The first lineup to be known as "The Clash" consisted of Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Keith Levene and Pablo LaBritain. In around 1975, all these boys played in different parts of the London pub rock scene. After having been round the pub circuit a couple times with different groups, Mick Jones met the current Kings of Punk, The Sex Pistols. Mick, a Brixton boy, phoned Paul Simonon, currently at art school, in March 1976, to see if he was up for learning the bass, and joining Mick's new band. Simonon agreed quickly, and soon they had Keith Levene on board, another pub rocker who Jones was friendly with. At this time, Joe Strummer was playing in a band called the 101ers. Jones, Levene and Simonon were at one of their gigs, and Jones’ old manager, Bernard Rhodes, had a standoff with Strummer, convincing him to join the new band that would “rival the Pistols”. Soon, Strummer was on board, and things were moving fast. Strummer introduced his friend Pablo LaBritain to be the band’s drummer. However, LaBritain left quickly and was replaced by Terry Chimes.
It was Simonon who coined the name “The Clash”, after seeing the word repeated in a newspaper. After a month with Strummer, The Clash made their debut on 4th July 1976 in support of the Sex Pistols. However, Levene seemed to be unhappy in the group, and made an approach to Johnny Rotten, the Pistols' lead singer, to suggest forming a new band if the Pistols ever split. That night, most of punk's main bands were in attendance, such as the Ramones, the Stranglers and so forth. Simonon managed to get into a fight with The Stranglers' bass player, leading to the manager, Rhodes, decreeing that the band would not perform again until they were much more tightly knit.
The debut album. With Chimes having left, only Jones, Strummer and Simonon appeared on the cover.
The Punk Rock Explosion
After this, The Clash spent months rehearsing and writing intensively. They appeared again as a Pistols support act on 13th August 1976. Many music magazine reporters were in attendance and they were fast to comment on the group’s power and strong musicianship. However, a month later, Keith Levene was fired from the band. Strummer lated commented that Levene was fired due to his prominent use of speed, which Levene denied. Additionally, in November, Chimes left the group, and his replacement was Rob Harper. At this time, The Clash were touring with the Sex Pistols on their Anarchy in The UK tour. 1977 was the year the punk exploded, and the record companies seemed keen to encourage this, as in January ’77, The Clash signed to CBS records for £100,000. This brought about controversy, as The Clash had never headlined a gig, so this sum seemed quite extraordinary. Fans were in outrage that The Clash had seemingly sold themselves out, completely contradictory to the entire punk ethic. Nonetheless, work for the first album, The Clash, continued, and in March 1977, White Riot was released, reaching number 34 in the singles chart. The album came out the following month, and charted at number 12. CBS however did not give it a US release as they felt it would be too hard-edged, but two years later, a US version was created, because the UK version had become the most successful import album in the US.
Shortly after, Terry Chimes left the band. This left the rest of The Clash frustrated about their inability to secure a permanent drummer. They auditioned for a while, and eventually found Nicholas "Topper" Headon, a talented musician who added drive and energy to The Clash's punk sound. In may 1977, the band embarked on the White Riot tour as headliners, with a string of gigs across the UK. In September, The Clash released "Complete Control" a single which attacked their record label, CBS, but ultimately proved a success, reaching number 28 in the UK charts. The band continued to record, with singles like "Clash City Rockers" emerging in February 1978, enhancing their reputation and fame. Work began in June towards the second album.
Yet again, CBS tried to influence The Clash's style, encouraging them to aim for a lighter sound that would please american audiences. Therefore in November '78, when Give 'Em Enough Rope did emerge, it was well received, but didn't impact in the same harsh, punk rocking way as their debut. It also failed to impress American listeners, charting at 128. Despite this, "Tommy Gun", the first UK single from the album, reached number 19, the highest position attained by a Clash single to that date. Having established their UK fame by riding the punk wave, The Clash embarked on an extensive UK tour and moderately successful North American venture.
The Clash live in the USA, circa 1978.
Fusion and expansion
Work began for the third album in August 1979. It was decided that it should be a double album to encompass more styles and to please fans. London Calling contained mixes of punk, rock and roll, reggae, ska, skiffle and many other genres past and present. It was released in December '79, and was critically acclaimed worldwide. it is regarded as one of rock's greatest albums, and the cover artwork, a photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on stage, has acquired iconic status. The album even managed to crack the US market, with late addition "Train in Vain", a simple rock style song with Jones providing the vocals, reached number 23 on the Billboard chart. However, it was the title track that was to be the most successful, peaking at number 11 in the UK, the highest chart position held by a Clash song before the band's breakup.
