The Clash Biography

The Clash at first tucked in snugly behind punk’s loudest noise, the Sex Pistols (whom they supported on ‘the Anarchy tour’), but later became a much more consistent and intriguing force as possibly the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of the late 70s and early 80s. Guitarist Mick Jones (Michael Geoffrey Jones, 26 June 1955, Brixton, London, England) had formed London SS in 1975, whose members at one time included bass player Paul Simonon (b. 15 December 1955, London, England) and drummer Topper Headon (b. Nicholas Bowen Headon, 30 May 1955, Bromley, Kent, England). Joe Strummer (b. John Graham Mellor, 21 August 1952, Ankara, Turkey, d. 22 December 2002, Broomfield, Somerset, England) had spent the mid-70s fronting a pub-rock band called the 101ers, playing early rock ‘n’ roll-style numbers such as ‘Keys To Your Heart’. The early line-up of the Clash was completed by guitarist Keith Levene (b. Julian Keith Levene, 18 July 1957, London, England) but he left early in 1976 with another original member, drummer Terry Chimes (b. 25 January 1955, Stepney, London, England), whose services were called upon intermittently during the following years. The line-up of Jones, Strummer, Simonon and Headon signed to CBS Records, and during three weekends they recorded The Clash in London with sound engineer Micky Foote taking on the producer’s role. In 1977, Rolling Stone magazine called it the ‘definitive punk album’ and elsewhere it was recognized that they had brilliantly distilled the anger, depression and energy of mid-70s England. More importantly, songwriters Jones and Strummer had infused the message and sloganeering with strong tunes and pop hooks, as on ‘I’m So Bored With The USA’ and ‘Career Opportunities’. The album reached number 12 in the UK charts and garnered almost universal praise. CBS pulled ‘Remote Control’ off the album as a single, an act which so infuriated the band that they recorded the scathing ‘Complete Control’ (with legendary Jamaican producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry) in response.

CBS was keen to infiltrate the American market and Blue Öyster Cult’s founder/lyricist Sandy Pearlman was brought in to produce Give ’Em Enough Rope. The label’s manipulative approach failed and it suffered very poor sales in the USA, but in the UK it reached number 2, despite claims that its more rounded edges amounted to a sell-out of the band’s earlier, much-flaunted punk ethics (oddly enough, the album received excellent reviews from American critics). The band increasingly embraced reggae elements, seemingly a natural progression from their anti-racist stance, and had a minor UK hit in this style with the peerless ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ in July 1978, following it up with the frothy punk pop of ‘Tommy Gun’ - their first UK Top 20 hit.

The Clash’s debut album was finally released in the USA as a double set including tracks from their singles and it sold healthily before 1979’s double album London Calling, produced by the volatile Guy Stevens, marked a return to top form. ‘Train In Vain’ gave the band a US Top 30 hit single and the album was later heralded by Rolling Stone as ‘the best album of the 80s’. Drawing on a wide range of musical styles, from rockabilly and reggae to jazz and soul, London Calling drew an emphatic line under the Clash’s association with the moribund punk movement. They played to packed houses across America early in 1980 and were cover stars in many prestigious rock magazines. Typically, their next move was over-ambitious and the triple set Sandinista!, which included several tracks co-written and co-produced by Jamaican DJ Mikey Dread, was leaden and too sprawling after the acute concentration of earlier records. It scraped into the UK Top 20 and sales were disappointing, despite the Clash insisting that CBS made the album available at a special reduced price (an act which meant the four members had to forfeit performance royalties on the album’s first 200, 000 sales). The experienced rock producer Glyn Johns was brought in to instigate a tightening-up and Combat Rock was as snappy as anticipated. It was recorded with Terry Chimes on drums after Headon had abruptly left the band. Chimes was later replaced by Pete Howard. ‘Rock The Casbah’, a jaunty, humorous song written by Headon, became a Top 5 hit in the US and reached number 30 in the UK, aided by a sardonic video.

During 1982 the Clash toured the USA supporting the Who at their stadium concerts. Many observers were critical of a band that had once ridiculed superstar status, for becoming part of the same machinery. A simmering tension between Jones and Strummer eventually led to bitterness and Jones left in 1983 after Strummer accused him of becoming lazy. He told the press: ‘He wasn’t with us any more.’ Strummer later apologized for lambasting Jones and admitted he was mainly to blame for the break-up of a successful songwriting partnership: ‘I stabbed him in the back’, was his own honest account of proceedings. The Clash struggled without Jones’ input, despite the toothless Cut The Crap reaching number 16 in the UK charts in 1985. The album was undoubtedly the worst record to be issued under the Clash name, although it did feature one stone cold Strummer classic in ‘This Is England’.

Strummer finally disbanded the Clash in 1986 and after a brief tour with Latino Rockabilly War and a period playing rhythm guitar with the Pogues, he turned almost full-time to acting and production. He supervised the soundtrack to the film Sid And Nancy, about the former Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Jones, meanwhile, had formed Big Audio Dynamite with another product of the 70s London scene, Don Letts, and for several years became a artistic and commercial force merging dance with powerful, spiky pop choruses.

In 1988, the Clash’s most furious but tuneful songs were gathered together on the excellent compilation The Story Of The Clash. They made a dramatic and unexpected return to the charts in 1991 when ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’, originally a UK number 17 hit in October 1982, was re-released by CBS after the song appeared in a Levi’s jeans television advertisement. Incredibly, the song reached number 1, thereby prompting more reissues of Clash material and fuelling widespread rumours of a band reunion, which came to nought. A long overdue live album was finally released in October 1999 at the same time as Don Letts’ compelling documentary, Westway To The World, was premiered on British television.

Strummer died of a heart attack at the end of 2002, putting an end to the tempting reunion offers which he steadfastly refused. He was an articulate man of strong principle and played a huge part in the new wave music revolution of the late 70s. Through his political songs the Clash made many young people ‘think’, expressing issues they could listen and relate to. Strummer never lost his credibility. In March 2003, the surviving members of the Clash dedicated the band’s long overdue induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame to his memory.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

Filter Results