An all-star panel – including Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Terry Chimes – vote for their greatest cuts (from Uncut's December 2003 issue)
The Clash album track, April 1977
SIMONON: We all read that review [“The Clash are the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to the garage, preferably with the motor running” – Charles Shaar Murray in NME, 1976] because it was a big slag-off and it was only our third gig, I think.
JONES: In those days if somebody said something like that we’d all go, “Let’s sort him out.” That was the attitude. “We’re not having that!”
SIMONON: Also, in a way, that song does pronounce that the next step is about to be taken. To me that song almost, I dunno, it puts an exclamation mark at the end of the punk period. I mean, we signed to the record company and, like the song says, my mates have got new boots, that’s what it was like.
JONES: But we were very steeped in that garage band thing as well. We loved all the stuff on Nuggets, that late-’60s American stuff. We really saw ourselves as a garage band.
TERRY CHIMES: My favourite song off that first album would have to be “Garageland”. Great fun to play live. I love the lyrics and the sentiment but more than anything I just love the sound. We never thought it was going to be an anthem because we never thought about the future. We were very much a band of ‘now’. I mean we thought we were going to be famous, but we never really considered the implications of that. I was always the one who thought the punk ‘sell-out’ thing was nonsense anyway. You have to have a record label, you have to have money coming in. I was a realist, whereas the others used to fight against it. We used to argue all the time about that stuff.
ED HAMELL: You have a few friends who are music-taste-alpha-males (or females). They start raving about a band or an album. You listen. It’s good, you’re digging it, but is there going to be a song that makes the ‘connection’ to you? Not the ‘hit’ or the ‘anthem’, but the thing that sits down on the end of the bed in your room and says: “Hey, check it out, I’m a chump just like you, I’m turning my miserable fucking life around with this shit.” (This is, of course, what I hear – you may have your own ‘connection’ phrase.) I remember where I first heard this. I was at a friend’s house, alone, smoking pot. I’m sure I had been bitching about the sorry state of rock’n’roll. He, in turn, had left this new import album for me to listen to, and although I was suitably impressed with the passion and songwriting, it wasn’t until the last song that I sensed the ‘humanism’ in the material. This is a huge Strummer trait that marked his appeal to the end. It’s honest, humorous and unpretentious. And, in retrospect, pretty bold, in light of this new musical form’s supposed nihilism. Then the whole album fell into place. They went on to write far greater songs… there are better songs on this album, but this is the one that smacked my thick head and started the ball rolling.
NORMAN COOK: “Garageland” is very close to my heart. When we were in The Housemartins, that was always our encore and we all used to swap instruments and I’d play guitar and sing it.
PETE WYLIE: A great song, written off the back of a bad review, so it’s a statement of intent. The first time I saw The Clash, there’s a phrase that’s never left me head and that’s that they had “a roar of defiance”. And it was like a roar, a fucking animal sound. When I was 18 it was a lot more intense and serious, but “Garageland” is also funny. “There’s 22 singers – but one microphone” – that’s funny! It was an anthem.
RODDY FRAME: We used to do a version of “Garageland” in Aztec Camera when we started. In fact, we did it when we first played in London. We had these big semi-acoustic guitars, so it was odd, I suppose. But it was comforting to have that in the set because it kind of reminded you where you came from.
GARY CROWLEY: It just sums up that whole first album for me and brings back all the memories of those early gigs, seeing The Clash at The Rainbow, The Lyceum, Nôtre Dame Hall. That three-pronged attack of Paul, Joe and Mick in a line along the front and Topper at the back. Such an incredible live band.
5 I Fought The Law
From the “Cost Of Living” EP, May 1979
JONES: We were in San Francisco doing overdubs on Give ’Em Enough Rope and they had the original of this on the jukebox. So when we came home we just started playing it. That’s a really good clip of us doing “I Fought The Law” in Rude Boy. I bought the DVD of it the other week and there’s a bit where the director or somebody says they told us to wear black on stage. I never remember that. We wore what we wanted, nobody told us. Bloody cheek!
SIMONON: That’s it, we had our own agenda, it was all in-house.
JONES: We really did, beyond anybody else, any record company. Nobody outside of that house mattered.
SIMONON: You know that bit on “I Fought The Law” that sounds like a urinal? Well, it is.
