Unlike many other punk bands from the 1970s, the Clash took raw anger as a starting point, not an end. They were rebels with a cause — many causes, in fact, from anti-Thatcherism to racial unity to the Sandinistas. Their music was hard-charging and roots-based but also future-visionary; their experiments with funk, reggae, and rap never took them far from a three-minute pop song. Hyped as "the only band that matters," the Clash fell apart just as they broke through to an American audience. By then they had delivered an arsenal of unforgettable rock songs while showing that punk was not just a flash-in-the-pan explosion.
The Clash were very much dependent on the band chemistry between its four most longstanding members: vocalist Joe Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Topper Headon. Primary songwriter Strummer, the son of a British diplomat, grew up in a boarding school. He quit school while still in his teens and in 1974 formed the 101ers, a pub-rock band named either for the address of the building where they squatted or the number of the torture room in the George Orwell novel 1984.
Jones and Simonon both grew up in working-class Brixton. The gangling, handsome Simonon was attending art school when he met Jones. He had never played an instrument until he heard the Sex Pistols; he then acquired a bass and joined Jones' band, the London SS, which in its 11-month existence included Tory Crimes and Headon (as well as future Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik bassist Tony James). Seeing the Pistols induced Strummer (a name he got when he strummed "Johnny B. Goode" on a ukulele as a busker in London subway stations) to leave the 101ers, which included guitarist Keith Levene, soon after they recorded the single "Keys to Your Heart." Strummer and Levene then joined Jones, Simonon, and Crimes in their new group, named the Clash by Jones because it was the word that seemed to appear most often in newspaper headlines.
The Clash played its first, unannounced gig as a quinet, opening for the Sex Pistols in summer 1976. After Levene quit, they joined the Pistols' Anarchy in the U.K. Tour. (Levene eventually joined Public Image Ltd.) The Clash were managed by Malcolm McLaren associate Bernard Rhodes, who helped the band articulate their political mission. Where the Sex Pistols were nihilists, the Clash were protesters, singing about police brutality and disenfranchisement and performing benefit concerts for Rock Against Racism. They mixed rock with reggae, the music of Britain's oppressed Jamaicans; one of their early singles was a cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves."
In February 1977, British label CBS Records signed the Clash for a reported $200,000 advance. Their debut album was released that spring and entered the British charts at Number 12. Columbia considered the album too crude for American release (although the import sold 100,000 copies, more than any other import album of that time). In response, the Clash recorded "Complete Control" with Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Crimes quit the group in late 1976. Headon, who had been drumming with Pat Travers in Europe since his stint in the London SS, accompanied the group on its first national headlining dates. The White Riot Tour, named after the current Clash single, ended at a London concert where the audience ripped the seats out of the floor. It was the first in a series of confrontations between the Clash and the police, especially in Britain, where the group members were arrested on charges ranging from petty theft to illegal possession of firearms (for shooting prize pigeons).
In October 1978 the Clash's stormy relationship with Rhodes took a turn for the worse and the band fired the manager, only to rehire him years later. In between, they worked with journalist Caroline Coon and Kosmo Vinyl, among others.
One of the four songs on an EP entitled Cost of Living, a cover of the Bobby Fuller–Sonny Curtis "I Fought the Law," was the first Clash record released in the U.S. At Columbia's behest, American producer Sandy Pearlman, best known for his work with Blue Öyster Cult, produced Give 'Em Enough Rope, which reached Number Two on the British charts but only Number 128 in the U.S.
The Clash launched their Pearl Harbour Tour of America in February 1979. They also persuaded Columbia to release their first album, which in its American version contained only 10 of the original 14 tracks. A bonus 45 and EP selections dating as far back as two years made up the rest. With "I Fought The Law" receiving mainstream rock airplay, the album eventually went gold. The Clash toured the U.S. again that fall, with Mickey Gallagher, of Ian Dury's Blockheads, on keyboards.
London Calling (Number 27, 1980) was an artistic and commercial triumph. Smart, passionate and remarkably tuneful, the album —which was produced by Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople) and recorded with help from a brass section and Gallagher —is a collection of stunningly strong songs that touch on reggae, ska, rockabilly, and even New Orleans R&B. Thanks partly to a hit single penned by Jones, "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)" (Number 23, 1980), London Calling went gold. Beginning with London Calling, the Clash insisted that its records sell at lower than standard prices.
In 1980 the semi-documentary film Rude Boy was released. It wove a fictional story about a fan (played by Ray Gange) around actual footage of Clash shows and backstage scenes, filmed during the previous 18 months. That year Jones also produced an album by his then-girlfriend, singer Ellen Foley.
