High Times Greats: The Clash

Singing songs of revolution and resistance since the 1970s.
High Times Greats: The Clash
The Clash/ Wikimedia Commons

The Clash released their self-titled debut album on April 8, 1977. To commemorate the anniversary of this momentous event in rock history, we’re republishing Mick Farren’s story about the seminal British punk band, first published in the October, 1981 issue of High Times.

“There are plenty of love songs in the world already.”

This is Joe Strummer’s laconic and deliberately oblique explanation of why he and the rest of the Clash prefer to write and play songs about ghettos, guerrillas, and Third World liberation fronts rather than follow the well-trodden trail of exhortations to boogie or party, of rampant self-pity, of abuse of ex-lovers that is the normal route for rock ‘n’ roll lyrics.

“A good show is one that not only gets people dancing but also gets them to think while they’re dancing.”

In a world where thinking while you’re dancing is less than fashionable, this statement ought to be enough to pin the band as rock renegades. The Clash, however, go a great deal further than that. Over the five years of their career they have gone up against most of the trends and broken nearly all of the rules of mainstream, establishment rock. They have taken a consistent political stance while the majority of musicians have seemed more interested in taking their checks to the bank. They have continuously feuded with their record label and refused to play the cocaine-and-kiss-my-ass music-industry games. They put out a triple album when everyone except the band thought a single would have sufficed. They even followed that with a demand that Epic Records should put it on sale at a special discount price.

“We are trying to provide entertainment that is not too controlled.”

Although the Clash have taken the most anticommercial, outrageous risks during their career, they are also determined survivors. They are one of the few bands from the London 1976-77 punk explosion still in operation today. Together with the Sex Pistols and the Damned, they were the spearhead of the raw power breakout at a fallen-on-hard-times transvestite club called Roxy that, for the four months before the police closed it down, provided London punks with their very first public stage, a stage that was utilized by everyone from Chrissie Hynde to Johnny Thunders.

For both the Clash and the Sex Pistols, back in those early days, the most important idea was to break out, to get beyond the confines of a small, underground punk circuit where there was only the converted to play to. In a larger sense, it was all important to break out of what they saw as the mind-numbing depression that was England in the late ’70s. The breakout idea wasn’t simply a brainstorm of the two bands. The Clash’s original manager, Bernard Rhodes, and the Pistols’ Malcolm McLaren both saw themselves as punk-rock Svengalis, master puppeteers manipulating a violent new wave in rock ‘n’ roll that would knock the entertainment business, if not society itself, flat on its ass.

Where the Pistols were violent and anarchic, looking for the destruction of everything including rock ‘n’ roll itself, the Clash were more conventionally political, assuming a position that was almost a direct descendant of the kickass yippieism of the late ’60s. In England, kids were all too ready for a band with this viewpoint. A damaged economy could no longer guarantee the kid emerging from the education process any kind of worthwhile job. Hardest hit were the working-class teens who had grown up in the urban wasteland of bleak, Clockwork Orange-type projects that were the soulless final solution by the government to the big-city housing shortages that have plagued the country since World War II. The predominant youth emotions were ones of boredom, hopelessness and the kind of frustration that can only be vented by bursts of mindless violence, petty crime and vandalism. Saturation policing and the revival of the 18th-century suspected persons laws, the notorious ”Sus,” as a catchall excuse for rousting kids on the street, added fuel to an already flammable situation. The explosion finally came in July of this year when both black and white teenagers took to the streets in ten straight days of burning, looting and confrontation with the police in cities like Liverpool, London, Manchester and Leeds. Ironically the rock ‘n’ roll bands had a much clearer vision of the coming trouble than anyone in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. As Maggie went on British TV to bleat about anarchy, it sounded a grim echo of the Sex Pistols’ first hit, “Anarchy in the U.K.” The Specials predicted the violence in songs like “Concrete Jungle” and “Do Nothing,” as did Linton Kwesi Johnson in “Sonny’s Letter” and, of course, the Clash in “Career Opportunities” and “Guns of Brixton.” It was even three right-leaning bands, the 4-Skins, Business and the Last Resort, who sparked the July violence in Southall, one of London’s biggest Asian communities.

