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No other punk band has a history quite like The Clash. When I first started listening to them, I was mainly drawn to the standard driving punk hits like “I’m So Bored with the USA” and “White Riot,” but that’s not the only style they were known for. Unlike other punk bands in London’s scene in the late 70s and early 80s, The Clash blended reggae, funk, and rockabilly sounds into their music.
The Clash was, first and foremost, a group that came from the London punk scene. The members rubbed elbows with other UK punk greats like the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. But they ultimately transcended that scene altogether with their unique style, experimental leanings, and lyrics that confronted political issues of the day. The band has inspired musicians ranging from U2 to Chuck D of Public Enemy.
If the Sex Pistols were the smashed beer bottle that ignited the punk movement in the UK, The Clash was the riot that followed, bringing a plethora of influences into the chaotic genre and focusing it into a political force. This article will take a look at their brief history as a band, where the band is today, and the impact they left on punk and music as a whole.
Bottom Line Up Front
- The Clash was a punk band formed in London in 1976 and broke up in 1986.
- The most well-known lineup of The Clash features Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Nicky “Topper” Headon.
- The Clash combined punk, reggae, dub, rockabilly, and ska elements in their music, which was groundbreaking for a punk band at the time.
- The band is often featured on “best of” lists for their contributions to rock music and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
Members of The Clash’s Classic Lineup
John Graham Mellor, who went by Joe Strummer, wore many hats in The Clash. He co-founded the band, shared lead vocal duties, played rhythm guitar, and was the main lyricist.
He was born in Turkey in 1952 and was initially influenced by artists like The Beach Boys, Woody Guthrie, and Little Richard. During his time with The Clash, like the other band members, he was known for getting in trouble. Two incidents in particular stick out – getting arrested for spraypainting a hotel wall with “The Clash” along with Topper Headon and for striking an audience member in Germany who was being violent.
Later in his career, he would perform with The Pogues and occasionally appear in movies. He also played in the Mescaleros band, which he would perform with until his death in 2002 at the age of 50.
Before he co-founded The Clash, Mick Jones cut his teeth in London’s music scene with a band called The Delinquents and later a band called London SS. Jones and his manager, Bernard Rhodes, were the pair that initially brought Joe Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon, and the first drummer to spend an extended amount of time with the band, Terry Chimes.
Playing the guitar in a rock band was a forgone conclusion for Jones, even early in his life:
But even before [the New York Dolls], I used to follow bands around…It was great times, and I always knew I wanted to be in a band and play guitar. That was it for me.
– Mick Jones in an interview with Gibson Backstage Pass, 2006 Holiday Double Issue
Jones played a vital role in The Clash as the lead guitarist and main songwriter. He also provided lead vocals on some songs, like The Clash’s only single to reach number one on the charts, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which was propelled to that position by a commercial for Levi’s jeans in the early 90s.
Jones was kicked out of The Clash in 1983 but went on to perform with groups like Carbon/Silicon and Gorillaz later in his career.
Paul Simonon was the bass player of The Clash. Before joining The Clash, Simonon had planned on becoming an artist. You can see some of his exhibitions on his website.
Simonon came up with the name “The Clash” but ironically couldn’t play bass when the band first started. Despite that, he went on to play the instrument arguably better than most of his peers in the punk scene, with bass lines that ran counter to the melody and provided a voice of their own influenced by ska and reggae.
Paul Simonon has played bass on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach and has performed with the supergroup the Good, the Bad, and the Queen in his post-Clash career.
Nicky “Topper” Headon
Topper Headon didn’t join The Clash until 1977, after releasing their debut album. He came from a slightly different musical background than the other band members. Headon was influenced by jazz drummer Billy Cobham and played in the psychedelic rock band Mirkwood before joining The Clash.
Headon’s biggest contribution to the band was the hit single “Rock the Casbah” from the album Combat Rock. He composed the music for the song, which led to him playing multiple instruments for it, including piano, bass guitar, and drums.
