Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Clash Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

The Clash

U.K. edition (1977, CBS): A –  
U.S. edition with bonus 45 (1979, Epic): A +

Yes, it’s the most purely punk-flavored album they ever made, and yes, this was certainly a very influential album. Still, it’s hard not to feel like this is a slightly overrated album, if just for the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of strong hooks here to remember the songs by, particularly if you’re purchasing the original U.K. edition, which may be the more iconic disc but also has a heck of a lot more filler. The 1979 American edition, on the other hand, thankfully deletes a lot of the weaker cuts and replaces them with much more immediate material, most notably their excellent and incredibly muscular version of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law.” (Fuller may have had the bigger hit, but the Clash version ups the rock quotient quite a bit and comes up with the much harder-hitting rendition.) The American version also adds the excellent band originals “Clash City Rockers,” “Complete Control,” and the ska-flavored “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” in addition to including a bonus 45 containing the great “Gates of the West” and the even-better acoustic rocker “Groovy Times.” Both the American and British versions thankfully include “White Riot,” a somewhat simplistic but impossible-to-forget punk anthem. (The American pressings substitute a different version than the one used on the iconic British LP, but it’s the hit single version, so it’s not a bad substitution.)  Both versions also fortunately include the great band originals “Career Opportunities” and “I’m So Bored with the USA,” which boasts both the catchiest chorus and the best guitar riff on the album, and the great cover of reggae star Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” [Inexplicably, the album was reissued on CD in America in 2000 in both its original British incarnation and its original American incarnation, the latter sans the two songs from the bonus 45, in spite of the fact that they could have easily just issued a single one-disc package that combined all twenty-one songs issued via the original British and American vinyl releases. Go figure.]

Give 'em Enough Rope (1978, Epic)

B +  

Give ‘em Enough Rope (produced, interestingly enough, by Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman) is the easiest album in the Clash discography to forget about, if only because it had the unfortunate distinction of quietly arriving between two much higher-profile full-lengths (the band’s self-titled debut and London Calling) that are both widely considered to be truly iconic and legendary albums. [Technically, Rope was actually the first Clash album to be released in America, since their debut album didn’t officially get an American release until 1979.] Though it may be the least distinguished of their earliest albums, Rope should by no means be overlooked. The band’s lineup has been slightly modified, and the change makes a really big difference, as original drummer Terry Chimes (aka Tory Crimes) has been replaced with Topper Headon, who has a noticeably more distinctive style and whose jazz training allows the group to branch out more than they could previously, the band truly starting to reveal themselves here as something more than just the best punk band on the planet. Though there are no songs here that are as iconic or immediately recognizable as the best-known cuts on the albums that bookend it (such as “White Riot,” “London Calling,” or “Train in Vain”), they’re mostly fine tunes, particularly “Tommy Gun,” “Stay Free,” “Guns on the Roof,” and the wildly underrated “Safe European Home,” all of which are must-owns for any Clash fan.  

London Calling (1979, Epic)

A +

Like most double albums, London Calling has its filler (particularly on the original vinyl album’s second disc), but like The White Album or Exile on Main Street, it’s hard to imagine this disc having quite as much personality and charm had it been cut back to a single disc, and, even with its filler, this disc still stands as the band’s masterpiece, sporting more great songs than any other Clash studio outing, and one of the greatest albums of all-time. The most iconic song on here is the tense march of the unforgettable album-opening title cut (“London is drowning and I live by the river”), while the biggest hit is the unforgettable and album-closing “Train in Vain (Stand By Me),” deservedly the band’s first Top 40 hit in America, which was such a late addition to the album that it’s not listed on either the cover or the labels of the album’s first pressings. The song, later sampled to great effect in Garbage’s “Stupid Girl,” features some great instrumental touches, too, from Mick Jones’ spiky guitar licks to the occasional harmonica flourishes. Other highlights include the reggae-inflected “Rudie Can’t Fail,” the fun and breezy bilingual number “Spanish Bombs,” the heated, angry “Clampdown,” the anthemic “Death or Glory,” the rhythmically playful “Hateful,” and the discofied “Lost in the Supermarket,” one of the band’s most underrated sides.  The album also sports one of the greatest album covers of all-time, its iconic shot of Paul Simonon slamming his bass to the ground framed by a pink-and-green text chosen as an intentional homage to an early Elvis Presley album cover.

Black Market Clash (1980, Epic/Nu-Disk)

B –

Later re-released on CD in the ‘90s in expanded form (but with several of the original cuts unfortunately deleted) under the title Super Black Market Clash, the original version of this album was a North American-only nine-track release, unusually pressed on ten-inch vinyl, compiling stray studio cuts (mainly B-sides) that were previously only available on British-only LPs or singles. Naturally, this isn’t exactly an essential package, but it’s not a bad one, either. Nearly half the tunes here are covers, though they’re good ones: not surprisingly, most of the covers are of reggae tunes (Toots and the Maytals’ indestructible classic “Pressure Drop” and the Willie Williams numbers “Armagideon Time” and “Justice Tonight”), but the band also unexpectedly take on Booker T. & the MGs’’ “Time Is Tight.” The best of the band originals here are the overlooked gems “Bankrobber” and “The Prisoner.”  

