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Music / The Clash

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The classic line-up of The Clash. From left to right: Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon, and Mick Jones.

"When they kick down your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?"
— "The Guns of Brixton"

The Clash, AKA "the only band that matters," was a member of the original British Punk Rock movement of The '70s known as the "Class of 77". The band stands with the likes of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols in the pantheon of definitive punk rock bands. Unlike their peers at the time, however, the Clash was no firm believer of the pure Three Chords and the Truth ideology: they were not afraid of experimenting with a diverse range of musical styles, and as such were critically acclaimed musically. Though highly adept at no-nonsense, stripped-down punk rock, their eclectic tastes and experimental approach led them to frequently infuse their sound with elements of reggae, dub, ska, funk, pop-rock, New Wave, and soul, among others. They were also simultaneously the second rock band to record a rap track ("The Magnificent Seven", released a few months after Blondie's "Rapture" in 1981) and the very first British group to do so.

With politicised songs and committed lifestyles ensuring their fame amongst punk rockers, the Clash was unique for their relative musical sophistication, and thus are often thought as "a punk band with a rock-n-roll sound." The band's 1979 album London Calling is often hailed as one of the finest punk rock records (and rock/popular music in general) ever recorded — it is the highest-rated punk album of all time in Rolling Stone's list, i.e. the popular yardstick. It was released in December 1979 in the UK and January 1980 in the USA, and was separately declared to be best album of the 1970s by the British magazine Q and the best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone.

Following the release of Combat Rock in 1982, guitarist Mick Jones and drummer Topper Headon were fired, the former because of Creative Differences with Strummer and the latter due to a heroin addiction. Following this, the band's lineup was radically revamped, and manager Bernard Rhodes took control of their musical direction, leading to Cut the Crap in 1985, an album that flopped upon its release and was heavily derided by fans, critics, and Strummer himself. Strummer's dissatisfaction with the state of the Clash led him to disband the group in 1986, after a ten-year career; the members later went on to other projects. Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite and Strummer embarked on a solo career (including some time fronting The Pogues) before founding the Mescaleros. Paul Simonon has become pretty well-known in the London fine art scene, and contributed to the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach. There were sporadic collaborations and ad-hoc performances by various combinations of the original lineup but no full reunion ever came about and the death of Strummer in 2002 laid to rest any hope of a reunion.

Principal Members (founding members in bold):

  • Terry Chimes - drums, percussion (1976, 1977, 1982–83)
  • Rob Harper - drums, percussion (1976–77)
  • Nicholas "Topper" Headon - drums, percussion, piano, bass, backing and lead vocals (1977–82)
  • Pete Howard - drums, percussion (1983–86)
  • Mick Jones - guitar, lead vocals, piano, harmonica (1976–83)
  • Keith Levene - guitar (1976; died 2022)
  • John Mellor (Joe Strummer) - lead vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica, bass (1976–86; died 2002)
  • Nick Sheppard - guitar, backing and lead vocals (1983–86)
  • Paul Simonon - bass, backing and lead vocals, guitar (1976–86)
  • Gregory "Vince" White - guitar (1983–86)

Studio and Live Discography (studio albums in bold):

  • 1977 - The Clash
  • 1977 - Capital Radio
  • 1978 - Give 'Em Enough Rope
  • 1979 - The Cost of Living
  • 1979 - London Calling
  • 1980 - Sandinista!
  • 1981 - Spirit of St. Louis note 
  • 1982 - Combat Rock
  • 1985 - Cut the Crap
  • 1999 - From Here to Eternity: Live note 
  • 2008 - Live at Shea Stadium note 

The Clash are the Trope Namers for:

Tropers Calling:

  • Album Title Drop: Sandinista!, in "Washington Bullets".
  • Angrish: Near the end of "The Right Profile", Strummer's pronunciation descends into anguished shrieks.
  • Anti-Police Song: "The Guns of Brixton", which according to Paul Simonon is about the paranoia of a young Brixton man isolated by violence and poverty who's seen The Harder They Come a few too many times.
  • Affectionate Parody: The typographic design for the now-legendary cover to London Calling is a Shout-Out to Elvis Presley's debut album Elvis Presley (The Album).
  • The Band Minus the Face: Jones, who was the face of the band along with Strummer, got sacked in the mid-'80s.
  • Bland-Name Product: "Koka Kola," maybe.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Paul (blonde), Topper (redhead), Joe (chestnut), Mick (raven).
  • Boxed Set: Clash On Broadway, Sound System
  • Break-Up Song: Yes. The Clash, of all people. "Train in Vain." ("You didn't stand by me, no way...") Which was a major hit!
  • The Cameo: Allen Ginsberg on "Ghetto Defendant."
  • Canon Discontinuity: For years, Cut the Crap was completely written out of the band's history. Westway to the World, an official and otherwise comprehensive documentary on the band from 2000, stops when Mick Jones left the band in 1983. Likewise, several biographies on the band either glance over the album entirely or give it a brief, begrudging mention, and for years, none of its songs appeared on the band's hits collections. While the album still has a rock-bottom reputation, a reprieve had been given to its well-regarded lead single "This is England" by the time the new millennium rolled around. It appears on the 2003 The Essential Clash compilation, the 2006 Singles Box set, and the 2007 The Singles greatest hits album.
  • Cherubic Choir:
    • The Sandinista! version of "Career Opportunities."
    • The version of "The Guns of Brixton" at the end of the Sandinista! song "Broadway"
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: Deconstructed and reconstructed in "Death Or Glory"
    "He who fucks nuns will later join the church."
  • Cover Version: e.g. "Brand New Cadillac", "Police on My Back", "Police and Thieves", "Every Little Bit Hurts", and "I Fought the Law."
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When it becomes clear that people are defying a Middle Eastern despot's ban on rock music in "Rock the Casbah", the tyrant orders his air force to carry out airstrikes against anyone violating his prohibition. Thankfully, the pilots ignore his orders and play rock on their cockpit radios after they take off.
  • Dreadful Musician: In the early days. But after they got the hang of their instruments, recorded their first album, and recruited Headon as their drummer after Chimes quit, they averted this with flying colors.
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Hateful", and "Junkie Slip".
  • Dull Surprise: "One Emotion" was inspired by watching Roger Moore on television (either a James Bond film or a rerun of The Saint) and the guys noting that he only had one emotion.
  • Eagleland: "I'm So Bored with the USA" is Type 2.
  • Eagleland Osmosis: Averted by "London's Burning":
    "London's burning dial 9-9-9"
  • Easter Egg:
    • An accidental one. "Train in Vain" was meant to be released as a promo for NME magazine. When that fell through, they quickly added it to London Calling after the packaging had already been printed. As a result, "Train in Vain" wasn't listed on the album cover. This didn't stop it from becoming one of the band's best-known and well-loved songs.
    • A more deliberate version from the same album: Alongside the usual matrix number, the double LP had a message etched into the run-out grooves one word at a time: "TEAR DOWN THE WALLS".
  • Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Or Spanish.
    • "Spanish Bombs" includes "yo te quiero y finito/Yo te quierda, oh mi corazón"note 
    • At one point during "Should I Stay or Should I Go", every verse is followed by its Spanish translation.
  • Former Teen Rebel: The subject of "Death or Glory".
  • Garage Band: Referenced in, appropriately enough, "Garageland" ("We're a garage band/We come from Garageland")
  • The Generalissimo: "Dictator" is sung from the POV of one.
  • Genre Roulette: London Calling, Sandinista! and Combat Rock: Reggae, Punk Rap, proto-Twee Pop, Alternative Dance, Rockabilly, Funk, Ska, Dub, Calypso, Gospel, Acoustic rock, and even some experimental tracks full of random noises... Sandinista!, especially: not only is it a triple album, giving much more room, but it pushes the envelope even further than London Calling, switching between genres every three minutes. It's also the only album to feature all four members on lead vocals at some point: Topper Headon on "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" and Paul Simonon on "The Crooked Beat".