More factions than just rock ‘n’ roll bands are proffering political solutions, however. Street politics in the U.K. are as polarized as anything since the Weimar Republic of Germany in the ’20s. Both the extreme left and the extreme right seriously propagandize among this new generation of disaffected teenagers. Gangs of rowdy shaved-headed soccer fans—”Skinheads”—lured by racism and bully-boy rhetoric, have flocked to the country’s two major fascist organizations, the National Front and the British Movement. Others have gone in the opposite direction, attracted to the various shades of red on the fringe left. The Rock Against Racism movement has attempted to separate the rock ‘n’ roll community from the growing numbers of neo-Nazis. In the early days of politpunk there was even a good deal of confusion as to who was on what side. It became painfully necessary for the Clash to repeatedly explain that their hit “White Riot” was an antiauthoritarian tune and not a white-supremacist anthem. Where many of the founding punk musicians tended to drop their radical politics as they came into range of the seductive power of fame and fortune in the music industry, Strummer and the rest of the Clash have, if anything, hardened their attitudes. As Strummer told New Musical Express earlier in the year:

“As I get older [Strummer is now 28] my politics are clarifying themselves, becoming more pointed. They are definitely left of centre, yet I believe in self-determination. I don’t believe in Soviet Russia at all because there’s hardly any choice. You’ve still got a ruling class riding around in big cars. Our bass player [Paul Simonon] went to Moscow to see for himself and he said that people walk around with their heads down. Tourists and party members have special shops, but your normal Joe Russian isn’t even allowed in the bloody shop, never mind that he’s got no dough to spend in them.

“I believe in socialism because it seems more humanitarian, rather than every man for himself and I’m alright Jack and all those asshole businessmen with all the loot. But you can’t bring socialism in with orders. I mean, look at the fucking Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. They just massacred and butchered the whole bloody country to make them do what they were told.”

The Clash’s continuing political conviction is due, at least in part, to the fact that they have remained about as close to their roots as is possible for a successful rock ‘n’ roll band. They still live in the run-down neighborhoods of West London where they grew up. Paul Simonon is a squatter. Joe Strummer recently applied for a mortgage on an apartment and was turned down. It’s all a long way from the penthouse-and-limousine lives of the old-style rock stars like Mick Jagger and Elton John. Strummer is aware that the whole adventure could easily be a very transitory experience: “A lot of groups have forgotten what it’s like to be nothing, to be at the bottom of the heap. We still feel that we might return, be nothing again. It’s up to your mind not to let your ego get out of control. We got out and what we try and do is to show other people that it’s possible for them to get out too.”

Guitarist Mick Jones won’t even cop to the concept that he might be rapidly becoming a rock star: “No, I won’t admit I’m a rock star. What we’re doing is fun but I don’t agree with this rock-star business. We’re very proud and we’ve got our heads up high, but we don’t call ourselves rock stars. We never do. We don’t think that way. Being rock stars onstage is not what we’re doing. We’re trying to actually get the music out and also leave space for the ideas.”

On the surface, this is kind of hard to accept from a guy who is dressed in a sharp black suit that makes him look like a cross between Bat Masterson and the young Elvis Presley. His hair is greased back like one of Gene Vincent’s Bluecaps. At this interview, the two of us are lolling around in the backstage dressing room of Bond’s International Casino. It’s the fourth or fifth day into the Clash’s sellout but somewhat trouble-fraught two-week season at the New York night spot in the middle of last summer. The nightly party that the Clash seem to be hosting is just getting under way; the opening act, a British band called Funkapolitan, is on the stage. In the dressing room the sound reverberating through the wall competes with the blaring of a TV set and the increasingly shrill buzz of conversation. Hash and tobacco in fat, Jamaican-style spliffs are circulating, and there is a quart of Remy Martin close at hand. All in all, it’s pretty much like any other scene of rock ‘n’ roll decadence.

There is, however, a difference. The Clash cling hard to their principles. To use the dreadful cliche one last time, they seem intent on doing it their way and damn the consequences. One of the symptoms is the bitter fighting with CBS/Epic. In the beginning, the Clash signed with the company for $200,000, at the time the biggest advance ever paid to a punk band. Initially the band assumed that it was a five-album deal, but subsequent examination of the small print revealed that, with options, they were on the hook for ten albums. A sadder but wiser Mick Jones views these early gaucheries with distress. “I really wish we weren’t signed to them,” he said, “though you have to balance the two things out, I suppose. Originally we wouldn’t have been so well heard of without them and at the time we would have signed anything. Take the money and run.”

