Musicians love to veer off of the beaten track. Whether this is lyrically, musically or in their personal lives, musicians have a strange perceptive of the world. This skill has given way to some of the most iconic artists on the planet realising their true potentials, such as The Beatles or Radiohead, whose experimentation in the studio cemented their iconic status.
On the other hand, this pushing of boundaries has resulted in some quite frankly terrible pieces of music, such as Metallica and Lou Reed’s 2011 record Lulu, to get specific. This is just one example of a vast array of terrible musical experiments. However, this divergence from the norms often leads to haphazard moments of ingenuity that usually help to augment a piece of work. There have been numerous examples over the years in which musicians have embodied MacGyver to stellar results. Whether this is the inclusion of broken strings, samples of frogs, or otherwise, sometimes these left-field choices can really pay off.
Of course, we could spend all day discussing the number of times a musician has used their intellectual nouse to get the effect they wanted. In fact, The Beatles and Brian Eno are in no doubt the modern masters of this, but that is a story for another. However, over the Christmas period of 1981, another band opted to use spontaneity in order to achieve the desired results. As they were a band who typically eschewed their genres established commandments, this action comes as little surprise and would help to create one of The Clash’s most iconic songs.
If we cast our minds back to New Year’s Eve, 1981, we find The Clash recording the finishing touches for what would become their best-selling album, 1982’s Combat Rock. The British punk heroes were working on a track entitled ‘Straight to Hell‘. A lyrically dense piece of social commentary, the song had started life with Mick Jones doodling on the guitar, but after several months of tinkering, the band had a fully fleshed out classic ready for the record.
It was drummer Topper Headon who initially struggled with the song. Across its inception, he was never entirely comfortable with the beat he was playing, thinking something was a miss. Retrospectively discussing the beat, he said, “You couldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll to it. Basically, it’s a Bossa Nova.” A Bossa Nova, for those unaware, is a style of Brazilian samba, and this is what gives the track its sunny feel, presenting a stark juxtaposition to the lyrical themes. Regardless, Topper Headon would have an idea that would help to strengthen the song’s iconic beat even further.
Frontman Joe Strummer recalled: “Just before the take, Topper said to me, ‘I want you to play this’ and he handed me an R Whites lemonade bottle in a towel. He said, ‘I want you to beat the bass drum with it.'”
Have you ever wondered how The Clash managed to get their iconic bass drum sounding so nice and thick? Well, now you know. Strummer’s use of the bottle created a warm thud that really drives Headon’s Bossa Nova home. With this, the final piece in the song’s puzzle, the recording session finished just before midnight. Strummer recalled: “We took the E train up to Times Square. I’ll never forget coming out of the exit, into a hundred billion people, and I knew we had just done something great.”
Great it was, and still is. The song is so iconic it has been sampled by everyone from Moby to M.I.A. and even Lily Allen. It will continue to live on in the collective conscious, helped by Headon’s ingenious use of an R White’s lemonade bottle.