ANNIVERSARIES: The Clash's UK Debut Released 30 Years Ago

the_clash No less an authority than Jon Savage, the most thorough chronicler of British Punk (his book England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond is a must), has proclaimed The Clash "the first major Punk statement." That it is excellent (Robert Christgau declared it "the greatest rock and roll album ever") certainly helped, but it achieved that status partly because the Sex Pistols' first LP was delayed by the controversy surrounding the group, which resulted in several record labels dropping them.

The Clash, by contrast, worked quickly and without impediments, laying down the album in three weekend sessions in February 1977 (costing only $4000) with producer Mickey Foote. In March it was delivered to CBS; it came out in April and reached #12 on the British album chart.

CBS' refusal to issue the album in the U.S. resulted in the British edition setting the record for biggest-selling import LP. Four tracks on the U.K. version were omitted when the album finally appeared, two years later, on Epic in the U.S. The blistering accusation "Deny" is so powerful that it's hard to understand why Epic wouldn't want it. "Cheat" contains the phrase "fucked up," which presumably scared U.S. label execs. "Protex Blue" is titled for a brand of condom, which might seem to make it a minor song, but it's about resisting the temptation to use a woman solely for sexual gratification. Another track whose omission was unfathomable is "48 Hours," a desperate-sounding declaration of the importance of making the most of the weekend.

They were replaced by later tracks, mostly singles: "Complete Control" from later in 1977 and then a bunch of 1978 tracks, "Clash City Rockers," "Jail Guitar Doors," and "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" plus a cover of "I Fought the Law." Original drummer Terry Chimes -- credited on the LP as "Tory Crimes," a political joke -- had left the band (that's why he's not in the LP's group pictures) before this later material was recorded. The timekeeping of his replacement, Topper Headon, gave the music a more tightly wound feel. In addition, arrangements and production were different as the band evolved. When Legacy did its most recent remastering of the Clash catalog, it made artistic sense to put out the original LP program unadorned, letting its 14 songs across 35 minutes deliver a snapshot of that musical moment in a particular time and place.

The LP kicks off with "Janie Jones." It's named for a former minor pop star who changed career paths to become a madame (five years later The Clash backed her on a single), but it's about someone who patronizes her brothel as much out of sheer boredom as anything. Boredom is a big theme on the album, its underlying meaning being that life in England pushes people into dead-end lives that reduce their opportunities -- for fun, for advancement, for political choice. Some of the most memorable tracks -- "Career Opportunities" ("the ones that never knock"), "London's Burning" ("with boredom now," because "Black or white turn it on, face the new religion/Everybody's sitting 'round watching television!"), "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." (containing the immortal couplet "Move up Starsky for the C.I.A./Suck on Kojak for the USA") "Hate & War" ("the only things we got today") -- continue this thread.

With the racist National Front making headlines, some people saw just the title of "White Riot" and stupidly assumed it had some kinship, but a reading of the lyrics made it clear that Joe Strummer was calling for a pan-racial revolution: "Black people gotta lot a problems/But they don't mind throwing a brick/White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick." (The LP's back cover shows the Notting Hill Carnival riot, the event that inspired "White Riot.")

In some ways, the most brilliant track is the album's only cover, "Police and Thieves." Penned by Lee "Scratch" Perry, it was a recent hit by reggae artist Junior Murvin, whose album of the same name (another epochal 1977 release) is a must-own. Think of what a cutting comment on England it was for the Clash to include this song: the chaos of a small former British colony, with police and thieves both "scaring the nation" and thus on one level equated, is posited as an equally applicable commentary on the volatile English political situation. And musically it showed that, unlike the Sex Pistols and some other punk bands who had removed all R&B from their influences, The Clash were drawing on black music.

But this is music, not poetry, and it's the power of the music that makes The Clash so great. The throbbing basslines (one note repeated per chord change) and fast tempos snapped out by lots of snare hits are straight from the punk template of the Ramones, while the trebly guitars channel the powerchording of The Who but more jaggedly. Strummer venomously spits out his lines in a ragged voice that's more yelling in the street than singing; Jones's deliver is a bit less acidic but still far less smooth than people were used to back then. Both project an urgency that (aside for the American punk scene of the past two years) had seemingly gone missing from rock for the past decade. The Clash served notice that directness and intensity were back and couldn't be ignored. - Steve Holtje

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Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who freelances as a developmental editor. He's biased, because he worked on it, but he thinks everyone should read Beyond Rationality: The Search for Wisdom in a Troubled Time by Kenneth Hammond, a pragmatic, in-depth examination of judgment and decision making that explains the flawed thinking that has given us the Cold War, the Iraq War, and too many other blunders. The most important book since Blink!

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