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.
The Clash's 1978 LP Give 'Em Enough Rope was slightly off-putting to some fans. The record label teamed the band with producer Sandy Pearlman, best known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult. The songs are absolutely amazing, but some felt that Pearlman's production made the music a little too glossy and clean. "Stay Free" is one of the stand-out tracks from the LP. It was written by Mick Jones about his gang of childhood friends in South London, specifically Robin Banks. "He was the guy who punched out Sandy Pearlman," said Jones. "Who was producing the album, of course. Which was kind of ironic."
When the Clash moved the Sandinista! sessions to New York's Electric Lady Studios in April of 1980, the city was in the middle of an incredible musical renaissance. Hip-hop was emerging from the rec rooms and playgrounds of the Bronx to clubs all across the city, and Mick Jones was enamored by what he heard. "The Magnificent Seven" was the Clash's attempt to harness the energy of hip-hop in their own music. It was released as the third single from the album, and the B-side was a dance remix called "The Magnificent Dance." That got a lot of play in the discos all over the city as well. When the Clash did their legendary residency at Bonds in Times Square in the summer of 1981, they drew tons of disco and hip-hop fans in addition to the old-school punk fans. All of them screamed "New York, don't stop, give it all you got!" in unison when the band played "The Magnificent Seven" each night.
According to Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the secret behind the Clash's London Calling was their producer, Guy Stevens. "He brought out the best in everybody," Simonon says. "And he was the crazy one that let us not be crazy and get on with the job. I think if you put us all in the room together you'd look at Guy and you'd say, 'Yeah, he's the crazy one. Those other guys, they're the normal ones.'"
This was quite clear when they recorded "Death or Glory." "Guy lost it when we were recording that," said Simonon. "He ran into the room picking up chairs and smashing them against the wall, and we're thinking 'He's gone insane,' while still playing the song."
There are a lot of misconceptions about the Clash's 1982 hit "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Many have speculated that Mick Jones wrote it about his decision to leave the band, while others are positive he wrote it about his girlfriend Ellen Foley, best known as Meat Loaf's duet partner on "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" (and the prosecutor on the second season of Night Court). Jones says that's all a bunch of crap. "It was just a good rockin' song," he said. "Our attempt at writing a classic. When we were just playing, that's the sort of stuff we'd play."
CBS Records really, really pissed off the Clash when they released their debut single "Remote Control" without even asking their permission. Instead of throwing some Sex Pistols-like public fit, they channeled their rage into a new song, kicking off with the words "They said release 'Remote Control,' but we didn't want it on the label." From there the band rages against all the forces attempting to control them. This song is an absolute masterpiece of rage, made even cooler by the fact it's produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry. "He seemed as mad as Guy Stevens," said Simonon. "He kept doing kung fu stuff all across the place and he had writing in Biro up his arms, but he was a great character."
Clash bassist Paul Simonon wrote "Guns of Brixton" when he came to a very simple realization: songwriters make more money than anyone else in the band. The track has a strong reggae vibe, even referencing The Harder They Come. (Last year Jimmy Cliff covered the song.) "I actually wanted it to be a bit more rocking," Simonon said. "But musical incapability on my part made it a real task to communicate that to the others."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.