Often known as “the only band that matters,” the rock world as we know it today simply would not have existed without The Clash, the punk pioneers with a penchant for the political. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon may not have produced a vast quantity of music but what they did deliver across their career came with a double dose of attitude and a reminder that punk, at its heart, was always about the little guy.
Often referred to as the thinking man’s punks, The Clash made a name for themselves as the politically minded side of the scene. While the Sex Pistols were all about shock tactics and gobbing in the face of your enemies, Strummer’s Clash were more intent on feeding the minds of the disenfranchised youth they represented. They were desperate to add in intellectual pursuit and artistic purity to their sound and sent the group and their fans into a new echelon of punk rock, one undeterred by the labelling of the genre.
From their explosive debut on the self-titled LP to their whimpering end, The Clash kept their integrity at the forefront of everything they did and ensured their names were written into the history books long before they gave up the ghost. While many may take the high profile headlines in the scene, the Ramones were one of the first, the Sex Pistols the loudest, the Buzzcocks the most radio-ready, the Damned the silliest—it was The Clash who were, and will always be, the only band that mattered.
“Everyone has got to realise you can’t hold onto the past if you want any future,” Joe Strummer once famously said. “Each second should lead to the next one.” It’s an attitude the band took into their music as they refused to be confined to the genre they had helped create. Instead, The Clash were happy to melt in a myriad of different musical influences into their sound to become one of the most holistic acts of all time.
Below, we’re bringing you 20 of our favourite Clash songs of all time, showcasing just why the band are considered the only one worth your time.
The Clash’s 20 best songs:
20. ‘The Magnificent Seven’
By the time The Clash approached a new decade of the eighties, they had already slammed through a series of different musical styles. They had taken on punk, reggae, dub, ska and rockabilly and on ‘The Magnificent Seven’ they even dabble in hip-hop.
Strummer, having spent a lot of time in New York, jumped on the microphone and became a rap-pioneer, even if it is a touch cringy. That apparent awkwardness is perfectly balanced out by the luscious groove that infiltrates every piece of your brain. Irreverent and unstoppable catchy, the song is the light side of The Clash.
19. ‘Complete Control’
Recruiting Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to produce ‘Complete Control’ was not only a genius move but a middle finger to their record label CBS. The label had released the band’s song ‘Remote Control’ as a single without the group’s knowledge and so they decided to kick back the only way they knew how… in song.
Perry on production is a marvel and the song is also notable for containing one of the only guitar solos Mick Jones produced for the band. It’s rightly lauded by the band as Strummer yells “You’re my guitar hero!” to the usually thrashing Londoner.
18. ‘Straight to Hell’
There’s a lot of enjoyment to be taken from ‘Straight to Hell’ and there’s no doubt that Topper Headon’s bossa nova rhythm on the drums is infectious. Featured on the band’s lesser-celebrated Combat Rock, the single breaks out from the rest of the album as a politically-charged number.
Joe Strummer was never far away from making a point and he believed that using punk rock was the best way to do it. On this track, he takes aim at the imperialism of the world and the use of soldiers’ lives as cannon fodder. He later called it “one of our absolute masterpieces.”
17. ‘Rock the Casbah’
If there’s one song to separate the cream of the crop in regards to the band’s fans then it will probably be this track. A divisive song, as often a band’s most popular songs are, this number has been oddly shunned by the band’s ultras. Written by Topper Headon, the song is imbued with a canny sense of funk that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Naturally, it is Joe Strummer on the lyrics as he sings about Iran and its post-Islamic revolution ban on pop music. This is where the idea of people rising up to “rock the casbah” was born.
16. ‘Stay Free’
A ferocious and potent song Mick Jones wrote for his longtime friend, Crocker, which still has a habit of making us well-up with the purity of childhood friendship. The friends had been separated for a time while Crocker served out a sentence for robbing a bank and Jones wrote a song for his incarcerated friend.
“One evening he came over with an acoustic and played me ‘Stay Free’,” remembered Crocker in a 2008 interview with The Guardian. “Somebody once said to me it’s the most outstanding heterosexual male-on-male love song, and there is a lot of truth in that. It’s a memento of a glorious band, a glorious time and a glorious friendship.”
15. ‘Lost in the Supermarket’
Sometimes it’s refreshing to get a new perspective on a song and this classic Strummer-penned track was given a breath of fresh air by Mick Jones’ vocal. Somehow, his softer tone allows the imagery of the track to become far more vivid.
Strummer chose to use the song to take aim at the surge of advertising that had been swelling around the globe as the increase of consumerism continued to stagger the singer. He opted to use some attainable imagery to show how far the advertisement infection had spread.
14. ‘Clash City Rockers’
Before The Clash, Strummer was the leading man in the 101’ers, a pub rock band who welcomed the long hair and free-flowing rock of The Who as influences. But after punk began to explode and Strummer caught a glimpse of the Sex Pistols everything changed.
