Punk rock called--it wants the Clash back


November 12, 2006


Of all of the influential bands to emerge during the original punk explosion in the mid-'70s, the Clash was arguably the most forward-looking, covering an incredible amount of stylistic ground during its lifespan, and remaining resolutely against nostalgia -- and a reunion -- after bandleader Joe Strummer split with his key partners, guitarist-vocalist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon, in 1983.

It's ironic, then, to find "The Only Band That Matters" the subject of considerable nostalgia of late, and not only from the countless pop-punk bands that shamelessly rip off its classic grooves. Opening last month and running through April 21, there's a new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland called "Revolution Rock," where Chicago fans interested in making the five-hour road trip and paying the $18 admission can marvel at Strummer's Fender Telecaster, Jones' Gibson Les Paul Jr.; Simonon's smashed bass from the cover of "London Calling," and the handwritten lyrics for "Know Your Rights" and "Clampdown."

There is also a new CD retrospective -- the seventh or eighth posthumous repacking of the band, by my count -- in the form of a new box set arriving in stores for the holidays. "The Clash -- The Singles" (Epic/Legacy) rounds up 19 of the band's U.K. singles, packaged in replica sleeves with simulations of the original labels, along with a 44-page booklet featuring testimonials from Pete Townshend, the Edge, Beastie Boy Mike D, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Damon Albarn of Gorillaz and Blur, to name a few of the group's many fans.

Since the end of his post-Clash group Big Audio Dynamite in the mid-'90s and the death of Strummer in December 2002, Jones has kept busy as a producer -- he worked with the Libertines and Pete Doherty's Baby Shambles -- and he is recording a new album of his own with a band called Carbon/Silicon. I recently spoke with him about the current surge of Clashmania.

Q. Let's talk about the new collection of singles first. Were you directly involved in putting this box together?

A. Only as such that they sent me a list of the tracks. Since they were just collecting the original singles, there wasn't much to discuss about what would go on there. The greatest thing about our stuff is that we've already done it: The work was done, you know? But there are a few different things about the versions of the songs that appeared on the singles. They weren't that much different, but in some cases like "White Riot," that was a totally different take. These slight differences kind of show you the development of the band. We were still developing even in the end; that was always the thing about the Clash, and we did a lot of work in the time we were together.

Q. I agree. The group never stopped evolving, and there was a tremendous amount of ground covered from the first self-titled album (1977) through "London Calling" (1979) and "Sandinista!" (1980) to "Combat Rock" (1982) and the point where you left the group.

A. Yeah, it often seemed like we were going 1,000 miles an hour, always going, and it was hard to get back. We would have liked to have done more stuff, to tell you the truth, and if we could have continued moving forward, that would have been great.

Q. It seemed as if the group never accepted any limits about what it could do: rockabilly, reggae, ska, R&B, country.

A. We were always reaching out, that's for sure. I don't think we were conscious of it at the time; it just was sort of instinctive to do that. This was all music we were listening to. We didn't take it all too seriously; we just played the music we loved, and we were all very driven. I think there's something to the fact that we were lucky enough to find each other; we all hit it off, and looking back now, I can see that was a rare thing. But while we were going, it was all about work, and that was what we all got off on.

Q. One thing I've admired about your career is that you've never been one for nostalgia and looking back...

A. I've always been too perfectly confused, honestly, to have any sentimentality about the past!

Q. Perhaps, but you've always continued creating and moving forward.

A. Yeah, it's kind of like, "What's the point of taking refuge in the past?"

Q. Right. So you have to find some irony in the Clash being featured in a museum, and of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 before other groups that preceded and inspired you, like Patti Smith and the Stooges.

A. Yeah, it's certainly a bit odd. I haven't been out there to the museum yet, but my mother has. She liked it very much. I'm going to be going, and it seems like a great building. I'm looking forward to seeing some of the other exhibits.

Q. I've been there, and it's fun in one way, but creepily fetishistic in another. Like, here are George Clinton's Atomic Dog boots, displayed like the relics of a saint. It doesn't seem very rock 'n' roll; if I want to honor George, I'll play my P-Funk records!

A. I hear what you're saying. I can't really comment on that, but I would say that there is an element of that that people project onto us. Especially since Joe's passing, there's been a real change: It's all very reverential, when the music wasn't ever, really.

Q. Right. The Clash at its best was raw, ragged and very immediate. And I think that's what so many bands, from Rancid to Green Day and on and on, continue to imitate.

A. Perhaps. I just wish they would do their own style. I don't mind that they copy us, but I think in the end, you still need a bit of an idea of your own. I do believe in the punk ideal that everybody can do it, but you need to have a bit of an idea and some talent. The thing for me is that rock 'n' roll is more than just a type of music; it's so much more an attitude and a spirit.

Q. I wrote the biography of an old friend of yours, the late rock critic Lester Bangs, and I was never able to connect with you or Joe to comment for that book. But the spirit and attitude you're describing were also things that he talked about a lot.

A. When I talk about all that, I sometimes get accused of not living in the real world. There's always been that: I'm always too idealistic or whatever. But I guess you sort of go head-on into it nonetheless, because the alternative is to think that there is nothing worth believing in anymore. There should be something worth believing in, and rock 'n' roll -- that blind sense of succeeding by sheer force of will power, the way that Lester wrote about it -- well, for the Clash to actually be able to do that was just fantastic.

Q. Do you think that spirit is still alive? Do you still see it?

A. I see it sometimes, yeah. There are loads of groups in London that have sort of come out doing their own thing of late, and every month, there is a new subgenre or style. They may start by taking one particular part from the Velvet Underground or whatever, but they kind of develop from there. Often things come through that are really great: the Streets, or just lately Lily Allen, or Gnarls Barkley.

Q. I have to ask, because so many fans always want to know: Do you think that if Joe hadn't died, the Clash would have ever gotten together again?

A. Probably not. I don't think so. But if we had, I would have wanted to do more -- to move forward, and to make it about that, and not so much the old stuff. We may have been one of the groups that would have been able to get across new material, but as it is, people sort of remember us more fondly now for what we were. Sometimes the way it turns out is the way it turns out.