Janie Jones/Remote Control/I'm So Bored With The USA/White Riot/Hate & War/What's My Name/Deny/London's Burning/Career Opportunities/Cheat/Protex Blue/Police And Thieves/48 Hours/Garageland
"I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I'd been up for thirty-six hours. I was actually listening to another inductee's record, The Clash's first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote 'Watching the Detectives'" - Elvis Costello
One of the genuine cornerstones of the UK punk explosion, this absolutely seminal breakneck ride through thirteen two minute or so songs, plus Police And Thieves, is so vital to understanding the seismic shock that punk was to the music scene in 1977.
I vividly remember a friend of mine getting his first car and we drove from Buckinghamshire to Manchester for the sake of it, just because we could and slept the night in the car in a backstreet in the city’s warehouse district. We had one cassette to play - this album. We played it over and over, there and back. Its effect was that remarkable. We loved every minute - the buzzsaw guitar, the frantic drums, the rumbling basic bass and Joe Strummer’s barked, often incomprehensible vocals.
Some people question The Clash’s punk credentials because Strummer was the middle class son of a diplomat and was slightly older and Mick Jones had been a Mott The Hoople fan and a Stones fan too (although they claimed not to be in their single release “1977”. Basically, this was irrelevant. Did The Clash blow a huge hole in the ceiling of contemporary pop music in 1977? Were they perceived by the youth of the time as politically and musically relevant? The answer is a firm “yes, not half” to both questions, at least for those who were receptive. Many at the time, it has to be said, though, were disco or prog rock fans for whom The Clash meant absolutely nothing. Thankfully, I was one of the receptive. The group were manna from Heaven for angry young men like me.
A quick word on that iconic green and monochrome cover and its orange type face. It was just perfect. The three band members pictured on the front (minus original drummer Terry Chimes) looked hard, uncompromising and scruffy/cool - no long hair, medallions or exposed chests here. This was your classic anti-hero cover. The rear image of police dealing with urban rioting left one in no doubt as to the group's political concerns. No Tolkein-esque images, no tubular bells, no guitarists in make-up, no corkscrew curls to be found within a hundred miles of this. The times were a-changing.
On Janie Jones, Terry Chimes’ upbeat drum riff heralds that start of this great album, Mick Jones’ guitar chops in, Paul Simonon’s bass rumbles and Joe Strummer’s rasping vocal enters the fray in this catchy song about a notorious 70s London madam who made the news for some reason that I cannot remember. On Complete Control, a non-album single, the band began with the line “they said release “Remote Control”, but we didn’t want it on the label...” indicating that CBS wanted this track released as a single but the band did not.
Jones and Strummer were caught up in some of the Brixton riots of the time, and felt somewhat detached from the protesting black youth all around them. The iconic breakneck classic punk rant that was White Riot was the result. The punk riff intro has rarely been bettered. The single version of the track was superior, more abrasive, however. See the bottom of this album's review.
London's Burning is a true Clash classic. Jones’ guitar chops stab in to a wonderful intro and then some angry lyrics about driving around London’s Westway elevated flyover “speeding around underneath the yellow lights”. London was burning with boredom, they exclaimed. Such an anthem of urban youth protest. Glorious stuff when you’re eighteen. There is a great moment, just a short while in, when Mick Jones' guitar slashes furiously straight to one of your speakers. Marvellous.
Career Opportunities is another great track, about unemployment and the lack of decent job opportunities - “they offered me the office, offered me the shop, they said I’d better take any job they got”. Finger on the pulse in a sub-two minute punk song. Great guitar and drum intro too. Featured in the scene in the film Rude Boy when lead character Ray put the album on in his grubby bedsit room.
The lengthy Police And Thieves forms what is definitely the album’s oddity - a six minute cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae classic, but here given an almost rock, slowed down approach, with a great riffy intro. The reggae rhythms are guitar-based and clunky, almost not reggae at all, apart from the fact that they are choppy. Either way, it gave a firm hint as to directions the band would take in late years. They were certainly not prepared to be tethered down to the punk "two minute thrash" ethic. Stiff Little Fingers put a similar extended punky reggae cover on their debut album, their cover was of Bob Marley's Johnny Was, in very much the same style as this track.
