In 1977, it was like a bolt out of the blue. It was the album you had to have, the band you had to hear. The thing was, if you lived in the United States you could only get the album as an import. By the time CBS got around to releasing the self-titled debut album from the Clash in the US, it was two years later. Four tracks from the original album had been removed, and five new ones had been added.
The Clash charges out of the gate with “Janie Jones,” a tribute to a then-popular London madam, and then launches into “Remote Control” which takes on, well pretty much everyone who Mick Jones felt had done the band wrong. It’s the first track to express the rage and frustration that the Clash became famous for, and my favorite track on the album. As an American, at first it was hard to swallow “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”, but as an American living in 1977, the sentiment was quite understandable. “White Riot,” the band’s first single, is an outstanding treatise on race and class. Side One closes with the fiery “London’s Burning” which rails against, of all things, English traffic jams.
There is no letup on Side Two. “Career Opportunities” finds Joe Strummer complaining bitterly about the lack of economic opportunity and the dreariness of the workday world in England. What set the Clash apart from other bands, what in fact helped to make them so much more than a punk band, was that they could take on other forms and make them their own. “Police and Thieves” was originally recorded by Jamaican reggae artist Junior Murvin in 1976. To say that Murvin was unhappy with the Clash cover is a bit of an understatement. “They have destroyed Jah work,” he was heard to say. Hopefully he was happier when the royalty checks starting rolling in. I think it’s a pretty cool cover though it was only added to the album because it dawned on the Clash that they really didn’t have enough songs. The album-closer, “Garageland,” pays tribute to the band’s roots, while at the same time attacking critic Charles Shaar Murray’s suggestion that they “be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running.”
Murray just didn’t get it, but a lot of critics did, providing The Clash with positive reviews and helping it to reach #12 on the UK charts. In the years since its release, the album’s reputation has only grown stronger. In 1979, no less a presence than Robert Christgau called The Clash the best album of the ’70s, and in 1993, it was #13 in the New Musical Express list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. Ten years later, it was #77 on that all-important Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
The Clash would go on to rock and roll immortality, but their music was never again quite as raw or immediate as it was on their debut album. Their brilliant debut album is crucial to any understanding of the rise of the punk music and culture that continues to have a profound effect on our world.