The Clash - Biography
The Clash made their public debut on July 4, 1976 -- the American Bicentennial – at the Black Swan in Sheffield, England, opening for The Sex Pistols. Their public profile would soon equal that of their instant punk rivals The Pistols, and their popularity would shortly eclipse that of the original British punk band.
The two groups were counterpoised in almost every imaginable way. The Pistols were a shambolic unit that embraced chaos; The Clash advanced a program of militant, sometimes naïve social and political outspokenness. Outwardly at least, The Pistols had no use for the music industry’s machinations; The Clash’s vision of a world platform for their ideas led them to an uneasy and volatile cease-fire with the business. The Pistols self-destructed after two-and-a-half years; The Clash would ultimately become the first founding punk band to attain international fame, though it led them into a thicket of contradiction from which they never truly emerged. Of all punk’s first heroes, The Clash were the grandest, the most exciting, the smartest, the most famous, and the most complex.
Though The Clash addressed the concerns of the working man, the band’s key members were middle class in origin.
The son of a career British foreign service officer, John Graham Mellor was born in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952. He spent much of his youth separated from his family in English private school, where he became entranced with music and film. He threw over art school and, calling himself Woody Mellor (in honor of his hero, American folk musician Woody Guthrie), he began busking on London’s streets. After drifting through the hippie culture, he began a squatter in a disused West London flat. In the mid-‘70s, he and some of his squat-mates formed a band, the 101’ers, which became a fixture on the street-level pub rock scene that spawned Dr. Feelgood and other R&B-inflected groups. With that group, he plugged in an electric guitar and again reinvented himself, taking a name that honored his fast, blurry rhythm guitar work: Joe Strummer.
Like Strummer, Mick Jones came from a comfortable background. The product of a broken marriage, he grew up in relative ease in West London, raised by his grandmother. Jones’ mother, who had moved to America, would periodically send him hip U.S. music magazines like Rock Scene and Creem. He became fixated with rock music, and was a major fan of the hard-rocking Mott the Hoople and other glam-era groups; he was dazzled by The New York Dolls. Like Strummer, he spent a brief time in art school, but left to concentrate on playing the guitar in some half-formed London bands. One of these, Little Queenie, cut an unsuccessful demo with Mott’s producer Guy Stevens, who suggested that they jettison Jones.
Jones was soon working with bassist Tony James in an embryonic glam-oriented unit, London SS. In 1975, the pair became acquainted with Bernard Rhodes, a volatile Marxist who served as the aide-de-camp of Malcolm McLaren, manager of The Sex Pistols, then newly arrived on the London music scene. After a onetime art student named Paul Simonon accompanied a friend to a London SS audition, Rhodes – who wanted to form a band to rival The Pistols, but with a politicized edge – suggested that Jones dump James (who would shortly join Generation X) and sign up Simonon on the basis of looks alone. Despite the fact that he could play nothing, and his main exposure to music was via the reggae and ska he heard in the Brixton and Notting Hill neighborhoods in which he grew up, Simonon was tagged as the band’s new bassist.
Fatefully, Jones and Simonon, with London SS guitarist Keith Levene, attended an April 23, 1976, show by The Sex Pistols at London’s Nashville; the opening act was the 101’ers. It was a life-changing experience for all parties. Strummer was astounded by the violent, nihilistic, forcefully new style and sound of the evening’s headliners; he would later say, “After I saw The Sex Pistols, I knew we were yesterday’s papers.” The London SS contingent sensed that they might have found a lead singer in the wound-up, magnetic 101’ers front man. Within a month, Jones and Simonon would again encounter Strummer – all of them were collecting their unemployment dole money at a local Labour Exchange office.
Rhodes approached Strummer the following month, and the singer-guitarist was surprised to discover the lads from the dole queue at a hastily convened rehearsal/tryout. In typical hard-nosed fashion, the manager then gave Strummer 48 hours to decide which band he’d stick with. Seeing no future with the 101’ers, he signed on with the new group.
Taking the new name The Clash – inspired by headlines in the U.K. tabloid press – the band quickly took shape in a ramshackle Camden room dubbed Rehearsal Rehearsals, with drummer Terry Chimes finishing the lineup. The group began writing songs with an angry, street-level view of disaffected teenage London life: “Deny,” “What’s My Name,” “London’s Burning,” “48 Hours,” “1977.” They also affected paint-spattered stage gear influenced by the dribble action paintings of American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
The five-piece lineup didn’t excite the music press at first. In a review of a Screen On the Green show that would inspire the song “Garageland,” New Musical Express writer Charles Shaar Murray wrote, “They are the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, preferably with the motor running.”