48 Hours is the shortest track on the album, and maybe the most forgettable. Fast and furious, but that’s about it, while Garageland is another semi-rock song to finish off - the story of the band’s progression to be a “garage band”. “I don’t want to hear about what the rich are doing” gargled Strummer. None of us did, Joe.
** The non-album tracks that were recorded either side of this album were quite a few, and of a good quality.
1977, the b side of White Riot, (the single version of which, incidentally, was better than the one that appeared on the album, far more instant, riffy and confrontational) was taken as a call to arms for the punk movement, eschewing all rock bands that had been before - “no Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977” growled Joe Strummer over a choppy, riff-driven guitar backing. Strange that Mick Jones was a fan of Keith Richards, and had a lot of Richards about his look at times, and also that within a couple of years, The Clash would be recording music that utilised influences from pretty every type of popular music that had ever been. That said, it was a great track - those drum rolls and the “danger, danger” refrain.
Complete Control was a superb single. Starting with a truly blistering guitar intro, it tells of the band’s frustration, firstly with CBS wanting to release Remote Control as a single, the increasing business/financial side of punk and then with their mates not being able to get into their gigs - "They said we'll be artistically free, when we signed that bit of paper - they meant let's make lots of money and worry about it later...."/"At the last gig, my mates they couldn't get in...". Musically, it has one of those classic Mick Jones riffs - “You're my guitar hero” indeed. It loses a bit of momentum a bit in the middle at the “I won’t judge you” point and also in the fade out, but no real matter. It was, and is, a Clash classic. The live version that opens From Here To Eternity is awesome.
Stabbing guitar chops introduce the searing Clash City Rockers and Joe proceeds to rant about “old Bowie” and so on. For some reason, the track has never quite convinced me, but I could never really explain exactly why. I still can't. Sorry
Safe European Home/English Civil War/Tommy Gun/Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad/Last Gang In Town/Guns On The Roof/Drug Stabbin' Time/Stay Free/Cheapskates/All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)
"Straight English punk with a grip on the future" - Greil Marcus - Rolling Stone
In what was a great month for "punk" albums, November 1978, after The Jam's All Mod Cons, came this, The Clash's long-awaited second album. Their first one had an earthquake-level effect on contemporary music and many expected more of the same - two minute long frantic punk songs. What they got was far more "rock" than "punk" in many. The Clash, in many respects, had turned a bit more Mott The Hoople-ish than Sex Pistols. The tracks were longer, musically more intricate, lyrically more astute, showing that although the punk explosion had taken place, but now, progress must be made or else stagnation would occur. Why, even The Ramones were diversifying slightly, on the odd track, at least. This, and All Mod Cons were the albums which took "punk rock" to a different level. In fact they conclusively sounded its death knell. To work on this album, The Clash hired Sandy Pearlman, the American producer of Blue Oyster Cult and, although, some have criticised the results, it is still a good album and, at times, a little underrated.
What was the odd rear cover all about though? A gaudy, red, blue and yellow image of a cowboy being feasted on by a couple of vultures while a communist-era Chinese horseman watches on. It somehow suited the idea that The Clash had something to say about world politics - communism, red China, Americana and so on. I liked the cover at the time and still do, although I'm not sure why, really. It just goes with my memories of buying the album upon release and listening to it, looking at the cover lying on my bed and wondering about it.
Safe European Home was a fantastic opening to the album with a stunning guitar riff to begin things and then a frenetic, almost incomprehensible Strummer vocal about being a white guy in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. Apparently Pearlman objected to Strummer's slurred voice and mixed the drums higher than his voice throughout the album. It certainly sounds as if that is the case here. I saw the band live in December 1978 and they opened with this. It was one of the greatest moments from one of the greatest gigs of my life.
English Civil War is a rousing, contemporary update on the US Civil War song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, with a throbbing bass intro and urban lyrics such as "he's coming by bus or underground..". Again, though, it sounds more of a rock song than a punk one.
As for Tommy Gun. That rat-a-tat drum intro. Wow. The morse code guitar part too. This is a magnificent piece of Clashery - about Middle-Eastern terrorism, arms sales and hijacking aircraft. Atmospheric and cutting. Best track on the album? Maybe.
