It was while John Graham Mellor – aka Joe Strummer – was attending the City of London Freemen’s School that he first heard the Rolling Stones recording of “Not Fade Away.” “Every new Beatles, Dylan and Stones album was crucial to us,” said the guy who penned ‘phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.’ “They were the backdrop to our lives.”
Around the time he was 18 (1970), Strummer started busking in the London Underground with fellow musician Tymon Dogg. (Dogg will play a key part several years later in one of the Clash’s biggest hits.) There he played the tunes of rock masters like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. (Strummer owned a Chuck Berry EP that he said was the only record worth having.)
At the same time, Mick Jones – from Wandsworth, London – bought his first albums: Cream’s Disraeli Gears and Hendrix’ Smash Hits. He was also a devout adherent of Mott the Hoople. So I think we can by now pretty much put to bed the idea that all punk rockers hated the music of the rockers before them. Clearly not true of these guys who became the band’s two primary songwriters.
Hell, I think the only reason they weren’t a Fleetwood Mac or Bluesbreakers-type band is simply because they didn’t have the chops. In fact, if they had any musical hero at all, it wasn’t the unattainable Eric Clapton but the more primitive Bo Diddley. (And, oddly, The Who, with whom they had some weird kinship. Townshend jammed with them once, faking the chords as he did not know the songs. A few years later, the Clash would open for The Who at Shea Stadium which did nothing to endear them to those who called them poseurs.)
Strummer was playing with a band called the 101’ers, Mick was in a band with the lovely name of the London SS. They were playing “pub rock,” a particularly British phenomenon whose stripped-down “return to basics” sound was a precursor to punk.
Both Strummer and Jones were gobsmacked (I’m picking up British slang like mad) by hearing and seeing (on TV) The New York Dolls, a mix of talent (and lack thereof) but plenty of streetwise attitude. (Their mates, the Sex Pistols, would also be a strong influence.)
Into the picture came a couple of real characters, Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes. Arguments persist about who was the leader and who the follower. But McLaren managed the Sex Pistols and soon enough, Rhodes wanted his own Pistols.
Rhodes used to have Marxist magazines in his flat so that he could enjoy the philosophical righteousness of the left while succumbing to the excesses of capitalism. Which is exactly what The Clash, a leftist, anti-establishment (mostly) working class band would be accused of in later years. I say ‘mostly’as Strummer was middle class. And what your station is in England seems never to be forgotten. Especially if you claim to speak for the working class.
Rhodes started managing the London SS and held auditions for musicians. Paul Simonon, who was an artist (and reggae freak) and didn’t even know how to play an instrument, was recruited for his ‘look’ as opposed to his playing ability. (Image, looks – both superimportant to the punks as it has always been in rock and roll. Pianist Ian Stewart had an off-stage role in the Rolling Stones as much because he did not have the right look – he was older, burly, square-jawed – as anything else.)
Simonon, by all accounts, had to practice relentlessly day and night to play his parts. He actually painted all the notes on his bass. (In listening to the band while writing this series, I think Simenon became a damn good player.)
Needing another guitarist/singer, the guys saw Joe Strummer playing with the 101’ers. (This was all happening in spring of 1976). By all early accounts, Strummer was a good guy, well-read, approachable, even shy. But he had transformed his stage persona into something exciting, even menacing. Like Lord Byron, he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
Bernie Rhodes approached him and gave him 48 hours to decide if he wanted to join Rhodes’ as-yet-unnamed new band. Strummer joined them and after acquiring drummer Terry Chimes, Paul Simonon came up with the name The Clash. “It really came to my head when I started reading the newspapers and a word that kept recurring was the word ‘clash’,”Simonon explains,”so I thought ‘the Clash, what about that,’ to the others. And they and Bernard, they went for it.”
The Clash made their performing debut on July 4, 1976 appearing with the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield. (Is there a tape of that momentous occasion anywhere one wonders?) For the record, I was in London that day enjoying a July 4 celebration with fellow Americans. I was into the local music scene but I freely admit that had I even known about it, this music would not have interested me at the time.
The Clash’s first gigs were memorable for having blitzkrieg-like intensity, not so much for tightness. The band were by now rehearsing at an abandoned gin mill (dubbed, strangely, Rehearsal Rehearsals) in Camden Town. Under Rhodes’ direction, their rehearsals became more relentless, focused on shaping their sound and their image.
“We were almost Stalinist in the way that you had to shed all your friends, or everything that you’d known, or every way that you’d played before,” said Strummer. “Bernie would say, ‘An issue, an issue. Don’t write about love, write about what’s affecting you, what’s important.” (Rhodes, control freak though he may have been, really deserves a lot of credit for helping shape the punk scene and propelling the band to stardom.)
After spending most of 1976 gigging and rehearsing, in January 1977 The Clash signed to stodgy, old capitalist CBS for £ 100,000. This was not a good contract for two reasons – one because the group had to pay for their own tours, recordings, remixes, artwork, and expenses; and two because as soon as they signed the contract, many considered them a sell-out to the established order. “Punk died the day the Clash signed with CBS,” declared the Sniffin’ Glue fanzine. (Named for a Ramones song.)
So, having set themselves up as anti-capitalist and “for the people,” signing this contract put them in a no-win situation, at least with those who took the punk ethos seriously. (If it was up to their fans, they would have stayed forever young, never changed their style, never signed to a major label, never played a large venue and never made any real money. And if they did make money, would have contributed it to any of a number of causes. All of which, given human nature and the fact that at the end of the day these guys were a rock band and not a bunch of urban guerillas, was unsustainable.)
Their first single, “White Riot,” was released in March 1977 and the album The Clash in April. (“White Riot” was about an infamous race riot at Notting Hill that Simonon and Strummer, exhilaratingly, got caught up in.)
And despite any reservations London punks may have had about The Clash’s integrity, the album reviews were fairly ecstatic. The New Musical Express said it had “some of the most exciting rock n’ roll in contemporary music and that the Clash chronicle what it’s like to be young in the Stinking ’70’s better than any other band.”
“I’m So Bored With the USA” chronicles the band’s disdain for the Americanization of England:
The USA, in its turn, only bought 100,000 copies of the album (on import). The initial appetite for the Clash in America was small. But mighty. This would change.
From the biography Passion is a Fashion: “The Clash deals with boredom, identity crises, the brutality of a modern, concrete environment, drugs, unemployment, deceit, frustration, rejection.” So, a modern-day rock group whose Dylan-esque themes are conveyed by the urgency of rock n’ roll in the guise of four James Deans. Now how fucking cool is that?
Since the album was too short, the band decided to cover a reggae song called “Police and Thieves.” Mick Jones – by all accounts an excellent arranger – updated this for a rock audience. (Strummer was mostly lyrics; Jones, music).
Regardless of whether the members of the band were working class, middle class or no class, they certainly sang and played for the right causes. (In America, we didn’t give a shit if Joe Strummer was the fucking Prince of Wales.) In the middle of some nasty anti-immigration stuff in the ’70’s, they played at anti-Nazi and anti-racism rallies. And, like the Stones, they would have their (mostly black) reggae inspirations open for them.
Sources: Passion Is A Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash, Pat Gilbert.
The Rise and Fall of The Clash, (documentary) 2012.
Next post – Clash City Rockers.