I like The Clash a little bit, sure. There’s even been the odd afternoon or evening where I have liked The Clash a lot. I never got to see the band perform, but one of the few times it was worth tolerating The Big Day Out was when Joe Strummer lit up one of the smaller stages with a bunch of great Clash songs. That was a treat.
But what is with all this Clash worship? It seemed to coincide with the death of Strummer (well, the second wave of appreciation, at least). People went gaga over his posthumous version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. Fairly ordinary I would have thought. Possibly quite cloying and almost desperate, a faux-earnestness seemed to pervade – something that comes, shrink-wrapped, with most of The Clash’s work.
Since Joe Strummer’s death there have been documentaries of the band and of Strummer himself. We find out that this man of the people had a privileged upbringing; we find out that Julian Temple loves the chance to serve up a bit of filmed hagiography; we find out that The Clash could do no wrong.
Let me add here that my vinyl copy of The Story Of The Clash gets let out for a regular hoon around the turntable. Let me add, also, that I’ve owned all of the original albums – I’m not just a compilation-listener when it comes to The Clash. I’ve put in the hours, I’ve listened. I’ve enjoyed some of it. But this band is ridiculously over-hyped.
The debut, self-titled album still contains several gems, several blasts of short-sharp pop-punk fury. It’s hard to not enjoy – at the right time – a bit of White Riot and a lot of White Man In Hammersmith Palais, Janie Jones and Garageland. Then there was that great cover of I Fought The Law – probably the most obvious Clash song to mention, sure, but with good reason. It was – and is – a great, vital cover of a great, (reasonably) vital song.
And the third album, London Calling, has a few more gems too. You still feel the urgency and the vitriol of the title track; that line about phoney Beatlemania biting the dust is killer. Still. It must have made a lot of punks happy at the time – or at least given them pride in their anger. London Calling, the album, is regularly listed as a classic – released right on the cusp of the 70s/80s it has been called the greatest album of the 1980s. An absurd claim of course – and like most double albums London Calling sprawls a bit far, a great document of the time but it’s as interesting for its weaknesses as its strengths. In that sense it’s a bit like The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street.
But what else is there in the discography of The Clash? Second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope is patchy at best. Songs like Tommy Gun sound pretty lame these days. I’d like to have this album re-titled Given ‘Em Enough Ropey Material?
The Clash sure did, across their career.
The two classic albums – we’ve covered already. After London Calling it was to Sandinista! And if you thought they sprawled too far on London, well this one’s a triple. It’s been somewhat unfairly maligned because it’s easily the most interesting album, musically, in The Clash canon. But there’s just too much of it – and there is a lot of filler. A lot of filler that’s filling in between more filler. That much filler. Still, I can find more songs on Sandinista that interest me these days than any other Clash album.
Combat Rock was a dud. A lot of people think that hit single Rock The Casbah was The Clash selling out, but it’s a great song. It’s a good reason to enjoy – from time to time – one of the compilations on the market (and there are several, far too many in fact). But songs like Know Your Rights – well that’s The Clash trying far too hard to be The Clash; a concept that can be applied to most of the band’s songs when you spread them all out.
And then there was, finally, Cut The Crap. An album title that suggests the band sent advance copies out to media for comment then took the most pithy, succinct review-line and used it as the title. If only they had – actually – cut the crap.
Soldiering on proudly, despite forgetting to pack anything resembling a decent song, yet again, with We Are The Clash and This Is England you hear a band so desperate to believe in what they thought they were, at their peak, they’ve forgotten how to actually be that band.
I don’t hate The Clash. I spent a lot of my youth listening to them. I was turned on by a compilation, sure, but it sent me – as all good compilations should – to the albums. And it baffles me to this day that with no chance of a reunion and with the death of the key member, the band seems to get a free pass; they seem to have crossed over some imaginary line of critical reverie.
To me punk was never about having idols and heroes, not lasting ones. That was one of the things that punk, as an ethos, was desperately against. Smash down the idols, remove the totems and talismans, wipe the slate clean, break it up, reduce it down to a set of equals, to a set of ideals or (at least) ideas – don’t worship, don’t put things on a pedestal.
But The Clash is now held high as something from the punk era to worship. And I think it’s because they did create a handful of great pop singles; because they could play their instruments (Topper Headon is an incredible drummer; likewise Paul Simonon on bass). And people probably want to think of Strummer and Mick Jones as some Lennon/McCartney-like duo. Strummer now so clearly the John Lennon figure, Jones therefore the Paul McCartney (you could extend this out that Big Audio Dynamite was his Wings I guess…but that’s for another time. Or not).
But, come on, this is a band with two very good albums to their name – but really, filler aside, there’s only enough material for one decent double-album all up. Did it change your life that much? Was it really that good? Not to me. But how about you?
What do you think of The Clash: overrated, underrated or correctly rated? I’m clamping down on The Clash. I think they’re okay…and most often it’s no more than just that. The archness, the anger, it all feels a bit faux, a bit phoned in, a bit phony these days. A weird relic is what they’ve become. Their own version of “phony Beatlemania”?