The Clash were one of the most influential bands in the first wave of punk, but were also one of the most experimental, embracing a wealth of new sounds and genres and making their guitar highlights a diverse but compelling collection.
The only band that matters? No, not by a long stretch. One of very few bands who could wear that tag and make it work for them? Absolutely. The Clash have been a past-tense concern since the mid-1980s, and we’re now almost 20 years removed from the loss of Joe Strummer, but they retain the aura of a group that shifted the course of history.
From the rough and tumble punk of their earliest work through excursions in big-budget rock ‘n’ roll, dub odysseys and pop masterworks, their core values of melody, social conscience and sharp clothes persisted. In these 20 guitar moments we can see almost every side of a band that could do it all, and look good while doing it.
A great song? Not really. A good song? Not really. A passable song? If you must. A riff that will never, ever die? You bet. This is the Clash showing that they could write big, dumb rock songs as well as anyone else could write big, dumb rock songs. The live version captured in the autumn of 1982 at New York’s Shea Stadium, when the band opened for The Who, fixes the Clash in the headlights: were they about to become everything they hated?
This became the Clash’s only UK number one single in 1991, thanks to its spot in a Levi’s ad.
The first song on the Clash’s first album set in stone almost everything that made them such an exciting proposition: Strummer’s 100mph bark, crisp hooks, and rattling guitars, their screws threatening to fall out. At this point Jones was using a Johnny Thunders-esque 1950s Gibson Les Paul Junior Double Cut through a Vox AC30, riding the buzzsaw wave of its P-90 to double the snot quota, while Strummer leaned on the guitar that would be by his side always: a 1966 Fender Telecaster daubed in thick black paint.
In High Fidelity, Janie Jones is one of Rob Gordon’s picks for his top five side one, track ones. The others: White Light / White Heat by the Velvet Underground, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye and Radiation Ruling the Nation by Massive Attack.
A classic tale of teenage boredom in the city as the Clash swoop beneath streetlights, driving nowhere and with nothing waiting for them. There is a fizzing, barely constrained sense of angst and pent up energy here, which is reflected in the way Jones moves between darting power chords, held notes and clawing feedback almost at will. Ripping it open with a wild solo at its conclusion, it’s as though he’s sparring with Strummer’s ad-libbed outro shouts.
London’s Burning is track eight on the UK version of the Clash’s debut, and track seven on the US release. CBS didn’t think it would work for American ears in its ramshackle form, but then it went on to become one of the biggest imports of all time. Give ‘Em Enough Rope was the band’s first official US record.
By the time Somebody Got Murdered enters the fray 10 songs into LP one of Sandinista! the Clash have already been to plenty of different locales, from the proto-hip hop funk of The Magnificent Seven to dub wigouts and oddball rockabilly. It’s safe to say that its torrent of distorted chords are given added impetus by this extended run up, but the song’s story of pointless death and Jones’s mannered vocal, wrestling with impermanence in real time, prevent it from attaining anything like a release. It’s a fascinating, noirish genre exercise that also happened to contain one of the band’s most exciting guitar intros.
Forget Abbey Road… if you want to mimic the Clash the cover photo for Sandinista! was captured by Pennie Smith on Camley Street, London.
The Clash’s affinity for reggae and dub manifested in a number of thrilling ways throughout their career but this cover of Junior Murvin’s hit is where they began to solidify that element of their sound. Running to six minutes, they draw the song out into a loose, trebly jam that does justice to the ‘punk-reggae’ tag they sought for it, just about managing to overcome the obvious issue of cultural appropriation. Jones’s guitars stay true to the album’s tone, mimicking reggae stabs without slipping into pastiche. Its lineage can be traced through Stiff Little Fingers’ cover of Johnny Was, all the way up to the cult success of Operation Ivy and the mainstream crossover enjoyed by Rancid in the mid-1990s.
Despite mixed reports on his opinion of the Clash’s version of Police and Thieves, the original song’s producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry later agreed to work with the band on Complete Control.
What appears at first to be a straightforward, riff-driven punk song becomes something else in its verses, where there’s a grinding, weird guitar lick that lurks just off to one side. It’s a portent of what’s to come as the song crumbles and falls apart into an insistent, looping riff and disconnected shouts of its title. Initially a single, this was the opener to The Clash upon its US release in 1979 – in that setting it’s apt, showcasing a band who’d already moved on.
Producer Mickey Foote sped up the master at the urging of manager Bernie Rhodes, getting sacked as a result when the band heard it.
