There’s a damn fine reason that CBS executive called The Clash “the only band that mattered”, and that’s because they completely changed what it meant to be a rock star. The band were not only the children of s stylistically driven arthouse scene that revolutionised rock ‘n’ roll, torching it to the ground before reassembling it with duct tape and safety pins, but they went on to become an all-inclusive, politically charged gang of rebels that sang for the people.
In just under a decade, across six studio albums, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes and Topper Headon created a fervent fanbase that still finds recruits to this very day. Though they first appeared as a spark in the furious fires of punk rock, emerging in 1976 as a feverish outfit, the band soon went on to incorporate the sounds of dub, reggae, jazz, ska and funk, allowing their sound to flourish with every passing year.
Following the release of their debut record The Clash arguably one of the greatest self-titled albums of all time, the band went on a spree of punk jams, delivering first Give Em Enough Rope and then the seminal moment in the genre, and their career, London Calling landed in 1979 and confirmed The Clash as icons. Like any real heroes, the band then went on the offensive for the oppressed and begun their revolutionary rock sound.
Records like Sandinista! and Combat Rock arrived with the usual line-up of Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon after the latter replaced Terry Chimes on drums following the recording of the debut LP (hence why only three of the band appear on the cover). But following an acrimonious split in 1983 with Strummer and Jones at loggerheads over songwriting style and the band’s overall direction, the group never really recovered and Cut the Crap from 1985 would be the final full-length release from the band.
Even across such a comparatively small back catalogue, especially considering their impact, there’s still a lot of material to get through. But, if you only had enough time to listen to one song from each of those albums, then which would it be? That’s a question I ask myself as I pick the best song from every album by The Clash.
It’s no mean feat. Of course, with the band’s output starting to tail off by the end of their tenure as punk provocateurs, it is easy to pick out just one song as the best with some of the later albums. But when you consider that London Calling, easily the band’s most revered record, has 18 classic tracks to pick from, it can get really tricky. That won’t deter us, however.
The best song from every The Clash album
‘Janie Jones’ – The Clash (1977)
Of course, there is a tendency to lean towards the classic songs from the band’s debut album as their best. Songs like the classic ‘I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.’ can still make a pub bounce, while ‘White Riot’ was, of course, the band’s first rallying anthem. But ‘Janie Jones’ must be considered the best for two very vital reasons — not only was it the band’s first steps into the world of ‘the album’ but it also showcased that The Clash were timeless.
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. The madam star, Jones, 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 that feels like the key going into the ignition and kicking The Clash into gear, it has to be this one.
‘Stay Free’ – Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)
One thing that may have annoyed many of those who bought the sophomore album of The Clash is that despite not ranking in the top three of the band’s efforts, it easily has one of the best album covers. The artwork, however, would prove to be the best bit of the album.
That’s not to say that Give ‘Em Enough Rope is a bad album—far from it. But moving on from the fire-breathing garage band intensity of their self-titled debut was always going to be an extremely difficult manoeuvre to master. In truth, the record sees Mick Jones and Joe Strummer caught between two opposingly moving ships, producing cartoonish splits as they do. But it was still equipped with a few cracking numbers, including ‘Tommy Gun’ and ‘English Civil War’, which were both contenders for this post. However, it’s hard to look beyond ‘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.”
‘London Calling’ – London Calling (1979)
When considering London Calling there is genuinely an argument for every single one of the 18 songs featured on the double LP. Whether it’s Paul Simonon’s bracing bassline on ‘The Guns of Brixton’ or the disco chug of commercialised Britain in ‘Lost in the Supermarket’, the LP is considered one of the greatest of all time for a reason.
However, I set myself a challenge, and I intend to meet it, the only issue being that I will undoubtedly be persecuted for “going for the easy option.” But, if you’re honest with yourself, and you look in the mirror to think about the defining song of the defining album of The Clash, it’s impossible to look beyond ‘London Calling’. 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 Cold War, and it is this impending sense of doom that is filtered through ‘London Calling’.
The song would see the band gain notoriety in the US, with the eponymous album being universally loved by critics worldwide despite its Britain-centric direction. Released around the time 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 song, and Strummer’s vocal, will go down in the annals of rock and roll history as one of the most passionate of all time. It distils the very essence of The Clash into a terrifyingly potent cocktail — a Molotov, probably.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ – Sandinista! (1980)
Remember when I complained about London Calling being a double album, and how hard that makes it to select a favourite song from it, Sandinista! doesn’t suffer from the same issues, despite being a triple album. However, even with that said, the record is still criminally underrated.
The album falls due to its incoherence, but that’s only compared to the clear and piercing bursts of creation the other albums had been. After all, this was also the moment The Clash left punk behind, once and for all. Still, across 36 tracks, the band could have probably stopped after song one and be happy they’d completed the best song on the LP. Of course, the greatest track on the record is ‘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.
Having spent a lot of time in New York, Strummer 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.
‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now’ – Combat Rock (1982)
There was simply no other choice than the anthemic ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now’ not only did it give the band their first number one (a few years later when a certain denim brand picked up the track for an iconic commercial), but it has since become a staple of any party worth its weight in beers.
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 that makes them punk in the first place.
However, we digress; the band’s real power 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.”
To deny this song is to deny a key piece of the band’s iconography.
‘This Is England’ – Cut the Crap (1985)
By the time 1985 rolled around, The Clash had permanently etched their name into the annals of music history. It means that releasing Cut The Crap was a simply superficial statement shared only to enrich the personal longevity of those involved, namely Joe Strummer, who had begun to buy his own merchandise at this point.
One of the gigantic reasons this album falls way, way down the pecking order of Clash material (we’d have put it at number seven if we could) is that it is missing Mick Jones. The commercial Yin to Strummer’s aggressive Yang, Jones’ songwriting contribution is a giant hole in the middle of the record. Instead, Strummer co-wrote the entire album with the record’s producer, Bernie Rhodes. Headon was also out of the band, leaving this album to be a Clash record in name only.
There were a few bright spots on the album, though and ‘This Is England’ is undoubtedly the brightest. Written in late 1983, the song was a sincere reflection of England at the time as Strummer held up a mirror to Thatcher’s Britain. A left-wing anthem, the song relied on the day’s social issues but delivered them with a searing sincerity.