In the 1970s, The Clash joined the Sex Pistols as one of the earliest London punk groups to hit the UK across the chops with some belting, riotous verse. Their unique approach developed over the late 1970s into the post-punk era with a more complex blend which included notes of reggae, funk and rockabilly; a winning combination that pushed them to the height of punk era fame and secured them a place in the history of music
In a similar way to folk music, early punk often tapped into tangible, real-life subject matter, whether it was deprecating the monarchy or getting lost in supermarkets. With Mick Jones, the band’s lead guitarist and co-creative force, having grown up in the South of London, The Clash’s early material is imbued with the region’s atmosphere with prominent use of imagery and namechecking.
For example, in 1978’s ‘Stay Free’, Jones wrote, “I practised daily in my room, you were in the crown planning your next move” and “If your in the Crown tonight, have a drink on me.” The “Crown” he was referring to here, was the Crown and Sceptre pub in Streatham Hill, South London. Just a 15-minute walk down the road from Streatham Hill is Brixton, the birthplace of David Bowie and the muse for The Clash’s London Calling classic ‘Guns of Brixton’.
The realism expressed throughout Jones’ lyrics was, of course, subject to artistic doctoring, but most of the ideas were based on real events and places in time. Naturally, when it comes to discussing The Clash’s 1980 hit single ‘Bankrobber’, ears prick up.
The stand-alone single, ‘Bankrobber’, was recorded in Pluto Studios in Manchester in early February 1980. It was significant in marking the group’s first collaboration with Mikey Dread, a reggae trailblazer who provided backing vocals and production services. He was later invited back to the studio to work on The Clash’s 1980 triple-album, Sandinista!
The ska-inspired track tells the story of a boy whose father robs banks but refuses to harm anybody in the process. The lyrics read: “My daddy was a bank robber/But he never hurt nobody/He just loved to live that way/And he loved to steal your money”. At the time of release, the song was taken literally by many, and critics curtly pointed out that singer Joe Strummer’s father was a foreign office diplomat and certainly no outlaw bank robber.
Despite such ludicrous fingerpointing, The Clash weren’t intending the story to be taken so literally. They were, instead, pursuing a continuation of their formerly mastered themes of dead-end jobs and oppression, but this isn’t to say that the bank robber character never existed in the real world.
“‘Bankrobber’ is an interesting one,” Jones once told Daniel Rachel, author of The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters, discussing the song. “I think my dad was a bank robber’s assistant. There was talk of him driving getaway cars. He was a cab driver, but he drove for other people. Joe wrote the words. The songs are like folk songs. They’ve become like traditional songs. A lot of it was based on truth. We made it so everybody could relate to it. It wasn’t exactly the truth; for instance, in ‘Lost in the Supermarket’, I didn’t have a hedge in the suburb. I lived in a council flat. A lot of the time, it got mythologised.”
‘Bankrobber’ has now been solidified in history as one of The Clash’s most memorable non-album singles, but at the time, critics weren’t so sure. Some people were alienated by the band’s continued deviation from an original more punk-oriented sound following 1979’s London Calling, but over the decades, this more experimental era for the group has been widely revered.
The low-budget video created for The Clash’s ‘Bankrobber’ shows the band playing in the studio with interspersed footage of bandana-clad roadies Johnny Green and Barry Glare robbing a bank in Lewisham. While filming, Baker and Green were stopped and questioned by understandably suspicious police officers. Watch below.