Viva Sandinista!

Is the Clash still the only band that matters?

Like the best mid-'60s work by Bob Dylan, the first three albums by the Clash redefined the rock 'n' roll landscape into which they were unleashed. Between 1977 and 1979, the British punk foursome issued The Clash, Give 'Em Enough Rope, and London Calling, along with a brilliant string of singles that constituted punk rock's most formidable and enduring body of work. Listening to them more than 20 years later, they chronicle the evolution of the only punk group to both chart the genre's territory and blaze a new trail through rock 'n' roll history. The Clash's music was passionate, committed and charismatic; it was innovative, yet steeped in the verities of the past. The group borrowed liberally, mixing into its twin-guitar assault everything from Jamaican ska and reggae to American blues, R&B and rockabilly, and made it all sound like nothing but the Clash.

The Clash was the only great punk band to successfully free itself from the didactic ideology of that narrow subgenre and, in the process, become simply a great rock 'n' roll band, period. Its American label Columbia once dubbed the group "The Only Band That Matters," and after hearing its early work -- remastered to stunning effect by Sony/Legacy -- that slogan reads like the best kind of hyperbole, the kind that transcends mere brag and becomes simple fact.

The first album, 1977's The Clash, ranks among the five greatest debuts in rock 'n' roll history, and retains all of its emotional fury, social outrage and sonic chaos. In its pristine British edition (finally issued stateside 21 years after a patchwork version was initially released), The Clash embodies as well as eclipses the sound and vision of punk: Guitars ring like police sirens, taut rhythms come fast and furious, and the sandpaper roar of Joe Strummer mixes perfectly with the wailing tenor of Mick Jones. Bassist Paul Simonon plays with a melodic minimalism that belies his love of reggae and ska, and original drummer Terry Chimes (replaced after the first album by Topper Headon) bashes with rabid enthusiasm. More than any album of its era and ilk, The Clash offers a quintessentially gritty portrait of gray London's seething, seedy underbelly: race riots, unemployment (or identity-stripping dead-end employment), heartless political conservatism, random violence, cheap drugs, cheap thrills, and the clattering sound of bands bashing out crude, savage rock 'n' roll in garages and flats. As a soundtrack for the apocalypse and a heartfelt shout from the street, The Clash is a complete triumph.

"Living in Fame": The nattily dressed Clash. From left, 
Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer, Topper Headon and 
Mick Jones.
Paul Slattery/Retna
"Living in Fame": The nattily dressed Clash. From left, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer, Topper Headon and Mick Jones.

Its follow-up, 1978's Give 'Em Enough Rope, was deemed a disappointment by critics, who heard the metallic production of Sandy Perlman (Blue Öyster Cult) as a compromise of the band's raging energy. The critics, however, were wrong. Although it lacks the thematic coherence and unity of the band's debut, Rope packs a throttling punch, from the colossal roar of "Safe European Home" and "Guns on the Roof" to the anthemic "Last Gang in Town" and the autobiographical "All the Young Punks." And with "Stay Free," a touching backslap from Jones to a wayward friend, the band revealed a soft side that was incongruous to the cynicism and nihilism of its punk-rock brethren.

If The Clash stands as one of rock's most brilliant debuts, 1979's London Calling is easily the best double album released by anyone this side of Bruce Springsteen, whose The River runs a very close second. With nary a trace of filler, London Calling reveals a Clash that was capable of anything: wildcat rockabilly, horn-laden reggae, cheesy cocktail jazz, relentless rock 'n' roll, introspective pop, and hilarious send-ups of drug abuse, sex, and even a lovingly acidic ode to Montgomery Clift. The title cut presents a horrific glimpse at the aftermath of nuclear war, while "Death or Glory" and "Clampdown" are furious statements of purpose, and "Lost in the Supermarket" pinpoints the pain and confusion of postmodern alienation.

A critical and commercial hit that landed Jones and Strummer on the cover of Rolling Stone and prompted a backlash among punk's wrongheaded standard-bearers, London Calling also yielded a Top 30 single: "Train in Vain," a charging weeper from Jones that offers the flip side to Ben E. King's R&B staple "Stand by Me." It's "Revolution Rock," however, that sums up the genius of this far-reaching, entirely successful masterpiece. An incessant reggae crusher driven by splashing drums, soaring horns and chopping guitar, the song is a showcase for Strummer, and he tears into the celebratory lyric with careless, drunken glee, mixing hilarious word play with equally hilarious gibberish, lost in the music's glorious racket. Its title sums up everything the Clash represented during punk's assurgency, but the music itself was something else: adventurous, intoxicating, funny -- a celebration of joyful noise and a harbinger.

In the spring of 1980, the Clash encamped in the heart of Times Square for an extended run of concerts. Every night for roughly two hours, the band members poured their hearts out onstage at Bond's International Casino, a decrepit vaudeville-era theater taken out of mothballs specifically for the group's engagement. The offstage hours surrounding those shows were reportedly just as intense for the Clash's four members, but in an inwardly directed fashion. By all accounts, the musicians spent their time sucking up virtually every aspect of the neighborhood's singular feel: midnight movies (a screening of Taxi Driver and its dank portrait of Times Square alienation apparently had enough of an effect on Strummer that he would adopt Robert De Niro's Mohawk haircut from that film a year later), the street milieu of junkies, hustlers and "cops kicking Gypsies to the pavement," and, above all else, the music.

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