In Redemption Song, Strummer biographer Chris Salewicz criticises members of the press who viewed Lost in the Supermarket as “another typically wimpy Mick Jones song”. In reality it was written by Strummer for Jones to sing, inspired by what he knew of his bandmate’s upbringing. It’s also a remarkable showcase for Jones’s versatility as a guitarist, its chorus-drenched leads and dream-pop-esque chords skipping over Simonon’s galloping palm-muted bassline. As much as the Clash were influential for sounding like the Clash, in the watery, snaking lines of this song we can see the roots of everyone from Teenage Fanclub to Alvvays.
Strummer first scrawled the chorus lyrics on the back of one of the envelopes from a pack Ernie Ball Custom Gauge Strings.
Here’s one of those occasions when the story surrounding a song and the song itself are in direct competition with one another. Remote Control was released as a single by CBS without the band’s permission. Incensed, they almost disowned it entirely. But judged on its own merits it is a wonderful song. It has always been tempting for people to play Jones (the rockstar, the control freak) off against Strummer (the dreamer, the idealist) but here Jones fronts a lilting jangle-pop gem about conformity and grey, automated England. It’s very Strummer. His guitar work is also superb, fusing jagged stabs with grimy open chords and a solo that could be dropped wholesale into a Bruce Springsteen song.
Jones wrote Complete Control in response to the CBS debacle, ridiculing with its title a phrase used by manager Bernie Rhodes in a two-for-one bullseye.
If you want a picture of the differences between the Sex Pistols and the Clash, look no further. Boasting an almost identical riff to the former’s nihilist rallying cry Pretty Vacant, Strummer and Jones veer away from that song’s chugging verse into something that approximates choogling American rock, the ideal accompaniment to lyrics that tear a strip off Uncle Sam, from soldiers in Cambodia addicted to heroin to US-backed dictatorships and the fallout from Watergate.
In its original Jones-penned form the song was called I’m So Bored With You, about a girlfriend. Strummer misheard the title.
Another Clash tune with links to the world of reggae, but this time they’re more interested in drawing out the punky energy that courses through Eddy Grant and the Equals’ original. Jones really shines here, taking lead vocals and throwing himself into the track’s alternating riff and walking, palm-muted verses. It’s an enthralling meeting of classic song and the perfect band to find a new avenue into its anarchic spirit. The fabulous version on the otherwise meh Live at Shea Stadium is remarkable for making it feel like Strummer and Jones are singing just for the joy of singing with each other, despite being in front of thousands and thousands of semi-interested Who fans.
While it opens side four of the album proper, Police on My Back led off a sampler called Sandinista Now! that was sent to press and radio.
Perhaps the prettiest song in the Clash’s catalogue and an all-time great vision of form mirroring meaning. There is a lingering sadness, a sense of inevitable ending, to the ringing notes of the riff and Jones’s snatched solos at the midpoint, cutting through alongside lyrics that draw parallels between the Spanish Civil War, including the murder of poet Federico García Lorca, and British holidaymakers enjoying the country’s beaches post-Franco.
Strummer reportedly began writing this song while on his way home from sessions at Wessex studios, where they recorded London Calling. Other punk classics tracked between those four walls? Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks and Machine Gun Etiquette by The Damned.
Some songs simply capture a moment in amber. The opening, febrile power chords and tangled soloing of White Riot, the Clash’s first single, are as good a summation of punk’s thrilling energy as you might want, with Jones and Strummer flinging themselves into the most blown-out moment on the Clash’s debut album off the back of a pitch-perfect ‘1234!’. Its lyrics – a somewhat garbled take on class struggle and a false equivalence stemming from riots at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival – are similarly raw and of the moment. Something was happening, and this was it.
There are two versions of White Riot: the single cut, recorded in 1977, and the demo, tracked in 1976 with Julien Temple, which appeared on the UK version of the band’s debut album.
Here’s a perfect example of time and place chiming with a band’s evolving sensibilities. Jones and Strummer first heard the Bobby Fuller Four’s take on this song while working on Give ‘Em Enough Rope at the Automatt in San Francisco, which housed a prodigious jukebox. Taking the song’s genteel beginnings and roughing them up with Jones’s now iconic, piercing intro bends, they reshaped it as their own in one of the most convincing arguments for a cover outstripping any earlier versions. There is an irresistible sense of momentum to the Clash’s take, with its twin leads followed close behind at all times by Headon’s antic drums.
Fuller died only a few months after having a hit with I Fought the Law. He was found in his car in Los Angeles, and his death was ruled a suicide. Still, rumours have persisted that he was murdered. “So the story goes, his body was punctured by numerous stab wounds and doused in gasoline, as if someone was getting ready to start a bonfire, then hightailed it when the fuzz showed up,” Joe Queenan wrote in the Guardian.
A mid-album stormer from London Calling, Death or Glory is a faultless song: anthemic, surprising, beautifully executed. It strips away the rough edges of the Clash’s boisterous youth and delivers its power chord one-two with the authority of a seasoned, muscular rock band, channelling the group’s growing fascination with American rock ‘n’ roll. Strummer’s chorus hook doubles the fun and by the time Jones gets his teeth into some coiled leads alongside the final few refrains it’s all over for the doubters.
