The Clash Essay - Critical Essays

The Clash


The Clash

(Nicky) Topper Headon 1956?–

Mick Jones 1956?–

Paul Simonon (also Simenon) 1956?–

Joe Strummer (born John Mellor) 1953?–

English songwriters.

The Clash are one of the most important rock groups to have emerged from the English New Wave and Punk movements of the late 1970s. Their songs, which one reviewer has described as "raw and angry," reflect the disillusionment of British urban youth in what they believe to be a repressive, ineffectually governed society. The Clash's musical style mixes funk, reggae, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, and traditional rock with lyrics that stress the importance of social awareness and activism.

The Clash's debut album, The Clash, was released in England in 1977. Two of the album's most popular songs, "White Riot" and "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," are overtly political statements against authoritarianism. Although the album generated much critical attention as a significant New Wave album, it was considered "too crude" for release in the United States. Upon its release in an altered form in America, The Clash became a best-selling album. On their second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope (1979), the Clash continued to express their political ideals in such songs as "English Civil War," a commentary on the erosion of the English social structure. In the lyrics on the album, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the primary writers, "capture the moods of the urban England of the 1970s better than just about anybody else," according to Richard Riegel. London Calling (1980) is considered by most critics to be the Clash's best recording. In its experimentation with blues, urban soul, gospel, and rockabilly, the album exhibits the influence of American music on the overall sound of the group. Many reviewers praised its diversity and compared London Calling to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and the Beatles' White Album.

The Clash's next full-length recording, Sandinista! (1980), was not as well received. While the songs on the album are similar to the Clash's earlier material in their emphasis on the power of political action among the working class, some critics suggested that the group had lost their originality, while others contended that the album was too long and covered too many topics. Combat Rock (1982), the Clash's most commercially successful recording, furthered their reputation as an issue-oriented group with such songs as "Rock the Casbah," a critique of the censure of Western pop music in Iran.

In 1983, Mick Jones and Topper Headon left the group and were replaced by Nick Sheppard and Vince White. Despite the departures of Jones and Headon, who were very popular with their fans, the Clash remain among the most influential major New Wave bands. Their popularity among both critics and listeners derives from a sincere commitment to social change, their energetic music, and their charismatic live performances.

Toby Goldstein

The Clash began their career in 1976 as an opening act for the Sex Pistols in Britain's punk cellars. At the time they were raw, directed, and angry. Since then they have become a lot more polished, but their aim at selected targets is still arrow straight, and they're angrier than ever.

Their first LP, "The Clash,"… sounded like it had been recorded in a laundry room with a buzz saw as the featured instrument. Through the garbled production emerged such songs as … London's Burning and I'm So Bored with the U.S.A.—just the sort of pleasantries that corporate ears love to hear. The album became a U.K. best-seller and an import favorite….

[They] remained true to the uncompromising nature of both their music and politics, issuing such singles as Complete Control, Clash City Rockers, and Capitol Radio….

All of these are powerful songs you should know by heart, but you've probably never heard them since the Clash have been anonymous in the U.S. until now. Not that CBS's meager debut campaign for "Give 'Em Enough Rope" should improve matters much. A music trade has called the LP an important New Wave product, but only in small print way in the back pages…. [The] Clash will not have an easy time of it in the U.S. There is no media charmer like the Pistols' Johnny Rotten in this group, and Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Paul Simenon, and Nicky "Topper" Headon don't extend...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Steve Simels

The thing you have to understand about the Clash is that, good as they are, you must take them with a grain of salt. God knows, we need bands that have more on their minds than a fat royalty statement, but I'm old enough to remember the revolutionary rhetoric of a lot the Sixties musicians, and while I doubt that the Clash will wind up their career singing million-selling love songs à la the Jefferson Starship, that prospect does help put things in perspective somewhat. So the Clash's political commitment, however well intentioned, does not impress me particularly.

Actually, given that most of their concerns are not terribly relevant to an American audience …, the Clash are already being presented here not as an especially political band, but rather as keepers of the rock-and-roll flame, sort of like Bruce Springsteen, and on that level I find them quite exciting. Oh, they have a lot of growing to do; their lack of polish in the great, early Who/Kinks tradition seems less an act of homage and more like simple inexperience…. They've got real melodies …, which already puts them head and shoulders above the American heavy-metal brigade. In short, anyone who remembers with affection a neat little working-class combo of a few years ago called Mott the Hoople will have little trouble liking ["Give 'Em Enough Rope"]. (pp. 107-08)

Steve Simels, in a review of, "Give 'Em Enough Rope," in Stereo Review, Vol. 42, No. 2, February, 1979, pp. 107-08.

Richard Riegel

After a few weeks of reverent listening, I still can't say for certain what [Give 'Em Enough Rope] is really "about", though I know that I like it a helluva lot, and I know that just as with the first set, I can never seem to listen to it often enough; new facets lunge out at me each time I give it another spin.

