Credit: John Coffey

How Levi's jeans gave The Clash their only number one

For a short while, The Clash were the most political and purposeful punk band around. Then, for a lot longer, the group were considered “the only band that matters.” Ever since, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon have been lauded as the icons of punk rock and purveyors of social justice. But none of that necessarily means the band were commercially successful.

Of course, records like their landmark self-titled debut from 1977 and, perhaps, the defining punk album of all time London Calling sold in good numbers, but they never quite reached the top of the charts. In fact, the latter record, which was as revered then as it is now, only claimed the highest chart position of number two in the Swedish album charts, only reaching number nine in the UK. Through their single releases, The Clash struggled to hit the big time too. Even one of their seminal singles, ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’, released in 1982 when the whole world knew who The Clash were, struggled for position in the charts, peaking at 17 in the UK and 13 in the US. That was until Levi’s jeans came a-knocking.

1991 saw the single ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ be quickly reissued amid growing popularity, and it even achieved the band’s first and only number one spot on the UK charts. Now, we know what you’re thinking because we were thinking it too; how do a band with such deeply held beliefs on the commercialisation of art end up giving away one of their most beloved songs? The answer: to promote new music.

Previously, The Clash had rejected, out of hand, the various approaches by huge brands to use their music. Despite the odd embarrassment, The Clash had remained relatively unscathed by the eighties and the desperate attempt to commodity everything a band or artist did. Of course, there was the odd moment that they showed themselves up, especially at Steve Wozniak’s US Festival in 1983, where the band’s cheque for the show was projected behind them as they made a statement about the commercialism in rock music. But, otherwise, Strummer and co. were a group who talked the talk and walked the walk.

Following the band’s break-up, the realisation that The Clash had never really cashed in, although morally commendable, meant their bank accounts were relatively empty. It meant that when Levi’s came around in the early nineties with a briefcase full of cash; things were only going to go one way. Of course, by this point, Strummer was beginning to look at new projects, and Mick Jones’ new project BAD II was already underway, and Jones says it was the main reason for giving the song away.

The Clash had previously refused the attempts of Dr Pepper and British Telecom to use their songs, citing that they championed “creativity and idealism over commercial exploitation” but, for the Levi’s jeans attempt, things were a little different.

The band gave over the rights to the decision to Jones, the song’s principal creator. Jones, perhaps seeing the benefits ahead, agreed to the song being used in a commercial, rationalising the brand as being a rock music institution, rather than a brand that the group would “object [to] on moral grounds.” The song became the group’s only UK number one. The clever part comes in when you realise that Mick Jones used the single reissue, which was released in February 1991, to promote his new BAD II material, including the song ‘Rush’ on the B-side of the single release.

Mick Jones was always the craftiest member of The Clash, and he was sure to make the single’s reissue work for him and the band. But while The Clash have always remained steadfast in their punk ethos, they have to admit that the only reason they ever took the number one spot was because of some denim.

Watch the Levi’s jeans commercial featuring The Clash’s song ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ below.