JONES: Yeah, we went into the toilets and banged on the pipes with hammers to make it sound like a chain gang. Y’know, that “clang! clang!” at the end? And then at the very end you can hear a “sssszzhhh!” That’s it flushing! We used to do a lot of that. Like for “Somebody Got Murdered” when Topper brought his dog in and we kicked it round the studio [gurgles]. Only joking. There was a disclaimer. “No animals were harmed during the making of this record. Only humans.’”
SIMONON: Like the sounds on “Armagideon Time”, too. It was November 5 so we got a load of fireworks.
JONES: Then invited all the kids down to the studio [cackles]. And blew ’em up!
BOB GELDOF: It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve listened again not only to The Boomtown Rats’ records but all of that music from 1976-77. And it feels exciting, radical, dynamic and new. Surprisingly better than I remember it, really. All those other bands like The Clash were our rivals, and so that’s how I listened to their records. Yeah, I was bristling with rivalry. I still think The Clash’s early songs were trite and lame. But “I Fought The Law” – which was inspired by Bobby Fuller’s version of the Sonny Curtis song – had attitude and spirit and still sounds great.
ADAM SWEETING: Choosing cover versions is a fine art that most bands never master. The Clash did this one so well that hardly anybody realised it wasn’t one of their own, since the outlaw sentiment felt so intrinsically Clash-like and the song’s terse, taut verses and singalong chorus felt like they’d come straight out of the Strummer/Jones operator’s manual.
LYNDON MORGANS: Judged against the sheer velocity of most of the stuff on the first album, this track is almost jaunty, but the attack is totally ferocious, and, of course, the tune itself is completely inescapable. And considering that traditional muso values were so low down their list of priorities, the tightness of the playing is remarkable, too. I can imagine how exciting they must’ve been up there on a small stage right in front of you. I never saw them – but we did play on the same bill as Joe once, a benefit gig at the 100 Club a few years back. Bez got up and bobbed up and down alongside him.
JON LANGFORD: The Waco Brothers have been bashing this out in the bars of Chicago since 1994.
It’s a wonderful number for striking a few poses and throwing some shapes! We did it at a charity show earlier this year and Jimmy Chamberlin [ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer) managed to miss the six-gun drum break and will never be allowed to live it down.
JESSE MALIN: “I Fought The Law” just explodes compared to the original. I heard a story that they were in a coffee shop or a diner in San Francisco and they heard the original by Bobby Fuller on the jukebox and got turned onto it. But when you hear the Fuller version, it’s so light. When you hear Strummer sing “I left my baby and I feel so bad”, it’s unusual because The Clash don’t sing a lot about girls, they don’t sing a lot about love.
4 Straight To Hell
Combat Rock album track, May 1982. Issued as a double-A-side single, September 1982
JONES: The lyrics are great. I think part of “Straight To Hell” was what was going on in El Salvador at the time. It was gonna become like Vietnam. The US were sending advisors in and all that stuff so we were aware of everything. That Latin feel it’s got is probably a subconscious thing cos of what was going on in Central America. Not even thinking of it but just being tuned in to things. We never had ‘world music’ in those days.
SIMONON: The tune was all different bits that we had which came together. “Broadway” was the same, me and him doing something at a soundcheck which would suddenly work out.
TERRY CHIMES: Even though I never played on the record, this is still my favourite Clash song. When Topper went and I rejoined in 1982, “Straight To Hell” was the one song I loved playing live more than the others. Normally I always preferred the faster, harder side of things but because it was slower this was one of the few songs that I could actually sit back and listen to as we were playing. The way Joe sang it, he always had so much feeling. The lyrics used to get me every time.
RODDY FRAME: A beautiful, beautiful record. They were always a bit ahead of the game, they were always pushing forward. For me it’s a personal thing because I can just remember touring in 1982 with Aztec Camera and we listened to Combat Rock over and over again on headphones and just hearing all these lovely things that were happening in the music. Lyrically, it’s just great and it’s very kind of personal – it just showed that the whole punk thing could go somewhere else. In the wake of The Clash and The Sex Pistols, there were about a thousand daft punk bands but they were never going to go anywhere other than that three-chord trash. “Straight To Hell” is just a beautiful piece of music – it transcends the whole punk thing.