It saw The Clash rework this song from Strummer’s days in the pub-rock adjacent 101’ers and allow the singer to add his soon-to-be-iconic growl of mish-mash cockney and nomad accents to a trumped-up punk rock beauty. Seriously, can you ever hear anyone singing “I want to move the town to the clash city rockers, You need a little jump of electrical shockers” as Joe did?
‘Clampdown’, which was written by Strummer and Mick Jones, refers heavily to the failures of capitalist society and how people seemingly become trapped within the traditional ethos of work, debt and conformist society.
Bass player and Clash co-founder Paul Simonon, in an interview with the LA Times, spoke about the opportunities available to him after he finished his education and how it influenced the song: “What was worse was that when it got time for us to start leaving school, they took us out on trips to give us an idea of what jobs were available,” he said. “But they didn’t try to introduce us to anything exciting or meaningful.”
Adding: “They took us to the power station and the Navy yards. It was like saying, ‘This is all you guys could ever do.’ Some of the kids fell for it. When we got taken down to the Navy yards, we went on a ship and got cooked up dinner and it was all chips and beans. It was really great. So some of the kids joined up—because the food was better than they ate at home.”
12. ‘Spanish Bombs’
Featuring on the band’s seminal album London Calling, the melody of ‘Spanish Bombs’ could be lifted straight from the glory days of pop. It is supercharged with pop sensibilities only to be scythed down with some of the band’s most obviously political lyrics.
The juxtaposition of the glossy sound with Strummer’s war-torn words turns the track into a worthy piece of the band’s catalogue. Concerned with the freedom fighters who fought in the Spanish civil war, Strummer effortlessly compares them to the holidaymakers and even sings in Spanish. It’s a rich piece of the band’s sound.
11. ‘Police & Thieves’ – The Clash
To feature a cover on your debut album is one thing but to feature a relatively unknown cover on your debut punk album is a deliberate thumb to the nose of the genre’s soon-to-be-adopted principles. Paradoxically, tearing up those principles is an extremely punk thing to do—it’s all very confusing. What isn’t confusing, however, is The Clash’s quite marvellous cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae stalwart.
“They have destroyed Jah work,” recalled Murvin when he first heard The Clash’s cover. While we’re not sure they were aiming to destroy the song for the creator, they certainly did change up the entire track and turn it into a foot-stomper. Chances are, if you’re a reggae fan then this may be a step too far. If you just love music, then you’ll adore it.
10. ‘Janie Jones’
The first song from your first album always needs to be a banger. Luckily, The Clash had this five-star firestarter in their arsenal. Not only does it come complete with a chugging intro capable of making toes tap like Gene Kelly but it’s also flecked with the rock ‘n’ roll attitude that would define the band.
Written as a eulogy to a forgotten ’60s icon who had been jailed for a vice offence in 1973, the song was even replied to as Jones, the madam wrote her own song ‘Letter To Joe’. It’s easy to see how she was so enamoured with the song, it has the ability to move your body without even trying.
If there’s one song which feels like the key going into the ignition and kicking The Clash into gear, it has to be this one.
9. ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’
One song which showed of the band’s love affair with reggae is this punk-dub joy, ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. Featuring on the band’s seminal record London Calling, the song was a homage to Caribbean culture, according to acclaimed filmmaker Don Letts.
It was a song dreamed up after a long-hot summer smoking marijuana and enjoying reggae clubs that were popping up across London. The song doesn’t only use its lyrics to pay tribute “drinking brew for breakfast” and the “chicken skin suit” but also the horns and groove of the track are undeniably influenced by reggae and ska.
It’s a joy to behold and is a guaranteed party-starter for any punk party. Aside from that it’s just a bouncing embodiment of a musical smile.
8. ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’
1981’s Combat Rock is a tough record for diehard fans to get on board with. If you had been a Clash fan since their beginnings in the punk clubs of 1976, their attempt to turn their attention to the charts in the new decade must’ve felt like a kick in the teeth. That said, if you scratch at the surface, it is this very rejection of the confines of punk which makes them punk in the first place.
However, we digress, the real power of the band at this time was their ability to hear and then capture a tune. “It wasn’t about anybody specific and it wasn’t pre-empting my leaving The Clash,” recalled Mick Jones who left the band in 1983. “It was just a good rockin’ song, our attempt at writing a classic…When we were just playing, that was the kind of thing we used to like to play.”
Though the track never broke the top 40 in the US, it is one of their most famous songs and can be heard across the globe as a mainstay of any worthwhile jukebox. To deny this song is to deny a key piece of the band’s iconography.
7. ‘Guns of Brixton’
One of the few songs to be written and sung by bassist Paul Simonon, the classic London Calling track not only offered a vision of the man who wrote it — effortlessly cool and somehow underpinned by danger. It also showed a side of London that was bubbling under the surface.
While Simonon certainly wrote the song because he needed the cash, revealing that “you don’t get paid for designing posters or doing the clothes”, when speaking to Bassist Magazine in October 1990, “you get paid for doing the songs,” he added. It’s clear the track was eager to come out of him.
If there was sone song to define the figure of Simonon, then this is it. Deeply influenced by reggae and imbued with a menacing tone of danger, ‘Guns of Brixton’ is a cult favourite that deserves more praise.