  • Godwin's Law: The lines "If Adolf Hitler flew in today/They'd send a limousine anyway" in "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" actually work because the song is about Nazi skinheads ruining an all-night reggae concert.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: "Spanish Bombs" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go" lyrics in Spanish.
  • Greatest Hits Album: The Story Of The Clash, Volume 1
  • Heavy Meta: "Clash City Rockers," "Radio Clash," "We Are the Clash".
  • Honor Among Thieves: The premise of the single "Bankrobber"
    My daddy was a bank robber
    Who never hurt nobody
    He just loved to live that way
    He loved to steal your money
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: The odd line "A nuclear error, but I have no fear/'Cause London is drowning and I, I live by the river!" in "London Calling".
  • Jerkass: Averted for an early punk rock band, usually seen as more authentic and violent in their rebelliousness. A good example would be to compare their Tom Snyder appearance (in which the band has time to be goofy and give serious and thoughtful answers to Snyder's questions) and John Lydon's (who was antagonistic to the host, resulting in one of the most awkward interviews ever taped). The band were known for being very devoted to their fans, from their attempts to get albums released with extra tracks so it'd stay cheap to their efforts to keep the bouncers off their fans at their 1978 Glasgow gig (culminating in the arrest of Strummer and Simonon) to trying to keep the situation under control in Belfast in 1977 after a show was cancelled to helping fans sneak into gigs.
  • Last-Second Word Swap: The line in "Cheat" "You're a fool if you don't know that, so hit the road you stupid... fool" would probably have ended with 'twat' but it was changed.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "London's Burning".
  • Lyrical Dissonance: They tended to enjoy this trope.
    • Is there a jollier-sounding song about hardcore drug addiction than "Hateful"?
    • "Death or Glory" is an upbeat little number about, uh, how even the toughest rebels eventually sell out.
    • "Lost in the Supermarket" stands out in particular - a very poppy and catchy melody that goes with arguably the most introspective and depressingly direct lyrics within the band's catalogue.
    • Almost any time "London Calling" is used on TV - especially in advertising - it's likely to be this.
    • "Somebody Got Murdered" from Sandinista! is the record's most commercial track from a musical standpoint. From a lyrical standpoint, however, it is definitely not.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: "Straight to Hell" is partly about the unwanted children of Vietnamese mothers and American fathers:
    Let me tell you about your blood, bamboo kid
    It ain't Coca Cola, it's rice.
  • Music Is Politics: "Complete Control" is about the band's real-life struggle with their label for control of their song "Remote Control".
  • The New Rock & Roll: "Rock the Casbah" is about a Shareef who tries to outlaw rock and roll, even resorting to sending in the military to break up concerts. It doesn't work.
  • New Sound Album: London Calling had some tentative steps beyond the punk/rock sphere, but Sandinista! was a full-blown Genre Roulette album experimenting with dub, rap, reggae, disco, twee pop, gospel, and soul influences. Later, Cut The Crap was intended as a New Sound Album taking them back to their original punk sound, but it was a dismal failure.
  • Protest Song: Almost everything they wrote.
  • Rap Rock: "The Magnificent Seven" made them Trope Makers along with Blondie's "Rapture". Also see "This Is Radio Clash".
  • Ripped from the Headlines: "Rock the Casbah" was partly inspired by the Islamic Republic of Iran's criminalization of Western music.
  • The Rival: The press tended to pit them against the Sex Pistols (mostly due to the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, with The Clash being seen towards idealism and the Pistols towards cynicism) until the latter broke up in early 1978.
  • Rockers Smash Guitars: On the album cover of London Calling. Hilariously enough, the cover actually shows Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar.
  • Sampling:
    • "Red Angel Dragnet" uses Taxi Driver and introduces it with the lines "Only Travis/Come in Travis". However, rather than using clips directly from the film, they had Kosmo Vinyl recite from the script while doing an impression.
