If you’re looking for a biography of the Clash, I suggest you head immediately to this excellent Wikipedia page, or even the official Clash website. Hell, even a cursory search for “the clash” on Google will yield tons of biographical information, discographies, playlists, etc. Knock yourself out. I want to focus instead on two key facts about the most important band to come out of the British punk boom in the late ‘70s: their political idealism, and their incorporation of multiple musical styles into their repertoire, and how the sum of those (and other) parts added up to a much more significant – and lasting – whole than most of their punk peers.
“And you have the right to free speech, as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.” –“Know Your Rights,” the Clash (1982)
At first, the Clash’s left-wing political ideology simply seemed part of the punk chic: after all, spouting outrageous calls to rebellion was de rigueur for the entire punk scene (“Anarchy in the UK,” anybody?). And 30 years on – even five years on – that kind of posturing can be cynically viewed as just another hook, just another marketing strategy.
But in song after song, on album after album, the Clash continued to write songs that pointed out the daily injustices that are part and parcel of the modern Western life – taking particular aim against American political, economic and cultural imperialism. Even the band’s biggest US hit (“Rock the Casbah” reached #8 on the Billboard charts in 1982, their only Top 10 hit), on their last studio album (Cut the Crap doesn’t count), was politically charged, taking its inspiration from the banning of rock music in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini, the video for which features an Arab and a Hasidic Jew dancing through the streets of wherever, and the band in mock militant garb performing in front of an oil well.
“Yankee dollar talk / To the dictators of the world / In fact it's giving orders / An' they can't afford to miss a word” –“I’m So Bored With the USA,” the Clash (1977)
Were they sincere? Authentic? Does it matter? Whole books have been written taking the Clash to task for adopting a pose of radical left-wing idealism when in fact they came from fairly privileged backgrounds (Joe Strummer’s father was a British foreign-service diplomat; Mick Jones went to art college). But the band’s rejection of the nihilism, anarchy and/or cartoonish idiocy of most of their peers, as well as the way they broadened punk to include the widest possible variety of musical styles, made for the best kind of art, art that inspires, art that causes you to think as (or after) you absorb it. And that matters a hell of a lot more than how sincerely they believed their own lyrical content.
Over the course of five studio albums (again, you can’t count Cut the Crap; it was made after the departure of founding member Mick Jones, and was more of a Joe Strummer/manager Bernie Rhodes side project), the Clash embraced reggae, ska and dub more than any other style, for the most part staying true to that music’s inherent style and political posturing (see Deep Cuts: The Clash) for a fairly comprehensive look at the band’s reggae output).
But the band also incorporated rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac” just plain smokes, and is one of the highlights of London Calling; “The Leader” and “Midnight Log” from Sandinista), jazz (“Broadway,” “Jimmy Jazz”), funk (“Train in Vain,” “Overpowered By Funk”), rap (“The Magnificent Seven” was one of the first attempts at white hip-hop ever, and almost certainly the first British rap effort; “Lightning Strikes [Not Once But Twice],” also from Sandinista, was another, less-successful rap song), dance (the awesome “This Is Radio Clash” is a great introduction for newcomers to the band, by the way, and still stands as one of their all-time best singles; the aforementioned “Rock the Casbah” was in fact an international dance club hit)…even Motown (“Hitsville UK”) and Irish music (“Lose This Skin”) made its way into the Clash mix. And, of course, plenty of blistering three-chord punk to balance things off.
It’s this curious and successful balance – punk, politics and pan-global musical consciousness – that not only made the Clash stand out from all of their musical contemporaries, but also made them a band for the ages, and quite possibly the only band coming out of the late-‘70s British punk explosion that still sound relevant today, 30 years after their debut, 24 years after their breakup (which I peg to the departure of Mick Jones in ’83).