Topper Headon left the band in 1982. Later, the departure was due to increasing conflict in the band over his heroin addiction. After The Clash, he performed with various bands and worked as a producer. He also joined Mick Jones’ Carbon/Silicon for a performance in 2008, the first time the two had played together since Headon left The Clash.
The Clash Early Years
The Clash formed shortly after the Sex Pistols burst onto London’s music scene, pouring gasoline on a punk scene that was just starting to burn. Their first live performance was opening for the Sex Pistols in 1976 at the Black Swan. It featured a lineup of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and drummer Terry Chimes. They wouldn’t perform live again until August of that year.
As punk gained steam in the UK, The Clash began to find their political identity, writing songs about fighting against racism and the effects of unemployment. The song “White Riot,” which would go on to become the band’s first single, came about specifically due to a fight that broke out between black youth and police at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival.
The Clash Finding Success
The band signed to CBS Records in early 1977. Though it was seen by some in the punk community as selling out, the deal allowed them to release their self-titled debut album in March of that same year. The ragged punk banner first waved by the Sex Pistols had passed to The Clash, and a more polished, focused sound came along with it.
Shortly after the album’s release, drummer Terry Chimes left the band and was replaced with Topper Headon. In May 1977, they started the White Riot Tour, which featured their first major venue performance at the Rainbow in London, during which their fans pulled up their seats and rioted.
The Clash featured early essential songs of the band’s, including “White Riot” and “London’s Burning.” It went on to hit number 12 on the UK charts. “White Riot” perfectly encapsulated the punk genre’s traits: under two minutes in length, only five chords, and politically-charged lyrics that directly addressed class and racism.
The Clash – White Riot (Official Video)
Give ‘Em Enough Rope and London Calling
Going into the studio to record their follow-up to The Clash, CBS Records wanted a more manufactured and precise sound, which led to a difficult recording session that didn’t gel with the band’s spontaneous style. It didn’t matter all that much because Give ‘Em Enough Rope was successful and reached number 2 on the UK charts.
The biggest song from the album was perhaps “Tommy Gun,” a song that condemned violence and terrorism. The song was accompanied by the band’s first music video.
London Calling, the third album from The Clash, proved to be the band’s breakthrough in the US. Featuring a photograph taken by Pennie Smith of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on stage, the album’s cover is one of the most famous in rock history. Around this time, The Clash started to be called “The Only Band That Matters.” The title track, released as a single, would reach number 11 in the UK, the highest rank for any of the band’s singles.
The Clash’s sound would continue to evolve after the release of London Calling, resulting in an ambitious 3 LP, 36-song effort titled Sandinista!
The Clash – Tommy Gun (Official Video)
The Clash – London Calling (Official Video)
Sandinista! and Combat Rock
Sandinista! was released in December 1980 to mixed reviews. This was due mainly to the range of musical genres present on the album. Still, The Clash’s fourth studio album was just the latest evolution in the band’s sound. The album most notably featured nods to gospel, dub, and calypso in addition to the reggae influences already present in The Clash’s sonic palette.
Sandinista’s two highlights are “The Magnificent Seven” and “Washington Bullets.” Both are impressive for different reasons. “The Magnificent Seven” features lyrics written spontaneously by Strummer and a bass loop by Norman Watt-Roy instead of Simonon. The song has an early hip-hop feel and could be considered the first rap track by a rock band.
“Washington Bullets,” on the other hand, is a lyrical journey through the history of atrocities committed in the name of imperialism by the US, China, and the USSR. It represents some of Joe Strummer’s strongest and most political lyrics. At the same time, musically, the song prominently features the marimba carrying the melody.
Following up the 36-song epic that was Sandinista!, The Clash released Combat Rock in 1982. The album itself is pretty experimental but features two of the band’s biggest mainstream hits: “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah.” “Rock the Casbah” was a Topper Headon creation, and the studio recording features him on percussion, piano, and bass. The music video received heavy playtime on the newly created TV station for music videos, MTV.
Combat Rock proved to be the high point for The Clash, reaching number 2 in the UK and number 7 in the US. The album’s success would prove to be short-lived as tensions began to reach a boiling point in the band.
