Of all the artists who “changed everything”, The Clash stand loud and proud. Over the course of their seven years (only taking into account the classic lineup, forget Cut the Crap), they became one of the most successful, loved, powerful, and original groups in history.
Of all the famous taglines that were attached to the Clash, the phrase “The only band that matters” somehow seems more prescient now than ever before. The Clash had so much going for them that their heroes, contemporaries and offspring spent most of their respective careers trying to reach their lofty heights.
The Clash created music that people could believe in, and across their short career, they became one of the most incredible bands to ever exist.
There is so much to discuss about this band. From their first self titled album, through numerous incomparable singles, the louder second records, the greatest album of all time (I know it’s a big statement, but prove to me that London Calling isn’t), the fourth and most eclectic triple album ever released, and the fifth album of experimentation and hits, The Clash amassed a catalogue that stands as one of the most intriguing and dissectible in music.
The Beatles and the Stones are loved for the controversies, the songs, the mysteries, the myths. These all create the lore around a band. The Clash, however, are completely different. There are still some mysteries, such as whether or not the Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg ever get its magnificent complete release. However, what made the Clash special is that everyone had something to latch onto. And there was A LOT to latch onto. So here are some reasons why The Clash are still the only band that matters.
Fans before the man
No band has ever put fans above their own commercial means more than The Clash. During early gigs, The Clash would allow fans to climb in through the back window of gigs in order to spend time with the band or get into their concerts. Fans hearing the music was always more important than making money. This is why the releases of London Calling and Sandinista are so important. The former, a double album; the latter, a triple album, were both released for the same price of a single album. The Clash did this by forfeiting their own royalties in order for fans to listen to as much music as possible for a cheaper price.
Another famous story is The Clash playing Bonds International Casino. The band were originally scheduled for eight shows at the casino, however, when it was reported that promoters had oversold each show by twice the amount (3500 tickets per night in comparison to the casinos legal capacity of 1750) the New York Fire Department was called in to stop the concert.
On the cusp of riots in New York, The Clash did the unprecedented. They stuck two fingers up to the promoters and decided to extend their run of shows to 17, yes 17 shows in a row. Every ticket plus some were validated and during all 17 performances, The Clash gave everything they had to the crowd. During these performances, there was a new support act for each concert. Of these support acts were Lee Scratch Perry and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. This was seen as one of the first times hip-hop was given a platform to a wider American market.
Ian Brown of The Stone Roses describes a story of The Clash that sums up the band’s love for the fans, “I was at the recording of ‘Bankrobber’. Me and my mate Pete Garner were walking down Granby Road in the middle of Manchester one day and we could hear these drums coming through the walls. Topper Headon walks out on to the street right in front of us! He invited us downstairs into the studio to see what was going on. They were dead cool. Afterwards, we showed Johnny Green, their tour manager, the way to the record shop and he bought two copies of ‘London Calling’ – one for each of us. I’ll never forget it.” No other band has ever treated their fans quite like that
Consistently growing and expanding
Robert Christgau, one of rock music’s most acclaimed and well-respected critics once said this about The Clash’s album Sandinista; “If this is their worst—which it is, I think—they must be, er, the world’s greatest rock and roll band”. From a band that started off as a support act for the Sex Pistols, The Clash grew a mind-boggling amount between their debut album and Combat Rock. Their first record was described on release as, “the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere”. It was a blast of purified punk rock with not a single dull song.
The follow-up, Give Em’ Enough Rope, along with the singles in-between helped to solidify the Clash as a genre-hopping mega-naught. Tracks such as English Civil War and Tommy Gun showed off the band’s new drum machine, Topper Headon, while non-album songs Complete Control, White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) and Pressure Drop can all be held to the highest level of songwriting. They are songs that define pigeonholing while being explosions of energy.
Only two years after their debut album, The Clash released arguably the greatest album ever put out by any band anywhere. London Calling. Nineteen songs, uncompromising, incomparable, a flawless record. I could happily write thousands of words on this record, but the only way to truly experience its magnificence and its immensity is to put it on and blast it loud.
Over the next two years, The Clash would release albums and songs that felt lightyears away from their punk origins. Sandinista, the first original triple album, covered more genres and tracks than most people manage to listen to in a lifetime. Although not all brilliant, it was a case of releasing everything in order for everybody to experience as much of the worlds music as possible. No other band would do that for their fans. Oh, and it had the first charting political rap song ever, just saying.
Combat Rock, their final record with the classic lineup broke the band in America. It refined aspects of Sandinista and added a pop sheen to the songs allowing the band to explode onto the global stage. Soon after the band would disintegrate in front of everyones eyes. However, the music they left behind over the course of those five years broke from tradition in order to make music that was uncategorisable. Truly an extraordinary feat.
Something to believe in
The Clash were also one of the most powerful live bands of all time. Seriously, just watch the performance below and tell me that doesn’t fill you with an urge to join a band. They gave their all on stage and every time they were in front of an audience, they changed every single attendee’s life. Nobody forgets seeing them live.
U2’s The Edge once described how his first gig seeing The Clash changed his life, “It was only when I saw the band live on their ‘Out of Control’ tour that I found out how potent they could be. It was 21 October 1977 in Trinity College, Dublin – it was a tribal gathering and it had a seismic impact on the Dublin subculture.”
Not only were their live performances life-changing, but it was the lyrics beneath that helped to introduce a young audience to events happening around the world. From consumerism (Lost In the Supermarket) through to race relations (White Riot, Guns of Brixton), and all the way back to war and decay (Straight to Hell, Rock the Casbah), The Clash were never afraid to stray away from the harder topics of life. This helped the younger audiences become more conscious of their effect on the world, all the while being blasted by some of the best tunes this side of The Beatles.
Chuck D from Public Enemy explained, “They talked about important subjects, so therefore journalists printed what they said, which was very pointed… We took that from the Clash, because we were very similar in that regard.” The Clash opened up a new world for everyone. They made the masses think again.
Personally, The Clash remain the single greatest band on the planet. London Calling remains the single greatest album ever released. Innumerable songs by The Clash remain some of the greatest songs ever released.
My first CD was the complete Clash On Broadway collection which I bought with my pocket money when I was 7. The reason I play music is to play in a band like The Clash. The reason I play bass is because Paul Simonon is one of the coolest looking dudes on the planet and wrote some of the most underrated bass lines of all time. I write so I can connect to people like Joe Strummer did. The Clash changed my life for the better and I will forever be grateful for that.
Maybe The Clash are the only band that mattered, matters, and ever will matter. They created an image, a style, a concise and sole entity for you to follow (no other band has their own exhibition showing at the London Museum right now). Like a revolution of rock, the Clash were something to believe in. You wanted to read their lyrics because they told you about things that were happening around the world. They fed you important information. They educated you on topics of class, race, war and revolt.
They were more than a band, they were a belief system. No other band has been so at ease with dipping into every style of music as the Clash did and I suspect no other band ever will. The Clash remain one of (if not) the most important bands in all of music. Whatever your taste, whatever your style, The Clash made something for you. To use the great Joe Strummers words, The future may be unwritten, but The Clash are forever.