The Clash was known for stenciling confrontational mottoes on its shirts and trousers, but the London punk quartet didn't invent the slogan that really stuck: "The only band that matters," proclaimed its label, Columbia, and this was a rare piece of music biz hype that seemed valid. The Clash's music was edgy and immediate yet epic, and if its righteous war on bloated mid-'70s rock didn't change the world, it did ultimately lead this very British band into the American Top 10.
The Clash returns this week in a suitably dramatic way: Columbia will reissue the band's entire catalogue, eight remastered albums in all, including two never before available in the United States: "The Singles" and the original version of the band's self-titled debut. These albums join another new disc, the live "From Here to Eternity," released late last year.
When the albums arrive in music stores on Tuesday, they'll storm into the same sort of pop music void that punk challenged in 1977. Today's top bands entertain, they cross-merchandise, they shift units. But they don't matter. So it's an opportune time for the Clash. These cocky anti-hippies, who defiantly sang "no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones/ In 1977," restored the late-'60s notion that rock-and-roll could be important. Maybe they can do it again.
Although Columbia provided the "only band that matters" tag line, label executives on both sides of the Atlantic were wary of the Clash. The band's first album, simply called "The Clash," sold well in Britain but was never issued in the United States. (The demo-quality sound was simply not acceptable, the American office said.) Instead, a revised version of the album, refurbished with a half-dozen songs from subsequent British singles, was prepared for American release--and not until 1979, after the band's second album, "Give 'Em Enough Rope," a partially botched attempt to appeal to American hard-rock fans by recording with Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman, had hit the stores.
"I'm So Bored With the U.S.A.," proclaimed singer-guitarist Joe Strummer on the band's first album, yet the Clash was the British punk band that battled hardest to conquer America, in the process scoring two U.S. Top 40 hits, "Train in Vain" and "Rock the Casbah." Some of the Clash's roots were in arty British nihilism: The band was originally managed by Bernie Rhodes, a longtime friend of Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, and an early lineup was dubbed the London SS, a name that reflected early Brit-punk's jejune tendency to use Nazi references to shock people who had lived through the Blitz. Strummer, however, was a roots-music buff who defected from a pub-rock band, the 101'ers. By the time the Clash made the three-record "Sandinista!" in 1981, the band's style had grown from its original punk and reggae to include funk, hip-hop, gospel, Latin, country blues and swing.
Other rock bands have attempted such range but usually made music that failed to cohere. The Clash's sweeping style came together, however, in part simply because Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon's affection for these styles was so obviously genuine. When they toured the United States, they brought along the performers they wanted to see, who included Bo Diddley, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Joe Ely. When Strummer played at the 9:30 club last June, promoting a respectable new solo album, "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style," he was still extolling Diddley.
The Clash's eclecticism also worked, however, because the band gave every style it played the ramshackle abandon of its punkiest work. The musicians' essential subject was crisis--"Combat Rock," they ultimately called it--and they managed to keep themselves perpetually on edge. Former road manager Johnny Green conveys this very clearly in his 1999 memoir (written with Garry Barker), "A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day With the Clash." He describes a life of sleeping on floors, jumping out of hotel windows to avoid police raids, and selling promo copies of the band's albums to buy such essentials as beer, drugs and food. "We were vivacious about being outside of society, and proud of it," he writes, "enjoying horrified glances from other drivers."
None of the band members was exactly straight-edge: Headon ended his days with the Clash as a heroin addict, and Jones used to wake himself up with a joint or a snort of cocaine. But this wasn't the only sort of danger the band members savored. They started their 1977 British tour in Belfast, a city no major non-Irish band had played in years, and took their early imagery from the street skirmishes between police and Jamaican immigrants in London's Notting Hill neighborhood. (This was decades before Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts moved in.) If there was going to be a revolution, the Clash wanted to be on the front lines. And even if there wasn't.
Although they took some cues from Marx and Che and named their most ambitious album "Sandinista!," the Clashmen were seldom didactic. That's because they were more interested in rebellion than ideology, and treated themselves as the heroes of their own fable. Everyday incidents from the musicians' lives became, in their own songs, the stuff of legend. When Headon and Simonon were arrested for shooting at pigeons from atop the bands' rehearsal building, the incident become the song "Guns on the Roof," which sounded as if it were about something much more crucial.
