With the world falling apart, we answer burning questions.
Although they’re the first “real band” I ever saw (Santa Monica Civic on their Give Them Enough Rope tour, Spring 1980), they haven’t worn well. Joe Strummer–boarding house-educated son of a MBE in the foreign service–hardly qualified as a Cockney. Mick Jones attended private (in American terms) school in London as well, with a cousin a Tory MP. Paul Simonon hung around Italy with his artist mother and stepdad. At least original drummer Terry Chimes (aka Tory Crimes, a great moniker in those Thatcher days) hailed from then-downscale Stepney. His replacement Topper Headon did his stint in a prog band supporting Supertramp before he joined. All the same, nobody who grew up in the ’70s can be blamed for a lack of street cred when it came to making a living as a musician. Strummer’s pub-rock The 101’ers typified his knack, furthermore, for mixing a smart reference (here, to Orwell’s 1984) into a pop-culture trend of the moment. There’s worse ways to get paid.
Well, does this litany of suspect origins make the Clash class traitors eager to take up the Sandinista cause? That did not turn out very well, but their politicized lyrics and ambitious, increasingly artsy and funky arc did establish them as a more visionary crowd than the Sex Pistols. Both had savvy Svengali managers; Bernie Rhodes also brought us The Specials, Subway Sect and Dexys Midnight Runners among others, demonstrating his ability to keep pace with his former colleague Malcolm McLaren when it came to molding musicians in catchy gear, cult appeal, provocative slogans and melodic chops.
And, may I go on record to say that “This Is England” off their last gasp Cut the Crap remains a great song: the only one on my go-to streaming playlist from “the only band that mattered,” at least to a few from my generation, a half-decade younger.
So, overrated? Their songs hold up better than most of their peers. Maybe it’s my age, but their reflexively progressive stances and spray-painted wear revealed their art school influences as much as their purportedly proletariat pasts. The two never meshed for me convincingly enough. Sure, the publicity shots in front of graffiti-plagued slum fronts and the carefully composed sneers and snarls marked many in that era. But to me, The Clash tried too hard to be hip as they sought success. – John L. Murphy
Ooooh, ooooh, Nuns of Brixton
The answer is a solid, unequivocal yes and no. While I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the Clash–the gritty posters and the punk attitude–the records never sounded right to me. Particularly London Calling disappoints. That amazing cover image of the dude smashing his guitar into the stage floor sets up expectations that the sound will be hard-edged and aggressive, almost painful to listen to. But in fact, the album sounds ultra-clean and over-produced. There’s no feedback to be had, but lots of compressed, synthy shimmer. Goofy takes on jazz tunes and reggae feel self-conscious and have me skipping track after track every time I listen. And yet, I’ve always felt guilty for not really digging the Clash, because it seems like there’s so much potential there, and so many of my musician friends are devotees.
Where I live in Denver, Colorado, a powerful force has arisen to meet the needs of people like me who want to like the Clash but can’t get into the records. A group called The Nuns of Brixton have earned a devoted following by becoming “the only Clash cover band that matters.” It’s five dudes who perform in head-to-toe nun outfits, habits and all, and the shows are glorious. They’re skilled musicians, and the front man, Sister Jim, is sassy and shouty and charismatic, and the music bangs just the way the Clash’s records never captured. They pack venues and whip the crowd into a pogo-ing and moshing frenzy with gutsy, slashing performances of all the hits. They’re one of the only bands I’ll try to see every time they play because it’s always such a blast. A friend of mine, digging the show, said in all sincerity, “This band rules, but what’s up with the nun outfits?” I’m not sure if he even realized the songs were all Clash covers, so it was hard to explain that the band’s entire image is based on a pun of a song title.
But that’s just it: you don’t need to know a damn thing beyond the music in order to absolutely love it. When “London Calling” hits the chorus and the bass and drums are pounding in your chest, you raise your fist and shred your voice to holler along with Sister Jim, “‘Cause London is drowning and I…live by the river!” And that’s the feeling that punk rock was made for.
