If the Sex Pistols were the battering ram used to knock the doors down then the Clash were the style and substance. Where the Sex Pistols were brash the Clash were cool. Where the Sex Pistols were blatant the Clash were more subtle. They took the energy and vibe of Punk and used it to harness a philosophy of political and social change.
At the time they were described as the intelligentsia of Punk. I’m not sure about that. They didn’t always get it right. There was an element of lauding yobbish behaviour, bank robbery and crime as if it was all part of some planned rebellion against the establishment that would bring about social change. As far as I could see robbing banks was not a career path to encourage and it wasn’t a victimless crime. Putting that aside we do find the Clash taking a stance. Unlike some of the other Punk bands they sought to ally themselves to the Blacks who they identified with as a victimised minority. This put them right at the forefront of Rock against Racism.
This also fostered a liking for Reggae and to a lesser extent Soul which they saw as musical forms that expressed the same defiant lyrical content and rebellious attitude. It meant that they introduced reggae rhythms into their music which was unique among the new Punk bands. They even got Lee Scratch Perry to co-produce a number.
With numbers like ‘White Riot’ which incited young White kids to get out and protest the way the Blacks had done, ‘London’s Burning’, ‘Tommy Gun’, ‘Career Opportunities’, ‘Police and Thieves’ and ‘Garageland’ they set out both their Punk credentials and a desire for direct action. The track ‘I’m so bored with the USA’ was a protest about the dire American crap we were being bombarded with as culture. They might be inspired by the likes of the Ramones and New York Dolls but this was a British Band living in the austerity and class war of Thatcher’s Britain. They were giving a voice to all those disenfranchised kids in British cities and didn’t give a damn about what America thought.
It was the third album – ‘London Calling’ that really sealed them as a great Rock band. It rose above being a mere Punk album with its clear and more sophisticated production, range of styles and songs and yet kept the Punk ethos. They even adopted Rockabilly as an authentic Punk expression. ‘Guns of Brixton’ reaffirmed that identification with Black culture and ‘London Calling’ with its distinctive guitar sound was mainstream Rock. The cover, which was a pastiche of Elvis’s first album with shades of the Who’s smashing guitars, was a move away from the cut and paste of Punk. The Clash had a different look, style and range. The idea of a Punk double album was strange for the new wave. That was more the realm of the despised progressive bands. However the move away from fast snappy songs to variety and complexity was a sign of development.
There was talk as to whether the Clash could still be thought of as a genuine Punk Band anymore. Yet the attitude was there one hundred percent. It was just that they’d moved up a league and matured. The fire was still there. Also, unlike the Pistols, they had broken into America.
If ‘London Calling’ was controversial for a Punk Band then the triple album Sandanista was even more so. There was an even greater range of styles. Yet once again even the title of the album affirmed the revolutionary nature of the band. Combat Rock with its two singles that proved very commercially viable.
The internal strains began to manifest between Strummer and Jones. Jones got kicked out and after a last effort the band broke up.
What a pity that such a great band should succumb to that ignominous end. They were not merely a top Punk band they were one of the top bands in the world.