The Clash – The Clash
Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records
1977 is widely regarded as “the year punk broke” and there are several reasons for this. The Ramones released their second album earlier in the year, as we discussed. The Sex Pistols would release their only real album later in the year. Between the two, though, is what I feel to be the real heart of punk rock: The Clash.
That’s maybe a controversial thing to say (although, not really) for a few reasons. For one, the candy-coated third wave of punk that broke into the mainstream in the mid-1990s (which, unlike “grunge”, actually called itself punk rock) was built on pure waves of the Ramones and the more melodic part of the Buzzcocks. The only real antidote to that, for kids with access to a radio and little else (weren’t those the days) was Rancid, who were by and large a Clash cover band. Even still, the band didn’t get the sort of legendary status in the 1990s as other bands from 1977 did.
I once went wandering (mostly drunk) with a few friends through a Laurier Brantford residence called The Post House; it was night and we were friends with the RAs, so this sort of thing was fairly normal. We got caught up in a conversation with some of the freshmen about music and the subject of punk rock came up. “Oh yeah!” one of them shouted. “Punk rock is awesome! The Sex Pistols rule, they started it all!” This got me started on a lengthy rant about how the Sex Pistols were the Backstreet Boys of punk, a group of fashionable chatterheads put together by a merchant to sell safety pins to well-heeled slumming Londoners. The Clash, I said, The Clash were what punk rock was meant to coalesce around, because they were strident, political, in touch with the down-and-out working class, and rocked harder than anything else out there. This sounds like total /r/thathappened material but I swear to god it’s true, this was before I learned that if I wrote my stupid opinions down they might seem less obnoxious.
Still, at the risk of sounding like a cut monologue from SLC Punk, The Clash weren’t posers like I felt (and to an extent still feel) the Sex Pistols were. Johnny Rotten and friends were the original edgelords, dressing provocatively and flashing swastikas like it was the coolest thing since the electric guitar. The Clash didn’t need flashy imagery and hip fashion trends to telegraph their seething rage – that’s what the songs were for. From the beginning, people derided punk rock as music for people who couldn’t play their instruments or write songs, but The Clash could do both, and well. They embraced reggae right from the beginning as well, injecting a diversity into the genre that it would have floundered without. They also weren’t afraid to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, a sound that they would later embrace whole-heartedly on London Calling. The mixture has galvanized bands ever since, and chances are if you see any of those rockabilly folks drinking their hipster beers at places like the Cadillac Lounge, they’re Clash fans deep down.
The only real question, once the brilliance of the album has been established, is which version? The original British release kicks off with “Janie Jones”, a thundering rocker about an infamous London madame. The American release starts with “Clash City Rockers”, a dead ringer for the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”. The American version also has several key songs that the British version lacks: “Complete Control”, a somewhat toned-down version of “White Riot”, a cover of “I Fought The Law”, the early rocker “Jail Guitar Doors”, and the ultimate Clash reggae tune, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, which sets out a clear anti-violence, pro-racial unity, pro-socialist message, three things that The Clash and their descendants would go on to enshrine as gospel. The songs these would replace (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) are simply not as good as the tracks included on the American version, so…the American version wins.
The band would of course go on to loftier heights (London Calling is often included in discussions of The Greatest Album Ever Made) but The Clash 1977 is the real root of both their later sound and the whole of punk rock.