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Starting with their Brilliant Name: The Clash

Maybe if Svengali manager Bernie Rhodes hadn't liked Paul Simonon's idea about a name for the outfit he and his friend Mick Jones had assembled, we'd never have The Clash, perhaps the most appropriately named band of the punk era, maybe of all time. Just a few years Later CBS publicity would describe them as "The Only Band that Mattered," seemingly unaware that one of the band's modus operandi was bolstering the likes of lesser-knowns, such as Lee "Scratch" Perry, the legendary Jamaican producer, who co-produced an early version of "Complete Control," which ironically, took a swipe at CBS.     

And as shows and venues increased exponentially in depth and breadth between 1976 and 1982, the Clash promoted unknowns, such as Mickey Dread, Tymon Dogg, and not once, but twice during their stint at NYC's Bonds Casino in June, 1981, the Bratles, a group of city kids with boho pedigrees, and the yet-to-be-known New York rappers, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, also at Bonds. 

Sandinista! proved that there was an internationalism, dare I say it, to the Clash that contravened the idea of the super group. The attempt to be inclusive at Bonds, featuring each night a tripartite lineup of a Brit band, an American and a Jamaican act, from The Slits to Joe Ely to Lee Perry, was as quintessential Clash as their eclectic and therefore, subversive, musical passions: including but not limited to rockabilly, reggae, ska, funk and jangly garage rock.

Sure their politics could be naïve, sometimes reductive and perhaps unintentionally hero-worshipping, to whit, entitling their magnum opus after the Nicaraguan rebels who toppled Anastasio Somoza, but at least they, and perhaps especially Joe Strummer, put their hearts into railing against Margaret Thatcher's government and its attempts to return British society to the 19th century. Throughout their heyday, right through Combat Rock, with its anti-war classic "Straight to Hell," and the satirical "Rock the Casbah," the Clash challenged and clashed with the status quo in Britain and the U.S., using a variety of methods to get out the message.

The Clash were unique in their invention of linguistic touchstones to keep their fans connected: dropping their name into songs, "Radio Clash," "Clash City Rockers," "We Are the Clash," referencing broadcasts, radio, media in general: "Remote Control," "Radio One," "Outside Broadcast," "London Calling," calling for action or complaining about government reaction, "White Riot," "Police on My Back," "Clampdown," and keeping thematic focus by effectively connecting lyrics to place: "Washington Bullets," "The Guns of Brixton," "I'm so Bored with the USA."  This is not to say that everything about them was committed or confrontational. They were first and foremost a rock n' roll band with good chops and mostly memorable hooks. It is only to say that they were about something as opposed to the nothing (not an entirely unjustified ethic either), that so many Brit punk bands embraced. They were also smart enough to recognize the points where method, medium and message might converge.

Although Joe Strummer's solo work would take on more fabulist lyric content with his last band, the Mescaleros, "Midnight Jam," the next to last track on his posthumously released 2003 album, Streetcore, serves up the right combination of punk cheek and kid enthusiasm for the wide world of popular music that marked the Clash at their best. Inspired by his BBC radio show, London Calling, on which Strummer played DJ between 1999 and 2002, the spoken word/ sound montage proves that what probably mattered to the "only band that mattered," was everybody else---here's a sampling:

All transmitters to full
All receivers to boost
This is London calling
This is London calling  

All right everybody
Once again tuning into the best tunes
We can find anywhere in the world
Anytime, anyplace

Now we'd like to let it rip
On a whole different tip
We're going to turn over controls of the tower here
To the Great Originator, Mr. U-Roy
Let it roll

Meanwhile we've got a ticket
And there's the train
The indestructible beat of Soweto
Once again…

The Clash

Along with The Clash, I would say there were only two performers in the history of Rock and Roll who changed everything in such such a short period of time, before breaking up. The first obviously, was the Beatles. The other was the tag-team duo of Walter "Killer" Kowalski and "Ox" Baker. Actually, come to think of it, wrestlers Kowalski and Baker never recorded rock n' roll before breaking up, so I guess it would be just The Clash and the Beatles.

So why did I think of of those guys? Perhaps because I'm on painkillers following a wisdom tooth extraction this morning. But maybe also because "Ox" was infamous in late 60's for his "heart punch." It was about as real as Daisuke Matzuzaka's "gyro" pitch, but the name stuck. Heart Punch. The Clash. perfect. And Walter "Killer" Kowalski was reputed to be such a sweetie-pie, when not in character, that wrestling promoters fretted fans would find out. Strummer, as seen in the final parts of "The Future is Unwritten" still can deliver the heart punch, but seems positively beatific (in a Beatitudes, rather than Beatles sense.) You mentioned his spoken word from his BBC radio show. I've cried like a baby listening to some of these.

Waynezo - wasn't that a time!

A time

Yes, it was but was it any different than the currently ascendent moments of pop culture we can now observe? Days when a zaftig twenty-something with an infantile nickname and a TV show can command tens of thousands to speak at the fine universiities and colleges of America?


Very nice take here, Wayne. Seems like because the Clash were always trying to make a point about something, people feel like they have to make a point about the clash. And they often miss it. The biggest point is that they were really good. Were they trying to say important things? Sure. Did they let that get in the way of making great songs? That would be a no. The Clash version of "I Fought the Law" is the best cover ever made. Right now, in my early-morining, coffee-deprived head, I'm hearing the first strains of "Rudy Can't Fail." Into the shower. Good way to start the day. Thanks, Cresser.