Forty years ago this month, the UK edition of The Clash’s debut album dropped like Spanish bombs on the punk rock world. To celebrate, all week long we’ll be lost in a supermarket of exclusive features that remind us why The Clash continue to rock our Casbah and remain the only band that matters. Today, Ryan Bray and Tyler Clark dissect the band’s short-but-seminal catalog by way of a few beers.
In 1997, a time that predated even CD burners, musical discovery often was achieved through mix tapes. In this case, a friend lent me a tape with David Bowie’s “Heroes” on one side and The Clash’s self-titled debut on the other. All due respect to the Thin White Duke, but the B-side got most of the play.
That was 20 years ago, and even then I was considerably late in discovering what much of the world already knew: that this is one of the best band’s of all time. The iconic English punks disbanded after nine years and six full-length records, but they made their relatively quick run count for something truly masterful. The world is full of bands that have been together for decades, and yet The Clash’s ferocious run through pop music history has outshined most of them.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the start of one of the most dynamic and culturally significant bodies of music in the pop cannon. It began on April 8th, 1977, with the release of The Clash, a record that helped define not only the sound but also the style and ideals of punk rock. That would have cemented the band a sizable legacy by itself, but Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon spent the next eight years building off of their punk credentials brick by brick. London Calling and Sandinista! dazzled the world with their breadth and sonic scope, daring their peers to try and keep up. By the time of 1982’s Combat Rock, they had evolved into a great pop rock band while still keeping their street cred intact.
But as is the case with all truly great bands, the music is only part of The Clash’s legacy. The extent of their importance reaches beyond their songs and records. In their best moments, they helped open people’s minds to new ways of seeing the world. They called out racism, sexism, and all forms of social injustice wherever and whenever they saw it. They spoke about life on the dole having stood on the margins themselves. Their politics championed working people while taking dead aim at the ruling class. They were, to many, the only band that mattered. They still earn the title in the minds and hearts of many today.
Ranking and dissecting The Clash’s discography is in many respects a near impossible feat. But Tyler Clark and I put our heads together in an earnest attempt to make some authoritative sense of the band’s immensely influential work. This ranking is a celebration of punk, funk, reggae, rock, soul, jazz, country, and hip-hop. How in the hell it all works together is still anyone’s guess. Let’s just be thankful for the four guys who made it all work.
06. Cut the Crap (1985)
We Are The Clash: The Clash’s legacy was all but cemented by 1985. But the band’s swan song was as big a misfire as its predecessors were triumphs. To be fair, Cut the Crap is a Clash record in name only. Strummer had fired Jones, whose songwriting contributions were sorely missed (Strummer co-wrote the whole thing with the record’s producer, Bernie Rhodes). Headon was also gone, making room for faceless names such as Nick Sheppard, Vince White, and Pete Howard to fill in the gaps. The end results are lukewarm at best, loaded with half-hearted, distracted stabs at the rock, pop, and electronic music that used to come to the band so easily. It’s the sound of a great band being drowned out by the synth-crazed ’80s. Cut the Crap might be an anomaly, the lone failure in an otherwise stellar body of work. But it still counts against The Clash’s overall score.
Clash City Rockers (Heaviest Tracks): “Dirty Punk”, “We Are The Clash”, and “Movers and Shakers” are the kind of warmed-over guitar cuts that never would have passed muster on the band’s earliest work. Here, though, it’s really the best that fans can hope for. Rock and roll, let alone punk, feels like something from a long distant past on Cut the Crap.
This Is Radio Clash (Singles): For as haphazard as the record is on the whole, “This Is England” is actually a respectable single. It might still be too glitzy and synthy for the taste of Clash purists, but if there’s one track on Cut the Crap that still at least halfway feels like The Clash of old, this is it.
Magnificent Seven (Seven Best Tracks): There aren’t seven good songs total on the record. Nevertheless, “This Is England”, “Dirty Punk”, and “Cool Under Heat” aren’t all that bad.
Revolution Rock (Most Political Lyric): “This is England/ What we’re supposed to die for/ This is England/ And we’re never gonna cry no more.”
Cut the Crap (Final Analysis): Cut the Crap? Our thoughts exactly.
05. Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)
We Are The Clash: Chances are good that your favorite Clash song doesn’t appear on Give ‘Em Enough Rope. However, chances are equally good that your least favorite isn’t here, either. The Clash’s sophomore record finds the group in a creative holding pattern, with songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones circling around more of the class-conscious punk that earned them raves just one year before while simultaneously keeping one eye each on the mad bazaar of genre explorations that would come to define London Calling. However, it’s more than just a still-evolving amalgam of the two. Produced as the band’s official American debut (The Clash still being import-only until 1979) by Blue Öyster Cult impresario Sandy Pearlman, Give ‘Em Enough Rope buffs away the lo-fi raggedness that gave the band’s first record its mussed-up charm (as Randal Doane notes in Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash, sessions for this record stretched for months instead of weeks, and “twenty takes per song was not unusual”). The songs left behind form a polished collection of indignant punk tunes that, if you ignored some of the more inflammatory lyrics, might’ve passed muster on rock radio in 1978.
Clash City Rockers: While it may not be as strident as “English Civil War” or as loud as “Drug Stabbing Time”, “Last Gang in Town” manages to nab the title of the record’s most rock-focused track thanks to an overlooked flourish: a ’50s-style bassline from Paul Simonon that could’ve been (and possible was) lifted straight from a Chuck Berry track.
This Is Radio Clash: Though it was intended to break the band in the American radio market, Give ‘Em Enough Rope only produced two good-but-not-great singles: “English Civil War” (a warning about the rise of right-wing groups in England set to a beefed-up arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) and “Tommy Gun” (a more satirical look at emerging international terrorism punctuated by the just-arrived Topper Headon’s rapid-fire drums). The sessions also produced fan favorite “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”; while none of those three singles charted in America, “Tommy Gun” hit the band’s then-highest chart position of No. 19 in the UK.
Magnificent Seven: “Last Gang in Town” and the two singles make the cut for the album’s top seven tracks, joined by “Safe European Home” (a self-mocking tale of Strummer and Jones’ attempt to hang out with Bob Marley in Jamaica), the shuffling “Judie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, and the anthemic “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)”. The final spot goes to “Stay Free”, a sentimental Mick Jones composition that laments the diverging, “there but for the grace of God go I” paths of himself and a school chum gone wrong.
Revolution Rock: “Tommy gun/ You can be a hero in an age of none/ Tommy gun/ I’m cuttin’ out your picture from page one/ I’m gonna get a jacket just like yours/ And give my false support to your cause/ Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it”
Cut the Crap: Coming between the brashness of The Clash and the maximalism of London Calling, Give ‘Em Enough Rope couldn’t help but suffer in comparison. Though the first side contains a few gems, the back half of the record suffers from a lack of focus and Pearlman’s occasionally flat production work. As Robert Christgau said in his review for The Village Voice, “This isn’t among the greatest rock albums ever, but it is among the finest of the year.” Yeah, well, so was Don’t Look Back by Boston, and you don’t see us making a list about it.
04. Combat Rock (1982)
We Are The Clash: There’s very little combat (or rock, for that matter) to be found on The Clash’s fifth (and best-selling) record. Instead, the band finds itself, and the rest of the world, mired in the aftermath: The spectre of Vietnam perches on the shoulders of these songs like a sick cat, while the twin promises of global nuclear annihilation and decay (fueled by racism, economic inequality, and hard drugs) of urban centers like New York City (where they recorded the majority of this record) leave Joe Strummer and his compatriots weary and at a loss for real ways out. Their reaction refocused the band’s energies after the genre-hopping escapades of Sandinista! into a collection of songs that echoed previous denunciations of the world’s elite and powerful while raging with the energetic, party-at-the-end-of-the-world despondency of a revolution that knew it was already beaten.
Clash City Rockers: Lead single “Know Your Rights” probably hits the hardest of any track here; paired with Strummer’s faux Big Brother rule-making, the song’s unrelenting guitar gives the impression of a klaxon that’s about to summon something (or someone) incredibly unsympathetic.
This Is Radio Clash: After generally sticking to a rule of two wide-release singles per record (or, in the case of the massive Sandinista!, three), The Clash released a full quarter of Combat Rock as singles. Although “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” got the most radio play, and “Know Your Rights” sticks in the head thanks to its place in the lead-off spot on the album, “Straight to Hell” is probably the best of the four; atop a beat better known in its next life as an M.I.A. single, Strummer recounts the tales of the world’s left behind: the English workingman, the children of GIs in Vietnam, and the immigrants looking for better amid the still-bad.