Sandinista! (1980, Epic)

A –

A sprawling mess of an album, the triple-disc Sandinista! is much too long for its own good and takes a fair amount of effort to wade through and search out the gems, but the lack of any self-editing also simultaneously makes it perhaps the band’s most interesting and fascinating album, and it’s hard to imagine this as being quite as fun a listen without the sprawl. [Indeed, nearly all the best cuts here were compiled onto a single-disc U.S. promotional-only release entitled Sandinista Now!, which is certainly a handy sampler but just isn’t nearly as intriguing a listen.] Some of the more bizarre and inexplicable inclusions include five dub versions, a track called “Mensforth Hill” that’s little more than the master tape to “Something About England” played backwards, a re-recording of “Career Opportunities” (which first appeared on their debut album) sung by keyboardist Mickey Gallagher’s sons Luke and Ben, and a track called “Lose This Skin” penned and sung by guest violinist Tymon Dogg. The most famous cuts here are the discofied rap experiment “The Magnificent Seven” and the Motown-flavored “Hitsville U.K.,” a duet between Jones and his then-girlfriend Ellen Foley, but there are even better moments to be found with enough digging, namely the first-rate cover version of “Police on My Back” (originally done by Eddy Grant’s old band The Equals) and the great band originals “The Call Up,” “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here),” “The Equaliser,” "The Street Parade," “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)” and “Somebody Got Murdered.” Even the Topper Headon-sung novelty "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" is fun and hooky. It is true that you can skip the album’s last two sides altogether and not miss out on anything particularly memorable, except possibly "The Street Parade," but the album truly should be listened to in full at least once, if just to admire the sheer ambition and sprawl of the disc.

Combat Rock (1982, Epic)

A -

Originally planned as a double album called Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, the single-disc Combat Rock is not only the last great Clash album, but the last Clash album to feature either Mick Jones or Topper Headon, both of whom were unwisely sacked after the release of the disc. This is also arguably the band’s most self-consciously arty album (unless you also count Ellen Foley’s even more pretentious Spirit of St. Louis, which was produced by Jones, includes six Jones/Strummer compositions unavailable elsewhere, and features all four members of The Clash on each track). Poet Allen Ginsberg even shows up on one track, strangely enough. Oddly, for being the band’s first single-disc effort since Give ‘em Enough Rope, the hits-to-misses ratio here really isn’t all that different from either London Calling or Sandinista! – the album’s just a lot shorter. The band’s biggest American hit, the Topper Headon-penned Top Ten smash “Rock the Casbah” is included here, though it’s noticeably a lot less vibrant than the fuller-sounding remix used on the song’s single release, unfortunately. This is where you’ll also find the equally memorable, bilingual Mick Jones-penned stomper “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” one of the band’s most enduring radio classics. There are other fine cuts to be found here as well, namely “Straight to Hell,” the danceable “Overpowered By Funk,” and “Inoculated City.”

Cut the Crap (1985, Epic)

D -

Easily the band’s worst and most misguided album, this is the first and only Clash album to be released without longtime guitarist/songwriter Mick Jones as part of the band. (Longtime drummer Topper Headon is also absent here as well, he and Jones having both been sacked and replaced with Pete Howard and Nick Sheppard, respectively.) The lineup changes leave Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon as the only remaining original members. It was a fatal blow to the band, not merely because Jones doubled as one of the band’s lead vocalists (one who had notably even sung lead on two of their three biggest American hits, “Train in Vain (Stand By Me)” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”) but because Jones typically wrote the music for the band’s songs, and without him (or Headon, for that matter, who had penned “Rock the Casbah”), the band’s melodic instincts took a real dive. [Not surprisingly, Jones had the best post-Clash success of anyone in the group, going on to co-found General Public – though he left before completing their first album – and his own dance-rock outfit Big Audio Dynamite, the latter band scoring an American Top 40 hit in the ‘90s with the catchy and sunny pop of “Rush.”] Without Jones around to encourage the band’s experimentation with reggae and dance beats, the band makes a sharp turn back towards its hardcore punk roots, favoring brief, fast punk tunes here, but they also sound painfully out of step with the times and the songs just aren’t melodically strong enough to stick with you. “This Is England” isn’t bad, but it’s not exactly first-rate stuff, either, and there really isn’t anything else here to really warrant purchasing this disc. In hindsight, it’s a shame the band just didn’t call it a day after Combat Rock, ‘cause this is no way for a band as magnificent as The Clash to have bowed out on disc.