The Clash had a genius for sounding crucial, even when dealing only in autobiographical remarks. Principal songwriter Strummer rendered in epic terms the band's struggle with its own label and the entire music industry--blasting "Capital Radio," the bland London station he charged with "making all the action stop." Taking its own conflict with The Biz as an essential subject was one of the Clash's innovations, later emulated (perhaps unknowingly) by Public Enemy.
When Columbia released "Remote Control" as a single without the band's permission, the Clash recorded "Complete Control," a manifesto that was also a catchier song. In the inspired bit of transposition at the center of "Clash City Rockers," Strummer recast Idris Davies' "The Bells of Rhymney" (once given a folk-rock treatment by the Byrds), replacing the names of Welsh mining towns with Clash influences: "When am I fitter/ Say the bells of Gary Glitter/ No one but you and I/ Say the bells of Prince Far I."
If Strummer's bearing was heroic, he was willing to admit weakness. A recurring theme in the Clash's music is the band's conflicted relationship with reggae, which the band members loved for both its sound and its stance of revolutionary prophecy. In such songs as "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" and "Safe European Home," the singer admitted to standing outside the music, looking in. The Clashmen took some pioneering dub-rock explorations, but never flattered themselves that they were integral to reggae.
By the time they made "Sandinista!," Strummer and his cohorts were commenting on geopolitics, discovering America, and mixing lovely melodies and evocative lyrics with meandering murk. The band insisted on a discount price, shaving its own royalties so the three-album set could sell stateside for about $10. It was the last grand gesture of a group that had become polarized between Strummer, the pop-revolutionary spokesman, and Jones, the would-be rock star with a growing taste for hip-hop. The subsequent "Combat Rock" was the first Clash album to consolidate rather than expand the band's program, and though it produced "Rock the Casbah," the group's biggest U.S. hit, the disc was also the end of the road. The saga ended with "Cut the Crap," a 1985 album by a version of the Clash that included only Strummer from the classic lineup. Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau called the album "brave," but others deemed it an infamy. "Cut the Crap" is not included among this month's Clash reissues.
Listening to the Clash catalogue today, it seems that this hopped-up, willful, out-of-control band knew just what it was doing. From "The Clash" to "Combat Rock," these albums conjure the headiness of the period, yet aren't limited by it. The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" is an artifact of Queen Elizabeth II's 1977 Silver Jubilee, but few of the Clash's songs are so circumscribed. Self-conscious as they are about rebellion and the band's role, such tunes as "White Riot," "Spanish Bombs" and "Washington Bullets" are also smart, playful and impassioned enough to outlive their moment. Political mostly in the broad sense, these eight albums were forged in the crucible of punk, but that's not why they remain so exciting. Battling those who would--in the words of "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais"--"turn rebellion into money," the Clash turned its own revolution into art.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from "Clash City Rockers," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.)
THE CLASH CATALOGUE
* "The Clash" (1977). The greatest of all British punk long-players, and one of two essential Clash albums. Features "White Riot," "London's Burning," "Career Opportunities."
* "Give 'Em Enough Rope" (1978). The Clash polished and tightened up for American sensibilities, which isn't so bad. But it's perhaps the band's weakest set of material. "Safe European Home," "Guns on the Roof."
* "The Clash" (1979). The American version of the first album has such great songs as "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" added, but doesn't hold together well.
* "London Calling" (1979). Expansive, eclectic, confident, this is roots-rock with passion and intelligence. The other essential Clash album. "Spanish Bombs," "Lost in the Supermarket," "Death or Glory."
* "Sandinista!" (1981). A sprawling, often brilliant three-album set now on two CDs. If it were reduced from 36 to about 26 songs, this would be the third essential Clash album. "The Magnificent Seven," "Hitsville U.K," "Washington Bullets."
* "Combat Rock" (1982). On its U.S. commercial breakthrough, the band begins to run low on ideas. "Rock the Casbah," "Should I Stay or Should I Go."
* "From Here to Eternity" (1999). Solid but not revelatory live album, recorded 1978-82, from a band known more for passion than precision on stage. "Complete Control," "Capital Radio."
* "The Singles" (2000). The A-sides of all 19 British singles. A good introduction, but redundant for those who have the albums.
* "Super Black Market Clash" (2000). B-sides, obscurities, and nearly everything that's not available anywhere else. "1977," "Radio Clash."