British musical history sometimes lumps The Clash into the same British punk category as The Sex Pistols (who broke the ground on that scene), but the feisty songwriters and performers, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, were way more idealistic than Sid Vicious and his nihilistic brood. The Clash were always musically adventurous, venturing beyond rock into reggae, dub and rap rockabilly, while fashioning themselves as rebels with a leftist cause.
When Jones, the band’s enigmatic guitarist, was abruptly fired in August '83 the band were on the verge of breaking into superstardom, alongside artists like The Who, Stones or Springsteen. Their popularity, driven by huge hit albums like London Calling and their two best known U.S. hits “Train in Vain (Stand By Me),” and “Rock the Casbah,” took them a long way from their West London beginnings in 1976, when Jones, an art school dropout, first met Strummer outside the local D.H.S.S.
The earliest Clash lineup signed with CBS Records, and over three weekends recorded their self-titled debut. Rolling Stone called it the "definitive punk album," and it seemed to distill the anger, depression and energy of mid-70s England. The album reached #12 on the UK charts, setting the stage for Give ‘Em Enough Rope, produced by Blue Oyster Cult’s Sandy Pearlman; the sophomore release was a hit at home but bombed in the U.S.
Another minor UK hit, 1978’s "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" was followed with "Tommy Gun," their first UK Top 20 hit. The debut album was finally released in the U.S. as a double set, including their singles as tracks, and it sold well. Then, London Calling marked a return to top form, with "Train In Vain" giving the band their first U.S. Top 30 single. The Clash’s inter-band ups and downs continued as a disappointing triple set, Sandinista! followed a wildly successful 1980 American tour.
Experienced rock producer Glyn Johns was brought in for the much more focused Combat Rock, recorded with Terry Chimes on drums after original drummer Nicky "Topper" Headon abruptly left the group. Ironically, Headon was the songwriter of “Rock The Casbah,” a Top 5 hit in the U.S. that brought a feel-good element to the band’s persona.
Some might think that the 1982 tour in support of The Who would be a huge achievement, but many fans cried “sellout!” since The Clash once ridiculed the idea of superstardom.
Tension between Jones and Strummer strained to breaking point and led to Jones’s departure in 1983. Strummer at first criticized Jones, then later confessed to his role in the breakup. Cut The Crap did well on the UK charts in 1985, but Jones was sorely missed on a mostly punchless effort. Jones went on and formed Big Audio Dynamite with fellow 70s Londoner, rock music refugee Don Letts, and for several years the band became a force in the dance/pop arena.
After formally disbanding The Clash in 1986, Strummer toured briefly with Latino Rockabilly War, and played with the Pogues, before turning to acting and production. He supervised the soundtrack to the punk-rock biopic about the final days of Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, Sid And Nancy. A compilation, The Story of the Clash, was released in 1988, and the band returned to the charts a few years later when “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”— originally a UK hit in 1982 —was re-released by CBS after its appearance in a Levi’s commercial.
Even a #1 hit couldn’t prompt a long-rumored reunion, but a highly-anticipated live album (Live: From Here To Eternity) came out in 1999 around the same time as Don Letts’ powerful documentary, Westway to the World, premiered on British TV.
On December 27, 2002, at age 50, Joe Strummer died of a heart attack.
There is no doubt that the Clash, and Joe Strummer, brought a new depth and expression to the raw energy of punk, effectively inspiring bands like U2, and establishing the roots of alternative rock.