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The Clash’s Top 20 Songs

The list that just might start a riot

The Clash
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clash week The Clashs Top 20 SongsForty years ago this month, the UK edition of The Clash’s debut album dropped like Spanish bombs on the punk rock world. To celebrate, all week long we’ll be lost in a supermarket of exclusive features that remind us why The Clash continue to rock our Casbah and remain the only band that matters. Today, Nick Freed revisits his definitively handpicked list of the band’s Top Songs.

The Clash are the benchmark by which all politically-minded punk bands are measured. In their prime, the late Joe Strummer and the much shaggier Mick Jones could chat your head off for hours about everything from the hypocrisy of the US-funded Sandinistas to Western democracy’s endless consumerism to a subject as dusty as the Spanish Civil War. The Clash were just that way — a cool, ideologically sound unit of rebels who always had their eyes and ears in the right place. They were the Marlon Brando of the punk rock genre.

In the 10 years they existed, The Clash absorbed everything around them and more. Over six albums — yes, we’ll begrudgingly count 1985’s abysmal Cut the Crap — the UK outfit tinkered with punk, reggae, dub, funk, and rockabilly. And about 96% of the time they were successful in their reinventions, a hallmark that crowned them “The Only Band That Matters.” Even today, more than 30 years after they packed it up, they continue to influence a handful of scenes and genres.

This week’s 40th anniversary of the band’s self-titled debut has us revisiting everything from 1978’s oft-forgotten Give ‘Em Enough Rope to 1982’s addicting Combat Rock. In light of this brief nostalgic spell, we rounded up what we feel are The Clash’s 20 most essential tracks and even ranked ’em. Sound simple? Oh, if only.

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20. “English Civil War”

Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

“English Civil War” is freely adapted from the American Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, a hopeful tune about soldiers returning from the battlefield. Strummer was wary of new political groups like the British National Front, and “English Civil War” paints a grim picture of “the new party army marching over our heads.” Strummer saw these groups as a major detriment to England’s unity and predicted that the next war wasn’t going to be on a far-off shore, but just down the street. The opening lines, “When Johnny comes marching home again hurrah/ He’s coming by bus or underground hurrah,” bring that vision to life. The Give ‘Em Enough Rope single was one of the band’s more straight-forward punk songs, but with a stronger dose of snarl than Strummer’s typically deployed. It’s a soundtrack to a revolution, and you can almost hear the bricks meeting glass.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “The sun is shining an’ the kids are shouting loud/ But you gotta know it’s shining through a crack in the cloud/ And the shadows keep falling when Johnny comes marching home”

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19. “Washington Bullets”

Sandinista! (1980)

One of the deeper, more experimental cuts from side four of the already experimental Sandinista!, “Washington Bullets” is a musical history lesson on world violence in the ’60s and ’70s. Everything from a story of a teenager being killed by drug dealers in Jamaica down the street from The Clash’s Kingston studio to the burning of pacifist Buddhist monks in China, Strummer raps out a litany of events all traced back to US mongrel backing. He condemns the US most pointedly for Cuba in the ’60s, calling out JFK with “And in the Bay of Pigs in 1961/ Havana fought the playboy in the Cuban sun,” before knocking him down: “Those Washington bullets want Castro dead/ For Castro is the color that will earn you a spray of lead.” Hardly a punk song, barely a rock song, and more akin to Strummer’s post-Clash Mescaleros work — and indeed some of the musicians on Sandinista! did join The Mescaleros later — it’s a crucial piece of not only The Clash’s discography but Strummer’s heart and soul.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “Those Washington bullets want Castro dead/ For Castro is the color/ That will earn you a spray of lead”

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18. “Pressure Drop”

“English Civil War” B-side (1979)

