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The Clash: Rock City Rebels

Music would not be what it is today without the Clash.

A bold statement perhaps, but one that is nonetheless true.

The argument is often made that bands like Led Zeppelin or the Beatles had an extreme – and as far as some people are concerned – almost biblical  impact on today’s audio landscape. And while these people aren’t wrong in this statement, they often overlook many other important acts.

With artists everywhere from Avril Levigne to Simple Plan claiming punk rock influences, and even the most watered-down of pop superstars sporting distorted guitars and an “up yours” attitude it’s pretty evident that the genre that began in New York and London in the 1970's has had a far-reaching impact on contemporary music.

The genre began with The Ramones in New York and the Sex Pistols in London – two bands who’s lyrical content was often more shallow and asinine than insightful or meaningful. Both bands established the aesthetic and attitudes that would become synonymous with punk rock, but it would take a new and different band to establish the foundation for the genre’s political undertones – a band that could make punk rock matter.

That band was the Clash.

The Clash made their first live appearance Sunday, July 4th, 1976 opening for the Sex Pistols. From the beginning it was apparent that this group of fresh, young faces was something different. Combining the relatively straight forward style of fast, distorted guitars and a driving beat with more complex and less obvious influences like reggae, ska and rockabilly, the clash quickly demonstrated that they had something different to offer.

They showed that punk rock actually took some amount of talent to perform, and they combined that with lyrics that actually said something. Taking the lead from former great protest singers like Woody Guthrie the Clash injected a political conscience to the genre. Where once punk rock was known for blind, uneducated ranting and raging directed at authority, the over-the-top diatribes were now calculated and well thought out. Finally there was substance to the music.

The Clash was made up of four members: Joe Strummer, Paul Simminon, Mick Jones and Topper Headon (who was later replaced by Terry Chimes). These four young men would make music that could be heard decades later in the chords and words of the people who idolized them. Artists as successful and relevant as Green Day and Rage Against the Machine have cited the Clash as an influence, popular indy artists like Greg MacPherson even cover the band’s songs. The band’s influence is far reaching and important.

Best known for their more-radio friendly tunes like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, the band’s more acidic political diatribes are often overlooked by the casual listener. Songs like “Safe European Home” and “Clampdown” offered commentary on the political climate of the time. Other tunes like “I’m Not Down” and “Death Or Glory” stood in stark contrast to many of the tracks being released by the band’s peers – songs that were by and large apocalyptical and hopeless were countered by the Clash’s message of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity.

The band released many seminal albums, as well as a number of records that would probably be better off forgotten. London Calling - perhaps the groups most illustrious offering - was even ranked number 1 on Rolling Stone’s “Best Albums of the 80's” and number 8 on the magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”

Band’s that cite the Clash as an influence are disparate and diverse - including seminal ska acts like the Toasters and the Specials, eclectic and eccentric independent artists like Aloha, aggressive political bands like Propaghandi and successful artists like Rancid or Green Day. Their influence can be seen everywhere.

The Clash was started by Mick Jones and Paul Simminon, who soon recruited Joe Strummer (from the popular London rockabilly band the 101ers) to record the bands eponymous self-titled debut. Shortly after drummer Topper Headon was joined up and the band recorded their sophomore offering, Give ‘Em Enough Rope. With the release of their second album the group finally broke into the much-sought after North American market, and was soon experiencing worldwide success.

This set the stage for their third full-length, London Calling. A record that would establish the band as both an eclectic group of artists -- unafraid to combine untraditional styles with their own unique brand of punk rock, as well as a band that cared for it’s fans – the band having demanded that the double album be sold for the price of a single record, which was unheard of at the time.

They followed London Calling up with the triple-album Sandinista! – which they again sold for the price of a single record. This record was largely criticised by the press, but is noteworthy for the amount of experimentation and genre-bending tunes, as well as the shear size of the album itself which contained a staggering 36 tracks. While the album was largely unsuccessful – which was mostly considered to be caused by the overwhelming amount of songs, making it difficult to take in the album as a whole – the recording of the record did produce one of the band’s better-known numbers: the reggae-tastic “Bank Robber”.

The band’s next offering, Combat Rock, was clearly an attempt to make it big in the United States market, but the record also produced some of their best known songs like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. The album was also considered at the time to be an artistic success with the melding of the relatively new Rap genre and the band’s usual sounds. The album would remain the band’s highest rated album in the United States, reaching number 8 on the Billboard charts.

Shortly after the release of Combat Rock saw the departure of founding guitarist Mick Jones and long-time drummer Topper Headon. Three new members were recruited to record the band’s least-successful record, Cut the Crap. Shortly after the band folded and the members went their separate ways.

Mick Jones started the mildly-successful Big Audio Dynamite which saw him incorporating many of the same styles the Clash utilised, as well as adding new elements like dub, hip-hop and electronic music to his band’s repertoire. Paul Simminon went on to a career in visual art, where he created many art-gallery shows and the cover for Jones’ third Big Audio Dynamite album. Topper Headon disappeared from the music scene for a number of years as he attempted to kick his heroin habit, an affliction that was largely the reason for him leaving the Clash in the first place. He has recently started performing live again. Joe Strummer did a number of solo albums and film scores before starting the successful independent band Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. The group released two albums before Joe’s untimely death in 2002, and one record posthumously.

In 2004 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

To this day the influence of the Clash can be felt throughout the music industry. The importance of this group of musical malcontents cannot be overstated. It can be seen in the fire and passion of any political band, ranging from the most staunchly independent bands like Propaghandi or Operation Ivy to the more mainstream political acts like Rage Against the Machine or Rise Against; as well as the genre bending experimentation of bands like TV on the Radio or U2.

For many people the Clash remain to this day one of the definitive bands in punk rock, and one of the most relevant bands in general. They created something new and powerful and showed people that punk rock was not a genre to be dismissed – that it was vital, relevant and actually had something important to say. They gave hope to a young generation that were largely dismissed and looked down upon.

What it really comes down to is that the Clash took a relatively simple style of music and infused it with politics and musicianship. As stated, they made punk matter, and it’s largely because of them that the genre remains relevant to this day. While band’s like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones defined the sound of punk, The Clash would personify the genre’s heart and soul. They inspired young people to not only pick up a guitar, but also pick up a book. They taught that anyone can make great music, you just have to work hard at it. They showed the importance of remaining educated and aware of the world around you. In short, they taught a new generation that it was alright to care.