The Over/Under: The Clash

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Did the ‘70s punk movement produce a more important legacy than “The Only Band That Matters”? The Sex Pistols may have been the first, but the Clash was most certainly the best, blending amphetamine pacing with more esoteric musical forms (reggae, rockabilly, dub, ska) while taking on the establishment and its herd of sacred cows with a fierceness that would influence an entire generation of followers. That said, since Joe Strummer caught the elevator for that great gig in the sky back in 2002, his band has been granted the sort of revisionist sainthood the Clash would have no doubt despised in its younger, angrier days. In keeping with the band’s piss-and-vinegar spirit, we offer their most overrated and underrated screeds.

:: The Five Most Overrated Clash Songs
1. “Rock The Casbah” (1982)

Sure, it may be somewhat obvious to pick the Clash’s highest-charting U.S. hit as its most overrated. But I just flat-out hate this song, which Big ’80s radio formats have driven so far into the ground it’s now become subterranean. This track is also as valid a source for drummer jokes as any I know of. Legend has it that Topper Headon got so bored sitting in the studio waiting for his bandmates to show up that he simply recorded the faux-Jools Holland piano part, bass and drums himself. Sharif don’t like it; I don’t, either.

2. “English Civil War” (1978)
I’ve previously written about Give ‘Em Enough Rope in our Sound Check column, calling it a sophomore slump and citing this track as Exhibit A in illustrating how the edge on the Clash’s classic debut had devolved into something utterly average by the time the band had entered the studio for round two of its ongoing cage match with the mainstream. Inexplicably borrowing its melody and lyrical fragments from American Civil War tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “English Civil War” called attention to the rise of the far-right British National Front among other topical issues of the day (in contemporaneous interviews, Strummer would often borrow his own lyrics to point out that “war is just around the corner; Johnny hasn’t got far to march, that’s why he’s coming by bus or underground”), resulting in a leaden snoozer that nevertheless frequented the band’s set lists until the end of its career.

3. “Capital Radio One” (1977)
The live interviews surrounding this song on its original EP (and subsequent reissues) are way more interesting than the track itself: “We don’t agree on hardly anything,” says Mick Jones matter-of-factly to some journalist. “Basically we hate each other, right? We’re jealous of each other, always in competition.” To which Strummer plaintively replies, “But I don’t hate you, though.” What follows this prescient statement is one of the band’s patented three-chord blasts harnessed to lyrics attacking what was, at the time, London’s only commercial radio station, which played very little punk and was therefore deemed Public Enemy Number One. The track ends with a wanky guitar solo that must’ve been (one hopes) a parody of the chart wackness of the moment. Jones’ interview also went on to suggest, “We ain’t gonna preach and preach and preach ‘til it sounds like nonsense. You sound like some kind of evangelist.” Uh, exactly. Next?

4. “I Fought The Law” (1979)
Of all the covers the Clash performed during its career (favorites that often veered toward obscure reggae/dub cratedigging such as Toots & The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” but also rough/ready R&B numbers such as Booker T & The MGs’ “Time Is Tight”), it’s Sonny Curtis’ original—later covered more famously by Bobby Fuller—that even casual fans seem to know best. Currently being exposed to millions of young gamers via its inclusion in the Rock Band franchise—and the one Clash song my 10-year-old can readily ID. Need I say more?

5. “The Magnificent Seven” (1980)
If I were a DJ, I’d definitely steal this beat. It’s probably the most infectious dance groove in the Clash’s catalog, built around a bass loop played by the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy, probably best known as the source of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s one-note bass part on “Relax.” “The Magnificent Seven” plays a historical role as the first recorded example of a white rock band writing/performing in the hip-hop genre, predating Blondie’s “Rapture” by several months. But no matter its authentic provenance (the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five served as the soundtrack for the Clash’s various New York City residencies; Jones had taken to carrying around a boombox and was given the nickname “Whack Attack” by the rest of the group), Strummer-as-rapper didn’t prove out as a compelling idea. That it became something of an underground hit seals its fate as the last of the band’s five most overrated songs; the moment in which Strummer shouts out “Cheeseboiga!” in fake dem/dese/dose Brooklynese is just one of a series of ill-conceived performance choices.