This is the first song on this list that is a full cover of someone else’s song — in this case The Maytals — that The Clash made their own. Originally released as a B-side to the “English Civil War” single, “Pressure Drop” found new life after being included on the 1980 rarities compilation, Black Market Clash, and then the 1993 reissue, Super Black Market Clash. (And, you could argue, even more life when Nissan used it in a commercial, but we’ll ignore that.) The Clash’s take on it has, as is typical with their covers, more snarl than the happy-go-lucky Maytals version. It seems that Strummer’s sandpaper voice is able to make anything more sinister than originally intended, and while this is one of the more upbeat Clash numbers, you still wonder if there’s some kind of political message under Strummer’s, at times, indecipherable singing. This cover is one of the earliest, and clearest, examples of The Clash’s melding of reggae and punk. It’s basically a blueprint for later groups like Rancid.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “I said, ‘When it drops/ Oh, you gonna feel it/ Oh, that you were doin’ it wrong, wrong, wrong'”

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17. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”

Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

Honky-tonk piano is not something you expect to hear from a frantic punk band like The Clash, especially on an album that includes “English Civil War”, but the playful “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” defies the band’s conventions. Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist and guitarist Allen Lanier sadly went uncredited for his piano work here, but it’s worth noting how on point he is alongside bassist Paul Simonon — something you just wouldn’t find in the punk scene at the time. It could be an Elvis Costello B-side from My Aim Is True; that’s how unlikely it sounds from the group. Based on “Operation Julie”, a drug sting in England to shut down major LSD pushers, The Clash thought the image of undercover cops running around high on LSD during this infiltration was hilarious, and, given the piano and bouncing bass, the song’s just waiting for an unfinished Benny Hill short.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “And it’s 10 years for you/ 19 for you/ And you can get out in 25/ That is if you’re still alive”

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16. “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”

Sandinista! (1980)

Topper Headon is a key part of The Clash’s history. His drumming skills were never just relegated to the basic one-two sloppy punk drumbeats that flooded the genre earlier on. With “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, Headon not only rolls all over the kit to lay down a fantastic disco beat, but offers a surprising, rare lead vocal performance. Surrounded by swirling keyboards, Headon tells a story of Ivan and G.I. Joe meeting at Studio 54 for a dance-off of sorts. The dancers pull out all the tricks, but the crowd gets bored and goes over to watch China instead. Admittedly, the asinine Cold War allegory isn’t the strongest lyrically (more of a side-splitting farce, if anything), but musically, it’s another jam off Sandinista! that a.) gets us through some of the album’s more obscure minutes and b.) still could slaughter a number of new wave/post-punk gems on the dance floor. It’s Headon’s little moment that could — and did.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “He wiped the Earth clean as a plate/ What does it take to make a Ruskie break?/ But the crowd are bored and off they go/ Over the road to watch China blow!”

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15. “Spanish Bombs”

London Calling (1979)

A good number of Strummer’s songs insist upon a deeper listen and oftentimes require a trip to the library. For example, “Spanish Bombs”. The singer penned the track after hearing about terrorist attacks aimed at Spain’s more touristy hotels, which reminded him of the IRA bombings in the UK. Just like a sly historian, Strummer weaved in references to the Spanish Civil War in the ’30s (“Or can I hear the echos from the days of ’39”) and poet and anti-fascist martyr Federico Garcia Lorca (“Federico Lorca is dead and gone”). He also condemns his fellow British countrymen for flying into the beautiful country, unaware of the domestic strife boiling around them. It’s all heavy stuff, but it doesn’t feel heavy, thanks to Mick Jones’ driving arrangements that take us from smoke-filled skies to sunny dances by the shore. One of many juxtapositions that would make up The Clash’s trademark sound.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “Back home the buses went up in flashes/ The Irish tomb was drenched in blood/ Spanish bombs shatter the hotels/ My senorita’s rose was nipped in the bud”

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14. “Complete Control”

“Complete Control” Single (1977)

Earlier in, The Clash got caught up in the money fever surrounding the London punk movement. Their manager, Bernie Rhodes, had the same dollar-sign eyes that Malcolm McLaren had when he signed The Sex Pistols, releasing “Remote Control” as a single without asking the band about it. Later, he would demand for “complete control” of their sound and image. Rightfully ticked off, Strummer and Jones wrote a scathing and painfully transparent reaction piece, the aptly titled “Complete Control”. “They said, ‘Release “Remote Control”/ But we didn’t want it on the label,'” as it goes — and so did Rhodes a year later. It’s a snotty track off their snotty US debut, and while it wasn’t available on the original UK release, us Americans wore it thin. “So punk rock,” one might have said. Even now. Quietly.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “They said we’d be artistically free/ When we signed that bit of paper/ They meant let’s make a lotsa mon-ee/ An’ worry about it later”

