The Clash first thundered onto the scene in the late summer of 1976. They were in the vanguard of the punk revolution, along with others such as The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks.
This musical explosion was to sweep away the complacency, arrogance and tedium of the established rock dead wood, and to change the face of popular music to this day.
The origins of the punk rock rebellion lie in many different places.
The contemporary music scene was the stronghold of disco and stadium rock, the two bland ends of a narrow spectrum.
You saw overage, overpaid and overrated rock millionaires indulging in mind-numbing “concept albums”, and the insipid niceness of teen dance music.
There was a two year old Labour government, swept to power on the back of workers’ struggle against the previous Tory government of Edward Heath. The newly appointed Labour leader, James Callaghan, was beginning to turn on the unions, and unemployment was rising.
The Nazi National Front (NF) was gaining support in the streets and at the ballot box, and was whipping up racial hatred.
Many cities had thriving squatter communities, due to lack of housing for the young and out of work.
This was a landscape ripe for a new music to address.
The Clash were formed in west London in the spring of 1976.
After taking part in the riot at the end of that summer’s Notting Hill Carnival, lead singer Joe Strummer proudly announced:
“I think people ought to know that we’re anti-fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist and we’re pro-creative. We’re against ignorance.”
Their songs, such as “Career Opportunities”, “London’s Burning”, “White Riot” and the breathtaking cover of the reggae hit “Police and Thieves”, spoke to a receptive young audience with a clarity that was nigh on a call to arms.
Punk became an overnight phenomenon. Along with the anger and radical political edge to the music was the punk styling. The trademarks of The Clash’s “look” were a do it yourself approach to clothing that frequently incorporated the use of political slogans hand-painted onto shirts, jackets and trousers.
For the next couple of years The Clash developed their music, their lyrics and their politics.
They were often present at demonstrations and pickets against the NF.
In April 1978 they headlined the hugely successful Rock Against Racism (RAR) carnival in London’s Victoria Park. It was the biggest concert they had ever played, with 70,000 attending this multicultural celebration.
The following summer they topped the bill at another RAR fundraiser, “The Southall Kids Are Innocent”, in solidarity with the persecuted Asian youth of west London.
As the initial wave of punk began to subside, The Clash stepped up to a higher gear. Their 1979 album London Calling was heralded as a landmark.
Their original hard edge was tempered with the finer subtleties of reggae and jazz. But the album still had a political bite, with songs about the Spanish Civil War, tyrannical governments (Thatcher was in power at the time), and beautifully uplifting tracks such as “Revolution Rock” and “I’m Not Down”.
Following widespread acclaim for what’s generally considered to be their best album came Sandinista, a record dedicated to the left wing revolutionaries of Nicaragua, and their final offering Combat Rock, which contained masterpieces like “Rock the Casbah” and “Ghetto Defendant”.
The Clash finally disbanded in 1985, but that’s not the end of the story. In 1999 Joe Strummer formed his new band, The Mescaleros, and rediscovered his love of playing live music.
He hadn’t lost his appetite for creating exciting and challenging music. His live shows often featured old Clash favourites, but they also introduced a new audience to issues of the day.
The beautifully haunting “Shaktar Donetsk” told the tale of the struggle to find asylum in Blair’s Britain.
When performed live this song was often preluded by descriptions of the harrowing experience many faced simply trying to find a tolerant and peaceful home, away from their places of birth.
In November 2002, just a month before Strummer’s death, I had the privilege of helping to organise his benefit concert for striking firefighters.
He jumped at the opportunity, reorganising tour dates to include the show at Acton Town Hall in west London, and covering all the costs for sound and lighting equipment.
That evening, for the first time in nearly 20 years, original Clash guitarist Mick Jones joined Strummer on stage for the closing numbers of the set.
The solidarity they showed for the cause enthused firefighters, supporters and FBU leader Andy Gilchrist that night.
Mick Jones has produced the two albums recorded by The Libertines, part of today’s generation of angry young musicians. Many of the current indie and punk bands pay homage to The Clash. The fire they started back in 1976 still burns strongly today.