Having been diverted, for a while into the realms of 70’s pop I have just managed to miss the anniversary of the first Clash album.That’s quite fitting though as I was late to the party 40 years ago. It took me quite a few weeks to commit to punk to the extent of actually buying a record. It seems a minor concern after all these years but to go into a record shop with my long hair and flares, select ‘The Clash’ from the racks and take it up to the counter where the hippy assistant would stare at it before asking for my £1.99 was too much for my delicate constitution to take. By delaying my purchase for so long I missed out on the opportunity to get a stickered album and exchange that sticker via the NME for a free version of ‘Capital Radio’ so you can imagine how daunting the potential experience was for me.
The fact was I just couldn’t ignore how good the record sounded from the sporadic plays by John Peel. The Clash were a band on fire at this point. Strummer and Jones had proved that two heads are better than one when it comes to song writing. Strummer was one of the most compelling front men on the scene and Jones still carried a surprisingly melodic sensibility, the analogy of the punk Lennon/McCartney actually worked. Strummer, like Lennon was the more instinctual artist while Jones was more of a craftsman, they brought out the best in each other.
They had just signed to CBS which had caused some derision in the punk community. I saw an interview with them where they suggested that CBS had signed them to ‘control’ the band which is laughable beyond belief. The Clash were passionate about politics but ideologically were all over the shop, they had signed to a major record label with all that that involved but were refusing to play ‘Pop of the Pops’.
Musically the record was surprisingly good for a band whose drummer had already left and whose bass player had been plucking the strings for less than a year. By Strummer’s admission every guitar bit of note is played by Mick Jones. Playing live Strummer was living up to his name, his aggressive playing necessitating that his right arm needed to be taped up to avoid him damaging himself. I love the story that the record company suggested that he should buy himself another instrument so he went out and he went and bought another guitar exactly the same.
Terry Chimes, the drummer on the record who would have his name immortalised as ‘Tory Crimes’, was actually too radical for the band. He was fed up with the political orthodoxy especially from manager Bernie Rhodes. Chimes eventually gave up meat and alcohol and trained to be a chiropractor but still managed to drum for Black Sabbath at one point, in a weird twist of fate he returned to the band for a while after his replacement developed too much of a drug problem but was soon off again on his own life course.
‘The Clash’ received quite mixed reviews, obviously the likes of the NME swooned over it but the more musical commentators noted that the playing was a bit rough, the production was muddy and it was quite hard to actually hear what Strummer was actually singing about. Compared with live performances the LP sounded like ‘Tubular Bells’ but those reviews missed the point. Punk was now about expression, anger and energy more than musical values, something like ‘London’s Burning’ is musically an update of ‘You really Got Me’ or any other 60’s garageband classic its’s blimmin good rock music.
The notable exception to the blueprint punk in the record was a cover of Junior Marvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’. The Clash make no real effort to emulate the subtleties of the original. As a reggae performance their version is lumpy and stodgy but in the context of a punk record it is a revelation.
The real problem with punk was always going to be that it was great for about 10 minutes, that’s why there are so many great singles from that time relatively few great albums. Reggae provided an alternative, it was hypnotic and took the frantic pace down a bit. As far as The Clash were concerned this was the first attempt to experiment with different styles which was to take them from being a punk band to a rock band.