From the Clash’s point of view, record-company interference in their creative process started almost immediately. An early example was to hire Sandy Pearlman to spend $30,000 on producing their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope. (The first album, The Clash, cost $8,000.) Manager Bernie Rhodes was fired by the band around that time but is now reinstated. He takes up the story:

“CBS/Epic wanted Pearlman to do it because they said that they thought he’d get
them an American hit album, but I’m certain they wanted him to manage as well. That’s the way Pearlman works. He produces and manages Blue Oyster Cult.”

Later problems came from the company’s refusal to release the single “Bank Robber,” the demands that the cover of Sandinista! be changed and, although the album has sold a quarter of a million copies in the United States, the fact that royalties amount to next to nothing because of the band’s insistence on a pegged-down retail price.

There’s little doubt that the Clash are slated to be the new bad boys of rock ’n’ roll. They are in the great rock ‘n’ roll tradition of making music for the kind of kids your mother never wants you to hang out with. It’s the tradition that started with Elvis Presley, was carried on by Jerry Lee Lewis and Dion, and was passed down through Dylan and the Stones until it reached confrontation pitch with the Doors and the MC5. Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls turned it into a comic cartoon, Lou Reed used it as a true confession and then finally handed it on to the punks. The demise of the Sex Pistols, however, left the great rock ‘n’ roll movie pretty much without any villains, and, as everybody knows, a movie without villains is plain damn boring. America seems to be looking around for a credibly badass, uncompromising hard-rock band with whom to conduct a love-hate relationship. The Clash are among the prime contenders.

The day that tickets went on sale for the New York dates at Bond’s Casino, lines were already forming in the wee hours of the morning. Subsequent overselling embroiled the band in a fire department closure of the nightclub, emergency meetings with the mayor’s office and the rescheduling of a grueling 16-night series of shows in order to accommodate ticket sales that grossly exceeded the club’s legal capacity.

The Clash are, however, veterans of trouble. From the start they have been banned by city councils and hassled and busted by local police departments on petty charges. In Hamburg, in 1980, Strummer was hauled away to the can for defending himself against a mob storming the stage. “It was like nothing you’ve ever seen,” said Strummer. “They were all down the front and if they could grab hold of a microphone lead, they’d pull, and it was a tug-of-war. And then it started getting really violent—and that was my fault in a way. How much can a man take, y’know? I was playing and I saw this guy sort of using the guy in front of him as a punch bag, trying to be all tough. So I rapped him on the head with a Telecaster. I just lost my temper, and there was this blood gushing down in front of his face. It wasn’t much of a cut, but it looked real horror show. After that, after I’d been taken down the cop station and charged with assaulting a German citizen by striking him over the head with my guitar, I began to think that I’d overstepped my mark. And that’s what I mean by it was a watershed—violence had really controlled me for once. I became really frightened that violence had taken me over. So since then I’ve decided that the only way you can fight aggro in the audience is to play a really boring song.”

In this instance the cause of the violence was hardcore German punks who had decided that the Clash’s musical progression—their fusions with reggae, their incorporation of old-time rockabilly and just the simple fact that their picking had matured and progressed beyond the original formula of slogans, aggression and noise—was enough to constitute a sellout. This has been a common response among the most blinkered punks. Ever since the band signed their major record deal with CBS/Epic, some character in bondage pants and a nose pin has been screaming about how the Clash have betrayed the true spirit of punk. The very breakout that the Clash always intended was bound to alienate those fans who wanted to keep the band as their own private property unchanging and unrecognized in the larger world. The major irony is that even the punks have discovered in themselves a streak of conservatism as hidebound as any greaser that insists that rock ‘n’ roll died with Buddy Holly or any Deadheads who can’t come to grips with the fact that the ’60s are over.

It’s not only the leftover punks who have opened hostilities to the band. A section of the press has also started gunning for the Clash. Ira Kaplan, writing in the SoHo News, accused both the Clash and PiL of turning into the same kind of elitist rock stars, new versions of the Rod Stewarts, Keith Richards and Mick Jaggers, that the new wave was somehow supposed to sweep away. Critics in both Britain and the United States greeted the six sides of Sandinista! not as a courageous attempt at a new approach to recording or even a subversive poke in the eye for Epic; with only a few, but notable, exceptions, it was condemned as a monstrous piece of ego gratification; the Clash’s politics were derided as “tin soldier rebellion” and “simplistic sloganeering.” It’s not a subject that goes down well with Strummer, particularly the slurs on his political beliefs:

“I mean, what do these writers expect of us? Do I have to get a bloody machine gun and go off to fight in El Salvador before they believe that we mean it? What are they doing to further the cause?”

