The Clash: still selling records
The Clash were one of the most successful English punk bands, and 36 years after their first release are putting out two new compilations, writes Michael Hann
Influential 1970s English punk band The Clash are preparing to release a pair of compilations at the end of summer. That a new Clash compilation and box set - the sixth and the third, respectively - can still generate excitement is testimony to both the affection in which the band are held, and the sense that no British rock 'n' roll band since has challenged them for ambition, scope and excitement.
Sound System is a box set, containing the first five Clash albums remastered, plus a plethora of rarities in both audio and visual form. The Clash Hits Back is a two-CD best-of, sequenced to copy the setlist from a show at the Brixton Fair Deal - now the Academy - in July 1982.
Clash members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon discuss the new releases, and look back at their heyday and the band's influences.
Why was the Brixton show so significant that you copied the setlist for ?
Paul Simonon: We're from the Brixton area, and I used to go there - it used to be called the Brixton Astoria - for Saturday morning pictures. It's where I saw my first pop show. We all turned up as 10-year-olds, and they said: "Right, boys and girls, we've got a special surprise for you - we're not going to show you a film!"
So everyone was "Booooo."
"No, we've got a special surprise - we have Sandie Shaw!" And Sandie Shaw came on, and she was going on about not having any shoes.
Mick Jones: We used to bunk in, which was quite difficult. In those days, on a Saturday night, it would be thousands of people - as many as you get at a gig at the Academy. You'd have that but the whole place would be packed - before video, before anything. That was the social hub. On weekdays and holidays, one of us would shin up a drainpipe and go through the open window to the loos, right, and then come down and open the door and we'd all pile in.
How much did your setlists vary from show to show?
MJ: Quite considerably. Obviously there were numbers that always had to be in there. Joe [Strummer] actually physically did the list, but we all made our suggestions.
PS: One thing that crossed my mind the other day was that it was probably quite a challenge for Joe, trying to remember the lyrics for a song that we hadn't played for a while. Now I understand why before we went on he used to be mumbling in the corner - going over the lyrics of a song we'd just reintroduced.
How had you changed as a live band between 1976 and 1982?
PS: I'd become musically more capable. I could take off the notes that were painted on the neck of my guitar. But then I did make a mistake in being really confident: I went for one of those jazz basses that didn't have frets ...
MJ: Your thumb was growing so big. He hit his thumb with a hammer. It was the only way he could play.
PS: It didn't have any frets. And when it goes really dark, and you can't quite hear what you're playing, it sounds like you're drunk. So I said: "You know what? I think I'll have the frets put back on." I got a bit carried away. I thought I was getting quite good, but I got a big slap in the face.
You were always dynamic onstage - was that rehearsed or spontaneous?
PS: There were certainly aspects - if he's gonna run across stage like that, then I'm gonna run across this way. And if he can jump that high, then I'm gonna jump this high. There was competition with each other on stage, too.
MJ: As we became more pompous.
PS: Pompous? When? What, with my crown and my sceptre? Yeah, I remember that. And the ermine furs on your combat outfit.
Did you nick stage moves from anyone else?
PS: Yeah, Wilko Johnson.
MJ: Johnny Thunders.
PS: Hearing that Wilko was unwell made me think a lot about him. I remember the first Clash album cover, I'm almost wearing Wilko's clothes. I used to wear a jacket similar to this [he's wearing a tailored midnight blue jacket] with that outfit, and so, yeah, Wilko was a big influence. And so was Pete Townshend because he jumped around. Those were the main two.
MJ: It was Keith Richards for me, and Johnny Thunders. And then me.
Theway the Clash was presented - in clothes, in posters, in images - was very important, wasn't it?
PS: Totally. You could put it down to a very basic thing [Clash manager] Bernie Rhodes said to me: "Why is an audience going to listen to what you've got to say if they're better dressed than you?" So if you think about that, everything's important because it reflects what you're about as a band. If you say: "I don't care about the posters, I just do the music," you're underselling yourself. It's all important. A lot of the looks were down to financial problems. Everyone in those days wore flares and had long hair. So if you went into second-hand stores, there'd be so many straight-legged trousers because everyone wanted flares. That instantly set you apart from everybody else. There was another place called Laurence Corner ...
MJ: Selling army surplus ...
PS: ... and you could dress it up accordingly. Somebody would wear one thing, and someone else would think: "That's good." For example, Johnny Thunders. We always wore Dr Martens, but me and Joe saw his boots and said: "Wow, where did you get those boots from?" And he said: "There's this place called Hudson's in New York." So when we got to New York, we went straight to the shop and bought these motorcycle boots like these [Simonon holds up a leg to show that he still wears them], which we wore all the time, and people started calling them "Clash boots". And when we started touring other places in the world, we'd pick up stuff. Like in America there was a surplus of '50s clothing that was next to nothing - nobody wanted it. So we'd buy it and bring it back, and it was like: "Wow - this is like what Gene Vincent would wear." And then it became mixed in with what we had. You wore it offstage, too. What was really good about the beginning of the whole punk thing is you would leave London and go to Teesside or anywhere up north and there'd be kids turning up who'd got their shirt and cut the sleeves off or splattered it with paint and done something themselves - it was DIY, which was really important.
What would have happened to The Clash had you been able to carry on? Would you have kept your dignity, or become a musical pantomime?
MJ: You what? Only if I get the front of the horse! Who gets the back? There'd be three people fighting in the front.
PS: We'd all have one horse each, with a saggy bit behind us. Obviously at some point we'd grown up to a certain point ... and then our complexities and differences of opinion meant it petered out. Once we'd kicked Mick out. And Topper [Headon, the drummer].
MJ [laughing hard]: There wasn't anybody left! That's why!
PS: Somebody said: "I'll give you a million pounds each to reform," and we said no. We came and did what we did and now let's move on. Say Joe was still around, I still think don't think it would have happened.
At least you managed to repair your friendships quickly after Mick was sacked.
MJ: Oh, very soon. That was the amazing thing. There was only a short time when we weren't really talking to each other.
Finally, any regrets about The Clash - missed opportunities, anything like that?
MJ: Can I just sound like Edith Piaf?
PS: Are you going to say it in French? I have no regrets. I'm the kind of person who looks forward, to what I'm doing.
And what are you doing?
Both, simultaneously, before collapsing in gales of laughter: Working on the box set!
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