Line up and early daysComposed of Joe Strummer (vocals, guitar), Mick Jones (vocals, guitar), Paul Simonon (bass), and Tory Crimes (b. Terry Chimes) (drums), the Clash formed in London in 1976 during the first wave of British punk from the remains of pub rock act The 101ers and legendary proto-punk band London SS. Following the release of their first album, Chimes was replaced with drummer Topper Headon. Initially The Clash were notable for their strident leftist political outlook and distinctive clothes that they painted with revolutionary slogans ("Sten Guns in Knightsbridge" "Under Heavy Manners"). Their first gig was in 1976 supporting The Sex Pistols, and that autumn the band were signed to CBS Records. They released their first single ("White Riot") and first album (The Clash) in 1977 to considerable success in the UK, though CBS initially declined to release either in the United States.
The Clash was a breakthrough UK punk album. Most of the songs were 2-3 minute thrashes, but the superior lyrics and melodies already marked Strummer and Jones out as songwriters widely regarded as being a cut above many of their punk peers. It includes the first evidence of their ability to absorb a musical style and make it their own, which they would repeat throughout their career, in their atmospheric and threatening cover of Junior Murvin's classic reggae track "Police and Thieves".
Their next album, the Sandy Pearlman-produced Give 'Em Enough Rope, was the first to feature Topper Headon on all cuts, the band's drummer for the most of the rest of their career. Terry Chimes returned to the drumstool for their last live dates and the last album. 'Rope' was released in 1978 and debuted at number two on the British charts, but failed to crack the top 100 in the world's largest music market, the United States.
US successIn response, the Clash went on their first tour of the US. Their first album was released there at more or less the same time, but in a drastically different form from the version that was released elsewhere. This included a roaring version of Bobby Fuller's "I Fought The Law" that had originally been a song from their "Cost Of Living" EP.
The band's critical and commercial breakthrough in the US came with London Calling, a double album released in December 1979. Besides straightforward punk, it featured a much wider array of styles than the Clash's earlier albums, including American-style rockabilly and reggae works that resonated with the ska movement in Britain. The album is considered a landmark by many, and tracks such as "Train in Vain", "Clampdown" and "London Calling" show up with regularity on rock stations to this day.
The Clash followed London Calling with a triple album in late 1980, entitled Sandinista! (with the catalog number FSLN 1, from the Spanish initials of the Sandinista political movement, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional). The results were mixed, as the band continued their experimentation into reggae and dub ("Let's Go Crazy") and expanded into other musical styles and production techniques that included jazz ("Look Here"), hip hop ("The Magnificent Seven"), chamber music ("Rebel Waltz"), vocals by keyboard player Micky Gallagher's young son, and "Mensforth Hill," a tape loop collage similar to The Beatles Revolution No 9. Fans were confused and sales went down in most places, although they were better in the US than previously. Following the release of Sandinista!, The Clash went on their first world tour including venues in eastern Asia and Australia for the first time.
Tensions and disintegrationAfter that, the Clash began to slowly disintegrate. Topper Headon left first, battling drug abuse. The two key members, Strummer and Jones, began to feud. The effects of this were not apparent externally at first, as The Clash returned in 1982 with the best-selling of all their albums, Combat Rock. Featuring the singles "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" it broke into the American Top Ten, and did the same in the UK. "Ghetto Defendant" featured Allen Ginsberg, and "Red Angel Dragnet" referenced the film Taxi Driver.
Despite this success, The Clash had nearly reached the end of the line. Topper Headon was fired - his addiction to heroin had had a deleterious effect on his drumming.
Strummer and Simonon ousted Mick Jones from the band towards the end of the year (Jones went on to found Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) with Don Letts). With a new lineup, The Clash released their last album in 1985. Its unfortunate title Cut the Crap supplied an obvious straight line to displeased critics and fans, and while the album did poorly, their tour of North America was well attended. The remaining two original members officially disbanded the Clash in 1986.
Post-Clash careersJoe Strummer suffered a somewhat similar fate. He acted in a few movies, recorded movie soundtracks (notably "Love Kills" for the film Sid and Nancy) and experimented with different backing bands with limited success. Finally, in the mid- to late-1990s, Strummer gathered top-flight musicians into a backing band he called The Mescaleros. Strummer signed with the California punk label Hellcat Records, and issued a stunning album co-written with Anthony Genn, called Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. A tour of England and North America soon followed; sets included several Clash-fan favourites. Genn left The Mescaleros in the middle of recording sessions for the second album, Global A Go-Go, which included violinist and guitarist Tymon Dogg, who contributed the song "Lose This Skin" to the album Sandinista! Following the release of Global A Go-Go, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros mounted a 21-date tour of North America, Britain, and Ireland. Once again, these concerts featured Clash material ("London Calling", "Rudie Can't Fail"), as well as classic covers of reggae hits ("The Harder They Come", "A Message To You, Rudie") and regularly closed the show with a nod to the late Joey Ramone by playing The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop".
Following the break up of The Clash, Paul Simonon joined a group called Havana 3AM, which recorded only one album in Japan and quickly folded. Then Simonon returned to his roots as a visual artist, mounting several art-gallery shows and contributing the cover for Mick Jones' third BAD album, which was, coincidentally, co-produced by Joe Strummer. Simonon's reluctance to play music again has largely been cited as the reason why The Clash were one of the few 1970s British punk bands that did not reform to cash in on the punk-nostalgia craze of the late 1990s.
In 1991 "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" reached number one in the UK charts.
It should be noted that the Clash were never driven entirely by money. Even at their peak, tickets to shows and the prices of souvenirs were kept reasonable. Similarly, the group accepted lower royalties from Sandinista! in order to ensure that the album would be sold the same price as a single LP.
After being fired from the band shortly after the release of Combat Rock, Topper Headon wandered aimlessly with a heroin addiction. He formed a jazz band that enjoyed a very brief life. Until the filming of Don Letts' retrospective documentary about The Clash, Westway to The World, and a subsequent presentation to Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon of a Lifetime Achievement British Music Award, Headon disappeared from the music business. It should be noted that his contribution to The Clash was by no means limited to his drumming for the band--Headon also composed the piano riff for "Rock The Casbah."