In the language of modern politics, punk rock tends to be a “party of no.” That’s part of what makes it so awesome. You don’t have to be for anything. Any goober with a guitar can rail against whatever’s got his or her goat. Your song can be dopey and apolitical or fiercely topical — “What’s My Age Again?” or “Die For Your Government.” Just play it like you mean it.
By either metric, the self-titled debut album by The Clash is about as punk as it gets. Released 40 years ago today (April 8, 1977) in the U.K. and later in America, where CBS execs deemed it too raw for polite consumers, The Clash is a thin and scratchy rapid-fire cataloging of problems big and small. It’s about race relations, unemployment, and American cultural imperialism. Also: zit-faced burglars and loners pleasuring themselves with condoms on.
Compared to the Sex Pistols, their chief rivals in the early days of U.K. punk, The Clash are seen as righteous and idealistic. They wanted progress, not anarchy. Much of The Clash supports this view. “London’s Burning” is a great example. As guitarist Mick Jones replaces punk’s usual power chords with the type of inverted reggae stabs he’d later use on “London Calling,” frontman Joe Strummer seeks to rouse a numbed city. Strummer used to be disgusted, now he’s enthused. You don’t yell “Dial 99999!” — two digits more than it takes to summon British emergency responders — if you’re happy to see your city burn.
Strummer’s works himself up even more on “White Riot,” the most controversial song The Clash ever did. It was written in response to the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976, where black revelers squared off against white police officers in a bloody street battle. Strummer and Clash bassist Paul Simonon tried to get involved by torching a car but couldn’t get the fire started. The incendiary song that resulted, “White Riot,” is curiously not a show of solidarity with oppressed blacks. It’s a call to white folks who feel similarly unhappy to take action.
“Black man got a lot of problems, but they don’t mind throwing a brick,” Strummer sings. “White people go to school, where they teach you how to be thick.”
Strummer’s heart was undoubtedly in the right place. The Clash were avowedly anti-fascist, and in 1978, they played “White Riot” to thousands of people at a Rock Against Racism festival in London’s Victoria Park. And yet Strummer’s inability to recognize his own privilege — again in the parlance of our times — threatens to undercut his point. The group was better off risking cries of cultural appropriation with their terrifically spiky cover of “Police and Thieves,” a then-current reggae hit by Junior Murvin. Later on, The Clash would learn to play reggae properly — here, they chop away and trust their passion to see them through.
One song nobody was going to get mad at was “I’m So Bored With the USA.” It began life as a Mick Jones love song called “I’m So Bored With You” and transformed into a Strummer diss track aimed at America, the “dictator of the world.” Foreshadowing the international reportage The Clash would offer on 1980’s Sandinista! — named for leftist Nicaraguan revolutionaries — Strummer opens with lyrics about Vietnam vets grappling with heroin addictions they picked up fighting in Cambodia. Joe proceeds to get in a couple digs about Watergate and America’s fondness for TV, violence, and TV shows about violence. This one was almost too easy.
The political song that probably resonated most with young Clash fans at the time was “Career Opportunities.” Strummer, Jones, and Simonon lacked what you might call marketable skills, and that was OK, because in late ’70s England, there weren’t many decent jobs to be had. When Strummer sneers, “I won’t open letter bombs for you,” he’s referring to an actual gig Jones had with the Benefits Office. As the low man on the totem, Mick would handle all incoming mail — a dangerous assignment in the days of IRA mail bombings. Jobs that wouldn’t kill you, like the Army or the Royal Air Force, would only make you duller. The Clash can’t decide what’s worse on this stomping sing-along.
“Career Opportunities” speaks to the sort of restless working-class British teens and 20-somethings that Strummer portrays in “Cheat” and “48 Hours” — companion ragers about prowling around for kicks. Jones takes the lead on “Protex Blue,” named for a brand of condom the narrator has no intention of using in the company of another human being: “I don’t need no skin flicks / I wanna be alone.”
These songs of alienation are angrier versions of what fellow U.K. punks Buzzcocks would start blasting out in friendlier form around the same time. The Clash go even darker on “What’s My Name,” where Mick’s howling guitar intro sets up a chilling hooligan’s tale told in 1:41. Strummer stars as an acne-plagued kid with an abusive dad and zero outlets for his energy. When he can’t even get into the local ping-pong club, he resorts to street fighting, then turns up at a house late at night with a “celluloid strip” for picking locks.
At least the dude in album opener “Janie Jones” has sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to distract him from work. When Strummer suggests the protagonist is “gonna really tell the boss / he’s gonna really let him know how he feels,” the word repetition suggests the guy is just ranting. Maybe he’s found a level of dissatisfaction he can live with.
That’s not good enough for the 27-plus punk rockers (“22 singers,” “five guitar players,” an unspecified number of bassists and drummers) bashing away in “Garageland.” The closing number on The Clash is one of the band’s great works of self-mythology and the most idealistic song on the album. It’s the group’s pledge to maintain its integrity in the face of record companies getting interested in punk. Strummer is leery of losing control (“someone just asked me if the group would wear suits”), and that’s understandable. It’s no fun being a party of no when you have to seek approvals at every turn.
Then again, knee-jerk negativity was never The Clash’s game. They saw punk as a positive option for disaffected youth who might otherwise lose hope and maybe get mixed up in right-wing politics. When they played to uneducated, low-income audiences, they were addressing the potential Brexit supporters of their day. The Clash had empathy for these folks and the audacity to believe there might be a future where people didn’t have to chuck rocks at each other in the street. The Clash was the rough draft of the message they’d set to even bolder music in years to come.