Furthermore, the album sold well, reaching number 9 in the UK album charts and number 27 in the USA. A CBS worker coined the phrase "The Clash- The Only Band That Matters", reflecting their world fame at the time, as a direct result of London Calling. There was no tour for this album, and The Clash went straight back to the studios in preparation for their next release. Only one single emerged in the first year of the new decade, and this was "Bankrobber", a reggae-themed tune which exemplified The Clash's musical diversity. This was followed up by the December release of the triple LP Sandinista!, the band's most experimental venture to date. Featuring elements of hip-hop, dub, funk and rap, the album divided critical opinion, with politically controversial lyrics being the centre of these reviews. Whilst some dismissed it as nonsensical, CBS were on the whole pleased, as the record accentuated The Clash's continuing entrance into the American market, charting at 24.
1981's first release, "This is Radio Clash", was a foresight into upcoming records. Having proved their ability to experiment with other styles and still be successful, the band entered recording for their fifth album. The band spent weeks in the studio trying to encompass their vision, and their first cut, produced by Jones, was ditched. This is why, having entered the studio in September 1981, it was not until May 1982 that The Clash released Combat Rock. Featuring new ideas, such as a spoken word vocal on one track, it was a musically diverse creation. Yet at the same time, The Clash showed the world they could still challenge the charts, with Jones' "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" receiving wide radio airplay. However, it was the composition on the Iranian government's import clampdown, "Rock the Casbah", that really stood out from the fifth album. The majority of the song was written by Topper Headon, despite his increasing use of heroin. Headon was asked to leave the band shortly before the album's release, because the drug was affecting his drumming. The song reached number 8 on the US charts, their biggest hit across the pond, and the album peaked at 2 in the UK, and 7 in the US. The Clash then proceeded to embark on an intercontinental tour, playing shows in Europe and North America.
The Long Way Down
The early signs of breakup in the band began to show after Combat Rock. With Headon gone, Terry Chimes, the old drummer, was re-recruited for the next few months. However, Jones and Strummer, The Clash's core partnership, had begun to feud. The Clash remained on tour into 1983, when Chimes left the band again, citing in-fights. Pete Howard was his replacement while The Clash continued to tour the US. To make matters worse, tensions reached such a level that in September 1983, Mick Jones was fired from the band. Nick Sheppard and Vince White came in as new guitarists to replace him. Later in the year, the band recorded some new material, and financed their own tour across the UK in 1984 promoting it, promising fans a new album in early '85. Recording for the album was extremely difficult, with Strummer battling Rhodes, the manager, for control of the group. With most of the band based in Munich, the guitarists Sheppard and White had to fly in to deliver their parts. Strummer gave up with Rhodes and returned home, meaning Rhodes spent time completely re-engineering the album.
The band proceeded to embark on a busking tour across the UK, playing their old hits and popular tunes. A few more concerts were played, before Strummer went to Spain to clear his head. While he was there, the first single, "This is England" was released, and was met with mostly negative reviews. Rhodes' unwanted input had added synthesizers and drum machines to the track, creating a sound not normally associated with The Clash, and these opinions were confirmed when Cut The Crap was released later in the year. A couple months later, in early '86, The Clash disbanded. It was the end of a 10-year tenure on the throne of British punk.
All the members of The Clash went their different ways, with many of them collaborating together on further projects. Strummer and Jones reconciled and helped each other with writing and recording. Headon released a solo album before a heroin relapse. Paul Simonon formed a new band, Havana 3am.
A re-release of "Rock the Casbah" in 1991 finally gave The Clash their first UK number 1, always elusive when the band had been active. Talk of a reunion was always ripe, with many Clash fans desperate to see the boys get back together. Simonon, Jones and Strummer collaborated in compiling a Clash live album in 1999. It was announced that The Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, and the three shared the stage in November 2002. Speculation about the band's reform continued to increase, and it is always said now that it probably would have happened, had it not been for Strummer's tragic death at the age of 50 in December 2002 from a congenital heart defect. The band were inducted in 2003, when a special tribute to Joe was made. Further projects have been worked on by various members, and The Clash's final word was Sound System, a compilation of all their albums and unreleased material, released in October 2013, 37 years after their formation.
No group has had quite an influence like The Clash. Their leftist, politically charged lyrics, combined with sheer musicianship, aggression and unquestionable energy left them one of the Kings of Punk.