Complicating the analytical procedure are a couple of thorny facts: there's no libretto enclosed, again this time (the Clash have always insisted that people not understand them too quickly); and some of the anger-chocked vocals … remain absolutely unintelligible to this Yank (what is that mysterious singsong chorus to "All the Young Punks"?). Mind you, I'm not complaining, nor am I forgetting that the Rolling Stones never went broke overestimating the aural acuity of their fans.

Apparently, the Clash have given me just enough lyrical rope to make me think (their stated aim in all their interviews), just enough to solve the concept of the album in my own time; or to hang myself up trying. I've got a long way to go with this album, but that's the kind of depth I've sought in my music and art all along….

Joe Strummer and Mick Jones capture the moods of the urban England of the 1970's better than just about anybody else tackling this present moment….

[Here] are some stabs at a preliminary textual analysis: "English Civil War" is "about" the political...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Chris Brazier

The Clash's first album is at last being released in the States. If you can legitimately refer to it as their first album, that is. Despite the identical cover … ["The Clash"] is a very different album from the one released over here in the summer of '77 as punk took hold and the rebellion seemed real.

Their debut was, as far as I'm concerned, the punk album—a classic, even if it's more dated (because it was so relevant at the time) than other contemporaneous classics such as, say, [Bruce Springsteen's] "Born To Run". It emerged at a time when everyone (well, everyone with some wit) was trying to understand what punk was saying, and when some of us, already excited by the youth and the music, were fervently hoping that the rebellion would turn out to have direction and meaning beyond the mere replacement of wrinkled superstars with acned ones.

"The Clash", then, was not only magnificent for its encapsulation of punk-as-rock (far rawer and faster than the Pistols' first records had been, angrier but less cynical, and thus a more accurate reflection of the initial spirit), but also for its determination to show the social background of the "insurrection". Here the rage is righteous and not just the inarticulate flailing mass of undirected masculine aggression that people read it as, that punk all too soon became.

This anger had clear origins and clear targets. "The Clash" was the response of the young victim to the callous failure of capitalism to create a fair, caring society.

In "Career Opportunities" the kid is offered the filthiest jobs with no other alternatives but the armed forces or crime (unless you include rock 'n' roll, the Clash's actual escape-route); in "Janie Jones" the boredom of the office job is deadly and the message "let them (i.e. employers, the Establishment) know exactly how you...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Tom Carson

As a documentary of rock & roll teenagers battling first for good times and then for survival in a blasted urban landscape, the Clash's debut album [The Clash], released in England in 1977 but never made available here, had an astonishing immediacy. You got the feeling that it was recorded virtually in the street, while the National Front marched and the threat of riots flickered all around. And yet the story the LP told—with rage and humor—was as complex, as varied and finally as universal as the American tale of the eternal outsider that critic Greil Marcus found in the music of the Band. Perhaps more than any album ever made, The Clash dramatized rock & roll as a last, defiantly cheerful...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

John Piccarella

The persistent paradox of the Clash has been that their punk standards demand defiance of the requirements and rewards of the music business, while their artistic standards demand that they work that neighborhood. The persistent wonder of the Clash is how every release is a fresh attack on the complications, compromises and frustrations of their impossible project, how they charge into rock mythology with their integrity intact….

On the picture sleeve of the "London Calling" single, two teenagers sit in front of a phonograph with six records on the floor—Elvis [Presley], the Beatles, the Stones, [Bob] Dylan, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash. In other words, this band considers itself one of...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Sam Sutherland

Until now, the Clash has been lionized as much for its potential as for the quality of its recorded work. To a rock intelligentsia frustrated by the genre's commercialism and subsequent loss of urgency, the awkward angles and rough edges of the band's early singles and albums were proof of its authenticity. (p. 120)

Yet this recklessly honest British quartet has been as limited as it has been liberated by the very passion so central to its critical esteem. It has been the galvanic live show that fleshed out the earnest rapport the band sought with its audience, on record, too often the narrow stylistic range and intensity of performance obscured the humor and humanism that emerged so vividly on...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Michael Goldberg

[With London Calling, the] Clash have created a classic rock album which, literally, defines the state of rock and roll and against which the very best rock of this decade will have to be judged. (p. 32)

On this new album, the Clash explore the terrain of American music, even as they reshape it to fit their own purposes. Brand New Cadillac may be an out and out rockabilly song that Carl Perkins could appreciate, but the lyrics are as contemporary as, well, women's lib….