By September, the unreliable Levene was ejected from The Clash. A run of increasingly acclaimed shows, including a set at the legendary Punk Festival at London’s 100 Club, followed. In October 1976, the group cut demos for Polydor produced, ironically enough, by Guy Stevens, who would also figure in the band’s near future. At the end of the year, The Clash – now wearing stage garb dramatically stenciled with stark political slogans – appeared with The Sex Pistols on the catastrophic Anarchy Tour of the U.K.; the majority of the shows were cancelled in the wake of a public outcry over The Pistols’ obscenity-laden face-off with Bill Grundy on the Thames Today show.
Finally, in early 1977, after an ongoing flirtation with Polydor, The Clash signed with CBS Records, then the biggest record company in the world. Many of the band’s early supporters cried “sellout,” but the group and their manager were seeking the biggest imaginable stage for their music, and their message.
The message was initially delivered in the March 1977 single “White Riot.” Kicked off by a police klaxon, and inspired by the band members’ involvement in a violent showdown between black celebrants and police at the previous summer’s Carnival in the West Indian community of Notting Hill, it boldly announced the arrival of a pointed, white-hot punk band. Its B-side was “1977,” which bore the famous declaration, “No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977.” It was succeeded the following month by their debut album The Clash, produced by the band’s live sound man Micky Foote. Like the single, it seethed with energy, frustration, and contempt for authority. Its 13 outspoken originals were complemented by a rumbling six-minute cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae hit “Police and Thieves”; tacked onto the record to fill out its length, it became the first significant plunge into reggae by a punk band.
At around the same time the album was released, The Clash recruited Nicky “Topper” Headon, a jazz-schooled drummer, to replace Chimes, who had decided the group was not for him. Headon made his bow on the nail-spitting 45 “Complete Control”; inspired by CBS’s release of “Remote Control” as a single over the band’s objections, the track was produced by the legendary Jamaican producer Lee Perry.
In June 1978, the band appeared before 70,000 at an outdoor rally mounted by the Anti-Nazi League in London’s Victoria Park; footage of the show became a highlight of David Mingay and Jack Hazan’s 1980 film Rude Boy, a fictionalized quasi-documentary portrait of the band. July saw the release of the reggae-inflected “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” possibly The Clash’s finest single, in which Strummer reflected on attending an all-night London reggae show as one of the lone white outsiders.
Much of 1978 was consumed by arduous sessions for The Clash’s second album. Seeking a more commercial sound than that heard on the raw, no-frills debut, CBS put the band together with Sandy Pearlman, a producer best known for his work with the American hard rock band Blue Öyster Cult. Pearlman led the band through sessions in London, San Francisco, and New York. The resultant album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978), was slagged in some quarters for its heavier, radio-friendly sound. But it contained some of The Clash’s most personal songs to date: “Safe European Home,” about Strummer and Jones’ frightening culture-clashing trip to Kingston, Jamaica; “Guns On the Roof,” inspired by the arrests of Simonon and Headon for shooting at a flock of racing pigeons; and “Stay Free,” Jones’ salute to the band’s jailbird friend and crew member Robin Banks.
Conflict between The Clash and their manager-provocateur-theoretician reached a head that fall, and Rhodes was sacked April of 1978. The band embarked on their first American tour in early 1979. Mad for the States after their recording stint the previous year, The Clash played with ferocity; they were greeted with adoration by crowds of die-hard fans who had bought 100,000 imported copies of the debut album. It was the beginning of the Clash’s reputation as a top international rock act.
For their third album, The Clash again turned to producer Guy Stevens. He was an unpredictable eccentric deep in the throes of what would prove to be terminal alcoholism, but Stevens possessed a manic energy that inspired the band in the studio (though Mick Jones would ultimately have to take control of the sessions due to Steven’s increasing non-functionality). The third LP, London Calling (1979), is generally recognized as the group’s creative high water mark. A 19-track, two-LP set, it expanded The Clash’s sound far beyond punk parameters, incorporating ska, reggae, R&B, rockabilly; its songs looked beyond Britain’s shores into the heart of the American mythos, where Montgomery Clift and Staggerlee resided. A perennial entry on lists of the greatest rock albums of all time, London Calling contained The Clash’s first U.S. single chart entry, Jones’ “Train in Vain” (No. 23 in 1980), which originally appeared as an unlisted bonus track.