Magnificent Seven: In addition to the singles listed above, Combat Rock’s other highlights include the war farce “Inoculated City”, the Allen Ginsberg (!) collaboration “Ghetto Defendant”, and “Sean Flynn”, an atmospheric ode to the photojournalist son of actor Errol Flynn who disappeared on assignment during the Vietnam War.
Revolution Rock: “Murder is a crime/ Unless it was done/ By a policeman/ Or an aristocrat”
Cut the Crap: Combat Rock proved to be divisive from all angles; longtime fans and critics (including Creem’s Richard Meltzer, who decried the album as a “RELATIVE PIECE OF SHIT”) decried the band for selling out with radio-friendly tunes like “Combat Rock”, while members of the band found themselves split between diving deeper into Strummer’s ragged experimentation or pursuing Mick Jones’s interest in looser, of-the-moment dance music. Ultimately, the album stands as the moment before the fault lines that led to The Clash’s demise irrevocably shifted, and it’s that, more than any quality issues, that explains its relatively low rating.
03. Sandinista! (1980)
We Are The Clash: London Calling broke The Clash out of its punk rock shackles, bringing a host of new sounds and styles into the band’s sonic universe. The record’s eclecticism was praised, but it turns out the band was just warming up. On Sandinista!, Strummer and company doubled down on everything: funk, punk, world music, dub, dance, hip-hop, rockabilly, gospel, jazz, etc. You name it, The Clash made it their superhuman mission to pack it onto the record’s six sides. Sandinista’s size and sprawl easily makes it their most uneven record, but their daring willingness to go so big also makes it one of their most winning.
Clash City Rockers: Admittedly, there are fewer here than on past records, but “Police on My Back” and “Somebody Got Murdered” prove the band still has one foot in its ’77 punk rock roots.
This Is Radio Clash: Sandinista’s lead single, “The Call Up”, hit No. 40 on the UK singles chart upon its release in November 1980. The band followed up with “Hitsville UK”, which made a respectable dent on the US modern rock charts, landing at No. 53. But it was “The Magnificent Seven”, the band’s unexpected foray into funk and then-nascent hip-hop, that made the biggest impact on listeners, reaching number 21 on the Billboard club charts in the US.
Magnificent Seven: With 36 tracks to choose from, this list is impossible to set in stone. But we’ll go with “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Leader”, “Somebody Got Murdered”, “Charlie Don’t Surf”, “Lose This Skin”, “Kingston Advice”, and “The Call Up”
Revolution Rock: “We’ve been told to keep the strangers out/ We don’t like them starting to hang around/ We don’t like them all over town/ Across the world we are going to blow them down.” How’s that for Cold War paranoia?
Cut the Crap: This is The Clash at a crossroads, one where their punk rock past gave way to more worldly musical interests. Sandinista! is a lot (too much) to digest, but it’s worth the trip. Attitude is a key ingredient to The Clash formula, and never has the band’s bravado, ego, and confidence been more on stage than here. The band wanted to do it all, and damn if they didn’t try. Any fan serious about figuring out what this band is all about has no choice but to dig in.
02. The Clash (1977)
We Are The Clash: Every story has a beginning. It just so happened that The Clash’s helped foreshadow the future of rock and roll. Recorded in London over the course of three weekends in February 1977, the band’s self-titled debut is everything that’s good about punk rock. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon tore off 14 tracks colored by tales of disenfranchised youth and class warfare. Drumming duties were split between longtime drummer Topper Headon and Terry Chimes, who left the band prior to the record’s release. The band had plenty of feisty, blue-collar attitude, but tracks like “Janie Jones”, “London’s Burning”, and “Hate and War” proved that Strummer and Jones also had the songs to back it up. The Clash wasn’t the first punk record, but it might have been the first to really tap into the genre’s populist power.
Clash City Rockers: Legend has it that CBS Records remixed the US release out of concern that it was too loud (corporate suits, amirite?). We’re guessing that “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”, “I Fought the Law”, and “Career Opportunities” probably had the label cupping its ears.
