White, Male Punks Were Self-Centered. The Clash’s Eponymous Debut Was Anything But.
April 17, 2017 | by Joey Daniewicz
Before his Les Paul heart-attack machine anchored the world’s greatest band, Mick Jones worked at the Department of Health and Human Services. As the United Kingdom had been on high alert for letter bombs, part of his job was simply to open the mail. Nothing is so illustrative of the restlessness that birthed punk as an Englishman, in order to eat and sleep, offering himself up as a shield so that the British government wouldn’t suffer. Such bleak comedy is at the heart of the Britain that The Clash captured on their self-titled debut better than any of their punk peers.
Seven years after the Beatles’ dissolution, The Clash emerged as the most essential document of British culture. But where The Beatles brought their country nothing but pride, The Clash were every bit as important as The Beatles but brought nothing but shame. Perhaps more infamously at the time, so did the Sex Pistols. But in 1977, the actual anarchy in the U.K. sounded a lot more like The Clash.
After warning on their first B-side that in “1977” London wouldn’t find comfort in the the Fab Four or the Rolling Stones, The Clash rolled out a sort of Bizarro World British Invasion, with madman Joe Strummer barking about traffic systems and concrete blocks. Though they’re drenched in boredom and contempt, many of the songs on The Clash rock a guitar-pop discipline that makes them sound and shine like a ‘60s band that never made it out of the garage — in fact, the album’s proudly dissociative finale “Garageland” treats that as the ultimate compliment.
This synthesis was a product of excellent timing. Mick was still developing his guitar sound and has a scrawny warmth in his riffs on “Remote Control” and “Hate and War” that would simply evolve into something else altogether as quickly as the following year. Paul Simonon’s obsession with reggae had yet to distinguish itself in his playing; he was in fact so new to the bass guitar that it’s rumored Mick recorded over all of his parts.
Most importantly, The Clash were still undergoing their epic origin story when the album was released. Terry Chimes was so obviously a temporary drummer that he’s the only band member missing from its cover. The sessions for The Clash were Chimes’ last with the band, and they’d replace him with Topper Headon, who was such a powerhouse that his contemporaneous explosiveness on “Complete Control” or “Tommy Gun” could never characterize the unemployable U.K. that punk had materialized in.
The Clash wouldn’t truly embrace the ferociousness punk was capable of until they witnessed a newfound fear of the National Front and the rise of Thatcher in 1978, so their early restlessness manifested itself in guitar-backed rants in which they sound bored out of their damned skulls, with the tracklist more or less being a list of how to stave it off: brothels, heroin, riots.
But even moreso than its embodiment of the country’s ambivalence at the time, what makes The Clash one of the premier landmarks of British guitar music is a lyrical approach that spared neither unflinching truth nor an enormous sense of empathy to the dreariness and the downtrodden. This is unavoidable when Joe’s truthing/truthbombing collides with Mick’s soothing/aching compassion: During the end stretch of “Hate and War,” Mick cries the song title as Joe enters: “I hate all the blindness. I hate all the cops.” They land the same trick in “Remote Control,” with Joe announcing he’s “gonna be a Dalek.”
Inspired by the Notting Hill riot for which Joe and Paul were present (one chaotic enough that Paul spotted a white guy dressed as a clown hiding in a basement), "White riot" is the most productive idea on the album and possibly the most groundbreaking examination of privilege from a white artist since the protest folk era up to that point. Frustrated with white indifference to racial oppression, “White Riot” realizes in song that whites won’t fight for others unless their situations are more directly tied together. Joe’s search for racial solidarity results in the album’s best line: “Everybody’s doing just what they’re told to, and nobody wants to go to jail!”
The other concerns of these bored white dudes are more straightforward: “Janie Jones” is about a horny office worker waiting for the end of the day to hit up the brothel. “Career Opportunities” details how working to survive can be just as miserable as going without income. “London’s Burning” is Joe’s unimpressed shrug at heroin’s high. The slightest song on the album, “Protex Blue,” is simply about condom fucking. But no matter how simple or thesis-worthy the subject, every track on The Clash feels classic just for the elevation of some special line: “I won’t open letter bombs for you,” “someone just asked me if the group would wear suits,” “there’s no payola in his alphabetical file, except for the government, man!”
There was one track that should have tipped everyone off that The Clash would become an unfuckwithable force musically in short order, and it was the first of many Clash covers that either equaled or outright clobbered the original. Their version of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” pulls off just one of many tricks they’d perform with the punk form, particularly on London Calling. Set against an already-established song, this tune was the clearest picture of The Clash’s still-gelling style of the moment. Both Bob Marley and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry liked it, even, with the latter even offering to produce the band’s next single, but one wonders what course the band might have taken if reactions had been different. “By rights they should have said, ‘Hey there man, you ruined it!’” Joe added in all modesty. “We tried to cut a version, which, when I listen to Junior Murvin’s original today, makes me think, ‘What a bold brass neck we had to try and attempt that!’ ‘Cos he sings like a smooth river of silk.”
While both the Ramones and Sex Pistols used punk as an end, their albums defining a genre, the Clash wielded it as a means to something larger and greater. Engaging with the same national climate, the Pistols reacted by reveling in their own nihilism, but The Clash’s keen senses of empathy kept them optimistic enough to actually envision a way forward and look beyond their own privilege, with the results every bit as arresting as a horrorshow sendup like “Bodies.”
The Clash is not only the musical key to understanding the punk of ‘77, but the best that one of music’s most thrilling moments had to offer. As this band (and punk in general) went in new directions, their successes, as much a product of timing as of craft, couldn’t be replicated. Give ‘Em Enough Rope set its sights far beyond England, its opening track set in Jamaica, and made the debut sound outright quaint by comparison. London Calling continues those trends but also sounds more like a love letter to rock and roll than a sendup. And by Sandinista!, The Clash finally felt entirely removed from its scene. They’d spend their tenure as a band traveling the world knowing they could always return to their safe European homes, but there was nothing safe about the home they occupied and sang about on The Clash.