Never shy or self-effacing, English rockers The Clash embraced the label, “The only band that matters,” as an honour and a challenge. No matter that it was coined by their hype-master manager, Bernie Rhodes.
According to some punk idealists, they “sold out,” but Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon took their sloganeering seriously: Do things your own way; follow your muse, create no matter what.
As Hits Back proves, The Clash ended up promoting world music while laying on their British accents unapologetically strong and thick amidst their rocking. At its heart, the band remained close to the spirit and rhythms of early rock and roll. Along with their punk rock origin, they fused these with reggae, ska, funk and early rap.
The running order of the album is like a recipe list of the group’s forays and tangents into topics and sounds. Throughout they maintain their steely pulse; the cohesive reach that they extend is a result of a band that trusts each other to create and their audience to come along.
The context is deep. It opens with the rocking apocalypse of the martial beat of London Calling, the sound of future shock. Later that moves to the contrast of Guns of Brixton, Train in Vain and Bankrobber – one menacing, the other poignant, the last a murky urban ballad. It’s not a hit list, though; it is more fluid and less static.
The album’s all important running order is from a set list Strummer taped to his Telecaster from a gig on July 10, 1982 in Brixton, England.
Context is king. Even now The Clash don’t bow to convention in the form of a greatest hits package. The most well known and compelling material comes from the mid-to-later period of The Clash’s career. It’s this period that captures the band at its ascent as they morph their early rock and punk sound out into the world and attract, absorb and reflect other styles with conviction.
Rockabilly and reggae were a constant (Brand New Cadillac, Armagideon Time), early rap was tested (The Magnificent Seven), and global rock got popular (Rock the Casbah). There’s also weirdness here. Even amongst eccentricities like Hitsville UK, Ghetto Defendant stands out as a true oddity. Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg raps beside Strummer as the band grooves a reggae hook.
The Call Up and Straight to Hell are two evocative songs among the rocking numbers. Strummer’s lyrics could be deceptively obscure, but his images are startling and gritty. He addresses social/political failures when Straight to Hell comes floating in like a ghost ship.
Here’s a sample: “If you can play on a fiddle/How’s about a British jig and reel?/Speaking King’s English in quotations/As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust/Water froze in the generation/Clear as winter ice/This is your paradise.”
And then it’s on to Christmas in post-war Saigon and drug drenched New York tenements.
These are illuminating songs from a tough and uncompromising group of people whose brotherhood made inspiring music.
— Dean Gordon-Smith is The Morning Star’s longtime music reviewer whose column appears every Friday.