Combat Rock

Combat Rock

Here's the original and much extended draft of a piece I wrote on The Clash which appeared in the February 2023 issue of Perspective Magazine.

Sometimes, when I am introducing myself, I say that my life was never quite the same after seeing The Clash. This is of course nonsense - like most or our self-made narratives - but it is serves as a useful shorthand to convey that I am of the punk rock generation, that I like a certain grittiness to my music, that I am political and that I have a rebellious streak. Most of all, I hope that it signals that I am definitely not be mistaken for a hippy, despite being a bona fide whale hugger.

Of course, The Clash were not above a certain amount of self-mythologising themselves: in fact, they were not trade under the tag line of ‘the only band that matters’ – a conceit that is perhaps second only to the Rolling Stones’ boast of being the ‘world’s greatest rock’n’roll band’.

Seeing The Clash for the first time did not really deliver an epiphany but it was significant - a marker of sorts. In October 1981, I was eighteen, liberated by a student grant and enjoying the anonymity of living in London. Importantly, I was at last free to see the musicians whose records had kept me afloat during my teenage years and experience first-hand what previously I had only been able to read about in the inky pages of the NME. The venue for my first encounter was the hallowed Lyceum where, not many years earlier, Bob Marley and the Wailers had performed and recorded what remains for me the exciting live album ever but was already considered rock history. On entering the theatre. I realised it was charged in a way I have never experienced at any other gig down the decades. I now put it down to being immersed in a vast ocean of testosterone - for the audience was almost entirely male – primed and ready to explode. In all honesty, when the pin was eventually pulled, I didn’t see much of that first gig, as I’m quite short and most of my energy for the duration was channelled into trying to keep vertical in the heaving crush of bodies. Indeed, the next time I saw the band, I was lifted by a human tsunami from my position next to the mixing desk stage left, carried along to the front of the stage, close enough to be showered by Mick Jones’ sweat, before being hurled back as human shingle once again beside the mixing desk but this time stage right.

However, for both gigs, I did see the band take the stage. Each member of the classic line-up, Joe Strummer armed with his battered Telecaster, Mick Jones, Strummer’s more flamboyant foil, statuesque bassist Paul Simonon and drummer ‘Topper’ Headen had their own distinct aura, but it was also obvious that they were a solid unit, albeit one clearly led by Strummer. From the get-go, The Clash owned the stage completely and there was no mistaking that the band was on a mission. It is this vision of the band as a tightly-knit street gang that is a major part of the Clash’s enduring appeal.

It was sometime in 1977 that I first heard their self-titled debut. The Clash was one of a major four record haul, comprising of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, The Stranglers’ Rattus Norvegicus and the Ramones’ first lp, all proffered by a school friend who had immediately self-identified as a punk despite clearly having way too much spare cash. We span the records repeatedly and back then I simply didn’t get the dumb-ass joy of The Ramones or relate to the wanton destructiveness of The Pistols. It was The Stranglers who were my short-lived favourites because they sounded a bit like The Doors but with that menacing bass. As for The Clash, well I immediately admired their razor-edged ferocity over which Joe Strummer spat out their agenda of taking back control (sound familiar) and I did fall for their reggae cover of Police and Thieves but I wasn’t completely sold on them. My commitment came the following year on hearing (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais. That song still sounds quite unlike anything else – a Mick Jones guitar fanfare heralds to a booming, echoey skank over which Joe Strummer documents a night attending a reggae showcase at Hammersmith Palais and expresses his disappointment at the musicians’ willingness to entertain rather than deliver the militant roots, rock, reggae he’d been hoping for. From there, he lets his mind wander about the wider societal context and a possible slide towards fascism. There’s something granular about it, like a report from a frontline correspondent, a million miles away from your average pop song.

With the arrival of Topper to replace Terry Chimes (aka Tory Crimes) who’d quit soon after recording the first record, the band’s music evolved rapidly. Their second record Give Em Enough Rope consolidated on the achievements of the first. Our postman, (who still delivers 7” and 12” square parcels to this house on a regular basis), and I agree that the propulsive drumming on Tommy Gun, one of the album’s singles, can still set the heart racing, but it was with their third record, the double lp London Calling, that The Clash delivered a timeless classic. From the opening London Calling to the final uncredited, whistle-along Train in Vain, the songs come dressed in an assortment of different musical stylings including reggae, ska, rockabilly and New Orleans R&B.  The follow-up 1980’s Sandinista!, a sprawling triple-lp, marketed at as special low price, extended this approach and was even more diverse and saw the band bringing in other musicians to expand the palette. Derided by some for being over-indulgent, Sandinista! is a clattering, playful set that helped broaden my musical horizons and alerted many to the emergence of hip-hop on the other side of the pond as a potent musical force. The band would be reined in for Combat Rock released two years later, the Glyn John’s produced album going double-platinum in the States and yielding two monster singles, Should I Stay or Should I Go and Rock the Casbah. The latter’s enduring popularity was bolstered by a video featuring a particularly perky armadillo by self-made filmmaker and close band associate Don Letts which would be shown on endless rotation on the then new and shiny MTV music channel.

