“There’s a million reasons why the hippies failed,” Joe Strummer would lament. A comment that would pretty much some up the feelings of England’s disenfranchised youth in the early days of punk.
Despite popular belief the punk movement did not begin in England with the Sex Pistols but in the USA with an ‘New Wave’ of underground groups like MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and a bit later New York bands like the New York Dolls, Dictators and the Ramones. Collectively these groups had become known as “Punk Rockers”. Punk literally means scum but is used in American slag to means a waster.
Back in London these group’s records would find there way on to the turntables of a hand full of teenagers who had rejected the static and bland music scene of the mid-seventies. Thus becoming a sort of sound track to a pop culture rebellion.
A group of such teenagers inspired by the American “New Wave” scene formed ‘London SS’. This band did live long enough to even play a live concert let alone get anything down on vinyl. But from its ashes two members would become the founding members of the punk movement’s most successful and arguably most influential group.
Around the same time four other young Londoners also inspired by the “New Wave” would form there own group under the guidance (or rather misguidance) of megalomaniac manager Malcolm McLaren. The group featured a shy London Irish teenager named John Lydon (later known as Johnny Rotten) who go on to called themselves the Sex Pistols.
It was the Sex Pistols short bursts of glorious 3-minute trashy guitars; bizarre clothing style and provocative stage act would provide the vital spark that ignited the punk movement.
Ex- London SS members Paul Simonon and Mick Jones went along to see this new group who where supporting the 101ers, London’s rising stars of the pub rock circuit. The 101er’s then lead singer Woody Mellor would later remark “Three seconds in to their [Sex Pistols] set I knew we [101ers] were yesterdays papers.”
Woody become increasing disillusioned with pub rock and his seemly obsolete group the 101ers. Not surprising then that Woody left his group after Paul and Mick approached him to sing in their new group. Woody would change his name to Joe Strummer and together with Simonon and Jones they became The Clash.
For all the Sex Pistol’s anti-monarchy sentiments and talk of “Anarchy in the UK”, they saw “No Future”. The Clash on the other hand were less pessimistic. In film maker Don Letts’s documentary on the group ‘West way to the World’, Strummer explained The Clash “were groping at a socialist future.”
It would seem Strummer was deeply influenced by the so-called ‘New Left’, George Orwell, the Neo-Marxists like the Frankfort School and the Student rebellion of 1968. “It was a great time to come of age” said Strummer “Paris, Vietnam, Governor Square*, it was all happening”.
Simonon had also a socialist background. His father had served in the British army in Kenya. On his return from Kenya shocked by the horrors of British imperialism he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (known as the Communist Party of Britain today) and Paul would deliver Party leaflets around the working class council estates and tower blocks of London.
In early interview with ‘The Clash’ Simonon flippantly remarked that he “didn’t even know who the prime-minister was” would never the less remain a leftist influence along side Strummer within the Clash. Simonon travelled to the Soviet Union with his then girlfriend Caroline Coon albeit returning somewhat disappointed that he had not found the workers paradise he had come to expect.
In 1977 the Clash had been playing together for almost a year. The group went on a nation wide tour of Britain with Sex Pistols, The Damned and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers.
That year also saw their new self-titled LP was released. At time the album perhaps over shadowed by the Pistols controversial “Never Mind The Bollox” LP. However The Clash debut was arguably a far superior work featuring a thoughtful lyrical style and a blend of pop influences ranging from Reggae to Rockabilly all delivered with an authentic punk snarl.
Their debut single “White Riot” was misinterpreted as a kind of racist battle cry. The song was in truth about the Notting Hill Carnival Riots in which London’s black community fought off police in riot gear. Strummer and Simonon who had just gone to join in the Carnival somehow got caught up in the riot. Impressed with what they saw as the Black community having their say they penned the song with Jones later that day.
Following year saw the release of the bands second LP ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’. This was to be the group’s first release in the US. The Album thematically continued its Leftist leanings but more cautious than the first. The Sleeve of “The English Civil War” first single released off the album featured a still from the 1950’s ‘Animal Farm’ cartoon. This was one of many subtle nods to Strummer’s literary hero George Orwell.
But it was the “London Calling” double album release just a year later that would forever be hailed as a masterpiece by music critics and album collectors alike. ‘Roller Stone’ declared it album of the 80’s. Although Strummer pointed out to the magazine that the album was actually released in ’79.
Having become the only Punk group to crack America, The Clash released their forth album this time a triple LP which they called “Sandinista!” in tribute to the socialist government ruling Nicaragua at the time (And recently been returned to power). This was not their best work but features some outstanding tracks and excellent Dub reggae production by Jamaican legend Mickey Dread.
The Clash would release two more albums before the finally called quits in 1986. The first these albums was “Combat Rock” which featured the singles “Should I Say Or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah” which remain pop classics of the era. It also features “Know Your Rights” a sort of punk rock anti-authority anthem.
Their final album “Cut the Crap” was released and was lambasted by the music press. In the absence of the guitarist Mick Jones and drummer Topper Headon both of whom had been kick out for drug abuse, the group lost its way. The only remaining original members of band Strummer and Simonon later disowned the album.
In the aftermath of the break-up the Clash’s influence is immense. Although American group MC5 pre-date the Clash in mixing punk and socialist ideas it is the Clash who remain the mother of all political punk groups there after. Every one from the Redskins, Manic Street Preachers, Specials, Billy Bragg, Attila the Stockbroker, Angelic Upstarts, Public Enemy and countless other groups site the Clash as a major political and musical influence.
Strummer remained involved in political causes right up until the end of his life. He played benefit gigs in aid of striking Fire fighters and a number of organisations such as Rock against Racism, Anti-Nazi League and a London based Anarchist group “Class War”.
The Clash were not a political party, they were after all a rock n’ roll band. The band had always been accused to being left wing posers. Other simply disliked the band either for being left wing or for being political in general. Some detractors point to Strummers middle class family background. In his defence he had been a manual labour worker for a number of years before the Clash at started and the rest of the band had all come from working family grounds. The political message was confused at times and the CYM would be at odds with much of it. The Clash were a great band who turned at lot of people on to socialist politics for that we can only be grateful. Cheers lads we owe you one!
*Governor Square is the street where the American Embassy in London is located where an infamous anti-Vietnam war riot took place in 1968.