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Monday, April 02, 2018

The Clash

by the Clash
Year:
1977
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: CAREER OPPORTUNITIES

The Clash’s debut may not have been the first punk album, – the Ramones’ debut had ‘em beat by a year –, but it is arguably one of its most important. It came out during the genre’s peak, and its reputation is certainly much higher today than the LPs of their then-considered betters, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols (the former’s two 1977 LPs being deemed inferior to their ‘76 debut and the latter now being considered a joke, a “manufactured” punk band), and despite not being released in the US until 1979, it was a highly sold import LP there anyhow. The Clash, like any kind of punk band with appeal marketable beyond any hardcore punk fan base, were essentially pop bands that crunched up their guitars and added some anger or frustration or bitterness or lust or whatever non-sentimental emotions dominate teenage lives; no different than the Troggs in the mid-‘60s when they basically took pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys or early Monkees-style melodies and caveman’d them up. So what made the Clash different than those oft-mentioned Ramones? For starters, the lyrics: both the Clash and the Ramones have simple, but relatable lyrics, but if you ask me, the Clash’s are somewhat more relatable, and even when they delve into something a bit deeper, like politics, they can make you crack a smile regardless of your political orientation. Another important aspect is the vocals: both Joe Strummer and Mick Jones do their fair share of singing around here, and not only does each have a distinctive voice, when and how one, the other or both of them sing is very much an important part of the songs. And of course, the music itself is where the Clash distinguish themselves the most from other punkers: even at this stage before they started going all experimental from London Calling onward, there’s a great sense of musical diversity here, where every song has something different to offer, in the riffs, arrangement, mood and, even on the rarest of occasions, instrumentation.

And this rings true on all of its songs. Even the lesser material is pretty darn memorable, and in the hands of lesser bands, would have clearly been highlights. Take “What’s My Name?” for instance, where the short bridge gets rid of the guitars and lets Paul Simonon riff on this quasi-funky, persistent bassline complementing Strummer’s venomous ranting. Of course, a large part of its memorability is the chorus with that generic punk feel the way they stretch out the word “name" in the title line to obscene proportions (which to be fair, might have only become a stereotypical trope of the genre because of this song rather than before it; my knowledge of the complete punk history isn’t that vast), but still, the bridge is where the tune really comes to life. “Deny” too has only one of its sections that’s particularly original, this time the pre-chorus, with ringing guitar arpeggios (the distortion somehow makes it more beautiful sounding than it should) and haunting backup vocals “oohs”, but once again, lesser punk bands would kill for even their highlights to incorporate such a section into an otherwise brash number. “Protex Blue” is probably the most obviously filler-like composition, – it’s basically a brief advert for a condom company –, but with its chunky guitar riffage with a pub rock feel (think Dr. Feelgood and the like; Wilko Johnson would dig this guitar riff, anyways) and Mick’s goofy vocals, it’s the kind of filler you wished most bands would strive for. “Cheat” and “48 Hours” are a bit less interesting, but the former’s explosive drum fill-laced intro, the opening line “I get violent when I’m fucked up”, the occasional use of phasing and the bridge where Strummer calls you a fool about a dozen times in a single line are pretty cool, and I guess it’s pretty neat that on "48 Hours", Joe’s vocals seem to speed up as he approaches the chorus, which itself is sort of catchy, but that might be because it’s even more repetitive than that of “What’s My Name?” And finally, the closing “Garageland”, – written in response to bad reviews of a live gig the band did with the Sex Pistols where they were told to stay in their garage instead –, could even be considered a minor highlight if the major highlights didn’t tower over it so. But with its poppier melody, Joe’s softer vocals in the verses (I almost confused these for Mick’s vocals the first few listens), the nursery-rhyme-like refrain and the guitar arpeggio/folksy harmonica chord interplay in the pre-chorus, you get a great glimpse of the kind of material that’s punk in spirit but not in form that they could churn out with ease at the turn of the decade.

