The Clash’s last-ever gig featuring the three founding members from 1976 – Strummer, Jones and Simonon - took place on 28 May 1983 at the Us Festival, a huge outdoor event held at the Glen Helen Regional Park, Los Angeles. The festival was organised by the Apple computers guru Steve Wozniak, and The Clash headlined the ‘New Music’ night, playing to a vast crowd of 150,000 on a bill also featuring A Flock Of Seagulls, The Stray Cats and Men At Work. Before the show, the band had called an emergency press conference to explain they wouldn’t play unless the organisers made a $100,000 donation to a summer camp for disadvantaged children; this the organisers did, fearing the event would descend into chaos. The Clash eventually took the stage two hours later, and finished the evening fighting with a DJ whose onstage announcements after their last song was seen as an attempt to rob them of an encore. Three months later, Mick Jones left the group, effectively signalling its end.
The Clash famously starred in their own film, Rude Boy, but it’s less well known they were leading actors in another, too: Hell W10, a silent, homemade black-and-white film written and directed by Joe Strummer in early 1983. The plot involved Paul Simonon and Mick Jones as rival underworld gangsters, with Joe making a cameo appearance as a policeman. As its title suggests, it was shot in and around the W10 London postcode where the group lived, in Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill. For years the film was thought lost, but in 2002 it was discovered among bric-a-brac on a London market stall and made available on the Essential Clash DVD.
In autumn 1982, The Clash were invited by Pete Townshend to support The Who on the latter’s “farewell” tour of North American stadiums. In May, Topper had been fired, replaced by a virtually unknown British drummer called Pete Howard, who toured extensively with the band that summer. The Who’s New York shows took place in October at Shea Stadium, made famous as a rock venue by The Beatles in 1965. One record company employee recalled that backstage the usual Clash havoc ruled, with the band smuggling in dozens of fans they’d picked up on their tour bus along the way, and letting in ticketless fans hanging around outside the venue. The Clash’s performances were sensational, as shown on their 2008 Live At Shea Stadium album.
In April 1982, on the eve of a UK tour to promote Combat Rock, Joe Strummer went missing. With the UK tour yet to sell out, manager Bernard Rhodes asked Joe to go AWOL as a publicity stunt to drum up ticket sales; instead, Strummer vanished entirely, secretly holing up in Paris where he grew a beard and ran the Paris Marathon incognito. With the UK tour cancelled and dates in the US looming, the band’s chief aide Kosmo Vinyl was tasked with tracking down the singer and persuading him to come back to London. Eventually, he found him in a bar, hailing the bearded Strummer with words, “Fidel!”
Back in New York in November 1981 to work on their next album, Combat Rock, The Clash hung out with the city’s art, film and music glitterati, including Andy Warhol, Robert De Niro and John Belushi, all of whom were big fans. At Strummer’s behest, the legendary Beat poet and Howl-author Allen Ginsberg also turned up at the studio with his friend Peter Orloffsky and contributed a spoken-word section to the track Ghetto Defendant, a song about heroin undermining political organisation in the ghetto. Ginsberg had researched the US punk scene and included references to “slam dance” and “the worm”.
During The Clash’s residency at Bond’s International Casino the group’s enthusiasm for rap, hip-hop, graffiti art and New York street culture in general reached fever pitch. Their first recording session after Bond’s, in London later that summer, saw them create This Is Radio Clash, a song conceived as a kind of pirate radio broadcast with a backing track drawing on a funk beat, synthesizers and Chic-style guitar, over which Strummer rapped a lyric referencing topical political issues in the US. The song, released as a single in November 1981, would gain the distinction of being the first ever British hip-hop record, coming on the heels of The Magnificent Seven’s pioneering use of rap the previous year.
With Sandinista! making at impact in the US, it was decided that, rather than undertaking another long American tour, The Clash would play a week of dates in June and July 1981 in New York, at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, following later in the year with similar week-long residencies in Paris and London. In typical Clash fashion, their arrival in New York triggered mayhem. After the first show, Bond’s was closed down by the Building Department as a fire hazard, in a move reportedly involving murky inter-club politics. This incited frustrated Clash fans to riot in Times Square the following day, the biggest public disorder in Times Square since Frank Sinatra fans ran wild in the 1940s. After negotiations, the capacity of the venue was reduced and the band had to stretch their residency to two weeks, with specially chosen support acts the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash showcasing hip-hop to a largely white rock audience for the first time.
Such was The Clash’s creative drive and energy that, just nine months after the double-album London Calling had been released, the band had already amassed enough material in 1980 to put out a triple LP. Tracks had been recorded in Jamaica, New York and London, and took in styles as diverse as rap, rockabilly, dub, jazz and Tamla-Motown. When their record company, CBS, was informed that they wanted to release six sides of vinyl they were horrified; but The Clash dug their heels in, and a deal was eventually struck whereby the record would appear as The Clash desired it but they would forgo royalties from the first 200,000 copies sold in the UK. The title Sandinista! was inspired by the name for the left-wing rebel group in Nicaragua, appeared in December 1980 and has now become recognised as one of their great artistic statements.