While the band recorded Death or Glory, producer Guy Stevens reportedly set about smashing up a few chairs in front of some looming CBS record execs.
…or how the Clash invented Britpop with one 15 second intro. Released as a single in 1978 (and later added to the US version of The Clash) this song is by a band in transition. Its loping reggae groove and Dylan-esque harmonica are led in by a guitar squall that’s all the way pop-shoegaze, leaving the impression of a smorgasbord to be picked over by later bands seeking a shot of inspiration. As Strummer and Jones push forward towards its conclusion, those punk roots come shooting through again as they lament the rise of the far right and empty notoriety with the anthemic, depressing refrain: “If Adolf Hitler flew in today they’d send a limousine anyway.” 1978 meet 2021.
The song’s lyrics reference a reggae showcase that Strummer attended alongside Don Letts. Dillinger, Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson played, leaving a sour taste in Strummer’s with its resemblance to “Four Tops all night with encores from stage right” over a rebellious happening.
Compile a list of the most easily recognisable riffs in rock history and watch London Calling windmill its way into the conversation right at the top. Its paranoid march is relentless, dragging the song forward as each segment tumbles into the next, creating a sense of apocalyptic inevitability as Strummer speaks of nuclear fallout, police brutality and a flooded London. In the song’s video, shot by Don Letts on the banks of the Thames, Jones can be seen playing a Gibson ES-295, a rare guitar that it’s been suggested did make several appearances in the studio during recording.
London Calling was used as a hype track by multiple outlets (NBC, British Airways et al) in the build up to the London 2012 Olympics because people don’t ever listen to the lyrics, do they?
This is what Should I Stay or Should I Go thinks it is. Playing the straightforward vocal melody off Jones’s simple, perfect classic rock chords is a masterstroke, adding backbone to a song that otherwise is happy to jag away into funky guitar licks, cloaked by an MXR Phase 100, and whirring organs. Its anti-materialist, anti-establishment lyrics are couched in a sound that genuinely rocks and rolls, with Headon in particular doing his bit to hold together Strummer and Jones’s interplay.
During a Senate debate in 2018, Democratic representative Beto O’Rourke accused Republican senator Ted Cruz of “working for the clampdown”.
The first song on the Clash’s second album doesn’t hang around. Its opening chords are thunderously loud, signalling their shift in priorities (the LP was produced by Sandy Pearlman, veteran of several records by the considerably more rockist Blue Öyster Cult) and allowing Jones to revel in the added weight afforded to his playing. Having begun his transition to big boy Les Pauls (firstly a sunburst ‘58 Standard, and later a black Custom of similar vintage) in place of his Junior, and with Strummer reportedly playing a semi-hollow Gibson ES-345 due to repairs on his Tele, there is added ballast to each hairpin turn, as they spar between amped up riffage and the song’s sensational yelped hook. “There are more guitars per square inch on this record than on anything in the history of Western civilization,” Salewicz records Pearlman telling Greil Marcus during recording. The dude might have been right.
The sleeve art for Give ‘Em Enough Rope is based upon a postcard called End of the Trail by Adrian Atwater. It features cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson.
Here’s the Strummer-Jones axis in full flow, rushing forward off Topper Headon’s rapid-fire snare rolls. Give ‘Em Enough Rope was intended to be bigger and cleaner, but a byproduct of that was that bullish punk songs such as this one were given an extra shot of adrenaline. Strummer spits out the lyrics, relishing each stop-start punch to the sternum, while Jones almost does his own thing off to one side, sewing four or five countermelodies together before letting it all hang out in the greatest two note guitar solo of all time. That no-frills decision might feel reductive or close-minded to some, but when it hits the rush is electrifying.
While working on Give ‘Em Enough Rope in San Francisco, Strummer and Jones were thrilled to be introduced to Carlene Carter, the daughter of one of Strummer’s heroes, Johnny Cash, by power-pop legend Nick Lowe.
No-one did singles like the Clash did singles. A prolific band – four albums in four years, one of them a double, another a triple – they were content to let songs stand on their own two feet, a move that looks really cool as long as you’ve got more good stuff in the locker. Complete Control is pretty much the perfect encapsulation of what they were capable of doing, with Jones and Strummer pinwheeling through one of the great punk riffs, a spiralling solo and call and response (“You’re my guitar hero!” indeed) all while laying out a vision of creative punk autonomy. Jones also tries a dry run for the staccato leads that would later light up Tommy Gun, folding them quietly into the midsection. Find a better song anywhere. Double dare you.
This anti-record label polemic was drummer Topper Headon’s first outing with the band following his recruitment in place of Terry Chimes.
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