This Is Radio Clash: “White Riot”, the band’s very first single, landed at No. 38 on the UK singles charts. CBS Records released “Remote Control” as the second single against the band’s wishes, resulting in the band’s decision to more or less spurn the song altogether. If that’s not punk rock, I don’t know what is.
Magnificent Seven: In no particular order: “Clash City Rockers”, “I Fought the Law”, “Janie Jones”, “White Riot”, “London’s Burning”, “Hate and War”, and “Career Opportunities”.
Revolution Rock: “You got no money/ So you got no power/ They think you’re useless/ And so you are, punk.”
Cut the Crap: The Clash became known as the only band that mattered. It was a huge title to live up to, but their self-titled debut found the band sprinting for the claim straight from the start. This was a record made by punk kids with nothing to lose, and that urgency bleeds out of the record’s every pore. It’s there in the rumbling drum intro to “I Fought The Law” or the surly edge of Strummer’s vocals on “Clash City Rockers”. More than a record, The Clash is a prime example of the effectiveness of music as an agent for change. Judged against it, most bands sound like they just aren’t trying very hard. Simply put, one of the finest debut albums ever across any genre.
01. London Calling (1979)
We Are The Clash: If The Clash had called it a day after London Calling, they would’ve gone out as possibly the greatest rock band of all time and definitely the most consistent. Released in the UK less than three weeks before New Year’s Day 1980, the record served as a preemptive antidote to a decade defined by geopolitical conservatism, consumerist absurdities, and the still-looming possibility of a life-ending “nuclear error” at the hands of the world’s fading powers. These increasingly global calls to political and social action synced up seamlessly with the band’s expanded sound; no longer just damned by the already-faint praise of being Britain’s most important punk band, The Clash fully embraced genre-hopping experiments they’d tentatively explored during the Give ‘Em Enough Rope sessions. The result is an unclassifiable album that blends punk’s angry conscience with accessible shades of everything from ska and reggae to music-hall ditties and advertising jingles. Speaking of which: How many edgy ad men have unironically pitched “Koka Kola” for use in an actual Coke commercial?
Clash City Rockers: The hardest track on the record also happens to be the one that bears its title. Set to one of Topper Headon’s swaggering military beats, “London Calling” finds Joe Strummer thumbing his nose at all competing sources of impending Cold War doom and exhorting all of his fellow punks and malcontents to turn off their radios, hit the streets, and bear witness to whatever apocalypse gets here first.
This Is Radio Clash: “London Calling” was an obvious choice for the record’s lead single, and, at No. 11, it became the band’s highest-charting song in the UK during their career. “Train in Vain” was an equally clear pick for the follow-up; the purest pop moment in the band’s catalog at the time finally broke the band’s US chart drought, clocking in at No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1980. It even won over fans and critics itching to press the “sell out!” button: In an essay for Spin in 1988, Christopher Hill admitted that his initial disappointment with the song “lasted about as long as it took [him] to recall what the song actually sounded like.”
Magnificent Seven: This is the first time that this section presented me with any actual difficulties. Although you would expect some sagging moments on any double album, the 18 tracks on London Calling are all load-bearing, and any combination of them could conceivably be cited for the top seven. If I were making the list (…oh shit, I am!), I’d go with the two singles, “Hateful”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “Spanish Bombs”, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”, and “Clampdown”.
Revolution Rock: “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zoomin’ in/ Engines stop running, the wheat is growin’ thin/ A nuclear error, but I have no fear/ ‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river!”
Cut the Crap: “Here’s where they start showing off,” said Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, and it’s true: London Calling is a masterpiece produced by a band at its creative and technical pinnacle and fully deserves the awards and plaudits heaped upon it. While The Clash’s other records may have more indelible singles or genre-defining sounds, London Calling is Strummer and company’s most vital full-length statement, and its songs still have the same capacity to thrill as they did during the cold, discontented Christmastime of 1979. Even the album’s cover brilliantly sums up its contents: Featuring a photo of Paul Simonon in mid-destruction of his bass juxtaposed against a text design swiped from Elvis’ debut record, London Calling completes punk’s mission to tear down the old rock order and replaces it with a possible future more sonically tantalizing and socially conscious than anything the movement ever previously conceived.