Despite Joe Strummer and Mick Jones sometimes being described as ‘punk’s Lennon and McCartney’, Clash songs have not become staples to be successfully recorded by others because the band’s sound was simply too strong. This is evident from The Clash’s own covers whereby they put their combat booted stamp all over songs such as The Crickets’ I Fought The Law, Willie William’s Armagedion Time, The Equals’ Police on My Back and Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac making it hard not to think of The Clash versions as original compositions. That said, it is definitely worth seeking out Jimmy Cliff’s version of The Guns of Brixton, which itself references The Harder They Come, the film and album which made Cliff an icon and so must have tickled Simonon, the song’s writer, when he first heard it.  Perhaps the only cover which may actually surpass The Clash’s original for excitement is Rock el Casbah by another rebel, Rachid Taha, who added some genuine Algerian jive (Raï -ve?) to what is a rollicking tune to begin with. Kyiv Calling, the recent, brutish repurposing of London Calling by Ukrainian punk trio Beton is notable only because of the context of its recording with its repurposing as a song of resistance clearly resonating with the surviving members of The Clash.     

While bands and fans alike will often say in interviews that it’s all about the music, it seldom is. From the distinctive logo, courier typeface and screen-printed reproduction of the defining Kate Simon photo of the core trio taken in the alleyway directly opposite the front door of the band's 'Rehearsal Rehearsals' HQ in Camden, the band developed a strong visual identity that exuded a kind of militancy that connected every bit as much as the music. My look, (and I can’t quite believe I’ve typed those words), which my elder son describes as ‘Indiana Jones meets punk’, more often than not combines both a Fedora and biker jacket and was copped entirely off The Clash as clocked in the candid, black and white photographs taken on and, more often, off-stage by Pennie Smith. These arty photos that peppered the NME and were wisely collected in The Clash, Before and After in 1980, would engage your interest even if you had no idea who the young men were.

As fate would have it, one of Smith’s photos was destined to stand out and it is one that we are all familiar with despite the fact that it is blurry from being out of focus. Caught by chance, it depicts Simonon in an uncommon fit of rage, wielding his Fender Precision bass like a battle axe in the act of smashing it on the stage of the New York Palladium, frustrated at the unresponsive audience who had remained glued to their seats for the whole of the band’s performance. Chosen by Strummer for cover of London Calling – the image perfectly encapsulated adolescent angst and fury and the promise of release that drives much of the best rock music. Reproduced on everything from t-shirts to fridge magnets, Banksy paid his own droll tribute by spraying a version of the image wherein Simonon’s bass is replaced by an office chair. Sadly, when I went to seek it out, the enigmatic Bristolian’s graffiti had been expunged.      

The Clash were a product of their environment and the times - their west London home turf and the fag end of the 1970s that brought in Thatcher. The ire in Strummer’s lyrics reflected the lack of opportunity for many and theband offered direction in a way that wasn’t always shared by their peers. The Clash were partly responsible for my politicisation and I suspect that of many others too. In particular the band’s involvement in Rock Against Racism (RAR) resonated widely and the band was on fire when they played the epochal RAR rally in Victoria Park which was thankfully caught on film.

The overt racism commonly exhibited in the 1970s is hard to imagine now. As a boy I remember being profoundly shocked on a primary school geography trip to Sheerness docks when a docker had pointed to a consignment of yams saying they were ‘for all the wogs down Brixton way’. Then later as a teenager, I had to run the gauntlet through the centre of Birmingham as I was making my way from Digbeth Coach Station to New Street railway station ,to avoid being caught up in the fight that was about to kick off between the National Front thugs who were gaining enough  popularity that they felt confident enough to brazenly march through the city and the Anti-Nazi League protestors who were out in force. By the time I was living in London as a student, I regularly witnessed young black men being stopped and searched by the police as I cycled up Brixton Hill (where the chip-papers rolled like tumbleweed, I noted in a contemporaneous notebook). It was not surprising when the community kicked back against the Metropolitan Police with the eruption of the first of the Brixton riots in April 1981.   

