The legend has it that having watched the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer saw the future and immediately threw in his band The 101ers for the group being put together by Mick Jones.
As with much Clash mythology – including Strummer’s own name, accent and stridently working class roots - this isn’t necessarily true, or not the whole truth.
Viv Albertine, who formed the pioneering and adventurous all-female act The Slits and had Jones as an on-again/off-again boyfriend remembers it differently to the legend.
Jones had recruited “a handsome guy” called Paul Simonon who “can’t play bass yet but Mick says it doesn’t matter, he looks good”, and had his sights on a frontman.
“He’s also found a singer who is not handsome but has a lot of charisma: Joe Strummer,” Albertine wrote in her brilliant memoir, Clothes Music Boys, recalling that the 101ers “a very relaxed bunch of guys” were upset that their singer was being worked on by “Mick’s dodgy friend, Bernie Rhodes”.
“Bernie puts a lot of pressure on Joe to join Mick’s band,” said Albertine. “He keeps meeting up with him and saying that the 101ers are out of date and this new band of the future.”
Strummer succumbs but the future isn’t called anything yet though. An early contender for a band name is Young Colts. It is eventually Simonon, using a newspaper headline for inspiration, who comes up with The Clash.
I’M SO BORED WITH THE USA
The self-titled debut Clash album was as British, as English, as London, as west London, as possible: Notting Hill and Brixton, riots and reggae, a song, Career Opportunities, written about Jones’ time working in the dole office.
Punk was barely on the consciousness of Americans, yet The Clash was reportedly the largest selling import album in the USA, according to Kosmo Vinyl, the band’s publicist/hype man/self-described “consigliere” to manager Bernie Rhodes’ conceptualising Don.
That was a sign for the future but also a reminder that The Clash didn’t even get released in the USA. And this was no small irritation.
Though they sang “I’m so bored with the USA” and Strummer took to the stage at the Roxy Club on New Year’s Day 1977 with a shirt emblazoned with 1977 on it, referencing the Clash song which declared “no Elvis, Beatles and no Rolling Stones in 1977” the truth was the opposite: as with British bands from the Beatles and Stones onwards, they cared a lot about the USA, the home of so much of the music they loved.
Not for nothing would they later mimic the iconography on the cover of Elvis Presley’s album for their third album London Calling, with Pennie Smith’s photo of Simonon about to smash his guitar into the stage framed by the album title in the same font and pink and green colours as Presley’s debut album.
Not for nothing did they sign with a label which was the antithesis of punk’s home-made, anti-establishment, British-centred philosophy, CBS, home of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
And Billy Bragg, then a 19-year-old wanting out of the army and on the stage of Finsbury Park Rainbow, where he was watching them, wasn’t the only one to view the Clash as “a tighter, younger, sexier Rolling Stones: using the same amps, throwing the same shapes”.
“We realise that we were what they were, even though we weren’t officially punks yet,” Bragg later wrote.
If American label antipathy to the debut was down to the sound – after all the band’s earliest American shows had pulled in intense crowds - the polish given to album number two, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, took away that excuse. And yet it still didn’t break through.
Something had to change because something had to happen.
DEATH OR GLORY
Rehearsals for London Calling began in the unlikely named Vanilla Studios, behind a mechanic’s shop in Pimlico. Strummer recalls “a real intensity of effort” as the band, for the moment without management after falling out with Rhodes, pulled their focus inwards doing little more than writing and rehearsing.
They’d always seen themselves as the last gang in town – “everybody’s looking for the last gang in town/You better watch out for they’re all coming around” - and this cemented it.
“Our only recreation was playing five-a-side football,” Strummer said. “We played football until we dropped and then start playing music. It was good limbering up thing.”
Which sounds innocent enough except that “these were “brutal, brutal football matches. I mean war,” remembered Vinyl. “What they got out of that was unity, a sense of togetherness.”
If it was hard-man stuff when they played each other – Jones and Topper Headon the “swift and nimble” ones, the less skilful Simonon chopping everyone down, and Strummer the “workhorse” - it went over the top when the CBS blokes dropped in to check up on progress.
“They were like kicked in the shins, they were pushed over, that was fun,” a wickedly laughing Simonon would say. But then if you weren’t part of the gang you were always fair game.
NEW YORK CALLING
The Clash finished the ‘70s with a double album which remade punk into wide-ranging pop music that could touch Kingston, London, Memphis and Los Angeles, and began to make them the genuine breakout figures of punk.
Three years later they would have a run of seven shows at Bonds nightclub in New York, joined by support acts as varied as Grandmaster Flash and the Dead Kennedys, which, along with the single Rock The Casbah (cowritten by drummer Topper Headon), cemented them as global stars.
(Incidentally, 14 years after those shows, You Am I had a run of seven nights at Sydney’s Metro Theatre just as a second successive #1 album and a bunch of ARIA Awards cemented their place in Australian music.)
In between was the commercial madness and musical adventurism of a triple album, Sandinista!, a record which going against all logic was birthed straight after a long, arduous tour of America. A tour which left a mark on them said Mick Jones. “We were changed by what we saw.”
Rather than take a break they went straight to Electric Ladyland studio in New York for the most eclectic, indulgent, driven, political album of their career, a record Jones fondly identifies as having more marimba than any punk record.
The marimba was just one factor, alongside a raft of influences including New York’s burgeoning hip hop scene, as Strummer was “keen to hang with people [and soak up the city’s energies] because otherwise you’re in an isolated bubble”.
Sandinista! is the album which remains for Headon “the album that interests me most”. It’s also, as it turned out, the last he would make with the band he had joined in time for their second record, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, forced out by Joe Strummer who had grown tired of Headon’s drug habit.
“We were so up for it that we went straight into a studio and Columbia didn’t even want to buy us any time,” said Strummer. “All we wanted to do was record.
“As soon as they got a rough mix down [on one song] we’d be could be like ‘fresh tape on the reel, let’s get the mics out’.
“We’d keep doing it day and night. And that’s why it had to be a triple album.”