It’s remarkable that the Clash managed to keep any of the fans that first got on board with their debut album at all.
The Clash is usually classified as a punk band. But can a band really be punk when it only released one actual punk album? Large portions of later albums like Sandinista! and Combat Rock can barely even be classified as rock, much less punk, as influences like reggae and funk gradually consumed their sound. The band’s punk reputation may speak to the fact that the one punk album it did make is on the short list of contenders for Best Punk Album Ever. Once you make a bang of an entrance like The Clash did with its 1977 debut, nothing—not even London Calling—can prevent you from being forever associated with it.
Although The Clash (specifically referring to the 1977 UK version for now) contains some of the greatest punk songs of all time, it ought to have been clear from the start that the band did not adhere to the punk code quite as zealously as their peers. You know, “play as loud and fast as you can for two minutes and then stop. And NO BLOODY SOLOS.” You sure as hell didn’t see the Ramones putting a six-minute reggae cover on any of their albums, but the Clash sure did with the groovy as hell “Police & Thieves.” Those chilled out little “yeah-ahh” backing vocals sound like they’re coming from guys who want to cool it with the anger and aggression, not channel it. Even when the band is playing hard and fast, there are decidedly un-punk elements, like the fact that as a lead guitarist, Mick Jones was just another Chuck Berry/Keith Richards wannabe, something that would become eminently more evident as he, along with the rest of the band, actually, you know, learned to play their instruments well.
But let’s not get carried away here. The Clash pulses relentlessly blistering power chords and classic snotty Joe Strummer socio-political angst, and what it may occasionally lack in sheer tempo it more than makes up for in volume and thematic heft. This is of course epitomized by the white-knuckle classic “White Riot,” which may be very well be the all-time zenith of angry three-chord punk songs. It’s commonly mistaken for a skinhead anthem, of course, but even a cursory listen to the lyrics makes it clear that Strummer wasn’t trying to incite a race war; he was trying to spur all the fat, contented white people in London to rise up and riot about their shitty, boring lives right alongside black folks. It’s a philosophy that remains relevant today – if only Joe Strummer were alive for the age of Ferguson and Baltimore: “Why the fuck are you arseholes hurling vile racist epithets against some black guy knocking over some chips in a CVS when you should be out in the street hanging Wall Street bankers for rigging the game and stealing all your goddamn money??”
Similar racial and political themes appear in the nearly-as-good “London’s Burning” “London’s burning/ With boredom now” and the sneering “Career Opportunities” “Career opportunities/ The ones that never knock.” Strummer was always painfully sincere in his politics, but understood better than possibly any other songwriter that really loud guitars and a liberal dose of irreverent humor helped his statements land much more effectively. Even the marching orders of “White Riot” get intercut with sarcastic lines like, “White people go to school/ Where they teach you how to be thick,” and if they didn’t we’d still have skull-splitting triumphs of punk guitar like the propulsive, undulating riff of “I’m So Bored with the USA” and the choppy chordal stabs of “London’s Burning.”
As good as they were at it, the Clash got bored with roiling punk fury awfully quickly – by 1979, when they released The Clash in the US, in fact. Granted, by then they had already recorded Give ‘Em Enough Rope and found themselves a new drummer in Topper Headon. But the tweaks they made to the album’s track list for American consumption are telling. Specifically, they dropped a few of the more generic punk cuts on the UK version and replaced them with five new tracks of broader influence and superior execution. For instance, “Janie Jones” is bumped down from the leadoff spot, where it felt sort of flat, down to the beginning of side two. Its spot is taken by “Clash City Rockers,” which sure ain’t punk – that’s classic rock! Specifically, it’s a high-octane rip off of the “I Can’t Explain” riff genetically spliced with the feedback section of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” (Yup, as much as the first UK punk wave made a show of overthrowing British rock royalty, the Clash was as big Who and Stones fans as anyone. Americans also got a classic cover of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” and, best of all, the brilliant reggae rock “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” which from a pure songwriting standpoint is leaps and bounds ahead of anything on the UK version of the album. Conventional wisdom suggests that the UK version of The Clash is more cohesive and all the new songs on the US version muddle the message. Conventional wisdom is wrong – the US version is clearly better. Indefinable cohesiveness be damned; I sure don’t miss “Cheat” and “Protex Blue” compared to the markedly superior songs the band replaced them with.
In retrospect, it’s remarkable that the Clash managed to keep any of the fans that first got on board with their debut album at all. There’s no more fickle and fastidiously conservative fan base than that of punk, and considering that the band not only abandoned the sound and style of their debut almost immediately, but actively avoided it for most of the rest of their existence, it’s a wonder the white riot Strummer envisioned didn’t come true.