The Clash, so effortlessly remembered as “the only band that matters”, struggled to really make an impact on the charts during their heyday. In fact, by 1982, with the band’s new record Combat Rock the group had rarely even flirted with the top ten. It’s remarkable considering the band’s huge cultural impact but perhaps not that strange when you look at their singles. From ‘White Riot’ up until their 1982 release of ‘Know Your Rights’, the band had released songs without much hope of cracking the code to commercial success.
Two songs would change that and not only bring about some moderate commercial success for the group but, in an ironic twist of fate, perhaps also signal its demise. The most notable of those two songs (the other being ‘Rock the Casbah’) is the ubiquitous anthem ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ — a song so routinely woven into the fabric of our cultural existence that it feels as imposing as the Lord’s prayer. In truth, it was a song released with a simple aim: become a classic.
Penned largely by The Clash’s resident hitmaker and guitarist, Mick Jones, ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ has become entrenched in the punk rock outfit’s staunch iconography and not for all the right reasons.
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, this very rejection of the confines of punk 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.”
The song is also remembered for having Spanish backing vocals from both Strummer and Joe Ely. Strummer said of the decision in 1991: “On the spur of the moment I said ‘I’m going to do the backing vocals in Spanish’ … We needed a translator so Eddie Garcia, the tape operator, called his mother in Brooklyn Heights and read her the lyrics over the phone and she translated them. But Eddie and his mum are Ecuadorian, so it’s Ecuadorian Spanish that me and Joe Ely are singing on the backing vocals.”
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. However, denying this song is a signal for the band’s upcoming implosion is equally damaging.
The reality is, as Jones said, he was now in the hunt for writing classics. And by “classics”, he meant chart hits. On the other hand, Joe Strummer was more intrigued by following his political passions wherever they may take him. He was still intent on raising awareness of oppression and using his position as a famous face to tell the stories of those who could not reach the mic. ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ speaks volumes of this separation.
The song was not only designed for radio airplay, of which it got a lot, but it was also the least overtly political song on the album, instead preferring to find its niche on the indie rock dancefloors. Only a year on from the release, and following a disastrous performance at the US Festival, The Clash were on a collision course for disbandment.
That doesn’t take anything away from the song, of course. ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ has become a part of our cultural lexicon not because it was “an attempt at writing a classic” or some signifier for the loss of an iconic band, but because it has groove, it has shimmy, and it has a serious chorus. Though the song would never get the numbers it deserved, it remains a searing part of The Clash’s legend.