Top 10 Clash Songs
These aren’t the only songs that matter for “the only band that matters,” but the Top 10 Clash Songs are a decent place to start. It’s not easy representing every facet of this British band, which began as a punk outfit then – at lightning speed – began to take on reggae, ska, rockabilly, power pop, R&B, dance music and even hip-hop. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and the Clash could only hold its core lineup together for a few years. But while they did, they burned so very, very brightly. Here are 10 shining examples.
‘Rock the Casbah’
Oft-overlooked drummer Topper Headon deserves a Sharif’s ransom for his work on the Clash’s most danceable track. Not only is Headon the entire rhythm section (he played bass instead of Paul Simonon), but he also contributed the jazzy piano part to this quirky classic. The lyrics, of course, came from frontman Joe Strummer, who crafted the fantasy of a Middle Eastern ruler banning rock music – only to be rejected by his people who continue to ‘Rock the Casbah.’ Although the song is not without a political bent, it shows the Clash at their most playful. ‘Rock the Casbah’ was also the band’s biggest American hit, landing in the Top 10.
Guitars, bass and drums charge in lockstep on this gem from the Clash’s self-titled debut. Strummer puts his sour howl to great use, decrying the lack of meaningful employment for young people in Britain. It’s something at least one member of the band knew firsthand. Guitarist Mick Jones once had a job opening letters for a government office to make sure they weren’t rigged with any explosives, hence the angry line: “I won’t open letter bombs for you!” The band took the idea of youthful anger to an extreme on ‘Sandinista!’ when they had keyboardist Mickey Gallagher re-record ‘Career Opportunities’ with his two young boys on vocals.
‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’
You can’t have the Top 10 Clash Songs without this blazing single, which features one of the greatest riffs in rock and roll. The prime mover behind the track was Jones, who paired that titanic riff with the indecisive lyrics and also sang lead. Singing the backing vocals are Clash tourmate Joe Ely and Strummer, who coaxed a studio worker to get his mother to translate the words into Spanish. ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ became the band’s sole No. 1 U.K. hit, but not until nearly a decade after it was initially released when it was featured in an ad for Levi’s.
‘Lost in the Supermarket’
Jones sings this melodic masterpiece too, although Strummer wrote the lyrics – inspired by his bandmate’s hardscrabble upbringing as well as his own disconnect with rampant consumerism. While many of the Clash’s songs blasted outward from Strummer’s bullhorn, ‘Lost in the Supermarket’ turns inward for a look at loneliness in the modern world. The music is softer (so is Jones’s delivery – Strummer was wise to hand this one off) and the beat is slower (just this side of disco), showing the Clash's rapid development as musicians.
‘The Magnificent Seven’
Before the Beastie Boys, before ‘Rapture,’ before most rock fans had paid any heed to hip-hop, the Clash made a rap track. While many would agree that the band tried to do way too much on the triple LP ‘Sandinista!’ this was a crazy experiment that actually worked. Inspired by the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, Strummer and Jones built a cracking funk track around a brilliant bassline, then let Joe rant and rave for a few minutes. Somehow, it was the perfect fit for Strummer’s stream of consciousness, which rat-a-tats its way through portrayals of ho-hum working life, bizarre media distractions and surreal stories about historical figures. It all ends with an actual News of the World headline: “Vacuum cleaner sucks up budgie.”
‘Straight to Hell’
A bleak worldview set against a stark musical background. The melodic elements of ‘Straight to Hell’ (later borrowed by M.I.A. for her hit ‘Paper Planes’) seem to move in slow motion in contrast to the constant ricky-tick of Headon’s percussion. Musically, the struggle is suggested between that the people Strummer sings about (unemployed English factory workers, the progeny of American soldiers in Vietnam, immigrants around the world) and those that see them as lesser humans. Strummer might not have ever delivered a better vocal; he hisses when he whispers, he moans soulfully for the lost children and he positively sounds like the devil when he intones, “Lemme tell you ’bout your blood, bamboo kid / It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice.”
The Clash weren’t a pure punk band for more than one album, but they made it count. No better evidence exists than ‘White Riot,’ which ranks with the best sides by the Sex Pistols and the Damned with it comes to U.K. anarchy. The Clash’s debut single is a two-minute speedball of screaming guitars and screamed politics, as Strummer yells about taking arms up against the powers that be. The frontman intended the track as a call to action (and not a call to violence), as heard in lines such as “Are you taking over? / Or are you taking orders?”
The kickoff track from, quite possibly, the best rock album ever recorded sets the table for a more mature Clash, two years after their punk debut. The songs might not move as fast, but the instruments hit harder and so do the words, which dwell on the end times. From the back of his raspy throat, Strummer wails about “a nuclear error” and that “London is drowning” in a flood of police brutality, drug use and the end of Beatlemania. Between Headon’s militant beat, Simonon’s reggae-inspired bassline and Jones’s switchblade riffing, ‘London Calling’ swings like a razor-sharp pendulum dangling precariously over society.
Did this band ever sound more powerful than they do on this entry in the Top 10 Clash Songs? Strummer shouts his motto (“Let fury have the hour / Anger can be power / Do you know that you can use it?”) before the band breaks into an R&B bridge with Jones doing the best Morse code impression on guitar since the Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Headon’s drumming is perfectly crisp and Simonon’s bass blurts in all the right places. Strummer doesn’t just walk a tightrope between the evils he perceives in capitalism and fascism, he uses the rope to tie the two together and push them off a cliff.
‘White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)’
This pivotal Clash single starts out with a thunderous riff, then trickles into a groove as Strummer begins to recount his story of going to a reggae concert in London. But the show ends up being a glossy production without “roots rock rebels” and the singer is crushed. Disillusioned and disgusted, Strummer turns his attention to bigger matters and begins poking holes in the hypocrisy in British politics, race relations and the burgeoning punk scene. The song was one of Strummer’s all-time favorites and was played at his funeral in 2002.