One could complain that the album is awfully front-loaded: I consider the first five songs in a row, plus side one’s closer, side two’s opener, and only one song in the middle of side two to be its highlights, and I’m not sure what the consensus on these tracks might be, but I can be sure at least a handful of these are among the consensus picks. The opening “Janie Jones” sets the tone quite well, despite also being the least political song here (it is named after a then-famous madam): with its opening drum beat/hook, its simple, almost-funky guitar riff and its equally simple, – if not simplistic –, hedonistic refrain “he’s in love with rock & roll, wo/he’s in love with getting stoned, wo/he’s in love with Janie Jones, wo/he don’t like his boring job, no”, it’s the perfect braindead teenage wasteland anthem, even better at it than the Ramones’ “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and the like. Plus, Joe’s little interjections in the verses (“you lucky lady”, the only political line “except for the government, man!” and “it’s pretty bad”) are all pretty funny. Then there are four terrific political songs in a row, each significantly different musically. “Remote Control” is the poppiest of them all, thanks to Mick Jones’ noted prominence (I’d say introduction, but he does seem to be the one singing in the “Janie Jones” coda). What makes this one great is the way Jones and Strummer alternate for the lead parts: the former as the teenager trying to phrase his problems politely, the latter as his more blunt inner thoughts, best exemplified in my favorite verse, which goes as follows: MICK – "who needs the parliament/sitting making laws all day?” JOE – “they’re all fat and old/queuing for the house of lords”. Anyways, then there’s “I’m So Bored With the USA”, not dedicated to attacking the US itself, but rather its cultural influence on the UK being too high for these Brits’ tastes (most notably cop/detective shows in this song), although there are plenty of semi-concurrent political references, like the Watergate tape, the US government’s support of dictatorships and the role of the CIA in international affairs, and it’s all set to the perfect American-influenced sound: a highly-distorted and sped up parody of a surf-rock riff. Next is the big hit, “White Riot”, in an alternate version from the single release, but either way it kicks ass. While “What’s My Name?” was a stereotypical punk song, this one is closer to being the quintessential punk song; its riff is basically two chords beaten to death in alternation, the guitar solo is one-note mania à la “You Really Got Me” (although while the latter’s guitar solo outpaced the music, here it’s the opposite) the lyrics are mostly incomprehensible because of Strummer’s barking, but it’s clear enough they’re about class and racial strife (some even thought the Clash were advocating for a race war, which makes sense given the rise of skinheads back in the 1970s), and the refrain chanting the title is catchy as all get-out.

Ending this stretch of highlights is “Hate and War”, probably the only song that doesn’t have any consensus adoration; but for me, it’s another terrific Jones-sung tune, where he goes for more Strummer-like aggression in his voice, and his “cleaner” hoarseness goes quite well with the jangly, rapidly strummed riff of the chorus or the bouncier/funkier playing in the verses. As mentioned before, the intersection between the two sides has two more highlights: “London’s Burning” sounds like it’s going to be more violent than it actually is, with Joe’s proclamatory way of first delivering the title and the call-and-response it forms with the music at this point, but as the song goes on it becomes more of a social commentary à la Ray Davies, complaining about TV’s prevalence, boredom in society, traffic lights and finding a flat/apartment to live in. And musically, other than an insanely catchy chorus (mostly thanks to the backup vocals responding to Joe’s howling title line delivery), it has a cool, almost stiff guitar rhythm, perhaps emphasizing the "just passing through life” vibe, and Joe’s vocals fit that mood as well. Side two’s opener, “Career Opportunities”, announces side two will be much better than it actually ends up being, at least for me anyway, as it’s my favorite song on the album. For a song denouncing the lack of jobs for youths in the UK at the time, left with only menial, largely public service jobs (“making tea at the BBC”, military jobs, opening letters to make sure there are no bombs in them as Jones once had to do, etc.), its rapid pace seems far busier than the youths referenced herein, though perhaps it’s meant to show their frantic and ultimately fruitless search for a job. What’s for sure is it allows for some great rapid-fire vocal delivery as well, where Joe Strummer gets to be as aggressive as can be like in the refrain, – where the music stops and starts a number of times per line, or the bridge where he lists some more boring jobs over an amazing secondary riff that could have made a kick-ass song on its own –, sneeringly sarcastic, – like the way the aforementioned “making tea at the BBC” line is sung with a mock-high society British accent –, or desperate – like the way Joe wails the title in the coda a few times –, all as need be.

The final highlight is what really shows that the Clash were, from the get-go, going to be a different band, in spite of the surprising amount of diversity within the strict paradigms of punk rock. “Police and Thieves” is a cover(!) of a reggae song(!!), that clocks in at a little over six minutes(!!!). Of course, if you dig a little deeper, the two genres shouldn’t be completely foreign to each other: after all, both deal with social issues quite extensively, in this song’s case gang wars and police brutality. And the Clash's punk-reggae fusion take shows what’s most important about the band: it’s not the punk format that matters the most, but the punk spirit, and this philosophy holds up even on the not-at-all-punkish-in-sound Sandinista!, but I’m getting way ahead. What matters is that the steady, loud-ringing drumming, the melodic bass playing, the distorted counter-rhythmic staccato guitar chords filling in the traditional piano/organ role in reggae and the vocals, both lead (Joe) and backup (Mick with some terrific and adorable falsetto parts) keep you interested throughout the six minutes. So, in spite of some weaker material filling up most of side two and the two non-highlights of side one, I feel that the Clash’s 1977 debut holds up extremely well. It’s catchy, it’s largely meaningful (or at least identifiable to the average listener in the opening sex, drugs, and rock & roll anthem), and for an album in a genre that can generally get boring or repetitive in long stretches of time, there is enough variety, with enough diverse sources of inspiration (funk, folk, pop, ‘60s garage rock, surf) to keep you on your toes. While I still prefer the Clash as a “punk-in-spirit, not-in-form” kind of band, I can’t help but feel this is a great album, so it gets a 12/15 with no hesitation from me.

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