So is the Clash overrated? Basically, their songs should stay but their records should go. – A.C. Koch
To me, “overrated” is one of those music criticism terms that is DEEPLY subjective, even more so than anything else in music criticism. So much of what we regard as over- or underrated depends on how we experience the artist, their work and occasionally their fans. Great bands can get saddled with the tag by people who have had a few bad experiences with die-hard fans, and mediocre acts can end up with the designation from people who may have heard their hits one too many times. So, I have to slightly bristle at the question being asked here if only because I think the concept of being “overrated” is so fluid and nebulous.
That having been said…no, the Clash aren’t overrated. At least, I don’t think so. They deserve credit for being pioneers in both making punk rock a cultural phenomenon and in finding a way out of punk after the subculture’s rules became too rigid. Their great albums are rightly heralded as being compulsively listenable, even if they don’t quite sound as groundbreaking as they did in the late ‘70s. Arguably, that’s what I think has made the Clash last as a musical entity in the way that the Sex Pistols, for all the ground they broke, failed to do: the songs just hold up so fucking well. Yeah, a few of them are songs that even I could use a break from, but when you have a band that boasts deep cuts as good as “Lost in the Supermarket,” “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Know Your Rights,” I can deal with hearing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” a little too much. The Clash have a legacy that is respectable and well-earned, and to this American’s ears, their music has never once outstayed its welcome. – Kevin Korber
Punk? Yeah right
I’ll never forget what a high school chum said after he’d played then-new London Calling for the first time: “That’s just rock!” The Clash had politics and a cover that riffed on Elvis Presley (not that we knew that at the time), but their music was a far cry from the adrenaline-fueled punk that we ate up as adolescents. Remember, this was around the time that the first Dischord bands had turned up the speed and fury to previously unimagined energy levels. I’ve long since learned that speed and anger isn’t everything, but for all their snarling, The Clash were a good pop group, but never anywhere near as threatening as the Sex Pistols, and the Teen Idles made them sound like Cockney babies. Maybe you had to be in England at the time for them to resonate, but to American youth, the Clash weren’t as likely to inspire revolution. – Pat Padua
An appropriate discussion point for the Apocalypse. Rather than being overrated, I believe the Clash are underappreciated.
The songwriting duo of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were skilled in articulating a response to the uncertainty and anger experienced in the turmoil of the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, and even more so now, listeners who didn’t know the context might struggle with the narrative. For example, you can apply the opening lines of “This is the Radio Clash” to any number of situations that pit corporate media against the interests of artists and audiences: “This is Radio Clash/ On pirate satellite/ Orbiting your living room/ Cashing in the bill of rights.” But the right time is required for the moment when meaning is shared between The Clash and their listeners, even if the context is different.
A completely different note on context: The video for “Rock the Casbah” was shot in Austin, Texas in 1982, the Austin that no longer exists since we weren’t able to keep it weird. For those of us who were there then, it still feels like an insider kind of cool to be able to map the locations from the video, even if it’s something as eye-rollingly dull as the Burger King just north of campus. – Linda Levitt
What does the Clash really mean?
I want to make a snarky comment about how it would be impossible to overrate the band, barring (only possibly) a literal reading of “The Only Band That Matters” tag. On reflection, though, the questions that puzzle me are more related to comparing their legacy to their actual output. It’s like comparing Sandy Koufax to Nolan Ryan. The Clash were absolutely perfect….for three albums. From 1977-1979, they couldn’t be topped. After that, it’s shakier. I don’t like dub — which sticks in my brain as the main part of Sandinista! — so they lose me a little there. It’s an album that’s significant but not nearly as good as its reputation. Combat Rock is better than its legacy (a pair of fantastic singles), and everyone knows about Cut the Crap. You can’t overrate those first three albums, but after that… The Clash were (are?) more than just the music, though; the idea of the Clash matters, from its ethos to its iconography to its open embrace of other styles of music into a punk context (Strummer solo does better for me than Sandinista!). How can you overrate that? Three great albums are three more than most bands get, and that’s even before we consider the ability to introduce listeners to a world of new sounds, the valuable spin-off acts, and an unvarnished legacy. – Justin Cober-Lake
Punk = God?
Questions about whether something is overrated drive me nuts because they’re usually ahistorical and mask the real inquiry about personal preference. The Clash were an important band in the London punk scene that harnessed the rage and disaffection of the working class into a palpable and danceable sound, and Joe Strummer is a fascinating lead man. The documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten made me a fan of the Clash and provides an answer to this question. Beyond “London Calling” and “Rock the Casbah” exists a trove of music in evolving styles and political power that makes The Clash undeniably a great band.
