The story of The Clash is a story that ended too soon. The Clash was undoubtedly the most far-reaching band to emerge from the tattered punk scene, which is now strewn with as many victims as survivors. But there were no Sid Viciouses in the Clash; although the band itself may have fallen prey to the same kinetic and implosive energy that brought it to life, both Joe Strummer (writing film scores) and Mick Jones (leading B.A.D.) have continued vigorous careers.
As documented in a self-effacing group interview on the record (“I wasn’t alone in the fact that I couldn’t play too well,” says Strummer), the Clash was initially inspired by the Sex Pistols but soon outdistanced them. The heartbeat of the band — bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon — never succumbed to the speedy pseudo-energy of other punk bands. The Pistols were angry young men indeed, but they kept the motivations for their anger hidden behind a wall of safe-typin fashions; the Clash told you why in no uncertain terms.
As this collection clearly shows, the Clash’s political concerns remained in the forefront even as the band’s musical influences moved beyond the Pistols (“Clash City Rockers”) to reggae (“White Man in Hammersmith Palais”) and rap (“The Magnificent Seven”). And truly, as might be gleaned from a sampling of the titles on The Story of the Clash: Volume I (“White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” “London’s Burning,” “Tommy Gun,” “Complete Control,” “White Riot” and “Spanish Bombs”), the Clash’s brand of rock, while commercially accessible, was overtly revolutionary. Listening to songs such as those, one got the sense that England was about to erupt in civil war at any moment.
This double-album collection (with its promising sphinxlike subtitle and hysterical Brit-gonzo liner notes, by one “Albert Transom,” a supposed Clash valet) is stronger than any single Clash album. The cumulative effect of listening to this fearless and spirited evidence of the Clash’s vitality only makes the band’s dissolution more regretful.
One wonders what inner tensions led to the group’s breakup. The romanticism of Mick Jones (“Train in Vain,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Stay Free”) stands out in vivid contrast to the often indecipherable political ranting of Joe Strummer, but both sentiments sprang from the same well of disillusionment — be it with government or lover.
We need this band now more than we did then.