The Clash had undergone a lot of personnel changes, but the classic lineup consisted of leader Joe Strummer (vocals, guitar; born John Graham Mellor in 1952 – died 2002), Mick Jones (vocals, lead guitar; b. 1955), Paul Simonon (bass, backing vocals; b. 1956) and Nicky “Topper” Headon (drums; b. 1955). The band hailed from London.
Before the formation of what would be The Clash, several future band members had been with other groups. Before having his famous stage name “Joe Strummer”, John Graham Mellor had formed his own band called The 101’ers in 1974. Around that time Mellor billed himself as “Woody” Mellor. He also sang and played rhythm guitar in that band, which was one of those acts that took part in the rising pub rock scene in England.
On the other hand, Mick Jones played the rock and proto-punk act London SS. Paul Simonon joined the London SS later on, as a bassist, replacing previous member Tony James. London SS also had a drummer Tony Crimes (or Chimes) who had just taken the place of former drummer Topper Headon. All of the future Clash members were influenced by the earlier punk band The Sex Pistols. It happened that the London SS’s manager was Bernard Rhodes, who had been connected with Malcolm McLaren, manager of The Sex Pistols.
“Woody” Mellor had seen one of the Sex Pistols’ gigs. That very gig inspired him to veer into a different musical direction. He dissolved his own band The 101’ers and eventually joined the London SS together with his fellow 101’ers member Keith Levene. As soon as Mellor joined the London SS, its name was later changed into the Clash. During this time, Mellor also changed his own stage name into Joe Strummer. Together as the Clash they played their first gig by supporting their heroes the Sex Pistols in the summer of 1976. Levene quit the band shortly after that gig.
Meteoric rise in the UK punk rock scene
Rhodes, who had managed London SS, was appointed as their manager. The Clash then supported The Sex Pistols in the latter’s Anarchy Tour in late 1976. Through these sporadic performances, the profile of the band had already been greatly magnfied. They eventually secured their first recording contract with the British division of CBS Records in 1977. They recorded their first self-titled album in just a matter weeks and released it afterward. The Clash’s first single “White Riot” garnered critical acclaim in the UK, but it was the third single “Complete Control” (that featured reggae artist Lee “Scratch” Perry) that climbed slightly higher on the UK chart (at #28). The Clash released “Complete Control” as a response to their label who released the second single “Remote Control” without the band’s permission, which infuriated them.
As The Clash was soaring in the UK punk scene, so was their reputation for several criminal misdemeanors. They committed petty crimes that ranged from stealing pillowcases from their hotel room to shooting racing pigeons. Despite these offenses, it even more bolstered the band’s “bad boy” image as many early punk rock bands had. However, The Clash was also actively tackling social and political matters as demonstrated by their 1978 single “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.” Like many UK punk rock bands in their time, The Clash was against monarchy aristocracy. But The Clash also supported a lot of movements such as anti-Nazi and anti-racism causes.
While they were recording their next album, CBS Records requested the band to modify their sound into a “cleaner” one in order to appeal to American audiences. For this, The Clash worked with former Blue Oyster Cult’s Sandy Pearlman to produce their second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope which The Clash released in 1978. While the expected American breakthrough didn’t happen (it only landed at #128 on the Billboard 200), Give ‘Em Enough Rope was another homeland success, almost topping the UK album charts (at #2). The album was supported mostly by the single “Tommy Gun,” which rose to #19 on the UK singles chart. The Clash toured extensively in their country, and also had their first American tour in early 1979, which was largely a success.
Breakthrough success in the US
From their earlier influences and their American tour (whose supporting acts included R&B luminaries such as Bo Didley and and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), they largely influenced The Clash’s shift of style when they recorded their third album London Calling in late 1979. The album exhibited several genres including ska, reggae and old school rock and roll to add to their already existing punk rock offering.
The result was a tremendous success not only in the UK (where the album reached #9) but also (and finally) in the United States. London Calling peaked at #27 on the Billboard 200, and its title track reached #11 on the UK singles chart and #30 on the US dance chart. The next single from London Calling “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)” fared even better when it peaked at #23 on the Hot 100, making it the Clash’s first entry into the US Hot 100.
Part of London Calling‘s success was its relative affordability. It was a double album, although The Clash insisted that copies should be sold for a single album price.
The Clash did another US tour, which also became very successful. The band also toured much of the UK and Europe. It was also during that time that they filmed their documentary film Rude Boy, and the single “Bankrobber” which would appear on their compilation album Black Market Clash. It went to #12 on the UK album charts. In 1980, The Clash released the triple album Sandinista! in late 1980; and as expected of the band, it was released at a lower price. It went gold in the in the UK and silver in the US.
Combat Rock – the band’s most successful record ever
In 1982, The Clash released their fifth LP Combat Rock. The album received a more scathing reception in their homeland (even though it reached #2 there), but over in the US it was otherwise welcomed with warm critical reviews and raves from the record-buying public. As a result it was their most successful album ever, going double platinum in the US and reaching #7 on the Hot 100. The album yielded one of their most successful singles ever, “Rock the Casbah.” It went to #8 on both Hot 100 and Billboard dance charts and #6 on the Billboard rock chart. The song and its music video were played heavily on MTV.
Tensions and eventual disbandment
Despite their fame and success, within the band things were not looking good. In fact, they were on the brink of disintegrating. Headon was fired because of his escalating drug addiction, and Crimes was reinstated as the band’s drummer. However, he was soon fired too, and was replaced by Pete Howard (ex-Cold Fish). Strummer and Simonon also sacked Jones for his diminishing interest in the band (Jones later would form his own band Big Audio Dynamite after his departure). The Clash hired two guitarists and together the newly-revamped group released what could be their last album Cut The Crap in 1985. It met with critical and commercial failure that even Strummer and Simonon decided to disown it. In early 1986, the two men decided to permanently severe the group.
Life after The Clash; Joe Strummer’s sudden passing
Strummer went on to a solo career, and Simonon eventually formed his own short-lived band Havana 3 A.M. Strummer reunited with Jones in the latter’s Big Audio Dynamite for their release of a second album. There were talks of a reunion but the members chose to remain quiet about it despite the possible signals – their song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” was featured in a jeans TV commercial, and their idols Sex Pistols staged a reunion of their own. In 1999, Strummer formed his own band The Mescaleros.
And it looked like a reunion would push through as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced in November 2002 that The Clash would be inducted there in March the following year. There were plans of a reunion to appear at the event but tragically Strummer suddenly passed away on December 22, 2002 of a heart defect. The possibility of a full reunion, suffice to say, ended with his death. In March 2003, The Clash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Life continued for the surviving former members. Jones and Headon occasionally reunited most notably to record The Clash B-side track “Jail Guitar Doors” with folk singer/activist Billy Bragg. Jones went on to become a producer, and Simonon collaborated with Blur’s Damon Albarn in the latter’s solo album The Good, The Bad and The Queen in 2007.
All three surviving members of the classic lineup – Simonon, Jones and Headon – reunited on BBC Radio 6 to talk about legacy The Clash’s left on popular music as well as to promote their boxed sets Sound System and 5 Album Studio Set. Both were released on September 9, 2013.