Strummer is clearly deeply affected by adverse criticism. Backstage, sweating and drinking beer after the show, he tells me how he avoids reading anything adverse before he has to go onstage because it tends to throw him. Mick Jones attempts, on the surface, to take it in his stride. “There are always people who are going to get jealous,” he said.

Onstage, much of the confusion and controversy that surrounds the Clash is stripped away. They are in a world where they know they’re in control and they can directly see how they are succeeding keeping the crowd on the move. In New York, they come onto the stage to a tape of a Hugo Montenegro spaghetti-Western theme. It’s exactly the right touch of melodramatic trash. Their stage clothes are what a communist biker club would wear if they had biker clubs behind the Iron Curtain. None of them are brilliant musicians, but over the five years they have been on the road they have been honed to the point where each one knows what he does best and does it. They work within their limitations so well that the cumulative effect is that of a powerful and important band. Mick Jones has the sound of a more than capable guitar player, Paul Simonon provides a solid and steady bass while Topper Headon has to be one of the most dependable rock drummers since Charlie Watts. Joe Strummer will never be a great singer, but as front man he manages to keep the various parts of the total in tight focus.

The real strength of the Clash is that they are totally accessible. Despite their involvement in reggae, and lately in rap, they don’t present the audience with anything too unusual or too experimental. They are neither Talking Heads nor PiL. In a lot of ways they are an old-fashioned hoodlum rock ‘n’ roll band. Maybe commie hoodlums, but hoodlums all the same. They play a kind of hard rock that gives them a possible access to all levels of the rock audience, the same kind of access that was once enjoyed by the Who or the Rolling Stones but never totally offered to any of the new-wave performers with the possible exception of Blondie, the Pretenders and just possibly the Ramones. The only really controversial thing about them is their lyrics. The song “Guns of Brixton” may be about confrontation in a South London West Indian ghetto and “Charlie Don’t Surf” may be an elaboration of the now legendary line from Apocalypse Now, but both are also fairly straight-ahead rock tunes—sufficiently straight ahead, at least, to quite possibly carry the band clear through into middle America.

This, of course, sets up the question: If the Clash do achieve this broad level of acceptance, just how much impact will they really make? It’s possible that although they may win with the middle-American rock crowd, it could be simply on the level of just another variation on Van Halen or REO Speedwagon. They might find their political message taken no more seriously than the sex swords and sorcery lyrics of the heavy-metal brigade. Certainly there are a number of pointers in this unhappy direction. Although, at the New York concerts, the capacity crowds went bananas for the Clash, a large lumpen booing section was having no truck with the more progressive ideas in the way of support bands. New York rappers Grand Master Flash and the U.K. feminists the Slits both received short shrift from an ultraconservative percentage of the audience who would tolerate nothing but the headliners’ uncomplicated rocking. In other words, they wanted what they’d paid for and nothing more.

With this in mind, I asked Mick to what extent he though the Clash’s philosophy was getting through as opposed to just the rock ‘n’ roll.

”Everybody understands the fundamentals, the dancing, the beat, but beyond that, you can’t really generalize. There are some who understand perfectly; you know that from the way that they relate to you. There are some who don’t understand—probably never will.”

The other possible problem is that if the Clash do get across and the children of middle America do start to pick up on their ideas, it could well be because of a general mounting resistance to Reagan and his administration. The Clash could find themselves anthem and slogan writers for a new phase of youth revolt, and in consequence, possible targets for a vengeful authority. Kosmo Vinyl, the Clash’s permanent tour manager, spiritual guide and companion, isn’t too worried about this. He sees government as being sufficiently corrupt to always allow the sale of guns to the Indians. “America makes money out of the Clash and the Clash make money out of America,” said Vinyl. “America is pressing our records and selling them. We’re putting on concerts and hot dog men are selling hot dogs to our fans. It’s like with the Stones—the Stones get in all this trouble but it’s that they’re just too big an industry to close down. Keith Richards can get in all this trouble, but at the end of the day the boy’s worth a lot of money.”

In the final analysis, despite all the problems that seem to constantly dog the Clash, the saving factor is that their expectations are not all that extreme. They are not looking for custom Cadillacs or private castles in Spain. Their main motivation is simply to survive in rock ‘n’ roll, to keep on keeping on. As Mick Jones succinctly puts it, “If we play, we win!”

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