The Clash – The Magnificent Seven (Official Video)
The Clash – Should I Stay or Should I Go (Live at Shea Stadium)
The Clash Break Up
Patience was wearing thin with Topper Headon, and he was asked to leave the band by Strummer, Jones, and Simonon just before the release of Combat Rock. His departure began a snowball effect, as Strummer and Jones began to disagree more often. Headon was replaced by Terry Chimes, the band’s original drummer. He performed with them at their show at Shea Stadium in New York City.
Chimes didn’t last long in his second stint with the band and was replaced by Pete Howard in 1983. Mick Jones was the next member to get the boot after increasing animosity between him, Joe Strummer, and Paul Simonon. Two new guitarists, Nick Sheppard and Vince White were recruited to replace Jones.
The Clash’s final album, Cut the Crap, was strange and the weakest of the band’s library. The recordings on the album were a mix of unfinished tracks from Strummer, drum machines in place of Howard, some guitar parts from White and Sheppard, and manager Bernie Rhodes’ best efforts to glue all the parts together into a coherent album. One notable song from the album is “This is England,” which was released as a single and, while disliked by critics at the time, has since come to be recognized as a Clash-worthy song.
The Clash officially called it quits in 1986. Joe Strummer had this to say about the band’s demise:
When the Clash collapsed, we were tired. There had been a lot of intense activity in five years. Secondly, I felt like we’d run out of idea gasoline. And thirdly, I wanted to shut up and let someone else have a go at it.
– Joe Strummer, from Nick Johnstone’s 2006 book The Clash “Talking”: The Clash in Their Own Words
Joe Strummer’s Death and the Surviving Members
The Clash’s members all went their separate ways to focus on different projects. However, they occasionally worked together in the years following the band’s break-up. Most notably, Strummer co-produced and co-wrote some songs on No. 10, Upping Street, the second album from Mick Jones’ post-Clash group Big Audio Dynamite.
Before the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there were talks of a reunion, but Paul Simonon wanted no part of it. That would prove to be the last chance for the band to reunite, as Joe Strummer passed away suddenly on December 22, 2002, from a congenital heart defect.
In 2013, the band released the box set Sound System filled with remastered studio albums, rare tracks, and unseen footage of the band. In a Rolling Stone interview in support of Sound System, Mick Jones declared, “I’m not even thinking about any more Clash releases. This is it for me, and I say that with an exclamation mark.
The band recently released an album of tracks that were cut from Combat Rock. It came out on April 6, 2022.
The Clash was one of the first bands to extensively combine sounds from multiple genres, including punk, reggae, ska, calypso, hip hop, and pop. Their unique blend of sounds changed the landscape as far as how experimental bands during that era could be. Songs that reflect these combinations are “Rock the Casbah,” “White Riot,” “London Calling,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and “The Guns of Brixton.”
The Clash left an amazing legacy behind for the bands that came after them to build on. 2 Tone would emerge from the wreckage of London’s early punk scene, directly influenced by The Clash’s inclusion of the genre and Jamaican subculture in their music. Artists as varied as U2 and Rancid claim the band as having an influence on them. Garage rock’s revival in the early 2000s sounded much like The Clash’s first album. The Clash’s musical genes can still be found in popular music today.
Answer: Given that Joe Strummer passed away in 2002, a reunion tour seems unlikely at this point.
Answer: Yes. The Clash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, shortly after Joe Strummer’s death. The ceremony inducted Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon, and Terry Chimes.
Answer: All members of The Clash are still alive other than Joe Strummer, who died in 2002.
The Clash Band History Final Thoughts
Just like the numerous other bands they influenced, The Clash had a significant effect on me when I first heard them. The band informed some of my political thoughts. As a bass player, Paul Simonon certainly played a major role in my developing my technique and sound.
I fully believe that The Clash is required listening for any musician or rock band if only to understand that a group doesn’t have to be constrained by a single musical genre or public perception. Even more so than the Sex Pistols, The Clash is the quintessential British punk band.