The Clash was a British punk rock group that existed from 1976 to 1985. One of the most critically lauded bands of their period, The Clash was noted for being musically far-reaching (they incorporated reggae, roots rock, and eventually many other music styles into their repertoire), for displaying a political and lyrical sophistication that distinguished them from most of their colleagues in the punk movement, and for uncommonly intense stage performances. They are considered as one of the most influential and best-known punk acts in the world. Besides contemporary American punk outfits like Green Day, Blink 182 and The Offspring, which cite The Clash as a major influence, alternative rock seminal bands like U2, the Cure and R.E.M. borrow much from The Clash. The influence of The Clash also can be found through the 1990s British music of the Britpop movement, whose revolutionary looks and big and catchy hooks are influenced by their music.
Originally composed of Joe Strummer (b. John Graham Mellor in 1952) (vocals, rhythm guitar), Mick Jones (vocals, lead guitar), Paul Simonon (b. 1955) (bass and vocals), Keith Levene (lead guitar) Terry Chimes (credited on the first LP as "Tory Crimes") (drums), the Clash formed in London in 1976 during the first wave of British punk. Keith Levene (later of Public Image Limited) was an early guitarist and songwriter with The Clash, but he never recorded with the band and left in ambiguous circumstances after 5 gigs. Strummer had previously been in the pub rock act The 101ers (his first stage name at this point was Woody Mellor, branding himself "Joe Strummer" during this period), and Jones and Simonon (briefly) in legendary proto-punk band London SS. At the behest of manager Bernie Rhodes, Jones, Levene and Simonon recruited Strummer from the 101ers ("You're all right," they told him, "but your band's crap." Rhodes then allegedly gave Strummer 48 hours to sign on, but called him wanting an answer in 24). And so the Clash—name supplied by Simonon after seeing the word in all the newspapers—came to be.
Following the release of their first album, Chimes was replaced with longtime drummer Topper Headon (b. Nick Headon). The musically gifted Headon was planning to stay only briefly. Instead he remained with The Clash until late 1982 – present for most of the band's career.
Their first gig was in 1976 supporting the Sex Pistols, and that autumn the band were signed to CBS Records. They released their first single ("White Riot") and first album (The Clash) in 1977 to considerable success in the UK, though CBS initially declined to release either in the United States, only releasing a modified version of the first album in the US after the UK original had been a bestselling import for two years.
Initially The Clash were notable for their strident leftist political outlook and distinctive clothes that they painted with revolutionary slogans ("Sten Guns in Knightsbridge" "Under Heavy Manners"). Throughout 1977, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were in and out of jail for a range of minor crimes, ranging from vandalism to stealing a pillowcase, while Simonon and Headon were arrested for shooting racing pigeons with an air gun.
Their next album, the Sandy Pearlman-produced Give 'Em Enough Rope, was the first to feature Topper Headon on all cuts. Pearlman was amazed by Headon's impressive timing and musical skills and thus christened him "The Human Drum Machine". 'Rope' was released in 1978 and debuted at number two on the British charts, but failed to crack the top 100 in the world's largest music market, the United States.
Like many early punk bands, The Clash protested against the monarchy and the aristocracy in the U.K. and around the world. Unlike many early punk bands, however, The Clash rejected the overall sentiment of nihilism and anarchy. Instead, they found solidarity with a number of liberation movements going on at the time. Their politics were expressed explicity in their lyrics, in early recordings such as "White Riot," which encouraged disaffected white youths to become politically active like their black counterparts, "Career Opportunities," which expressed discontent over the lack of jobs in the U.K., and "London's Burning", which expressed punk rage, but was at the same time downright analytical.
In one instance in 1978, at a Rock Against Racism show, organized by the Anti-Nazi League, Joe Strummer wore a controversial t-shirt bearing the words "Brigate-Rosse" with the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) insignia in the middle. He later said in an interview that he wore the shirt not to support the left-wing terrorists factions in Germany and Italy, rather to bring attention to their existence. Still, he felt bad after the show, prompting him to write the song "Tommy Gun," renouncing violence as a means of protest.
The Clash offered some support to the IRA and the PLO, and later, the Sandinista and other Marxist movements in Latin America (hence the title of their 1981 album, Sandinista!). They were involved directly with the controversial Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. By the time of the December 1979 album London Calling, the Clash (like the Dead Kennedys in the U.S.) were trying to square the circle of maintaining punk energy while developing increasingly musicianly chops. They were especially wary of their own emerging stardom: they always welcomed fans backstage after shows and showed genuine interest and compassion in their relationships with them.
The title of London Calling evokes American radio newsman Edward R. Murrow's catchphrase during World War II, and the title song announces that "...war is declared and battle come down..." It warns against expecting them to be saviours — "... now don't look to us / Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust..." — draws a bleak picture of the times — "The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in / Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin" — but calls on their listeners to come out of their drugged stupor and take up the fight without constantly looking to London, or to The Clash themselves, for cues — "Forget it, brother, we can go it alone... Quit holding out and draw another breath... I don't wanna shout / But while we were talking I saw you nodding out..." — finally asking, "After all this, won't you give me a smile?"
The Clash are generally credited with founding the roots of punk rock in liberal protest, and were known as the "Thinking Man's Yobs" by many for their politically astute take on the world.