    • "Inoculated City" includes a Spoken Word in Music sample of an ad for the toilet bowl cleaning product 2000 Flushes - the sample was unauthorized, so some copies of Combat Rock include an edited version of the song that removes it.
  • Second-Person Narration: "The Guns of Brixton"
  • Self-Titled Album: Their debut.
  • Shout-Out:
    • At about 2:37 in "Remote Control", you can hear Strummer saying "I am a Dalek!", followed by "I am a robot!" and "I O-BEY!", all in the Dalek's usual speech patterns.
    • In the very beginning of their cover of "Police and Thieves", Joe Strummer can be heard shouting "Goin' through a tight wind!", quoting "Blitzkrieg Bop" by The Ramones. Interestingly, this was only a year after the song had come out.
    • "The Right Profile", about Montgomery Clift, starts "Say, where did I see this guy? In Red River. Or A Place in the Sun. Maybe The Misfits. Or From Here to Eternity..."
    • The cover of London Calling was a direct reference to the cover of Elvis Presley's debut album Elvis Presley (The Album) (1956).
    • "Car Jamming" mentions Lauren Bacall.
    • The song "Spanish Bombs", from London Calling, was dedicated to the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War.
    • From "Clash City Rockers:"
      "You owe me a move say the bells of St. Groove
      Come on and show me say the bells of old Bowie
      When I am fitter, say the bells of Gary Glitter
      No one but you and I say the bells of Prince Far-I
      No one but you and I say the bells of Prince Far-I"
    • Cut the Crap takes its name from a line in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
  • Silly Love Songs: While everybody remembers the Anti-Love Song subversion of "Train in Vain," they actually had one song that played it completely straight, released as a B-Side for Tommy Gun. Behold, 1-2 Crush on You. Admittedly, this was written by Mick Jones pre-Clash and only performed by them.
  • Soprano and Gravel: Two-male variant. Strummer was a baritone and sang his lines in a rough, growly manner, especially on the early records. Jones lies on the border of tenor and countertenor, and his vocals were much cleaner as a rule.
  • Stage Names: Joe Strummer's real name was John Mellor. (In his previous band, The 101ers, he'd gone by Woody Mellor) Original drummer Terry Chimes was credited in the liner notes for The Clash as "Tory Crimes", a shot at the Conservative Party in Britain, who are also known as the Tories.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Paul Simonon on "The Guns of Brixton", "The Crooked Beat", and "Red Angel Dragnet"; Topper Headon on "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe"; Nick Sheppard on "North and South."
  • A Storm Is Coming: "London Calling."
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: After Mick Jones was fired, he was replaced with Mick Jones-lookalike Nick Sheppard.
  • Take That!: "Rock the Casbah" begins with the line "Now the king told the boogie-men, you have to let that raga drop." Reportedly, this is a reference to an incident in which The Clash's manager complained about the length of their songs and likened it to raga, a style of Indian music known for long, complex songs. Given that the king mentioned in the song is a despot who retaliates against even the slightest hint of rock music by ordering bombs dropped on the populace, it can be safely assumed that this line wasn't meant to be flattering to the manager.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: After all, they were part of the punk rock movement. By the time of London Calling, they ditched the aesthetic but kept the ethos, instead starting a period of wide-ranging genre experimentation but maintaining the commitment to everyday life and political engagement.
  • Title of the Dead: "City of the Dead", B-side of the "Complete Control" single.
  • Trrrilling Rrrs: In "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais":
    "Onstage they ain't got no... Rrroots rrrock rrrebel"
  • Vocal Tag Team: Joe Strummer and Mick Jones went on a song-by-song basis on every album (except their final album Cut the Crap, which was entirely Strummer due to Jones' firing). Although Strummer got the majority of songs, Jones sang lead on some of their most recognizable tunes (notably "Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?").
  • A Wild Rapper Appears!: Or poet, as is the case with Allen Ginsberg on "Ghetto Defendant". This probably would be a proto-version of the trope if Blondie and The Clash themselves weren't already on that.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: "The Right Profile" is a tragi-comical version of this with regards to Montgomery Clift.

Alternative Title(s): Joe Strummer