“Clash City Rockers,” the opening track from the American version of the band’s debut album, The Clash (1979). I’ve featured this song before, but I selected it again after reading this piece by my favorite local deejay, Lin Brehmer of WXRT in Chicago, about debut albums that “rocked [his] world”:
It is hard to argue with the majesty of the first album. In all its raw imperfection, the debut album gives us that first flicker of recognition that this may be an artist for the ages.
Although The Clash didn’t make Mr. Brehmer’s list, and although the American version was not, technically speaking, the band’s actual debut, this was the one LP that redefined rock ’n roll music for me, more than any other before or since.
Before the Clash, rock ’n roll basically was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, maybe the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac; and, if you were really, you know, cutting edge, David Bowie or Lou Reed. That’s all well and good, but if you were born in the early 1960s like I was, that kind of rock ’n roll was completely … well, established … before you entered high school.
But punk, man. That was new. And it was ours. Punk was the musical revolution that happened on our watch; we didn’t have to borrow it from our older siblings like we had to borrow, say, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Not that there’s anything wrong with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock; that stuff’s freaking awesome. But I was only seven years old at the time. I can hardly lay claim to it.
The Clash, on the other hand: I own that. That was mine. Nobody told me to like it; I heard it and I said, Yeah, that right there? More of that.
And I know I’m repeating myself here, but the best thing about the Clash and their debut album is that they knew exactly what was up before they laid down the first track. They were revolutionaries – they wanted to “burn down the suburbs with the half-closed eyes,” after all – but their eyes were wide open. From the very outset they knew the only way to get on vinyl, let alone on the radio, was to allow themselves to be used by guys in suits who didn’t give a good goddamn about the Clash’s politics but who knew exactly how to turn rebellion into money.
It was that, or spend the rest of their lives as a garage band, kicking ass with nobody really listening:
Back in the garage with my bullshit detector
Carbon monoxide making sure it’s effective
People ringing up, making offers for my life
But I just want to stay in the garage all night …
Which explains why when you first heard the Clash, you realized you’d never heard anything like them before. There were plenty of surly, disaffected teenagers in black t-shirts and torn jeans thinking that they were going to be the next Ramones or Sex Pistols, but damn few of them were honest enough to admit that they were never going to get their records played on the radio without giving up complete control:
They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant, “Let’s make a-lotsa money
And worry about it later!”
That’s just about as honest as any rock ’n roll band has ever been about anything. And believe me, in 1979, nobody in rock ’n roll was really all that into being honest.
So there you go. Easily one of the greatest debut albums of all time, and definitely the one debut album that changed everything for me.
Nothing stands the pressure of the Clash City Rockers, man.
Now … Turn. It. Up.