Though the Sex Pistols are often credited with popularizing punk rock in the '70s, when the dust settled on that rebellious music era another group of British punk rockers were labeled "the only band that mattered": the Clash.
From their formation in London in 1976 by guitarists/songwriters Mick Jones and the late Joe Strummer, and bassist Paul Simonon (the band were later joined by drummer Topper Headon), the Clash matured with remarkable speed from young thrashers to stadium-headlining musicians merging reggae, jazz, rockabilly, ska, and other idioms into their own indelible sound. Though they disbanded 10 years following their formation, the Clash's first five studio albums — The Clash (1977), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980), and Combat Rock (1982) — rank among the most iconic in rock history, with London Calling earning induction into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2007.
More than 35 years following the release of their self-titled debut, on Sept. 10 the Clash will release Sound System, a 12-disc box set comprising all five original studio albums, remastered by GRAMMY-winning engineer Tim Young, plus three discs of demos, non-album singles, B-sides, and rarities in a boombox-shaped package, which was designed by Simonon. In addition, the package will feature a DVD of the Clash's music videos and unseen footage from the archives of directors Don Letts (who won a GRAMMY in 2002 for Best Long Form Music Video for the Clash's Westway To The World) and two-time GRAMMY nominee Julien Temple.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Letts and Young discussed life with the Clash in the '70s, the band's forthcoming box set and the everlasting legacy of punk rock.
After the Sex Pistols, how did the Clash help define the punk movement in the '70s?
Don Letts: The Clash were one of the first bands to realize that the punk movement was painting itself into a corner. They were the first [band] to break out of the fast guitar thing. Look at the difference between the [The Clash] and London Calling. One is sort of a statement of intent. By the time they [got] to London Calling, [they embraced] all the world has to offer. There was a common misconception that punk was about negativity and nihilism. It wasn't about that; it was about empowerment and freedom and individuality.
Tim Young: The punk rock thing [aimed to] destroy progressive rock. It was going to strip everything back to its crude, basic form. … You didn't have to pay respect to some kind of idea that was set in stone. … Mick [Jones] and Joe [Strummer] were actually quite broad-minded musically.
In viewing the footage included in the box set, it seems the Clash were also influential in terms of their fashion.
Letts: The English did two things to the music: They gave it style and they politicized it. … The Clash understood the currency of young people, particularly in the UK. Style and fashion and music are inseparable in the UK.
Young: When they came to the studio to make the first album … they had all these colored paint-splattered [clothes] — like Jackson Pollock had worked over one of your shirts for you, that was the idea. You'd never seen anything like it before, really. And then by 1979, Mick [looked] like [he was] trying to look like James Dean or something. [He had] the rockabilly look with the coif with the greased hair and all that. And Joe Strummer as well. They all [looked] like extras in [the 1953 outlaw biker film] The Wild One.
In their short time together, the Clash quickly grew from youthful pranksters to sophisticated punk rockers.
Young: Exactly. But the playing is great. ... If you [compare] the band [from] going [into] the studio at the start of 1977 to make their first album [to] November 1979 [after] they'd finished London Calling, the musical sophistication on that record, compared to the band two years [prior], it's incredible how much they'd developed.
Letts: Yeah, they were young, [but] the Clash were the quickest to grow up.
Don, your archives show how fast the Clash grew up.
Letts: These five albums happened in such a short space of time. And then, dig it, they're not even five individual albums. There's a double album in there [and] a triple album. Then you've got to look at how many tours they did in that period. I mean, it's no wonder those guys exploded, man, or imploded, [I should] say.
How did you wind up in their circle?
Letts: It was the social, economic and political climate of the time. We all grew up in London; we were all being affected by the same [bull s***]. [Luckily] for me, I had a soundtrack to ease my pain, which was reggae. White friends weren't so fortunate, so they had to create their own soundtrack, which became punk rock. … Back in the mid-'70s, a lot of white working-class kids adopted Jamaican music for their rebellious fix, particularly people like Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, and [the Sex Pistols'] John Lydon, too. … We became friends through our mutual love of reggae, Jamaican music and my respect for their DIY ethos. That's how I really became a filmmaker. The big part of this punk thing was the whole DIY thing. So I'm looking around and this punk thing [is] exploding and my white mates are all picking up guitars and I'm like, "I better pick up something, too." That was the power not only of the Clash but the whole punk movement; they did inspire people to take the energy they put out there, and it informed whatever people did. So you had punk writers, punk journalists, punk photographers, punk fashion designers, punk filmmakers. I actually believe that's why punk has such a lasting legacy; it wasn't just a soundtrack, it was very much like a complete subculture.
Tim, were you glad for a chance to go back and remaster those five seminal albums?
Young: I was just glad to hear it all again. London Calling, in particular, is probably one of the best three or four albums I've ever worked on in my career.
Don, is there more material that didn't make it into the box set?
Letts: Anything that's worth sharing, I've shared. It wasn't meant to be hoarded. … It's not just about looking back and going, 'Wow, the Clash were really cool.' The Clash didn't come out of a void; there's a whole heritage and lineage to this attitude. Look at Woody Guthrie, look at Bob Dylan, look at Gil Scott-Heron, look at Chuck D. The point is that, if people are brave enough and they've got an idea, they can be part of this lineage as well. It doesn't begin and end with the Clash. A lot of the things they were talking about still need to be said, and probably louder. And there's a lot of people on this planet who, like me, still believe in music as a tool for social change.
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis has contributed regularly to American Songwriter, the Christian Science Monitor, Paste, Rollingstone.com, public radio, newspapers nationwide, and many regional and local magazines. A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, she also writes bios for new and established artists.)