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13. “London’s Burning”

The Clash (1977)

Aside from, say, “London Calling”, “London’s Burning” has maybe the best Clash intro in their discography. Strummer’s blood roar of the track’s title is followed by what sounds like an unforgiving car wreck. It’s straightforward punk, but it’s a proud moment for the foot-stomping Strummer as he barks about the squares trapped in their cars in traffic or in front of their TV sets. The final verse has him running through the subway system and surrounding abandoned buildings, reeking havoc, and sounding recklessly free in his own way of life. The boys shake everything loose and open people’s eyes to the world. To challenge the status quo and stop falling in line is something they’d revisit on…

The Only Lyric That Matters: “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home/ I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone”

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12. “Clampdown”

London Calling (1979)

London Calling took on a lot of issues that were domestic in The Clash’s life, and “Clampdown” was one of the tracks closest to home for the outfit. It’s about the adult push on youth to “clampdown” and join the employment ranks right out of school. In an interview with The LA Times around its release, Strummer and Simonon discussed how, despite differing economic backgrounds, they were both urged to fall in line and follow the rules. Simonon was taken to factories and Naval yards, while Strummer was pushed by a domineering father toward a house in the burbs and chasing the “golden apple”, as he called. They both knew this would be an empty life, and “Clampdown” urges youth to see the same. “What’re we gonna do now?” Strummer and Jones exemplify the topic’s trapped angst. They don’t mince words as they growl, “It’s the best years of your life they want to steal/ You grow up and you calm down and you’re working for the clampdown.” It’s a fiery fuck you to parents and adults across the country and something we’ve found ourselves screaming … to ourselves ever since.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running/ It’s the best years of your life they want to steal”

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11. “Know Your Rights”

Combat Rock (1982)

Combat Rock opener “Know Your Rights” is a de facto manifesto for The Clash. After Strummer screams out, “This is a public service announcement … with guitars,” the band lays out three inalienable rights of those under the foot of authority: “Have the right not to be killed … unless it was done by a policeman or aristocrat,” “Have the right to food,” providing you don’t mind humiliation, and “have the right to free speech” if you have the balls to try it. The music is sparse and simple, but its monotony pushes Strummer’s sarcastic sermon far beyond the black pulpit and into the proletariat. It’s as pissed off as the band had been since their debut and was the perfect way to start off what would be their last album as a full band.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “You have the right to free speech/ As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it”
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10. “Train in Vain”

London Calling (1979)

Fun fact: “Train in Vain” was a very last-minute addition to London Calling, and oddly enough, it became the band’s first top-40 US hit. (It was so last minute that it wasn’t even included on the track listing for the initial pressings of the album. Most fans just assumed it was some kind of hidden track.) Yet, for all the acclaim The Clash garnered from combining rock and reggae, they too were applauded for their fusion of Motown and country swing. In hindsight, “Train in Vain” feels like an afterthought; it’s just so sonically different than the rest of the album — but in a good way. Jones’ Elvis swagger and Headon’s sugary-pop drum work tastes as sweet as that sounds (both on and off paper). Rumored to have been written about Mick Jones’ relationship at the time, this marks the first time Jones fronts a song on this list.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “But without all these things I can do/ But without your love I won’t make it through”

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09. “I Fought the Law”

The Cost of Living EP (1979)

Another of their famous covers, “I Fought the Law” still sounds like a song that The Clash should have written. They hadn’t even heard the song until they were in San Francisco recording overdubs for Give ‘Em Enough Rope. The studio had a bunch of old records on the jukebox, and included was Bobby Fuller’s version of “I Fought the Law”. They listened to the song, learned it, and by the time they returned to England a month later, they were playing it live. They recorded it and it originally appeared on the The Cost of Living EP in the UK, but their label decided to bundle it in the shuffled US release of The Clash. Their rendition explodes with a cacophony of cymbals and guitars, refusing to let up with a bevy of percussion. The snare hits on “robbin’ people with a six-gun” and just nails the listener to the wall. It’s still hard to believe Strummer didn’t have a hand in the words at all. It’s a match made in protest heaven.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “Robbin’ people with a six-gun/ I fought the law, and the law won”