But they are widely overrated because so much of their heyday and the punk rock movement in England and America is hagiography. Rock godhood eliminates context and makes whoever it shines on the greatest act ever to tap a distortion pedal. Add in the fog of narratives of warring egos, drug addiction and destroyed hotel rooms, all that remains is stereotype. If you can see through all that you’ll discover a band as important to pop music for a decade, but what you’re likely to find is the mythology. – Don Kelly
Every which way but loose
Thanksgiving, 2016. I’m with a bunch of friends in some part of New York State that might as well be Arkansas. We stay at an Airbnb that feels a little like a mountain lodge, the perfect place for cozying up around the fireplace (if anyone can figure out how to start the damn thing—we’re no wilderness survival guides) and listening to some jams.
One friend in particular, J, is into punk—in a meaningful, lifelong way. I, on the other hand, saw Sid and Nancy (1986) once and thought it was cool. J puts on London Calling, which I can vibe with for sure, since it makes me feel like Mark Ruffalo in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (“The Clash, the only band that mattered!”) My favorite track on the album is “Lost in the Supermarket,” which has a muted yet frantic quality reminding me of the times I got disoriented in the clothing racks of Kaufmann’s (formerly Pittsburgh’s premier department store) as a child.
But, as we near the end of the album, I realize “Lost in the Supermarket” hasn’t come on. When I draw J’s attention to this, she shrugs. Turns out, it’s her least favorite song. She skips it. I shrug, too, deciding to keep my tears to myself. Once they subside, I realize the strange magic of what just happened, which revealed London Calling anew as an album that is many things to many people, a collection of songs that sends punk in about 19 different possible directions.
A band that can do that across — let’s see — 19 tracks can’t really be overrated. Cheers to J! – Jeff Heinzl
Good…as an influence
The stand-out tracks are, for sure, stand-outs but to get to them, to get to “London Calling” or “Guns of Brixton,” so much other nonsense needs to be endured and excused. “Lost in the Supermarket,” for example, or “We are the Clash,” “Are You Red … Y,” “Mensforth Hill” – actually almost all of Cut the Crap, most of Combat Rock – one could go on to the point where it’s easier to list the worthwhile tracks than the duds. Make no mistake, there was definite a zeitgeist they briefly spoke for but, as Greil Marcus makes clear in Lipstick Traces, theirs was the cod-political, anti-intellectual half of Janus-faced punk (not that the equally-as-constructed art school Sex Pistols were any more or less authentic). The best things The Clash gave us is what they would splinter and become and, in their wake, those who would follow after. But as a band, and when exploring the back catalog, too little, too thinly distributed and definitely overrated. – Scott Wilson
The only shit that matters
The Clash naming themselves “The Only Band That Matters” is akin to Micheal Jackson calling himself “The King of Pop.” It’s complete, self-aggrandizing horseshit. Any institution that ascribes a high level of importance to whatever it’s peddling should be immediately suspect, and that’s ESPECIALLY true for a band that revels in being politically high-minded. This would be especially egregious if the music was also terrible which is only marginally the case. The music is, in many instances, completely and totally kickass. You get little glimpses of what a band that matters would sound like. But the rest of it is… kind of interesting I guess? I mean, it’s FINE. Totally okay. Definitely not the work of a band that deserves the slavering hyperbole that gets thrown around. So, yeah, I guess I think The Clash are overrated. – Eric Mellor
Yeah, I’m a fan
The subject of the Clash came up last month during our podcast. I said that I am sort of a fan, that I only like the self-titled debut, London Calling, some of Sandinista! and some of Cut the Crap. Our guest pointed out that I should cut the crap. I like more than half of the band’s output, so I must be a fan.
I will admit that I think London Calling is one of the best records ever made. It is a pure burst of energy that is magically sustained through 19 tracks. I even like the lighter fare like “Jimmy Jazz.” Also, the infusion of reggae may be the most punk thing the band ever did. I remember feeling a tug of sorrow when Joe Strummer died, prematurely, of a heart attack. The fact I cared makes me a fan. – David Harris