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Readers’ Poll: The Best Clash Songs

Picks include ‘Guns of Brixton,’ ‘Clampdown’ and ‘Straight to Hell’

Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It's been 30 years since the classic lineup of the Clash played a note in public together, but their music is still everywhere, from commercials to football stadiums to the iPod playlists of teens born long after "Rock the Casbah" dropped off the charts. The 13-disc Clash box set Sound System hits shelves on September 10th. We asked our readers to vote on their favorite Clash song last week. Here are the results. 

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6. ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’

Joe Strummer wrote "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" after attending an all-night reggae concert and feeling very out of his element. "The audience was really hardcore," he said. "I felt they were looking for something different from a showbiz spectacle. It was very Vegas. I was enjoying the show, but I felt like I saw it through their eyes for a minute or two." As the song goes on, Strummer turns his attention toward a British punk scene that was "turning rebellion into money." 

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5. ‘Rock the Casbah’

Clash drummer Topper Headon wrote almost no songs for the group, but one day he stumbled into the studio by himself and laid down a little song he'd been fiddling around with, playing the bass, piano and drums. He has no memory of the original lyrics, though former Clash co-manager Kosmo Vinyl recalls they were a filthy ode to his girlfriend. The group loved the song, though they chucked his words and Mick Jones put some guitar on top of it. Strummer was inspired to write his lyrics when their manager, Bernie Rhodes, bitched about the group's long jams while recording "Sean Flynn." He said to them, "Does everything have to be as long as a raga?"

"I got back to the hotel that night and wrote on a typewriter, 'The King told the boogie men, You gotta let that raga drop,' " Strummer said shortly before he died in 2002. "I looked at it and for some reason I started to think about what someone had told me earlier, that you get lashed for owning a disco album in Iran." The song became a huge hit in 1982, but by that time Topper had been thrown out of the band due to his growing drug addiction. He didn't even appear in the video. 

 

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4. ‘Clampdown’

The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 was a horrible crisis for America, but it sure was a great thing for rock & roll. It inspired Bruce Springsteen to write "Roulette," and it got Joe Strummer to begin "Clampdown." The incident crystallized his view that capitalism will ultimately destroy mankind, and as he wrote the song it broadened into a general indictment of the system that makes people "work for the clampdown." It's one of the clear highlights of London Calling, and one of their greatest live songs. 

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3. ‘Straight to Hell’

The Clash began to implode while recording Combat Rock in late 1981. Personal problems aside, Mick was into hip-hop, Paul was into reggae and Joe was all over the place, though he still loved traditional punk. They had a hard time fusing these elements together, especially since they pledged to confine the record to a single LP. Somehow or another, everything came together perfectly on "Straight to Hell," a snarling attack on American soldiers in Vietnam who left behind pregnant locals. They finished the song on New Years's Eve at Electric Lady studio. "I knew we'd done something great," said Strummer. "It was one of our absolute masterpieces. But the band had to shatter after that record."

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2. ‘Train in Vain’

The final song on London Calling is far and away the poppiest and most commercial track on the album. It wasn't originally listed on the record sleeve, causing many to assume they were ashamed that they recorded such a radio-friendly song. The simple truth is they added the song so late in the process that record sleeves were already printed. They released it as the third song from the album, and it was their first song in the American Top 30. The words "Train in Vain" appear nowhere in the song. Mick says he titled it that since the rhythm of the song reminded him of a train. 

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1. ‘London Calling’

Joe Strummer spent a lot of time working on the lyrics to "London Calling." His notebooks show page after page of work, and the demo has totally different verses: "London calling, we're the kings of the south," he originally sang. "Hated all over, kings of the mouth." At Mick's encouragement, Strummer returned once again to the lyrics and wrote an apocalyptic tale about the Thames flooding and ruining the city. It was a reflection of the band at the time. They'd recently fired manager Bernie Rhodes and were struggling to find their footing. Without realizing it, the song opened the door to the greatest period of their career. Sadly, it would be brief. 

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