The old "side one" closes with Last Gang In Town. Now, this is truly a "rock" song. Bags of Stones-style riffery and some Duane Eddy-inspired parts as well in places, even some rockabilly hints under the surface. Several verses as well, over five minutes long in a tale loosely involving street gangs (rockabilly rebels and skinheads) in various parts of London's suburbs. As if punk never happened. Thos two minute thrashes seem a long time ago.
Guns On The Roof was apparently based on a rather puerile incident involving bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon shooting pigeons with an air rifle from the roof of their London flat, resulting in their arrest and eventual fine for criminal damage. The lyrics diversify to cover terrorist incidents, assassins and global corruption as well as the "roof" affair. The opening roof pretty much re-uses the guitar part from an earlier non-album single, Clash City Rockers. Nice big heavy bass sound throughout the track and thumping drums.
Drug-Stabbing Time has a punky guitar opening and a fast punky pace too on this song about, as you would imagine, drugs. Again, there are rockabilly hints in the bass backing. This is one of the tracks that sounds eminently improved on the 2013 Mick Jones-supervised Sound System remasters of the band's entire collection. Previously, it had been a bit murky, now it sounds much clearer, the wailing saxophone in the background can be heard more and the bass is full and powerful. Once more, the length of the track turns it from punk to rock as with most of the other tracks.
Stay Free was Mick Jones' mildly reggae-influenced mid-paced rock reminiscence of the exploits of an old mate who went "on a nicking spree" and ended up with "three years in Brixton". Despite the questionable morality of the guy, there is a touching side to Jones' loyalty to his mate. As well as singing lead vocals, Mick adds a killer guitar solo at the track's end as well.
Cheapskates is probably the "forgotten" song on the album. Muffled in its sound and a bit directionless, the current remaster has improved things a little, but is basically something of a lazy throwaway. Oh, ok, it's alright, I don't mind it, just not up to the standard of the rest of the album. Jones hits the spot with a mid-song solo, though.
Punk rock had by now mutated into something that allowed for more traditional rock anthems to close albums. The five minutes of All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts) had clear hints of the way The Clash's brand of rock would be carried over into the next album. Quite a few verses, harmonised vocals and, of course, that trademark Jones guitar solo (quite superb here, by the way) and a lyric that railed against the money-making and exploitation of the music industry. The incomprehensible vocal blathering from Strummer backed by the others in the fade out was like a punk choir saying goodbye to it all, preparing to face the new, with confidence. This album was The Clash's Diamond Dogs.
** The non-album material from the months either side of this album's release contains some copper-bottomed Clash classics.
One of THE songs that instantly makes me remember the summer of 1978 and subsequent gigs over the next few years, indeed the whole punk/new wave era was the mighty (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais - a wonderful slice of white punky reggae introduced by Jones’s “one, two free, four” and Strummer’s classic first verse bemoaning the lack of crucial dub and rebel music being played at a reggae gig he attended at Hammersmith Palais. The track is full of atmosphere and some classic lines - “if Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway…” and “they think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money…” to name just two. Top, top track.
Mick Jones’ rare thing, a Clash love song in 1-2 Crush On You, which appeared as the b side to Tommy Gun, is not his best song, to be honest, and the covers of Booker T. & The MGs’ Time Is Tight and Toots & The Maytals’ Pressure Drop (which was the b side to English Civil War) are not convincing, it has to be said.
In the summer of 1979 we got the release of a four track EP entitled The Cost Of Living. Both Groovy Times and Gates Of The West start to show that the move away from punk to a broader sphere of influence was coming. I Fought The Law speaks for itself. Clash power at its very best. For more of the same check out the crashing, aural assault of Capital Radio Two. Magnificent.