:: The Five Most Underrated Clash Songs
1. “Death Or Glory” (1979)
Buried 12 tracks deep in my favorite Clash album, London Calling, lies an unheralded gem featuring the single-best melodic progression and finest opening salvo the band would ever compose: “Every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world and ends up makin’ payments on a sofa or a girl.” The Clash’s third LP was all about Jones and Strummer coming to grips with success in a world that would rarely see things their way, and “Death Or Glory” was their attempt at skewering the old-fart brigade that preceded them while nonetheless keeping heart (“Every gimmick-hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll grabs the mic to tell us he’ll die before he’s sold”) and soul (check bassist Paul Simonon’s zigzagging counter-melody and the song’s walking-a-tightwire breakdown at about 1:45) intact. Perhaps the premier example of Strummer-as-storyteller; there may have been a few new chords and time signatures in its arsenal now, but these were still authentically recognizable as the exclusive property of the Clash.

2. “Janie Jones” (1977)
The only thing that has kept this song underrated after firing the starter’s pistol on the band’s razor-sharp U.K. debut is that so many other well-known Clash anthems—“White Riot,” “Clash City Rockers,” “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.,” “Complete Control,” “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” “Career Opportunities,” “London’s Burning”—surrounded it. “Janie Jones” also served as a microcosm of the Clash mindset at this nascent point in the band’s career, channeling the story of Everypunk as he toiled away in his low-level “boring job” earning the dosh required to satisfy his rock ‘n’ roll jones, his drug habit and the petrol required to squire around his lucky lady, Janie Jones, in a prototypically British working-class Ford Cortina. Punk was forged from the ennui and flab of the ‘70s, and songs like “Janie Jones” served as a declaration of war from a generation eager to eradicate the progtastic nonsense that came immediately before it.

3. “Police On My Back” (1980)
Sandinista! may well have proven the adage that buried somewhere within its messy, triple-album sprawl was a terrific single LP, but the first track on side four, “Police On My Back” (originally recorded in 1967 by London reggae band the Equals) made trudging through clunkers and noise-pastiche experiments like “Mensforth Hill,” “Silicone On Sapphire” and the children’s chorus version of “Career Opportunities” almost worth the effort. With its searing guitars making like a speeding cop car hurtling toward the scene of a crime, “Police” was a showcase for Jones, perhaps the Clash’s most underrated contributor and certainly its most under-recognized songwriter.

4. “Armagideon Time” (1980)
Much has been made of the Clash’s pioneering adaptation of reggae and dub (which were there from the very beginning, as the band’s cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” on its debut would demonstrate), but to my ears, it’s the Black Market Clash EP’s “Armagideon Time” that serves as the group’s most underrated entrée into the world of ranking and skanking. Reggae’s history of social commentary no doubt appealed to Strummer’s finely tuned sense of legend creation, while Simonon had been born and raised in the Brixton sector of South London, which gave him early exposure to the genre’s bottom-heavy sway and prevalent themes of struggle, justice and revolution. This cover of Willi Williams’ 1978 song is at once defiant and warmly human, showcasing the Clash’s musical growth while giving vent to its leftist/populist leanings.

5. “Straight To Hell” (1982)
It’s become fashionable over the years to slam the Clash’s Combat Rock as the group’s creative low-water mark (most people I know don’t even consider 1985’s Jones-less/Headon-less/Simonon-scant Cut The Crap an official Clash album), and signs abounded that the band’s best days were likely behind it. But that view of the record’s worth remains way too reductive, and “Straight To Hell” is proof that the Last Gang In Town still had an amazing moment or two up its collective muscle-teed sleeves. Strummer’s storytelling skills are on full display here, weaving together various gut-wrenching tales of injustice (immigrants failing out of British society; Amerasian children failing out of Vietnamese society and, after the war, American society, too; Nuyorican transplants stunned after being firebombed out of their neighborhoods) over the sort of seductive, percussion-heavy beat and ghostly violin that would eventually grab M.I.A.’s ear (the track provided the musical basis for “Paper Planes”). Easily the Clash’s best latter-day song and one of its brightest moments, right down to the “King Solomon he never lived ‘round here” exclamation point.

—Corey duBrowa

More Clash-related content at magnetmagazine.com:
Joe Strummer feature from 2001
Mick Jones Q&A from 2007
Mescaleros multi-instrumentalist Martin Slattery remembers Joe Strummer
James Iha on the Clash
Frank Black on Mick Jones’ Carbon/Silicon

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