The Clash have a special place in my heart. Not only because London Calling was the first album I was ever given, but because they opened the door to countless other genres. In this way, The Clash have always been something of a gateway drug; introducing fans to reggae, dub, disco, and even hip-hop.
Once billed as “the only band that matters”, The Clash’s immense output is certainly something to behold. With singles like ‘Lost In The Supermarket’, ‘I Fought The Law’, and ‘London Calling’, The Clash cemented themselves as a uniquely British entity and one of the most pioneering bands of the 1970s punk boom.
But in this article, we’ll be looking, not at their big-hitters, but at their shimmering array of B-sides. In the streaming age, in which we are faced with the same well-known tracks time and time again, the joy of B-sides like ‘City Of The Dead’ and ‘Mustapha Dance’, can easily slip beneath the radar; songs which are as good, if not better, than any a-side.
Well, never fear. Below, we’ll be casting a light on some of the most underappreciated songs in The Clash’s discography.
The best B-sides from The Clash
The B-side to The Clash’s seminal track ‘London Calling’, the fearsome ‘Armagideon Time’ reveals the band’s shared love of dub reggae. The group’s original bassist, Paul Simonon, grew up in Brixton, an area of South London with a large West Indian community.
As a result, reggae, ska, and dub formed the very foundation of much of The Clash’s most intoxicating material. By the time ‘London Calling’ came out, the group had already collaborated with Lee “Scratch” Perry and covered Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ on their debut record. This B-side is a heavy dub cover of Willie William’s original political anthem of the same name and showcases The Clash at their very best.
Simonon’s bass guitar forms a rhymic centre point, around which Mick Jones offers up his characteristic stabs of crystalline guitar and layers of electric sitar.
This track was originally recorded by The Maytals in 1969 and was released by Trojan Records in 1970. Trojan was a critical label for bands such as The Clash and was instrumental in introducing reggae to a worldwide audience. In an interview, Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert described the original song as being about “revenge, but in the form of karma: If you do bad things to innocent people, then bad things will happen to you. The title was a phrase I used to say. If someone done me wrong, rather than fight them like a warrior, I’d say: ‘The pressure’s going to drop on you.'”
The Clash’s version of the track, which formed the B-side of their 1979 single ‘English Civil War’, is almost happy-go-lucky in its outlook. With its harmonious gang vocals, dirt-driven guitars, and two-tone rhythm, it has a whiff of Madness about it. It’s absolutely joyous.
‘Jail Guitar Doors’
A Clash original, ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ was released on the 17th February 1978 as the B-side of their fourth single ‘Clash City Rockers’. The song is essentially a re-worked version of ‘Lonely Mother’s Son’ a track from Joe Strummer’s previous band, The 101ers. It even shares the same chorus, “Clang clang go the jail guitar doors.”
The song went on to inspire the name of Billy Bragg’s charitable venture, ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ initiative. Bragg set it up with the aim of providing musical equipment for the use of inmates serving time in prisons. The project also funded various individual projects such as recording sessions in UK prisons and for former inmates throughout the United Kingdom.
This B-side to The Clash’s 1982 ‘Rock The Casbah’, is a bass-heavy reworking of the A-side. It is a proto-dance floor-filler, inspired by the remix culture that flourished in clubs throughout the mid-’70s. For me, this spliced and reworked version is miles better than the original.
It seems to capture the energy and hedonism of the ’80s underground dance scene, foreshadowing the Acid House movement that would soon sweep the nation. The track is also a testament to The Clash’s desire to continually push their sound in new, more exciting and danceable directions.
‘City Of The Dead’
‘City Of The Dead’ is, in my opinion, one of the best Clash songs of all time. It forms the B-side to the band’s 1977 single ‘Complete Control’, and drips with all the things that made The Clash unique. Despite being a punk tune through and through, it contains none of the dystopian nihilism which characterised the output of many of The Clash’s contemporaries and indeed much of their own work.
Rather, the ear-catching melody played by the horn section gives the track an undeniably hopeful mood, and the whole thing shimmers with a sort of childish vitality. Why The Clash decided to stick it on the B-side, I’ll never know.