Wrong 'Em Boyo updates the folk song Stagger Lee with a ska beat and the punch of Stax Records style horns. Jimmy Jazz finds the group working in a near blues idiom, while...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

John Morthland

From the raw rage of their epochal first album to the fiery precision of this third one, the evolution of the Clash has been one of the most engrossing spectacles in recent pop music. All along they have been voraciously absorbing old styles and techniques and appropriating new ones. Although nothing on "London Calling" quite comes up to the three British singles (particularly Complete Control) the group released between their first two albums, it would take a real nit-picker to find much wrong with this two-disc set. (p. 90)

The Clash draws on nearly everything that has come before them, but without really aping anything. Reggae, which they have always worked with so knowingly, is represented...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Patrick Humphries

Critics of the Clash will welcome "Sandinista" with fangs open, as it confirms just why they dislike the band so much.

The title alone reeks of the political "awareness" which many find so glibly unattractive….

Fans, however, will find in the "Sandinista" package a confirmation that the Clash do still care. In hard terms, they go one better than their last Christmas present of "London Calling", and put their mouths where their money is….

For me, the strength of "London Calling" was its diversity, the absorption of the various influences—rock 'n' roll, rockabilly and reggae—into the Clash mainstream, vinyl proof that they had progressed,...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Van Gosse

Confronting the Clash's epic monstrosity Sandinista! is like being a teacher … and having one of your favorite little buggers show up one day and say, "Gee, Mr. Gosse, you know that story we were s'posed to hand in today?" "Yeah kid I know your dog ate it." "No sir, I did this instead." And he hands you a three-volume memoir, in crayon. Thanks a lot, you say, resisting the urge to dismember. Tell them it's fab fingerpainting and next week they want to redo [Pablo Picasso's] Guernica….

The limitations of this immense product (36 tracks, they're not all songs) are the limitations of [Joe Strummer] talent, and when Sandinista! hits full stride, which is quite often, it's usually...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

John Piccarella

Nothing could have helped get me through the unreal mass depression—the mourning ten years too late for the death of the Sixties and the Beatles that grew out of the grief over John Lennon's murder—than the release of the Clash's Sandinista! a few days later. Its three records—thirty-six tracks to get lost in—ask and answer some of the right questions about violence and nonviolence, history and the future, crime and the law, revolution and fascism, worldwide angst and hope.

If the Clash, by insisting on their own heroism, continue their willingness to gamble it all away and still keep winning, they may yet inspire a viable rock-culture politics. Last year's...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)

Adam Sweeting

"Combat Rock" is a fairly logical successor to "Sandinista!"…, but it's leaner and more concentrated—still eclectic, not very electric. Lots of layers.

Because of their sloppiness, The Clash frequently manage to persuade the listener that they can't write tunes any more and don't give a toss. This isn't true—the music here is varied and mostly works. Their attitude and subject matter remains ambiguous, though, often delivering attractive imagery but leaving you with doubts about its motivation….

The Clash wish they'd been born ten years earlier. They're steeped in a Sixties "radical" sensibility, preoccupied with Vietnam veterans, street poetry, guerilla struggles,...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Tom Carson

Combat Rock—a misnomer; it ought to be Combat Fatigue, or maybe Burn Ward—really is every bit as chilling a portrait of the artist's failure in the midst of cultural hara-kiri as [Sly and the Family Stone's] There's a Riot Going On, with the difference that no one involved seems to have realized it. Maybe not just punk but everything it spawned has turned into a lurchingly ugly sick joke where the party favor everybody sits down on itsn't a fart-cushion but a junk needle; and maybe they themselves are so horror-gripped by the futility this engenders that one of their members has already been dragged down by it, and the rest are in a heartsick daze; but are they gonna admit any of that?...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

David Fricke

[The] message of Combat Rock—the Clash's fifth album and a snarling, enraged, yet still musically ambitious collection of twelve tight tracks on a single disc—is pop hits and press accolades be damned. This record is a declaration of real-life emergency, a provocative, demanding document of classic punk anger, reflective questioning and nerve-wracking frustration. It is written in songwriter-guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones' now-familiar rock Esperanto, ranging from the locomotive disco steam of "Overpowered by Funk" and the frisky Bo Diddley strut of "Car Jamming" to the mutant-cabaret sway of the LP's chilling coda, "Death Is the Star." And like every Clash record from 1977's "White Riot" on, it...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Ira Robbins

From the start, the Clash has made a religion out of being non-conformists—either by rarely doing what would appear to be in thier best interests, or by refusing to fulfill people's expectations of them. The secret to all this, of course, is that they themselves don't know what's next on the agenda; their unpredictability isn't so much a smokescreen as a blank screen. As a result, a lot of speculative writing constantly dogs them. Every new record runs into the same futile argument: Are they true musical revolutionaries, discarding any style that has become uncomfortable, or are they merely dilettantes, easily bored and petulantly moving on to new toys?…

London Calling, all four sides of...

(The entire section is 1112 words.)