A wealth of influences poured into the tracks The Clash recorded in 1980. A forceful cover of Willie Williams’ Jamaican hit “Armagideon Time” was issued as the B-side of the single “London Calling.” DJ/producer Mikey Dread worked with the band on the myth-making single “Bankrobber,” and was also present – after an abortive session at Kingston’s Channel One Studio that was overrun and derailed by gun-toting gangsters --at a marathon session at New York’s Power Station.
The key tracks from that session became the core of The Clash’s massive three-LP set Sandinista! (1980). Produced by the band with Jones at the helm, the 36-track package was viewed variously as a masterpiece and the consummate rock star indulgence. It was one of the first rock albums to draw heavily from New York’s burgeoning hip-hop scene for inspiration; the rap-influenced “The Magnificent Seven” became a hit on the Apple’s top R&B station WBLS. The collection ranged through styles from dub, funk, and R&B to calypso, jazz, and English folk; it also contained kiddie-sung versions of “Career Opportunities” and “Guns of Brixton” and one number, “Something About England,” was also presented in reverse (!) as “Mensforth Hill.”
The Clash’s association with the management firm Blackhill Entertainment (previously the home of Pink Floyd) did not survive the release of Sandinista! In early 1981, Bernard Rhodes rejoined the fold. He presided over one of the band’s most chaotic and glorious chapters: Their May-June 1981 residency at Bond’s Casino in New York. Originally set for eight dates, the run was briefly shut down due to overcrowding; extended to 16 sold-out shows, the engagement turned Times Square into a teeming vortex of punk-crazed humanity.
Recorded after a riotous tour of the Far East, 1982's Combat Rock (originally a double record titled Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg) proved to be the swan song for the original Clash. The making of the album was fraught with tension: Veteran producer Glyn Johns was brought in to pare the record down to a single LP and remix the tapes, ruffling Jones’ feathers. Commercially the gambit paid off: It became The Clash’s only top 10 album in the U.S., reaching No. 7, and produced the band’s lone top 10 hit – “Rock the Casbah,” a song mocking the ban on Western rock by Iran’s Islamic theocracy, which rose to No. 8.
In an ironic twist of events, the key songwriter of “Rock the Casbah,” Topper Headon, was fired from the Clash within weeks of Combat Rock’s release. The drummer’s heroin addiction had become insupportable, and his bandmates – always outspokenly condemnatory of drug use, despite their own lapses – temporarily hired back Terry Chimes to take his place on tour.
After appearances in the fall of 1982 supporting The Who that included a stop at New York’s Shea Stadium and an April 1983 headlining appearance at the US Festival in California that climaxed with a brawl between their roadies and the stage crew, The Clash crashed and burned. For years, friction had grown between Mick Jones, who never made a secret of his love for the rock star life, and his bandmates. Rhodes – who for a time in 1978 had considered replacing the guitarist with Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols – had stoked the discord since his return as manager. In August 1983, Strummer and Simonon ousted Jones from the band he had founded.
Now The Clash virtually in name only, the group soldiered on for another agonizing three years, with drummer Pete Howard and guitarists Vince (né Greg) White and Nick Sheppard filling out the lineup with Strummer and Simonon. The sole record of this edition of the group is the ironically titled Cut the Crap (1985); this chest-beating, empty-hearted set – which contained songs co-written by Strummer and Rhodes -- was not even reissued when remastered CD editions of The Clash’s catalog were marketed in 1999. Even Strummer finally viewed the latter-day band as a travesty. Following woeful U.S. and U.K. tours and savage reviews of the album (Melody Maker declared, “It’s crap!”), the band’s co-founder dismissed his hired guns with a farewell check and walked away in the summer of 1985.
Except for Headon, whose drug addiction led to a prison sentence and years of inactivity, the core members of The Clash all attained notable solo careers. The peripatetic Strummer issued the solo album Earthquake Weather, did soundtrack work, and fronted the brilliant Mescaleros before his sudden death at 50 from heart failure in December 2002. Jones enjoyed a string of well-received albums with his post-Clash unit Big Audio Dynamite, produced acts like the Libertines, and recently partnered with former London SS mate Tony James in Carbon/Silicon. Simonon balanced work in bands like Havana 3 A.M. and The Good, the Bad & the Queen with a successful career as a painter.
The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.