The Clash, who are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight, weren't the first punk band. The Ramones started pursuing their loud-and-fast vision in 1974, and released their debut album in the spring of 1976.
Nor were the Clash the first British punk unit. The Sex Pistols played their first, typically shambolic gig in November of 1975 (it lasted about 10 minutes), and the first Pistols single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," was released in December of '76.
But the Clash, who were inspired by the Sex Pistols (as were such other first-wave English punk acts as the Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees), remain exemplars of the punk moment. Unlike the Pistols, whose world-shaking music was infused with a calculated, arty nihilism, the Clash were unabashed idealists, proponents of a radical left-wing social critique of a sort that reached back at least to the folk-styled anthems of Woody Guthrie in the 1940s.
Mainly, though, the Clash were a great band. They evolved out of a scrabbling hard-rock group called the London SS, which included guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and, in succession, drummers Topper Headon and Terry Chimes. They were subsequently joined by a one-time street singer called Joe Strummer, who had been leading a band called the 101ers. All of their lives had been changed by seeing the Sex Pistols play in early 1976.
"It was like, there ain't nothing like this," Jones recalled during a visit to New York the other day. "When they came out, it was like, it made everything else look lame."
The London SS changed their name to the Clash, and made their debut opening for the Sex Pistols at a gig on July 4, 1976. (The already influential Ramones played their first show in England that same night). At year's end, the Clash set out with the Pistols on an ill-fated excursion called the Anarchy Tour. This outing was supposed to have consisted of 19 dates, but most were shut down by hostile municipal authorities; in the end only three were actually played, amid much punk mania and lunk-headed bottle-chucking.
"You would look at the stage, and it was just twinkling in broken glass," said Paul Simonon, sitting by Jones' side with a gap-toothed grin. "And the drummer's got his cymbals turned flat-on to protect himself. That's why we ran around onstage so much, 'cause we were ducking the bottles."
The Sex Pistols, of course, imploded in early 1978, after releasing just one (great) studio album. The Clash, however, kept going, and growing. From the outset, the band had embraced Jamaican reggae (with a cover of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves") and cast a harsh lyrical light on British social inequity and racism ("White Riot"). They played Rock Against Racism benefits. They clashed with police themselves. (Simonon and drummer Topper Headon were once arrested for shooting pigeons.)
They also sold a lot of records — in Britain, anyway. In an instance of the sort of record-company incomprehension that had delayed the Beatles' U.S. breakthrough in the early 1960s, the Clash's 1977 debut album was held back in this country until 1979; and even then, the band's American label, Epic, scrambled its content.
The Clash toured America, but didn't really make much of a commercial impact here until 1980, when their classic double album, London Calling (which they insisted be retailed at the price of a single disk), climbed to #27 on the Billboard chart. The album also yielded the group's first Top 40 U.S. single, "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)."
By this point, the Clash's musical interests ranged from rockabilly to funk and dub; but the group was losing focus. The band's fourth album, a sprawling, three-record mess called Sandanista!, was a letdown after the vibrant London Calling. With the 1982 follow-up, Combat Rock, the Clash scored two more hit singles ("Should I Stay or Should I Go" and "Rock the Casbah") and, for the first time, broke into the U.S. Top 10. But the end was near.
In the fall of 1983, Strummer and Simonon gave Mick Jones the boot — although not, as Jones recalled, for the usual "musical differences." "It was just ... we got fed up. We got fed up with each other and we didn't have any holidays or anything. Nowadays, groups have a holiday. They have a rest and they can get their heads together. We didn't have any of that."
With two new guitarists on board, a pale imitation of the Clash released an exhausted album called Cut the Crap in 1985. In early 1986, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon decided to bring down the curtain. "Me and Joe looked at each other and kicked each other out of the band," Simonon said. "There was no one left to kick out."
Unlike the Sex Pistols, the Clash never attempted a "reunion." They had, however, been weighing the possibility of getting back together for one last performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (see "AC/DC, Clash, Police To Be Inducted Into Rock Hall Of Fame").
"Me and Joe were up for it," said Jones, casting a glance at Simonon. "We were going to try to persuade him."
"I was going to persuade them not to," Simonon said.
The idea became moot in December, when Joe Strummer was found dead at his home in Somerset, England (see "Autopsy Finds Joe Strummer Died Of Cardiac Arrest").
"It wasn't like a heart attack," said Simonon. "The doctors said he was an extremely fit man. It was a congenital heart problem that he had. So he could have died at the age of 2 or 82, really. Which is quite amazing, somebody reaching 50 and actually achieving what he had done in his life. It was quite an inspiration."
Today, Paul Simonon is an established painter in Europe. Mick Jones produces records for up-and-coming groups. Both wear nicely tailored suits. The fierce music that the Clash made two decades ago continues to inspire young bands, but the group's confrontational social commentary has few echoes, even in this time of thundering war drums and crumbling economies. Mick Jones still has hope, though.
"There's new bands coming up and it's really exciting," he said. "The more they develop and progress, I'm sure they'll find themselves. There's so much to talk about today. We're hoping that some of these groups are gonna start asking questions."