The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

“No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones”: An Introduction to The Clash

The Clash (1977)

The Clash’s self-titled debut was suitably lean and mean, containing several of the most iconic moments of the first part of their career. Recorded over three weekends, and socially and political conscious in a more constructive way than the nihilistic Pistols, The Clash had its finger on the pulse of contemporary life in grey, miserable Britain in recession-struck 1977. Addressing class and race, ‘White Riot’ asked why white youth wasn’t prepared to mobilise and take to the streets in the same way as black youth, while ‘Career Opportunities’ detailed the grim choice between menial work and the dole that faced young people. Strummer and Jones’ ability to encapsulate that ennui in a slogan was what made The Clash such a special debut.

Musically, original drummer Terry Chimes’ whip-cracking rhythms lashed together an extremely tight and kinetic musical unit. It is universally regarded as one of the best releases of the original punk era. But already you can see the potential that the group had for musical evolution, in a cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police And Thieves’ and in the associated non-album single ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’. Able to absorb influences outside of the rigid formula of first-wave punk, The Clash was miles ahead of the game, but nowhere near as groundbreaking as what was to come later. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

Falling in between the violent flash of light that was their debut and the forward-thinking London Calling, The Clash’s second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope often gets unfairly overlooked in most discussions of their back catalogue. Teaming up with American hard-rock producer Sandy Pearlman gave their sound a much more professional, sterner quality that many fans enamoured with the amateurish energy of their debut didn’t particularly like. Song for song, it’s arguably not as good either, with the momentum petering out toward the record’s end. However, there’s a forcefulness and power to the sound that carries it over the line and makes it a worthwhile listen.

The full-time inclusion of jazz-trained drummer Topper Headon heralded a small but noticeable evolution (check out ‘Tommy Gun’) in The Clash’s sound for their sophomore effort. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is sleeker and more professional, with greater instrumentation and use of more complex rhythms, such as on ‘Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad’ and ‘Safe European Home’. And the singles were bloody amazing. Not the most essential Clash release, with too many of the rough edges smoothed off in the production process, but if it had been released by any other punk group it would have been their career highlight. (7/10) (LISTEN)

London Calling (1979)

After the consolidation of their second album, The Clash’s great leap forward came in the shape of a double LP. London Calling positively teems with vitality and invention, and the band push the envelope with every single one of its 19 tracks. The tracks mix ska, reggae, funk, soul, jazz and rockabilly and fuse it with their masterful punk style, and it represents a breaking free from the strictures of the genre while retaining its drive and ideological conviction. It wasn’t tied together with any explicit political theme, but the eclectic musical sources themselves served as an ideological rallying point for a whole new generation.

This must be set against the sharp decline of punk itself. Its original practitioners had faded away – Johnny Rotten had called himself John Lydon and had released Public Image Ltd.’s masterpiece Metal Box earlier the same year as London Calling. But The Clash had long seen this coming, and instigated a revolution in their own sound to escape the genre’s solipsism and position themselves for what was to come. The likes of the anthemic title track, ‘Spanish Bombs’, ‘Clampdown’ and ‘The Guns Of Brixton’ are explicitly political and confrontational, but elsewhere the same themes are addressed more obliquely, with the music itself allowed to do the talking. ‘Revolution Rock’, ‘The Right Profile’ and ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ all exhibited a much wider vision for punk’s future, as it stopped being a sound and became an ethos.

Very few albums, let alone double albums, come even close in terms of sheer artistry, and no amount of words can do justice to the influence it has had subsequently. Right down to the iconic Pennie Smith photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on the front cover, London Calling is simply one of the greatest albums ever released, and no record collection should be without it. So good that Q magazine once called it the greatest album of the 1980s, even though it was released in December 1979! (10/10) (LISTEN)

Sandinista! (1980)

If London Calling was The Clash’s Sgt. Pepper, then this was their White Album. An intimidating triple album spanning 36 tracks, Sandinista! is a complete stylistic blowout that encompasses dub, rap, roots reggae, R&B, gospel, folk, calypso and even children’s choirs, Joe Strummer’s men turned their hands to absolutely everything conceivable on this mammoth effort, immeasurably far beyond punk and where they were just four short years before.

