This week, I’ve been listening to the Clash‘s 1977 self-titled debut album. I spent a week with their double-LP “London Calling,” making this the second time I’ve spent a week with one of the Clash’s albums for this project. I knew some of that one, but with this album I am very value.
My new group of friends in Athens, OH introduced me to punk rock in 1994; This one immediately caught my interest. I didn’t realize that this was the same band that did “Rock the Casbah,” a favorite song from my childhood. With a year, I bought this debut album and played it frequently. It’s part of the soundtrack of my youth, as well as an album I’ve continued to love as an adult.
The rocker “Janie Jones” opened the original UK LP release of the Clash’s debut album. The drums start the song with a rapid steady beat like a speeding train. Then Mick Jones’s sharp overdriven guitar cuts in with a burst of a single chord. Joe Strummer’s distinctive raspy vocals jump right into the chorus “He’s in love with rock n’ roll, whoa.” The guitar stabs with the same chord at the start of the next bar, “He’s in love with getting stoned, whoa.” And the same for the next two lines, “He’s in love with Janie Jones, whoa. He don’t like his boring job, no.” And with those simple lines they probably embraced half of their audience. Then they repeat the chorus, this time joined by a simple, but energetic bassline.
This is not a complex song; Rather much of its success comes from it’s direct and simple approach. There’s only one chord to the chorus, with the guitar only providing a stab at the beginning of each bar and resting throughout. The verses follow a V-I-IV-V chord progression, with each chord lasting a full two bars. Topper Headon relentlessly beats a near consistent pattern, with basic fills at the end of every two bars. The instrumentation is sparse. We have the drums, bass guitar, a buzz-saw electric guitar, and vocals, but the Clash delivers plenty of energy and attitude that drives this song through its short 2 minute length.
Police & Thieves
In the middle of the second side, The Clash perform a cover of reggae artist Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” This is both the only cover song and the longest song on the album, at six minutes. Murvin’s song had been release just the previous year and The Clash frequently performed the song as a warm-up during recording sessions. Reggae had a big influence on punk rock, and especially the Clash. These 70s punks, like Joe Strummer and gang, would’ve spent their teenage years hearing songs like “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker during the late 1960s. A teenager’s appreciation for reggae in England at the time would’ve been a rebellious act of opposition of the racism of older generations.
I love the interplay of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’s guitars across the stereo field. One is panned hard left, the other hard right. Their overdriven short chord bursts go back and forth. First with one playing a chord that slides up to the next, then rests while the other bursts the chord in response. The bass plays a bouncy little riff at the beginning of each bar, preceded by a lead-in at at the end of the previous bar. All of these elements demonstrate how the Clash translated the sound and rhythms of reggae into their own music.
White Man in Hammersmith Palais
Since the first time I heard this album, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” stands consistently as my favorite Clash song. The melody and singing are outstanding, showing off Strummer’s excellent ability to mix sonorous melodic singing, reggae influence, and British punk attitude. The melody, backing harmonies, and lyrics grabbed me immediately as a teenager. It’s an epic song, aware of its scope. There’s reggae rhythms through out, little percussive taps and ticks. The guitars scratches and bursts chords on the upbeat. It’s an absolutely perfect and essential track.
I think the line that got me first was “You think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money.” in response to rock bands and corporations capitalizing on youth. In a later verse he sings “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway,” which I wonder may’ve been in partially in response to David Bowie’s comment the previous year that “Adolf Hitler one of the first rock stars.” WIth Bowie being a huge influence on the group and punk rock in general, that and other statements Bowie made about fascism may’ve been troubling for the punks.
Importantly, I think, Stummer acknowledges his own lack of credibility, “I’m the all-night drug-prowling wolf, who looks so sick in the sun. I’m the white man in the Palais, just looking for fun.”