In 1980, The Clash starred in their own film, Rude Boy, following the life of a fictitious roadie, played by a fan called Ray Gange. The movie had little in common with the wacky cinematic adventures of ‘60s pop groups like The Beatles and The Monkees; instead, it showed the chaos and violence surrounding The Clash’s gigs in the punk era, with exhilarating virile footage of them performing live, hanging around on tour and arriving at court to answer charges for an incident involving Headon and Simonon shooting racing pigeons with an air rifle. The film director, David Mingay, also weaved in a gritty subplot about a young black youth in London falling foul of racist police attitudes.
The Clash flew to Kingston, Jamaica in 1980, to record at Channel One studios with reggae artist Mikey Dread – who’d been supporting them on tour - at the controls. At the time, tensions were at their height in JA and political killings widespread. The studio was in a ghetto area, and group and producer encountered demands for money from locals unused to white groups recording there. After several days, Dread deemed it too risky to stay, and The Clash – then still “on strike” from their record company, living off Paul Simonon’s girlfriend’s credit card, packed up and left, with great recordings of Junco Partner in the bag.
In April 1980, The Clash booked into a New York studio without any new songs to record. But inspired by the city’s exciting new rap scene, headed by the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, the group set about creating the funky Magnificent Seven – which became the first ever rap record made by a British act. When it was released a year later, Mick Jones’ remix of the track, The Magnificent Dance, became a big hit on the black radio station WBLS in New York, and a subsequently huge influence on dance music.
In 1980, while on tour in the UK with reggae artist Mikey Dread, The Clash recorded Bankrobber, a track with a heavy Jamaican vibe that they wanted to release straight away as a single. Their record label, however, thought it sounded “like David Bowie backwards”, and wanted instead to issue another song taken from London Calling. The group elected to follow the example of British miners and power workers and go on strike in protest; thus nothing by them was released in Britain until August 1980 – when Dutch import copies of Bankrobber were selling so well that CBS final relented and put the record out. It reached Number 12, becoming their second biggest hit to that date.
The cover of The Clash’s London Calling album, released in 1979, featured a photograph of Paul Simonon smashing up his bass guitar onstage at the New York Palladium. The shot was taken by Pennie Smith, whose portraits of the group have also appeared on the cover of the Clash LP Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982). It has been voted by Q magazine and others as the greatest rock photograph ever taken. The pink and green lettering on London Calling’s sleeve, meanwhile, was homage to Elvis Presley’s first LP.
The band toured the US for the first time in February 1979, taking along as support Bo Diddley, one of the greatest pioneers of American rhythm & blues and a Clash hero. By then, their first album had reportedly sold 100,000 copies on import. The six-shows were billed as the ‘Pearl Harbour’ tour, and the group pulled no punches by opening their sets with the song I’m So Bored With The USA. The American audiences fell in love with them - and The Clash fell in love with America.
In the late 1970s the East End of London was a breeding ground for far-right organisations targeting immigrant communities in what has historically been a poor part of the capital. In March 1978, The Clash took their anti-racist message into the heart of the area when they performed at an Anti-Nazi League rally at Victoria Park in Hackney, with Tom Robinson, X-Ray Spex and reggae band Steel Pulse also on the bill. Around 70,000 people attended the free gathering, and the band’s explosive performance was filmed for The Clash film Rude Boy.
While it would later become fashionable for groups to record in the idyllic Caribbean island of Nassau, in November 1977 Joe Strummer and Mick Jones flew to volatile Jamaica to find inspiration for songs for a second album. The home of ska and reggae was an extremely dangerous place, riven by political violence, and Joe and Mick spent most of the time in their hotel room. The song Safe European Home on 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album told the story of the trip.
To coincide with the release of their self-titled debut album, the group set off on the White Riot tour, giving many UK town and cities their first taste of punk rock and The Clash’s own brand of mayhem. Joe Strummer and Topper Headon were charged with stealing items from a hotel in Newcastle, while at the Rainbow Theatre in north London the audience rioted, smashing up around 200 seats and throwing debris on the stage.
When The Clash were recording their debut album in February 1977, they were asked to come up with an extra track to increase the overall running time. As big reggae fans, their answer was to cover Police & Thieves, a contemporary club hit by Jamaican singer Junior Murvin. The Clash gave the song their own edgy rock makeover, a move that kick-started punk’s lasting connection with militant black music, and opened up the band’s music to a strong reggae influence.
London in the late 1970s was teeming with youth factions - punks, skinheads, Mods, Teddy Boys, rockers - whose tribal rivalries erupted into violence on the streets and at gigs. The Clash were involved in the first major showdown between punks and Teds in October 1976 when they supported rockabilly singer Shakin’ Stevens (later a chart hitmaker with Green Door) at the University of London Union. The Clash fought with Teds and had to barricade themselves in their dressing room after the gig, with Mick Jones ending up with a cut nose in the fracas.
On 31 August 1976 band members Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, then living in squats nearby, joined the rioting in Notting Hill, West London, when hundreds of black youths fought with police after a long summer of simmering tensions fuelled by overtly racist policing. The events of that day inspired the group to write the song White Riot, which helped to define the group’s radical and provocative political agenda, and in March 1977 became their debut single.