The results occasionally vary, and the running length requires concentration and a great deal of patience, but that’s the point of an album like this: wall-to-wall experimentation. The militaristic march and cool chimes of ‘The Call Up’, the hip-hop stylings of ‘The Magnificent Seven’, the thunderous Motown vibe of ‘Hitsville UK’, the light-footed rock of ‘Somebody Got Murdered’ were the very biggest diamonds in the pile, amid some admittedly fairly unfinished tracks or slightly-too-mellow dub versions.

Even those who balked at its immense structure kind of respected it – reviewer Robert Christgau said: “if this is their worst — which it is, I think — they must be, er, the world’s greatest rock and roll band.” It also anticipated the upcoming ‘world music’ trend that would become popular in the 1980s. Sandinista! is a classic example of what truly great artists do when they achieve a mainstream platform – spend the critical capital rather than play it safe. Stick with it and you’ll find Sandinista! a rewarding listen – there really is something for everybody. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Combat Rock (1982)

By 1982, The Clash were critically one of the biggest bands in the world, with huge expectations and hopes projected onto them, and their sales were gaining momentum to match this status, but it had come at a price. Inter-band relationships were fraught with tension and exacerbated by rampant individual drug problems. Not that you would be able to tell from Combat Rock, the album that broke them big on both sides of the Atlantic courtesy of two huge singles – the danceable new-wave pop of ‘Rock The Casbah’ and the jittery and infectious ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’.

On the surface, Combat Rock is a corrective retreat from the rather divisive excesses of the triple-LP Sandinista!, but it still finds the scope to embrace reggae, rap and funk, even squeezing in the legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg for a spoken-word part on the moody ‘Ghetto Defendant’. As well as their massive popular culture crossover moments, there are some impressive deep cuts in the shape of the 7-minute ‘Overpowered By Funk’ and the spooky reggae of ‘Straight To Hell’. The minimalist political rage of ‘Know Your Rights’ sees Strummer produce some of his angriest and most righteous slogans. Producer Glyn Johns gives things a muscular and rigid musical backbone throughout.

But even though it’s a single album, it does very occasionally lack focus and overindulge, particularly in its final third. It didn’t help that the group’s creative core, with Mick Jones leaning toward bigger sounds and Joe Strummer favouring more black music experimentation, were pulling in separate directions. But Combat Rock remains their biggest seller to date and is remarkably coherent, and should be regarded as the true epitaph of one of the most inspiring bands in history. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Cut The Crap (1985)

Oh dear. Coming out more than three years after Combat Rock, The Clash’s dismal final album Cut The Crap is an ugly stain on the otherwise glittering legacy of one of Britain’s finest ever guitar acts. Disgruntled with Mick Jones’ growing fondness for electronics, Strummer and Simonon had kicked him out of the band and replaced him with Nick Sheppard and Vince White, two complete unknowns. Topper Headon was also expelled for his excessive drug use, replaced with Pete Howard.

Sharing writing duties with the band’s manager Bernie Rhodes, Strummer’s thinking had been to return The Clash to their firebrand punk roots, but the result on Cut The Crap was so bad as to be genuinely tragic. With the solitary exception of the synthesised and surprisingly reflective ‘This Is England’ as its lead single, The Clash lapse into an appalling parody of themselves throughout. The lack of energy, aggression and purpose throughout this tawdry collection of cookie-cutter songs is almost physically shocking, and has very few moments of interest for even the most dedicated fan. Cut The Crap sounds like the work of a really, really poor Clash tribute act, and is a truly sad ending for one of the greatest groups in rock history.

Shortly after it was released and the sad rump of The Clash had limped around Britain on tour before dissolving for good, the group effectively disowned Cut The Crap from their catalogue and almost expunged it from history. It didn’t appear in their 5 Album Box Set compilation in 2013, and neither is it listed on Apple Music or Spotify. It can be found as a YouTube playlist, but if you value at all the memory and legacy of The Clash as you recognise them in your imagination, it is best left unheard. You wouldn’t want to see them like this. (1/10) (LISTEN… IF YOU MUST)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.