“This is rock & roll,” Clash guitarist Joe Strummer informed a curious Munich crowd. By the end of the show that night – October 4th, 1977 – he had led the band through most of their unstoppable debut album (released earlier that year), sweated so much that he poured beer on his head, and convinced the Germans that he was right. “Garageland” closed the Clash’s set with a mighty exclamation point.
Things could go wrong for London punk groups when they traveled away from their hometown. Only a few months after this show, the Sex Pistols broke up at the end of a foreign tour that had gone off the rails – their abbreviated American jaunt in January 1978. And backstage on this night, Clash guitarist Mick Jones was bitterly complaining about the group’s treatment in Munich. “My friend’s in the slammer, they don’t have a hotel for us,” he told Wolfgang Buld’s film crew, who were shooting the documentary Punk in London.
“The police came around and dragged us out from the hotel,” explained bassist Paul Simonon. “We really want to like Germany. Well, I do, anyway.”
“It’s fucking horrible,” Jones declared. “I never want to come back here again. It stinks.”
Onstage, the Clash were powered by that anger like it was an electrical current. Strummer shouted “The truth is only known by guttersnipes” with such passion that he reduced the message to vowels. Wearing a ripped fishnet top, Simonon locked into the rolling rhythms of drummer Topper Headon. When cameraman Willy Brunner ventured onstage to get a closeup of the band members, obscuring the view of the crowd, Strummer firmly pushed him back to the side of the stage with his microphone stand. And Jones slashed away at his guitar like he could make everything in the world right with it.
“Garageland,” which also ended the Clash’s debut album, was a mission statement inspired by a bad review. The year before, journalist Charles Shaar Murray had seen one of the group’s first gigs, and unimpressed, had written, “The Clash are the sort of band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running.”
Jones said, “That review really spurred us on, not only to write this song on behalf of all the garage bands, but to make us strong. Joe did the lyrics and it deserved a good tune.”
With lyrics about “contracts in the offices” and “someone just asked me if the group would wear suits,” the song is also a defense of the Clash’s decision to sign to a major label, CBS Records, in a deal that provided an advance of £100,000. Facing accusations of selling out from other punks, the Clash were at pains to reassert their credibility. They did so by making themselves the stars of the song, an approach they also took on singles such as “Clash City Rockers” and “Complete Control.” Singing about themselves so frequently rubbed some scenesters the wrong way, but that self-mythologizing instinct was intertwined with the group’s ambition – and without that ambition, the Clash wouldn’t have become one of the greatest bands of all time.