You can’t talk about the birth of the punk movement without discussing The Clash. While they weren’t the first ones on England’s punk scene, they’re the ones with the biggest legacy–they’d have to be, with a nickname like “The Only Band that Matters.” Lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer, lead guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon came together for one purpose: to tell their truth, regardless of who wanted to hear it. They made a name for themselves with their musical experimentation (including ska, reggae, and funk) and heavy political messages–not to mention their fuck-all attitude towards the mainstream.
Their fifth and penultimate record, Combat Rock, is no different in this regard. Heavy with references to the tragedies of the Vietnam War, various pop culture icons, and echoes of a dystopian near-future, Combat Rock served as an alarm for what was plaguing the world at the time, specifically when it came to American and English society. It’s the Clash’s bestselling album, marking a new level of success for the band as well as the end of an era. After Combat Rock, the band’s classic lineup dissolved–Headon was fired from the band for heroin abuse, while lead Jones made his exit over creative differences.
Part of what made Combat Rock so iconic was its singles. The album is home to “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” arguably one of the band’s most famous song-certainly the most abused in car commercials. This iconic track is probably the most straight up rock effort you hear on the album, with its heavy guitar riff intro (later emulated by One Direction’s “Live While We’re Young”) and simple lyrics. Considering the lineup changes that followed the release of this album, fans have speculated that this was Mick Jones’s personal debate about staying in the group, but he has since denied it. “It wasn’t about anybody specific and it wasn’t pre-empting my leaving The Clash. It was a good rockin’ song, our attempt at writing a classic…when we were just playing, it was the kind of thing we liked to play,” Jones explained in the Clash on Broadway boxed set. Considering the popularity and notoriety of the song, they were successful in that goal.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” was quickly followed by “Rock the Casbah,” their sassy single about an Arab king banning their music, inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s ban on Western music. “Rock the Casbah” called out issues that were immediately happening in the world, be it with a fun tilt and some creative sampling on the band’s part. Throughout the track, you can hear a bit of “Dixie” as the alarm from a digital watch. “Rock the Casbah” is the band’s biggest US hit, one that helped to bring them even more fans.
Several tracks follow a similar wry tone. “Know Your Rights” darkly jokes about how rights are exercised in society as they knew it at the time. After announcing, “This is a public service announcement…with guitars!” Joe Strummer explains that people have the right not to be killed (unless it’s by police or an aristocrat), the right to food money (as long as they don’t care about their dignity), and the right to free speech (“As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it”). Perhaps part of the legacy from this album comes from the fact that the lyrics have never become irrelevant; half of what you hear is eerily apt for today’s issues.
If the beginning of the album handles some serious topics with a lighter tone, some of the later tracks become more serious and take on a heavier feeling. “Red Angel Dragnet” places serious lyrics over reggae beats to discuss the shooting of a Guardian Angel (an unarmed patroller), while “Sean Flynn” uses a light flute run to emulate the sounds of a jungle, creating an atmospheric experience. The spare lyrics explore the disappearance of photojournalist Sean Flynn during his coverage of the War. “Straight to Hell,” the fourth single from the album, gives a slightly subdued account of children fathered and abandoned while soldiers fought in the Vietnam War. Besides being a fantastic, slightly haunting song, “Straight to Hell” has found life beyond its Clash roots; you can hear that familiar intro sampled in British rapper M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”
There’s no doubt about it–the Clash’s contributions to punk and music in general are many and have been widely acknowledged over the years. Their albums consistently hold up and newer artists continue to emulate and sample their legacy. More than that, their commitment to alarm and activism in the punk space makes them an even greater phenomenon; discussions about the Vietnam War and the decline of American society are still scarily relevant today. As the original Rolling Stone review of Combat Rock says, “American critics hail [the Clash] as rock’s articulate revolutionary conscience…This record is a declaration of real-life emergency, a provocative, demanding document of classic punk anger, reflective questioning and nerve-wracking frustration.” While The Clash and London Calling made the Clash “The Only Band that Matters,” Combat Rock truly solidified their legacy as the resistance leaders of the music scene.