London Calling/Brand New Cadillac/Jimmy Jazz/Hateful/Rudie Can't Fail/Spanish Bombs/The Right Profile/Lost In The Supermarket/Clampdown/The Guns Of Brixton/Wrong 'Em Boyo/Death Or Glory/Koka Kola/The Card Cheat/Lovers Rock/Four Horsemen/I'm Not Down/Revolution Rock/Train In Vain
"Whether the Clash completely abandoned their punk roots or pushed punk's musical eclecticism and diversity into new terrain remains a controversial issue" - Jack Sargeant
The front cover visually references Elvis Presley's debut album with the pink and green writing along the front bottom and left side and shows Paul Simonon smashing his guitar, as to symbolically destroy the "old music" of the likes of Elvis. "No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977" growled Strummer a couple of years earlier. Now, they were diversifying as dramatically as The Beatles, pushing punk's boundaries or maybe just turning their backs on punk completely. There is a convincing argument that says they were doing the latter, only two and a half years after the raw punk of their debut. What is certainly not in doubt was that The Clash were now taking all sorts of musical chances. In the following year, they would take even more - the the nth degree.
On to the album. Personally, Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds, Born To Run, A Night At The Opera, Brothers In Arms, Thriller, Led Zeppelin IV, Exile On Main Street are not my favourite albums by those particular artists/groups, although they are popularly accepted as such. Similarly with London Calling. I prefer Give 'Em Enough Rope, The Clash and parts of Sandinista!.
That is not to overlook this album's undoubted quality and influence at the time. A "punk" group doing a double album? Wow! It worked too - a chocolate box of styles made for an always interesting listen and you are taken from one feel to another, track by track. Just consider the first few - the urgent, metallic, chunky "rock" of London Calling, the frantic rockabilly r’n’b of Brand New Cadillac, the laid-back jazzy slurrings of Jimmy Jazz, the poppy and breezy Hateful and the calypso influenced bluebeat reggae of Rudie Can't Fail. All totally different from each other.
The old "disc one" sets the tone for the three subsequent discs. This album killed "punk" and even "new wave" stone dead. It was as seismic as all those groups going "weird" in 1967-68. Genres like roots reggae, ska, bluebeat, rockabilly were creeping in as influences everywhere in the early 1980s. No coincidence. This album opened many doors. For many, it is seen as one of the greatest albums of all time. Veteran producer Guy Stevens, of Mott The Hoople producing fame in the late sixties/early seventies pre-Bowie days was somehow talked out of drinking his days away to do it one more time. Guitarist Mick Jones was a big Mott fan so it was possibly his idea to approach Stevens, although his lunatic genius probably appealed to Joe Strummer and Topper Headon as well.
Stevens encouraged the group to diversify, to rock fast and ad hoc, such as on Brand New Cadillac, but all the band members contributed their own ideas in this loose, creative methodic madness. There is some great reggae in here, bassist Paul Simonon's thing - the dubby, heavy grinding shuffle of Guns Of Brixton, the organ-driven skanking rhythm of Revolution Rock and the irresistible, upbeat ska of Wrong 'Em Boyo.
I would have liked Armagideon Time to have made it on there though. We get some classic rock in the fist-pumping heroic Clash rock of Death Or Glory, the riffy Four Horsemen and the rousing, anthemic Clampdown. The latter contained some great Mick Jones guitar parts.
There is also some classic Mick Jones rock in the subtly amusing Lost In The Supermarket and the poppy I'm Not Down. Like on Sandinista!, pretty much everything but punk.
The hard to categorise ones are the frantic, short breathless lyric-laden burst of Koka Kola, the grandiose, piano-driven and quite unique The Card Cheat and the sleepy reggae-ish groove of Lovers' Rock.
As I said, it is a veritable smörgåsbord of different sounds and styles of which there was more - Spanish Bombs is a catchy, but contemporaneously odd number, being based on acoustic and light lead guitar riffs. It is certainly not punk in any way. Neither, even more so, is The Right Profile, a bluesy, slightly jazzy song with a drunken-sounding, typically Strummer-slurred singalong chorus. There is a real diversity of styles here that makes this quite a cornucopia. The Clash had laid down a marker that showed they were just as willing to change as "old Bowie". They would continue to do so for the rest of their comparatively short career.
** The non-album material from this period includes one of the group's most convincing stabs at genuinely authentic reggae in the b side to London Calling, Willie Williams' Armagideon Time. It is full of excellent dub rhythms and a haunting vocal. Also included are two extended, infectious dub variants of the track in Justice Tonight and Kick It Over.