Just five years between The Clash’s first album to 'Combat Rock'. What was it about the moment in which that first album was created that made it so incendiary and hard to box? Yes, it’s possible to list influences, especially nowadays when the Clash as a phenomenon has been dissected, interviewed and deconstructed to the extent that it feels there are few secrets left to be revealed. But the sound, the performances, are evasive. The sonics defy investigation. It’s a mood. An accident. A beautiful car crash.
Whereas 'Combat Rock' seems to be the natural culmination of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer’s fascination with rock history, their traditional instructions. It’s political, sloganistic, interested in the fellaheen of the world, guitar-driven, emotional group-as-a-gang, antagonistic. Grown up. Almost as if they leap-frogged punk from the pub to the small stadium. Footage from the time shows a group, no tighter than on their White Riot tour, sometimes struggling to stay in time, leaning back on the drums, torn between heroic monitor poses and self-disgust. Punky, but sloppy. With an audience they no longer had to convince. It must have been galling for them, the grown up rockers, to see crowds of teenage mohicans and suburban die-hards or, in America, even worse, Tom Petty fans, Blue Oyster Cult Fans, jocks and identikit punks. A sea of motorcycle jackets.
It’s easy to forget how febrile these times were, how much young people invested in pop music. Every move examined. When The Clash had their biggest hit, the pubby Should I Stay or Should I Go, also on Combat Rock, there were serious conversations about what this meant, about the end of eras. Personally, I was long gone, the shock of their first album disconnected with the wandering, dope-addled experiments that followed. But the reason I agreed to review this ancient release was mainly because the album also features 'Rock The Casbah', possibly the strangest wedding dance tune outside of 'Come On Eileen'; 'Straight To Hell', the mood of which infects generations down the line via the driving sample on MIA’s biggest hit, 'Paper Planes'. And 'Know Your Rights', a genuinely useful tick list for aspiring, free-thinking youth, which, alongside Timothy Leary’s ‘think for yourself and question authority’ are all you need when it comes to contemplating the state’s influence and control of your life. These three tracks make a wonderful last cheer for The Clash in their last proper lineup, before Strummer kicked out Jones in a family upset closer to an exploding kitchen barney than ‘musical differences’.
'Straight To Hell' takes on a genuinely sad hue if you felt anything at all about the stupidly young death of Joe Strummer, one of those moments that makes you blink at the futility of expecting anything reliably reasonable from fate. Is it possible to sense Joe’s consuming empathy with those caught up in the colonial wars of America and the UK? What seems to define him, giving up part of his own life to become a kind of foil on to which to project our own exasperation and confusion about what’s done in our names is made more poignant by stories told to me, personally, about his approachability, always ready to share a fag in a backstage alley and get his ears bent about the world’s woes, from the international to the small human problems of the kinds of fans he and The Clash seemed to attract.
It’s probably this actual, genuine concern that invited the scorn of some of the original punk scenesters who were so frightened of being seen to give a fuck about anything apart from being seen not to give a fuck that they ended up much closer to the establishment figures they were meant to hate so much. The Clash had principles. Alright, they fell into the ego soup, just as so many rockers did, possibly as homage, in Jones’s case, but just as likely because, when you get caught up in that rarefied, almost endless, tour, record, interview palaver there’s not a lot of room for real life. Ask Paul Weller.
Combat Rock features ideas that must have seemed good for a few seconds of inspiration but the ‘duet’ between Allen Ginsberg and Joe Strummer on 'Ghetto Defendant' feels more like a candidate for a thesis on the survivability of the Beat Generation. Throw this at that and see what colour we get. Sometimes it’s just the off-brown of a mutual back rub and a co-sign across the genres. Mick Jones has, by now patented his folky melody line that continued to feature through B.A.D. As someone who, possibly, can’t sit still (I’d love to see his bookcase) and concentrate on one thing long enough to nail it down (I bet his DIY is dangerous) the fact that he coined his own melody, like Morrissey, like Johnny Rotten, is a big achievement. Not always used to great effect, though.
In 1982 there was a biggish, fashionable revival of both the newly multi-cultural London of Colin MacInnes and, more importantly, the beat generation, especially Jack Kerouac. Ever the fashionistas, The Clash give us a taste of both but it’s the connection with the Beats that chimes. As the album fades out on 'Death is a Star', inconclusive, self-critical, wondering what it was for. You can hear Kerouac’s end moments at his mother’s house, stewing in booze, knowing something special but, equally, knowing it doesn’t mean a thing in Strummer and Jones’s voices, no longer the groovy kids with the best taste in rocknroll, just grown-up humans wearily accepting their fate