The debut album from The Clash was released 40 years ago today.
Steve: I was on a school trip in what must have been April 1977 and, coming home Sunday evening in the coach from Slough, we had the chart countdown on the radio. I remember just two songs: first was the disconcerting 7/4 rhythms underpinning some gloriously mesmeric melodies in Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. The second was The Clash’s full-on, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, White Riot. I thought the former was “impressive”; the latter, “exciting”. I wanted to own them both. The following weekend, I had enough cash (£3) to buy one album. I was 16. I chose excitement.
Kev: I don’t really want to ask why they made innocent schoolchildren go to Slough… Skipping quickly over my far-worse-than-Peter-Gabriel Emerson, Lake and Palmer phase (which was the result of drinking dodgy water from that fountain in the Town Park), I can’t quite remember when I first heard The Clash, though I think it was a while after you did. I remember our mutual friend Paul giving me a cassette recording of Anarchy In The UK when it was released at the end of 1976 and telling me this was what all the fuss was about and wasn’t it shit and me disappointing him by really liking it. I do remember as well I buying the Jam album in the summer of 1977 in Guernsey (that’s how punk I was) and loving it; I’m fairly sure I still hadn’t heard The Clash at that point (though I’d read about them and loved that album cover) – but I soon caught up.
S: I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Anarchy. I was also late to that party and probably heard it from that same cassette. It doesn’t mean as much to me as a lot of other singles of the time. My way in was via another route. Back in early 1977, during my own (still ongoing) ELP phase, I knew (without having to actually listen to any of it) that all this punk nonsense wasn’t proper music. However, while waiting for Nebula, the local prog band I used to follow, to come on stage, The Damned’s Neat Neat Neat was blasting on the PA. It was quite a Damascene conversion – in this case, The Road to Carterhatch Lane Youth Club – and I suddenly “got it”. It wasn’t just about banks of synthesisers and twee tunes on 12-string guitars any more.
K: No. Though of course the Beatles were smeared all over and under both the Pistols and the Jam and I suspect that’s why I/we liked them – they were melodic, knowing, easy, their aggression was new and real but their music was firmly attached to the sweet accessibility of the fifties and sixties. Whereas The Clash… someone (it might have been me) once said (wrongly) that The Clash were a rock band, not a pop band: but there was very little melody, no sweetness, no rock’n’roll, no Kinks, no Who (at least not obviously), no Stones, no blues, no Motown, no nothing (except reggae) that had gone before: they were harsh and, yes, exciting, and they were scratchily scary when both the Pistols and the Jam were (joltingly and ferociously) reassuring. And they were as serious as Weller and as angry as Rotten and that first, belated, hearing of the album was, for me, eye- and ear- and mind-opening.
S: While I’d disagree with you on the “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” traces on the album (London’s Burning has a key change and a guitar solo, ffs!) it has to be said that tracks like Janie Jones and Career Opportunities have an astounding, stainless steel purity. Certainly some Ramones influence but with politics thrown in, and violently whisked. Short and sharp with no second wasted.
K: Absolutely. And Police & Thieves was pretty much my introduction to non-Bob Marley reggae: Simonon’s influence (I still reckon he’s what made the band special) and chucked in as a bit of an afterthought on the LP apparently. I remember walking along Ridge Avenue in the snow once singing Police & Thieves (though at a higher pitch even than Junior Murvin) (who hated The Clash version apparently) and then adapting Garageland to become ‘Enfield Town’. Those who were there with me maintain it was one of the finest punk performances of the age.
S: So, has it worn well? Most of the songs are still powerful, albeit a little boxy and thin-sounding. The production is (deliberately?) unsophisticated – particularly when compared to the overblown production on Give ‘Em Enough Rope – and so sounds a little dated. Nothing on the album comes close to the power of the opening chords of The Pistols’ God Save The Queen, but Strummer’s politics at least offered a little more hope than Rotten’s extreme nihilism. Of course, the best of The Clash was yet to come.
(K: Whatever happened to Nebula?)
(S: John Hoare, Nebula’s former guitarist, is now in The Haunting A.D. They’re still playing gigs around the Enfield/Barnet/Southgate area. Lasted longer than The Clash)