The Clash Turns 40: A Retrospective Look

Joe Strummer of The Clash. Photo from

As influential to the genre as they were, The Clash didn’t spend much time as a pureblooded punk band.

With the 1979 release of London Calling, the band began a transition away from the jagged purist punk aesthetic to a fuller, more polished sound with broader appeal; by the time Sandinista! and Combat Rock rolled around in 1980 and 1982, respectively, The Clash had gone fully “mainstream.” It was in this era that they released some of their most popular songs — including “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” — but despite their peak commerciality in the ‘80s, it was in the year 1977 that the band made its biggest impact of all with their self-titled debut album.

Interestingly enough, The Clash wouldn’t see a localized release in the United States until 1979, when a modified version of the album, intended to be more radio-friendly, hit store shelves. However, it’s the original United Kingdom release that is the truest expression of the group’s rebellious vigor. Much of the album’s lyrical content is centered around the trials and tribulations of working-class Londoners, so it’s hard to imagine the UK edition capturing mainstream American audiences without more recognized tracks like their cover of Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought the Law” (which was released in the UK on their 1979 EP The Cost of Living, but in the U.S. on The Clash). 

Around the same time that The Clash and Sex Pistols were debuting onto the UK punk scene, New York City saw the rise of groups like Ramones and Television — but despite the universality of punk’s signature brand of indignation, The Clash is uniquely and distinctly British. The everlasting appeal of The Clash is not solely due to the specificity of its lyrics or the pertinence of their underlying emotions, but how those two songwriting facets work in conjunction with one another.

“Deny,” for example, tells the story of a heroin addict in denial, but it also speaks to a larger drug problem facing London in the late 1970s, the increased opiate abuse that plagued socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. It is widely speculated that “Deny” is about the drug habits of original Clash lead guitarist Keith Levene, but given the three-fold increase of heroin users in Britain from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, the true power of “Deny” lies in the fact that it could be about anybody. Similarly, “White Riot” — their debut single that was re-recorded for the U.S. release of The Clash — recounts the tense showdowns between Black Londoners and local police forces while simultaneously serving as a general call to arms for any group of people facing discriminatory marginalization. Much of the material on The Clash, co-written by lead guitarist Joe Strummer and rhythm guitarist Mick Jones, works in the same type of macrocosm and microcosm, allowing the audience to extrapolate the broader social issues from the very personal stories.

The candor of these stories is supplemented by barebones instrumentation representing the quintessential and foundational punk rock style. The style would continue into the band’s sophomore album Give ‘Em Enough Rope before being replaced by a post-punk aesthetic; absent here are the horns and organs that would characterize London Calling and the saxophone and piano of Combat Rock. The Clash is a punk purist’s fantasy, with pronounced, simplistic guitar riffs atop minimalistic infrastructure. Only occasionally, on tracks like “What’s My Name” (tragically omitted for American audiences), does Paul Simonon’s bass come through with sufficient punch, but for the most part, the slightness of the bass works immensely in the album’s favor.

“I’ll salute the New Wave / And I hope nobody escapes,” Strummer sings on “I’m Bored with the U.S.A.,” showing support for clubs like CBGB that played host to the growing punk culture in the United States at the time. It’s a noticeably constructive lyric in a song full of harsh criticisms, but it speaks to the ubiquitous power of punk music as a means of interpreting injustice and social inequality. Punk rock, as defined by The Clash, is as much a language as it is a genre, a lens through which to view the broader world and express its shortcomings. That The Clash remains as relevant as it does in contemporary times is demonstrative of humanity’s continuing contemptibility, but even more so, the incisiveness of Strummer and Jones’s songwriting. And though The Clash strayed from their original sound relatively quickly and went on to release three more albums post-London Calling to largely diminishing returns, it is their inaugural work that left the most meteoric impact.