’. It’s a song that lashes out at record companies and executives, detailing the uphill struggle the band had endured up to that point. Their fans are kicked out, the police are at every hotel they stay at, and those in charge want, well, complete control. ‘They said we’d be artistically free when we signed that bit of paper’ sets up the scene of a bad deal (something synonymous with the music industry nowadays), with ‘They meant “Let’s make a lots of money and worry about it later”’ revealing the real malevolence The Clash – and many others – faced. As the last minute of the track rolls in, with wailing background vocals, it kicks things up to eleven and morphs into something godly. ‘Complete Control’ is, to me, the epitome of The Clash. And the epitome of the punk movement in general. You can hold us in shackles, you can beat us down, but we’re damn well not gonna go quietly.