The Clash was part of the original wave of punk in the mid-70s. Formed by guitarist and singer Mick Jones after the break-up of his band, London SS, the group was originally named Weak Heartdrops and the Psychotic Negatives. Along with Jones were Paul Simonon on bass and Terry Chimes on drums but the group lacked a lead singer until Jones convinced John Graham Mellow, a.k.a. Joe Strummer, to quit his pub rock band, The 101’ers and join. Strummer agreed within 24 hours, the band’s name was changed to The Clash, and the rest is, as they say, history.
The newly formed outfit rehearsed for under a month before playing their first gig in July of 1976. It was considered a failure. The band agreed not to perform again until they were properly rehearsed, locking themselves into a studio to write songs and hone their live performance. Strummer and Jones shouldered the songwriting duties with Strummer handling most of the vocals and it wasn’t long before they were not only performing regularly but also bowling crowds over with their raw power and revolutionary ideals. It took less than 30 gigs for the band to be signed to CBS records for £100,000, an unheard of sum for such an untested band.
Their self-titled debut album came out in the spring of 1977 to relative success. The initial single, White Riot, reached number 34 on the UK charts while the album itself hit number 12. CBS records feared that its rough, unpolished sound wouldn’t work for US audiences and refused to issue an American release until 1979. Despite the lack of presence in the US the album did become the number one selling import in 1978.
Drummer Chimes was feeling disillusioned with the direction of the band and left shortly after the release of The Clash. After an exhaustive search the band settled on Nick “Topper” Headon just before they set out on the White Riot Tour, headlining in front of bands like The Buzzcocks and The Slits.
Four more singles came out over the next 12 months. Remote Control was the second single off the first record which the angered the band who thought it was one of the weaker tracks. As a response to CBS Strummer and Jones penned and released Complete Control which rose to number 28. Clash City Rockers and (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais followed.
The second record, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, came out in 1978 and rose to number two behind the Top 20 single, Tommy Gun. CBS records released it in the US as well though it stalled out at number 128, well short of expectations for a band that was achieving so much across the water. A tour of the UK further cemented the band’s reputation and in February of 1979 The Clash undertook its first tour of the US. The band’s reputation obviously preceded them because this tour was an unexpected success. The band quickly regrouped in the studio to record their third album.
London Calling was recorded in the summer of 1979 and released that December. This double album featured all sorts of musical styles not typically associated with the punk scene. Reggae, ska, rockabilly, and even straight up rock and roll combined to create what is often referred to as one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. It spawned two singles, the title track and a last minute recording called Train in Vain that was added so late it wasn’t even listed in the original liner notes. Train in Vain became the band’s first Top 40 hit in the US but wasn’t even released as a single in the UK. The title track, London Calling, was and it rose to number 11 in the UK, the highest of any Clash single to date.
Their fourth album, Sandinista!, was released in 1980. A bold, diverse recording, this 3-album, 36 song set received mixed reviews and became the band’s first album to sell more in the US than in the UK where audiences were beginning to dwindle. The band needed another big album and they delivered.
Originally titled Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, this fifth album was supposed to be a 2-LP set but the band was dissatisfied with the production, bringing in famed producer Glyn Johns to finish the process. The album was reworked as a single LP and in May of 1982 Combat Rock was released. Two singles, Rock the Casbah and Should I Stay or Should I Go received ample airplay with Casbah reaching number eight on the US charts. The album hit number two in the UK and number seven in the US, their biggest success by far.
With the release of Combat Rock Strummer and Jones asked Headon to leave due to drug problems. Original drummer, Chimes, was brought back into the fold but Headon’s drug addiction wasn’t the only problem in the band. Strummer and Jones were feuding and Chimes left a few months later due to the turmoil. In September of 1973 Jones was officially fired from the band.
Strummer and Simonon continued to tour with Pete Howard on drums, and both Nick Sheppard and Vince White on guitars. After a worldwide tour the band entered the studio to record their next album. The sessions turned into a tortuous affair with Strummer and manager Bernard Rhodes fighting for control of the band. Most of the performances were done by session musicians with Strummer eventually disappearing before the recording was complete. The final product, Cut The Crap, came out in 1985 after being overhauled by Rhodes, filling in the gaps left by Strummer with synthesizers, drum machines, and pre-recorded crowd noises. For the remainder of his life Strummer distanced himself from the album and it’s negative reviews altogether, though the single, This is England, has garnered some appreciation retroactively.
In 1986 The Clash officially disbanded. Jones had moved on to form a new band, Big Audio Dynamite, while Strummer formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros after taking a long break. Parts of the original line-up would appear together from time to time but the full band would never play together again. Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect in December of 2002, just three months before the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2004 Rolling Stone ranked The Clash as number 28 on their list of the Top 100 Artists of All Time. VH-1 ranked them as number 22. Rolling Stones’ list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time ranked London Calling at number 8, the highest by any band of the entire punk movement, which seems fitting for the musical group that poured rocket fuel onto a “garage band” movement, taking punk from small clubs to arenas and onto the world stage itself.