The Clash’s first album ‘The Clash’ was released on April 10 1977 in the UK (although not till October 1979 in the USA, they passed on it first time around). That means it’s 36 years ago this month that I ran round to Reidy’s Home of Music after school and bought a copy with all the money – apart from me £200 savings in the TSB obviously – that I had in the world at the time.
‘The Clash’ is regularly ranked in the All Time Top Albums of All Time – the NME said it’s number 13, Q has it at 48 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever in 2000 and Mojo put it at number 2 in its Top 50 Punk Albums. Number One was The Sex Pistols and their album that we must call ‘Never Mind….’ out of respect to young eyes and the faint-hearted.
I did not however run out and buy ‘Never Mind…’ when it finally came out in October 1977. Despite waiting for it all year. Despite the fact it had three cracking singles and a fourth that would have been cracking had The Jam not already used the riff in ‘In The City’. And despite the Pistols really inventing the whole movement and my journal of choice, Sounds, having written about them constantly for 18 months.
The truth is it’s not a great album. Any of the singles on there all individually stand as the kind of seismic slices of vinyl that would rotate any generation’s tyres, let alone that there were three of them and each one topped the previous. The truth is everything else on the album’s a bit ropey, and it even almost missed coming out in Punk Rock’s Year Zero, 1977. There was a little too much music hall in the Sex Pistols, especially the cartoonish Johnny Rotten, which almost everybody missed at the time, preferring to take him at face value. I mean I liked him but they didn’t really seem to mean it, maaaaaan.
The Clash, on the other hand, really did mean it.
When they signed to CBS Records in January 1977 for a £100,000 advance, they worried how they were ever going to be able to sing ‘Career Opportunities’ again, having trousered that kind of money, but just put themselves on £25 a week (when the dole was £11).
The songs themselves were mainly written on the number 31 bus which went (and still goes) from their squat at 42 Orsett Terrace, Westbourne Grove all the way over to their rehearsal room in Camden Market. The songs were about things that had actually happened to them. The line ‘I won’t open letter bombs for you’ in ‘Career Opportunities’ is there because guitarist Mick Jones actually did open letters for a government department to make sure they weren’t rigged with mailbombs. ‘Garageland’ was written in direct response to an unkind NME review, which said “the Clash are the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to the garage, preferably with the motor running” (two years later they were describing the Clash as “the greatest rock band in the world”). ‘London’s Burning’ was also written in at Orsett Terrace, but very quietly, as various people, including Sid Vicious, were asleep in the same room at the time. And most famously ‘White Riot’ was written after Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, were caught when Police chased West Indian youths in a riot at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival and fantasised about what might happen if white kids did the same.
Spare a thought for on-off drummer Terry Chimes though. When they asked him what he would do if they made a lot of money and answered ‘buy a Lamborghini’, he was sacked and was listed as ‘Tory Crimes’ on the album sleeve. Oh yes, they did mean it, man.