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08. “The Guns of Brixton”

London Calling (1979)

What a first track: Paul Simonon’s big break at the mic came early with the dark, vitriolic “The Guns of Brixton”. Simonon wrote it based on the clashes between gangs and police in, you guessed it, Brixton, and condemns the gangsters and insists their life won’t end well. “When they kick at your front door/ How you gonna come/ With your hands on your head/ Or on the trigger of your gun?” Simonon asks ominously, a dark English cloud that blankets the entire song — from Strummer and Jones’ guitar screeches to Simonon’s low, angry vocals. There are stories that an executive from the record label came in while they were recording vocals, and Simonon gave him a laser stare the entire time to keep his anger up while recording. Let’s say it worked.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “You can crush us/ You can bruise us/ But you’ll have to answer to/ Oh, the guns of Brixton”

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07. “Rock the Casbah”

Combat Rock (1982)

“Rock the Casbah” was The Clash’s highest-charting single, and even put them in the top 10 on the US dance chart. It was a sensation, and along with “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, put punk music and The Clash in the forefront in the US. What makes this song especially fantastic, however, is that, like “Complete Control”, it’s a big fuck you to their old/new manager Bernie Rhodes. They finished recording a longer track, and he said to them, “Does everything have to be as long as this raga,” to which Strummer responded in the rewritten version: “The King told the boogie-men, ‘You have to let that raga drop.'” From there, he penned a song about a king trying to stop the people from dancing and rocking out. Rhodes probably wasn’t too angry — after all, there was a pretty penny to be made behind every word — likely because he had no idea what it was about. And while Strummer was the schemer, the song really belonged to Headon, who tracked drums, bass, and keyboards, nabbing him a “Headon/The Clash” credit. A year or so later, Strummer would kick him out for being a heroin addict, so you take the good when you can.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “By order of the prophet/ We ban that boogie sound/ Degenerate the faithful/ With that crazy Casbah sound”

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06. “White Riot”

The Clash (1977)

One of the coolest things about The Clash is they put action to their words. Case in point: In 1976, at the Notting Hill Carnival, a group of Caribbean residents rioted over the oppression they felt from the police. Well, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were at the carnival and ended up right in the middle of the riot. From that experience, Strummer wrote “White Riot” about how white residents needed to take up a worthy cause, “such as the black residents in London had with racism.” He felt white residents complained about trivial things, but would still fall in line with authority and needed to do something about it. The song’s raw, sloppy, and messy — everything a punk song about rioting should be. The guitars aren’t as clear and clean as they would later become, but, as their first single ever, it was quite an introduction to the angry kids from London.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “All the power’s in the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it/ While we walk the street/ Too chicken to even try it”

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05. “The Magnificent Seven”

Sandinista! (1980)

“The Magnificent Seven”, or How The Clash Skillfully Combined All Genres of Music. Inspired by The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash — two acts the band devoured, especially Mick Jones — the single was recorded in April of 1980 and hit airwaves a year later. At its core, it’s an early rap song built around a contagious bass loop played, oddly enough, by Norman Watt-Roy of The Blockheads. (Simonon was off making a film at the time of recording.) Like a true hip-hop champion, Strummer wrote all the words on the spot during recording, touching upon the degradation of the working man and the consumerism that weighs everything down. While the track wasn’t a huge hit, it changed the landscape of what rap could be, pushing many artists to more socially and politically conscious work in the rap world. Pretty big deal.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi/ Went to the park to check on the game/ But they was murdered by the other team/ Who went on to win 50-nil”

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04. “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”

The Clash (1977)

