If punk meant anything in 1977 it was action. No other keepsake of the period represents this better than The Clash.
Since 1977 the stories, myths and legends of The Clash have spurred on generations of Rockers, Rappers and Rastas alike. No other band of the UK punk zeitgeist can claim to have had an influence on such a diverse range of artists: The Beastie Boys, Billy Bragg, and The Gaslight Anthem, to name but a few.
When The Clash debuted, the band’s outlook was limited to their neighbourhood of Ladbroke Grove. A searing indictment of council flat angst, The Clash took its cues from Notting Hill race riots, the rise of the National Front, the dole and the Labour Party. The Clash is the sound of a truncheon striking against thick-headed mediocrity, a rallying cry for the youth of England, and, in specific cases (‘White Riot’), the white lower caste to get involved. If punk meant anything in 1977 it was action. No other keepsake of the period represents this better than The Clash.
This was an entirely English album: ‘White Riot’ is the pilled-up equivalent to Vera Lynn’s ‘There’ll Always Be An England”; The disdainful view of America on ‘I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.,’ is a direct contradiction to The Clash’s adoption of America as a spiritual homeland and a source of extensive cultural fodder; elsewhere, the themes of class and society expressed a sentiment unique to British and European cultures, far from America’s hedonistic self-absorption and moral nihilism.
To play their CBS debut is to hear a young band at its primal best. While The Clash may not be their most technically proficient, most focused or ambitious album, it has the unmistakeable proof of the band’s potency. A riotous, glass-breaking collection of punk invective fuelled by dub reggae, The Clash bristles in a way that shames most other debut albums. The Clash became the measuring stick to which all subsequent Clash albums were compared.
“Black men got a lot of problems
but they don’t mind throwing bricks.
White people go to school
where they teach you how to be thick”
While the UK edition was available as an import in 1977, the album was only officially released in the USA in 1979, months after the band’s sophomore album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and a few months before London Calling. When North American audiences were able to buy The Clash, two years had passed. By 1979 The Clash were poised to be one of the biggest bands in the world. But long before ‘London Calling’ and ‘Rock the Casbah,’ the band was officially introduced to the American markets.
The US edition of The Clash had several significant differences from its UK brother: for one, Topper Headon was now the permanent drummer, having replaced Terry Chimes eons before. Two, the original version of ‘White Riot’ was deemed too raw for American ears. A re-recorded version does not dull the message or re-contextualize its content for Yankee listeners. If anything, the US version has trimmed the fat and packed on some muscle.
Lastly, the track listing was dramatically overhauled: omitted were ‘Deny,’ ‘48 Hours’ and ‘Cheat,’ admittedly the weakest cuts The Clash recorded in the Mick Jones-era. In their place, non-LP singles were tacked on in random queuing: ‘Clash City Rocker’s, built on a Kinks riff, opens the album; ‘Complete Control’ takes the piss out of CBS and Clash management “guru” Bernie Rhodes; “Jail Guitar Doors,” a Mick Jones tour de force; ‘I Fought the Law,’ the Sonny Curtis classic that would feature in Joe Strummer‘s setlists until his death in 2002; and Whiteman in Hammersmith Palais,’ simply the best cut The Clash ever made. To anyone unfamiliar with the running order of the UK version, the results are superlative. But when compared to the narrative of the UK edition, there are deficiencies.
True, it’s difficult to complain about any album that features both ‘Whiteman in Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘Police and Thieves’ (the two best Clash performances of the period). But CBS’s slipshod editing foreshadows the band’s own revisionist history (note: Cut the Crap has once again been scrubbed from history with the current slew of re-issues).
“Punk rocker in the UK, they won’t notice anyway
there all too busy fighting, for a good place under the lighting.
The new groups are not concerned, with what there is to be learned.
They got Burton suits, you think its funny, turning rebellion into money”
-Whiteman In ‘Hammersmith Palais’
The chaos of the UK edition was edited down by CBS and tempered with more accessible material to appease a delicate American market. The results do not impair the album, but when the two albums are played back to back, the UK edition burns and rages with consistent if sloppy energy. Its US counterpart has the taint of tampering throughout, as if it was produced by a focus group instead of the band and Mickey Foote. (Listen to an outtake of Foote’s demos with the band here.) While it remains far from mainstream, its energy has been reshaped, spread out, and coerced into a streamlined aural assault, thereby robbing it of the bottle-to-the-face tenacity of the UK version.
All the differences between the two versions aside, The Clash represents the moral and philosophical codes of the band, as well as their complex musical DNA that would be at the core of all subsequent Clash albums. From London Calling until the bitter finale of Cut the Crap, The Clash retained a strident political voice. They would adopt causes from The Sandinistas to the Guardian Angels, pillorying world leaders and despots alike while romanticizing rebel factions. Their slogan-heavy rhetoric and militaristic attire was a means of attracting attention, good and bad. They were not a band that ever wanted pop fame, but they wanted to be noticed.
They would grow up and graduate as denizens of Ladbrick Grove to become The Last Gang in Town, a band that tried to bring the system down from the inside only to fail due to a multiplicity of rock-turned-punk cliches.
But before all of that, before the double and triple albums, the fame, the drugs, the riots, the feuds, the dubs, and all that other cal, there was The Clash. If nothing else happened for The Clash after 1977, they could at least say with pride, “”We’re a garage band, we come from garageland.”
The Clash vs. The Clash: Tale of the Tapes
Produced by Mickey Foote
Drummer: Terry Chimes
Track listing: Side 1: Janie Jones, Remote Control, I’m So Bored with the U.S.A, White Riot, Hate & War, What’s My Name, Deny, London’s Burning. Side 2: Career Opportunities, Cheat, Protex Blues, Police & Thieves, 48 Hours, Garageland.
Produced by Mickey Foote, Lee Perry, Bill Price and The Clash
Drummer: Terry Chimes (2, 3,5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15) and Topper Headon (1, 4, 6, 8 and 14)
Track listing: Side 1: Clash City Rockers, I’m So Bored With the U.S.A., Remote Control, Complete Control, White Riot (alt. version), White Man in Hammersmith Palais, London’s Burning, I Fought the Law.
Side 2: Janie Jones, Career Opportunities, What’s My Name, Hate & War, Police and Thieves, Jail Guitar Doors, Garageland.