The Clash recorded Sandinista! in New York, producing it themselves. The triple-LP package was a deliberately anti-commercial gesture. It sold for less than most double albums, and Columbia took the loss profits out of the group's royalties and tour support funds. A sprawling, often-experimental album, Sandinista! (Number 24, 1981) was the first Clash album to sell more copies in the U.S. than in the U.K. Like London Calling preceding it, it was voted the best album of the year by critics in the U.S, in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll.
In December 1981, as the band was beginning to record their next album, Headon was arrested for heroin possession. In April 1982, just as Combat Rock was about to be released, Strummer disappeared, to be found a month later in Paris. (Some accounts say the vanishing act was a publicity stunt engineered by Rhodes.) Upon Strummer's return, Headon left the group, reputedly because of "political differences," although Strummer later revealed that the problem was the drummer's drug use; he was replaced by Crimes for the Clash's U.K. tour. Ironically, Headon wrote "Rock the Casbah" (Number Eight, 1982), which became an early MTV staple and was the Clash's biggest hit. In July 1982 Headon was arrested in London for receiving stolen property.
Combat Rock (Number Seven, 1982), produced by Glyn Johns, continued the Clash's forays into funk and rap. One song featured Beat poet Allen Ginsberg; another broadly quoted the movie Taxi Driver. The album went platinum; the single "Should I Stay or Should I Go" was a Top 50 hit that summer. In fall of 1982 the Clash toured the U.S. with the Who, playing for its biggest audiences yet. In spring 1983 they headlined at the US Festival in California, with Pete Howard on drums.
That fall Simonon and Strummer kicked Jones out of the band, replacing him with two guitarists, Vince White and Nick Sheppard. Jones went on to form Big Audio Dynamite. Cut the Crap was poorly received by critics and fans; the new Clash was a feeble imitation of its old self, and the band soon called it quits.
Strummer briefly reunited with Jones to work on B.A.D.'s second album. He pursued film work with director Alex Cox, writing "Love Kills," the theme song for Sid & Nancy; starring in Straight to Hell and contributing to the soundtrack; and scoring Walker. Forming the short-lived combo Latino Rockabilly War (including ex–Circle Jerk guitarist Zander Schloss), Strummer recorded the B-side of the soundtrack for Permanent Record, a 1988 film about teen suicide. In 1988 Strummer toured as the rhythm guitarist for the Pogues [see entry]; he later produced their 1990 album, Hell's Ditch, and filled in for erstwhile frontman Shane MacGowan following its release. In 1989 he appeared in Jim Jarmusch's film Mystery Train and released the poorly received solo album Earthquake Weather.
Strummer was something of a recluse during the Nineties but became more active as the decade wore on -- especially as a new wave ska-punk bands, including Rancid and Sublime, refocused attention on the Clash. In 1996 Strummer and Rat Scabies of the Damned formed Electric Dog House and contributed a track to the benefit album, Generations I: A Punk Look at Human Rights. Strummer also scored the music for the movie Grosse Pointe Blank. In 1999, he formed the Mescaleros and released Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, an album that fused hip-hop, dub, punk, and rockabilly and featured reggae star Horace Andy on one track. The follow-up, Global A Go-Go, continued in the same vein.
Simonon formed the roots-oriented Havana 3 A.M. with longtime L.A. scenester Gary Myrick; they recorded one album. He has mostly pursued his painting since the band's demise. Headon released a solo album in England in 1987 but later that year was sentenced by a London court to 15 months in jail for supplying heroin to a friend who died of an overdose.
Big Audio Dynamite released its final studio album, Entering a New Ride, in 1997, and Jones went on to form Carbon/Silicon with Tony James. The band recorded actively – many of their albums were released online only —and toured throughout England. Jones has also worked off and on as a producer. His most notable credits were for Up the Brackett and The Libertines, both by English indie-punk band the Libertines; the latter album went to Number One on the U.K. album charts.
The Story of the Clash, Vol. 1 (Number 142, 1998) and box set Clash on Broadway compiled Clash songs. In 1991 the Clash had their biggest British hit ever when "Should I Stay or Should I Go" was rereleased, after being featured in a Levi's commercial. It went to Number One in the U.K. In 1998 Strummer oversaw the creation of Burning London, a Clash tribute album featuring covers of the band's songs by Rancid, Afghan Whigs, Ice Cube, Moby, and others. A much-anticipated live album drawn from the Clash's punk heyday, From Here To Eternity surfaced the following year; later, Live At Shea Stadium (Number 93, 2008) documented a landmark New York show.
On June 16, 2000, the band's best-known lineup —Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon —were scheduled to reunite for the first time since 1985 to perform as part of a tribute to the late Ian Dury at London's Brixton Academy. However, Strummer withdrew less than two weeks before the tribute. On December 22, 2002 —just over a month after an announcement that the Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following spring —Joe Strummer died of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, at age 50. The album Streetcore, which he had been working on before his sudden, unexpected death, was released posthumously in October, 2003.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.