“I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”, like “Washington Bullets” after it, takes the United States to task for its support of violent tyrannical activities around the world, as well as then-recent US politics (e.g. Watergate). Talking about “yankee soldiers” getting addicted to “skag” during Vietnam with no help back home and “yankee dollar talk” giving orders to “dictators of the world” is a hell of a way to shake an American teen out of his or her stupor. Combine that with the buzz-saw guitars that jump-start and permeate throughout the song, and you’ve got the recipe for something no one in the US had ever heard before. Had the NSA been pulling punches as they do now, I’m sure The Clash would’ve been high on a narc hit list.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “Never mind the stars and stripes/ Let’s print the Watergate Tapes/ I’ll salute the New Wave/ And I hope nobody escapes”

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03. “Rudie Can’t Fail”

London Calling (1979)

London Calling is a black train of an album that steamrolled through the collective conscience of 1979. It’s stuffed with heavy themes and bleak undertones, but early track “Rudie Can’t Fail” marks one of the sunnier spots. It’s a dance-worthy ska track amplified with the assistance of The Irish Horns. Strummer and Jones’ vocal theatrics about Rudie going against his elders’ wishes plays out like a short comic left on the coffee table to read again and again. The yelps and howls of the band inject a lively tribute to the Rude boys of Jamaica, who downplay his godless, hard-partying lifestyle and wish he would just settle down into a nice job. But in typical Clash fashion, that kind of life is for no one. Strummer and Jones work in perfect tandem and deliver an incredible one-two punch. Their songwriting styles meld better on this track than any other, and though it was never a single, it’s a stylistic centerpiece to the already legendary album.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “I went to the market to realize my soul/ ‘Cause what I need I just don’t have/ First they curse, then they press me till I hurt/ We say, ‘Rudie can’t fail'”

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02. “Straight to Hell”

Combat Rock (1982)

Combat Rock marks The Clash’s angriest album. They were at their most antagonistic and volatile as a band, and it surfaced in the lyrics. “Straight to Hell” pushed Strummer into the notebooks of his travels, tapping into the most poetic sides of his soul. He extolled on generations of workers losing their jobs in English steel mills, abandoned Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers, and the derailed idea of an American dream to outsiders everywhere. It’s a beautiful ode yet harsh to hear, a reality that’s easier for people to turn their backs on. Strummer ensured everyone’s eyes were held open — think of Alex DeLarge — so they could see everyone’s pain. “Let me tell you ’bout your blood, bamboo kid/ It ain’t Coca-Cola it’s rice,” he intones with the band’s darkest lyric. Discordant keys, rolling bass, and salty reverb create a cold mood that’s a soothing juxtaposition given the revelations at hand. Being the last track on Side One, it’s likely several didn’t have the strength to flip the vinyl over to Side Two. “No guys … it’s cool … I’m just … I’m just going to sit here a second.”

The Only Lyric That Matters: “Lemme tell ya ’bout your blood bamboo kid/ It ain’t Coca-Cola it’s rice”

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01. “London Calling”

London Calling (1979)

Quite possibly the best side one/track one in rock history, “London Calling” slammed the industry’s heads into the ground upon release. It was just so different: The music eschewed the genre’s atypical chaos for monotony and melody. That’s not to say it’s soft, not at all. The guitars are more pummeled than played, Simonon’s bass rises and falls like a red warning light, and Headon’s drums feel like a goose-stepping march. Whereas their previous work created a foundation on anger, “London Calling” feels unsure, unsteady, and suspiciously even. Strummer doesn’t have the answers (“Now don’t look to us/ Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”) or even the swagger (“We ain’t go no ring/ Except for the reign of that truncheon thing). It’s very self-effacing despite its delivery.

At the time of its inception, Strummer and the band were going through heavy disputes with their record company and each other. The frontman feared how they would bounce back since the balloon of popularity that surrounded the punk scene in London had popped, which explains the Beatlemania reference and most likely the track’s fear. Yet, since when doesn’t something negative produce a positive in music? Regardless of the dreary context, “London Calling” turned out to be The Clash’s most iconic track and arguably punk rock’s most important protest song to date. There hasn’t been a song like it since, probably because there will never be another band like The Clash.

The Only Lyric That Matters: “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in/ Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin/ A nuclear error, but I have no fear/ ‘Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river”

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