Thirty seconds into the album and bassist Paul Simonon has twice effortlessly stolen the attention away from guitarists/frontmen Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. The first occurs on the strident cover, the ardent posture over a splintered instrument, concentrating the attention from violent stance to vibrant decoration. Then there’s the title track, bouncing a two-note riff which soars over the assembled thunderous riffs. Yet there’s enough room and variety over the double set which invites every member to shine over an extraordinary sixty-five minutes of stellar playing.
The Clash originally envisioned the album as The Last Testament, the four-sided project providing the ultimate closing chapter to a musical history that had sown its gyrating seeds with Elvis Presley’s RCA debut. The title was scrapped for a more immediate monograph of the band’s city as important to their trajectory as Liverpool was to the Beatles. Strummer’s lyrics tore into the Fabs popularity, yet his snarl sounded satisfyingly Lennon like, Jones’ harmony meticulously mannered as McCartney’s, while their output was one of the most diverse of any band’s since Abbey Road. And on a juicy behemoth that channelled soul, reggae, rockabilly and lounge jazz, The Clash unveiled a double work even more wholly satisfying than The White Album.
And mindful it plays in the rock n roll idiom, a thrash heavy rendition of Vince Taylor’s doo wop Brand New Cadillac carried by sticksman Topper Headon. Guy Stevens, the tenacious producer who’d steered Mott The Hoople to fame, recognised the raw purge needed to finish the track. Jones, the band’s most accomplished musician, found himself taking the reins of producer when the Beat magnate struggled to bring closure to the sprawling work. Yet, true to their words as Marxists, puritans and musicians, Stevens name stood alone in the producer’s credit.
Elsewhere, the band threw their energies into the sprightly Rudie Can’t Fail, the jaunty Hateful and the plaintive Lost In The Supermarket, a pictorial ballad Strummer wrote with the child of Jones in mind. Simonon found himself a star player for the third time on the record, singing and writing the angry reggae tinged Guns of Brixton. Scorching in its lyrical display, the song sounded darker and more violent than the weaponry detailed. And in typical Clash form, it originated in pragmatic, more than artistic form. “You don’t get paid for designing posters or doing the clothes” Simonon responded in 1990, “you get paid for doing the songs.” Eager to find the realism lost in the Led Zeppelin records he despised, Simonon stared at a CBS executive while putting his vocal line in place. Their record company tried in their efforts to charge twice the amount of a single album, something the four-piece refused to countenance. Clampdown and Spanish Bombs, a pair of spikey rockers, saluted the fans who stood with their pocket monies with an air of triumphant choruses, while The Card Cheat saluted the unrestrained production technique Phil Spector heralded.
Rolling Stone thought it the album of the eighties. That an album from 79 should top the poll shows how far ahead of its time the album proved!