JOSH ROUSE: In 1986, at the tender age of 14, I moved to Ft Benning, Georgia to live with my father, who was a drill sergeant in the US Army. That summer I purchased my first Clash cassette through Columbia House record and tape club (“Buy one record at full price and receive eight more for a penny!”). Listening to Combat Rock with its militant undertones, and living on an Army base, my life was becoming very ironic. Although I enjoyed the entire album, my first love was “Straight To Hell”. It was perfect for puberty, dark lyrics, that deep tom-tom groove. The whole track just had a spooky appeal. I read somewhere that the lyrics were about immigrants from the Indo-Chinese wars, but of course that meant nothing to a 14-year-old whose sole purpose in life was the new Dead Milkmen album… oh, and of course, masturbation…
SIMON GODDARD: The first record I played after hearing Joe Strummer had died, and it cut me in half. Then later I was walking around the supermarket with a Walkman and – this is true – a makeshift black armband I’d concocted out of an old bag strap. I was listening to the live From Here To Eternity album, feeling pretty sombre, and then that version of “Straight To Hell” came on where Strummer goes to the crowd “Sing in tune, you bastards”, and I burst out laughing. It was fantastic because all that grief over one of my biggest heroes having died evaporated as the sheer joy of Joe Strummer suddenly dawned on me. It said everything to me about his passion, his humanity, and his invincible rock’n’roll spirit.
ED HAMELL: Strummer did this one with The Mescaleros, too, and it was as powerful as any of the early ‘rockers’ that they did. Combat Rock was their most avant-garde record. And yet, because of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” and “Rock The Casbah”, it was their biggest commercial success. Isn’t life a mindfuck? The lyrics to this one are very self-righteous, which really only a few rockers can get away with (read: Dylan), but the music, I propose, might have indicated where the band was headed if they’d stayed together. Jones was using his guitar like a synth, selectively, like a modern Pete Townshend, Who’s Next era. More organic than the Big Audio Dynamite stuff, and even more inventive rhythms thanks to Topper. If this album, and subsequently this song, was any indication, they didn’t have to seek any greener pastures musically, and they never individually achieved anything so adventurous or bold. They probably were sick of it all or each other at that point and used ‘musical differences’ as the excuse (read: Brian Jones).
TIM BURGESS: It’s so disturbing, isn’t it? It’s so sleazy.
It always seems to tie in with “Ghetto Defendant”, the Allen Ginsberg one. They’re both incredibly bleak observations on American imperialism.
DON LETTS: Another thing I love about The Clash is that all their music was about something. They just had this ability to come out with stuff that was really evocative. Again, “Straight To Hell” is a good example of how Strummer moved the lyrical goalposts of what rock music could deal with. Joe’s lyrics, man – any two of his rhyming couplets had more content than most people’s fucking albums. Seriously, what The Clash could do in three minutes was a fucking trip.
JAKE BURNS: I’d never heard anything like it before. The whole arrangement, the sound of it and the lyrics are fantastic. That line about “it ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice” – that’s such a fantastic way to describe the Americanisation of the Far East.
ADAM SWEETING: An audio version of Apocalypse Now, as Strummer intoned his weird panoramic lyric about American expansionism, British post-imperial decline, rotting ghettoes, rampant drug cartels. Slightly mad, admittedly, but the clattering pseudo-Asian percussion and treated fiddle sounds conspired with Strummer’s bleak vocal to create something authentically chilling.
ALEX COX: Just such a beautiful song and it shows where Tommy Atkins and all his Army friends are going to end up.
MATTHEW RYAN: A sad story with an indignant quality, so primal yet so delicate. I love the way The Clash never underestimate you, they assume you care as much as they do that these things are said. For them, we’re all in it together. They’re talking about the difference between an ordinary citizen and privileged corporate aristocrats, about how poverty and despair preclude you from government. To me, they’re wholeheartedly an inspiration. I still believe in The Clash, like I believe in Hank Williams.
GIDEON COE: The edit on Combat Rock is mighty fine, but after you’ve listened to the full version on The Clash On Broadway, that’s the one. I once asked Joe why it had been edited for CR. After quite a pause, he said, “Well, it was kinda long… so we shortened it.” Fair enough. I’d like to give honourable mentions to the kick-drum intro, Jones’ killer guitar line, Topper’s hypnotic beats and Simonon’s dubby, farty bass but, more than all that, this is one of Strummer’s great vocal and lyrical performances. Every line is up there with his best. Go on, pick one at random. “Speaking King’s English in quotation/As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust”. See what I mean? It may be the sound of a band falling apart, but it’s a beautiful record.
NORMAN COOK: The Clash didn’t do many slow songs, but when they did they were usually just as powerful as the fast, thrashy ones. My particular favourite would have to be “Straight To Hell” because the lyrics have always stuck in my head. I don’t pick up a guitar or bass much these days, but when I do the strap’s always strung exactly like Paul Simonon’s.