The Over/Under: The Clash

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
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

20 replies on “The Over/Under: The Clash”

Okay, this week’s “news” on this site: James Iha, Against Me, Camper van Beethoven, the Wrens, and now the Clash? Way to stay relevant, Magnet! I would absolutely LOVE to find a well-written magazine that can give me coverage of contemporary music that goes into more depth than Pitchfork et al. That used to be Magnet, until they turned into a 90s version of Classic Rock Magazine.

What about “The Call Up”? It is definitely the most underrated clash song.

I agree about “The Call-Up.” Now that is an underrated song. I would also go with “I’m Not Down,” “Listen,” “City of the Dead,” and “Stay Free.” It’s become almost cliche to make fun of “Rock The Casbah.” When this guy grows up a little he’ll realize that this is actually a fantastic song and that if side two of Combat Rock could have matched the greatness of side one it would prolly be considered the bands second best album behind London Calling. And to rag on a great song because your ten year old was exposed to it on Rock Band…oh geez. I’m sure Joe would be okay with kids getting into Clash songs in this fashion. I don’t think he meant for his music to be solely reserved for angry fathers who didn’t want their kids peaking around their CD collection.

In my opinion The first few Clash albums were overrated. Sure, a decent song here and there but nothing that knocked my socks off like X or The Buzzcocks from roughly the same era. I dare say they improved with time. Hit or not, the song “London Calling” was stunning, lived up to the hype finally and stands up to the test of time unlike a lot of their other, self important “Oh see how versatile we are everyone?” triple album crap. “Brand New Cadillac” “I’m Not Down” and “Straight To Hell” were great songs as well but I always felt that The Clash were for the most part just shy of all the hoopla.

I find the underrated list interesting and credible, but the overrated seems to be stretching a bit for candidates. Rock the Casbah is an obvious choice based on overexposure, but I don’t see anything overrated about a great cover tune (I fought the Law) and a great dance groove (Magnificent Seven). Straight to Hell is definitely an inspired choice for underrated. That would be #1 on my list. Because of that and the fact I like all the underrated choices I will overlook the other more questionable choices for overrated.

I am not generally a fan of covers, but the Clash nailed I Fought the Law, not only equalling, but surpassing, the Bobby Fuller Four original. If you were lucky enough to see them perform it live, it was to see a band literally kick themselves (and their audience) into a higher gear. Overrated? Not if you were there.

This had to be written by someone who was too young to be around and doesn’t get the context of the “overrated” songs in question. Or, the writer is old enough, but didn’t learn much along the way.

Do agree about Death or Glory, of course.

Pressure Drop obscure? Death or Glory underrated? Whose ratings are you reacting to? This list is preposterous.

The authors description of Sandinista being a “messy triple album sprawl” and “trudging through clunkers and noise-pastiche experiments” shows he has little or no depth in understanding the uniqueness or headspace that this band was achieving with each piece of music they produced. The album has wonderful continuity and symmetry and is continuing to improve with age. If there was an underrated ALBUM list, I would put this one on top.

Sure, Sandinista seems messy with the inclusion of more genres of music than you can find on your entire radio dial, but it’s actually my favorite Clash album for that very reason. You could do an entire under-rated list of songs from that album (starting with Rebel Waltz!) I will admit that “Police on My Back” was the Clash song I took to most when I first bought that album but I’ve longed moved on to the buffet platter of amazing songs that album has to offer.

To Sarge and Glenn Boothe: YOU NAILED IT!!! I agree with you both; kudos for standing up for Sanidnista! It’s not only my favorite Clash album, it’s definitely one of my top 5 albums of all time. I cannot put it briefly into words any better than you 2 did.
This list is RIDICULOUS!!! (And not in a good way.)
How could you possibly call English Civil War overrated? Have you actually listened to the song with an open mind? Or are you letting your son sing The Ants Go Marching over the top of it? This song gets better every time I listen to it!!! And have you heard the live version from the Shea Stadium cd? Check it out and THEN tell me it sounds “average” and “mainstream”! Bollocks I say!
And as much as I love “Straight to Hell”, and agree that is one of Joe’s lyrical masterpieces; I find it laughable that it’s on an underrated list when it is so clearly not. Every book, about Joe/Clash, every article, every review of Combat Rock has touted this song as genius.
I’m disgusted! I am always thrilled when I see The Clash get print, but not like this.

JJ, yes, Sandinista is Top 5 all-time for me as well…and agree, still sounds great today! I also agree with your take on ‘Straight to Hell’ – beyond all the accolades it’s gotten over the years, it’s the foundation for M.I.A. “Paper Planes.” That alone suggests it might not be quite that under-rated. I’d go with ‘Death of a Star” or maybe “Overpowered by Funk” from that album.

“Death is a Star” – caught that as soon as I hit post comment.

if I am a casual Clash fan but my two favourite songs of theirs are “Straight to Hell” and “Janie Jones”…then they are not under-rated.

I think you guys nailed the Underrated section, 5 out of 5 great picks. I’m just a little disappointed by the implication that “Death or Glory” isn’t everyone else’s favorite Clash song too.

““The Magnificent Seven” plays a historical role as the first recorded example of a white rock band writing/performing in the hip-hop genre”

Apparently you’ve never heard Guns of Brixton. Geez. The first half of this is so amateurish, I’m not even going to read the rest.

1) Train in Vain–a nice little throw in on London Calling (remember it didn’t make the original track listing), but it shouldn’t have the position that it does as one of the “classic” radio tracks that define the Clash to those who don’t take the initiative to explore a band’s catalog.
2) Should I Stay or Should I Go–yes, I like the song too and it is catchy, but the Clash at their best delivered a visceral impact that was both physical and mental. Nothing to think about here, and it is their biggest (or second-biggest( hit.
3) Clash City Rockers–The Clash usually played this live and I like it too, but you could argue (and I do) that it is formulaic with chords from the Who’s Can’t Explain and forced rhymes for lyrics. Not even close to a definitive anthem.
4) Tommy Gun–I like this one too, and this was also in the live setlist, but the Clash wrote much better songs and lyrics.
5) Bankrobber–yes, I like the Clash doing reggae and dub, but this was not their best effort, despite it being a single and all.

No doubt Jones was a great songwriter, but he didn’t write “Police On My Back”. It’s an Eddy Grant cover.

No rating of Clash songs will ever have any meaning. The Clash is a whole and the songs are all of one piece. The Clash play one long symphony that can never be picked apart. I’m American but even I know how to say “You’re daft — leave it out!”

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