West London. The 1970’s. Two major events happened towards the end of the decade. The first is that I was born in Perivale Maternity Hospital. The second is that just up the road, and when I say up the road, I mean the big long Western Avenue that becomes the Westway, four young men converged above, and underneath it to make music that would change pretty much everyone who heard it. Those four guys were; Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Topper Headon and they became… The Clash!
Twenty years later, I was in a cinema in Leeds, watching the latest John Cusack film… what I am about to admit is quite embarrassing to me now, but fuck it, this is me, you are you and I tell you this in the hope you don’t laugh too much. Anyway, this film is Grosse Pointe Blank and is set around a hitman who returns home to try and rid himself of, in the words of the film, a depression caused by “killing lots of people” and, in the process, win his high school sweetheart back. I love this film. That isn’t my embarrassing confession, though. My embarrassing confession is that, when The Clash’s cover version of Armagideon Time kicked in, I turned to the faithless one and said “Ah! The Specials!” Luckily for me, she didn’t know any better. Can we gloss over that bit? Thanks.
Anyway, so good was the soundtrack, a soundtrack also featuring The Jam and The Specials,that I bought the CD and discovered my mistake. Perhaps it is that incident, rather than Massive Attack’s NME interview, that led me towards the Clash. That and the fact that, having read Q’s Greatest Albums ever in 1998 I was chatting about the Sex Pistols at work, a colleague and future house mate, Tim, told me to forget them because The Clash were the real thing. I bought London Calling soon after. Countless listens later, I can’t really tell you how I felt listening to that album. I’m going to be honest though and say that whilst it led me to gobble up the rest of their back catalogue in double quick time, I wasn’t especially blown away by it. Not all of it, not as I was by something like Mezzanine, say, or Maxinquaye.
None of which is to say that the track London Calling doesn’t sound like exactly the kind of song to listen to if you’re off to the football. Or that the joyous Rudie Can’t Fail doesn’t have me bouncing around like a loon, or that The Card Cheat doesn’t sound absolutely immense. But for me, I think the sound of The Clash that I liked best is that which comes out in the anger of their first album. I think what I love about that album is that, although it paints pictures of a London half remembered in places, completely alien in others, The Clash is still an album you can listen to and “get”. It’s raw, sure it is; any debut album should be that at least, Joe said himself that any guitar that sounded half decent on the album was probably played by Mick and with Topper Headon yet to join the band, the beats were supplied by Terry Chimes, AKA Tory Crimes, AKA chiropractor to my former boss. Paul Simonon, meanwhile, had painted notes on his bass so he could learn how to play. The Clash, in all probability, probably shouldn’t have been half has good an album as it turned out to be.
But against the playing, you have the songs. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that I think Strummer and Jones hit an early peak that they could never match again, because I don’t believe that to be true. But I do think that our two songwriting heroes, believing love to be a “subject covered” well enough elsewhere, hit on a range of themes still resonant today and opening the album with a song like Janie Jones- subject matter, boredom at work and dreams of the rock and roll lifestyle was a masterstroke. Then you get prescient fears at the americanisation of our culture- I’m So Bored With The USA; television as the “new religion” in London’s Burning; the wish that white people would stand up for themselves in White Riot- a song inspired by the Notting Hill Carnival riot of ’76. One that Jo now hates as a result of overexposure to it via repeated viewings of Rude Boy in 2005.
Alienation in What’s My Name, one of the album highlights for me, drug use- London’s Burning (again), drug abuse (Deny). The self explanatory Career Opportunities, Protex Blue is a song about condoms a few years before Suggs thought of one. Police and Thieves cheekily Clashes up a Junior Murvin classic. It also fits in very well with the themes of the rest of the album. 48 Hours sees the guys living for the weekend, before they sign off with their classic response to Charles Shaar-Murray’s claims that the Clash were a band best left in the garage with the motor running, Garageland.
Which is some way to end an album. In amongst the fury and frustration at the greyness of London life, manifested in the playing and delivery of the lyrics, this is an album dusted with sardonic humour, Joe’s cartoonist’s eye influencing everything he sees. Witness the menacing What’s My Name, written with Keith Levene before they sacked him and he ended up playing with John Lydon in PIL, the line about going to join a ping pong club, but “sign on the door/ all full up”… well, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? So, if you took a moment to stop and listen, if you can find a minute here, you would empathise with, and then laugh at, the protagonist. At least until he shows up, later on, at the back of your house anyway. Or Garageland, “We’re a garage band/ we come from garage land”. Clearly, they were something more than that, or come to that, the song about “johnny johnnies”.
I’m not saying this is the Clash’s best album, there are songs on it I’d be quite happy never to hear again, Remote Control and Hate and War to name but two. But it is where the Clash were at their sharpest. This is an album, thirty four years later, that never fails to excite me and, I suppose, that is why I have ended up writing about it this afternoon/evening.
Actually, bollocks to that: Sandinista! may be the album to take to a desert island, London Calling may have been the album designed to be the last word in rock and roll, but The Clash is 36 minutes, or 35:18 to be exact, of musical majesty. Harder. Faster. Better. If you haven’t done so already, check it out. Now!
What’s My Name