6. ‘Train In Vain’
There are few songs in the punk canon that can get us moving more frequently and as quickly as The Clash’s ‘Train In Vain’. A song engineer Bill Price once revealed ended up as a secret not-so-hidden track on London Calling: “‘Train in Vain’ was the last song we finished after the artwork went to the printer,” he said.
“A couple of Clash websites describe it as a hidden track, but it wasn’t intended to be hidden. The sleeve was already printed before we tacked the song on the end of the master tape.”
We’re glad they did include it as it might well be one of our favourite songs on the seminal record. “The track was like a train rhythm, and there was, once again, that feeling of being lost,” recalled Jones showcasing the song’s ability to lift you up and out of the cityscape mire the band found themselves in.
5. ‘(White Man in) Hammersmith Palais’
As we near the top of this list it’s easy to manipulate the top tracks into your own favourite positioning, but we must insist that ‘(White Man in) Hammersmith Palais’ rests near the top at the very least. It’s one of The Clash’s very best moments on record.
It sees a rock chorus meet a reggae verse head-on and lyrically it sees Strummer address the state of the nation following a paltry gig at a reggae club in Hammersmith Palais. In the song, he touches on everything from the music industry to racism and the rise of nationalism.
Listening today it still sounds as potent, powerful and purposeful.
4. ‘I Fought The Law’
They may well be the only band that matters, but The Clash were never afraid to dip their hand into the murky waters of music’s past and drag out a gem by the scruff of the neck. Having also covered songs like ‘Police & Thieves’ alongside their natural affinity with reggae and dub, this cover was a perfect fit.
Originally recorded by Sonny Curtis and then popularised the Bobby Fuller Four, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon take this track to a brand new, far more rebellious place with their cover of ‘I Fought The Law’. Strummer’s vocal, in particular, seems made for the song.
The Clash were in the middle of recording Give ‘Em Enough Rope when they stumbled upon the record in the jukebox of Automatt studios and instantly fell in love with it. Since then, it’s become a fantastic piece of their iconography and, above all else, one of punk’s lasting anthems. Its rebellious nature, non-conformity and gunslinging refrain make it a classic but the song’s continuous connection to the punks who have sung it from the rafters make it a champion.
3. ‘White Riot’
The Clash’s first single, ‘White Riot’, may have a habit of hitting the ear wrong in 2020. With all of the racial tension that surrounds us, coupled with Strummer employing a distinctly seventies-leaning set of lyrics, it’s easy to see why Mick Jones has distanced himself from the track in recent years.
While the song has struggled after being wrongly appropriated by White Nationalist groups who tried to take the song’s lyrics for their own use rather than see them as a call to arms for all of the oppressed, it’s a misunderstood punk masterclass. The song was written after Strummer and Paul Simonon were caught up in the 1976 Notting Hill riots and sees the singer strum his Telecaster harder and faster than he ever has done since.
It’s a powerhouse punk tune, despite racial overtones now implied, and acts as a flurry of fists to the face, reminding you just who The Clash were.
If there’s one song which reeks of the class that The Clash possessed then it has to be ‘Bankrobber’. Released in 1980, the song was almost forgotten as a promotional import-only 45, the band’s record label refusing to release the song as it sounded like ‘David Bowie backwards’. However, after the import sold well, the song was eventually released.
It sees the band once again invite the world of reggae and dub into the punk sphere for a hefty dose of storytelling.
Of course, Strummer’s dad wasn’t a bank robber, he was a diplomat but that doesn’t mean this song is any less charged or electrified. Produced by Mikey Dread, the song is a stark reminder of Strummer’s wide-ranging influences and the avenues he would open up for artists across the world.
Bubbling with reggae influences and a dub undercurrent, the track is one of the band’s fiercest moments on record and acts as the perfect distillation of what made them great. A song about London’s culture, probed by the intrigue of politics and pulled together in the crucible of punk rock.
1. ‘London Calling’
The track is an apocalyptic anthem in which Strummer details the many ways the world could end which, during the current climate, feels more relevant than ever. It is arguably The Clash’s definitive song, it sums up everything that’s great about their ethos wrapped up into three-and-a-half minutes as they stuck two fingers up at the establishment with their noted degree of intelligence.
Singer Strummer was unapologetically a news junkie, funnelling the world around him into his music. It gave him the inspiration for the track which was written around the time of the Cold War and it is this impending sense of doom that is filtered through ‘London Calling’.
‘London Calling‘ would see the band gain notoriety in the US with the eponymous album being universally loved by critics across the globe despite its Britain-centric direction. Released around the time that Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Britain, with their snarling intellectualism, The Clash soon became the voice of the disillusioned youth on both sides of the Atlantic.
The title track for the record perfectly captures the voice of the largely ignored majority at that period of time. As Joe Strummer pointed his gun at the neo-liberalism that he deemed to be ruining society, he unleashed a vocal which has gone down in the annals of rock and roll history as one of the most passionate of all time.