While the Clash became a pin-up band of the left, there were others, such as anarcho-punks Crass who saw the band’s rebel stance as just a pose. Certainly. some fans felt let down by the band who had initially railed against America and all it stood for in I’m So Bored of the USA for being, like many of us before and after, utterly seduced by the land of the free almost from the first moment they touched down at JFK. While Crass implemented their ideological anarchism through a DIY approach to their music, The Clash continued their musical adventuring and playing dress up. However, one thing the two bands had in common was their strong relationship with their fans. While Crass win hands down over any band for inviting their fans to stay at their Epping commune after gigs and for having the goodwill of the London Underground train drivers who would stop between stations to let the band and their entourage out so they had a shorter walk home, there are many stories of the generosity extended by The Clash to their camp followers. As a teenage punk from Middlesbrough, my friend ‘circus Lynn’ followed The Clash and remembers when without a ticket she was bundled by members of the crew into various venues and then of the band sharing their rider freely. Strummer, she tells me, was no less friendly when many years later she found herself sitting round a campfire in a Somerset orchard and they shared an E.

The Clash, like most bands, had a messy ending. Topper’s increasing drug use, deteriorating drumming and subsequent sacking marked the beginning of the end. Strummer and Jones feuding escalated, in part over the bringing back of original maverick manager Bernie Rhodes into the fold, and this caused Terry Chimes, who had been brought back into replace Topper, to leave again. Jones was then fired by Simonon and Strummer. Jones half-jokes that this left a hole big enough for the remaining two original band members to replace him with two new guitarists. Like many others, I don’t really acknowledge that the short-lived Clash Mk II ever existed or that they released a pretty dreadful album Cut the Crap under The Clash banner. Suffice to write is that Strummer finally called it a day in 1986 - not a drop of gasoline left in his tank – and disappeared to Spain to lick his wounds.

After the split, the band went their different ways. Mick Jones went straight onto commercial success with the musical mash-up that was Big Audio Dynamite and followed this with various other ventures, including Carbon/Silicon. Through these Jones has been able to indulge his sonic explorations with frequent melodic flair. We also have him to blame for producing The Libertines’ debut album, a band feted on their arrival as rightful successors to The Clash despite being ‘a piss-poor substitute’ as I remember putting one nephew right.

Simonon’s musical career following the break-up has been more sporadic, focusing for the most part on his painting. A short-lived rockabilly-inspired band, Havana 3 a.m., lasted for just one album and he has worked sporadically with Damon Albarn in The Good, The Bad and The Queen and with Jones and Albarn in Gorillaz for the Plastic Beach album and tour. In 2011, when I was working on the Greenpeace Save the Arctic campaign, he volunteered as assistant cook (a tough gig, speaking as someone who knows) on the Esperanza and revealed his identity only when he participated in the occupation of a Cairn Energy owned rig.

Topper, as an addict, had a tougher time than the rest. At one low point in the 1980s, he was allegedly refused cash in exchange for a pile of gold records he brought into Record and Tape, the second-hand shop in Notting Hill (where I was once briefly employed), which had a policy of never refusing to make an offer because the buyer had been a Clash fan and didn’t have the heart. He is now clean, still makes music and has helped set up Narcotics Anonymous and Hepatitis C support groups and says that he is on friendly terms with the other members of the band.

Joe Strummer spent some undirected years, including a brief spell deputising for a missing-in-action Shame MacGowan in The Pogues, before he properly found his - by then distinctly global - groove again with The Mescaleros. Strummer died of a heart-attack in 2002 a few weeks after Jones had joined him on stage for a three-song Clash encore at a benefit show for striking firefighters in Acton Town Hall bringing the story full circle.

Back in the day, music was intensely tribal and those like me who staked their allegiance to The Clash flag have remained fiercely loyal. Why is this? The records stand and not least because The Clash have one of the greatest runs of 45s of any band and especially for a rock band. From White Riot to the double whammy of the double A-side Should I Stay Or Should I Go?/Straight to Hell, these are jukebox keepers. The Clash thankfully didn’t turn into the Rolling Stones and continue going on for ever with diminishing returns and with Strummer’s death, they can never reform. This means that The Clash will forever be associated with a time and place and their story follows a strangely satisfying narrative arc.  Reconciled to their mistakes, their individual and collective hubris and in particular their failure to protect Topper, the remaining band members found ways to both continue creatively and assimilate their back story while also nurturing what was special about The Clash.

As is the way, the myth grows over time, perpetuated by those of us, including Johnny Green, one time road manager of the band, who are still telling and re-telling our stories from the trenches the punk rock wars. A recent backstage encounter with Green - he is now fulfilling the same, but no doubt less strenuous, role for John Cooper Clarke – suggest he has never really got over it, while for the rest of us, well those days were just the spark of whatever happened next.


Richard Page

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