The Clash famously touted themselves as the only band that mattered, but their music seemed to contradict that famous overstatement — unlike many contemporary punk bands, they didn’t denounce the rock musicians that came before them or limit their influences. The London-based punk foursome were far too curious to stay confined to that esoteric genre for long, eventually expanding to include sounds culled from all over the world. Pop, reggae, ska, rockabilly, and funk all had their place in The Clash’s diverse discography, and their adventurous songwriting mixed with their sneering counter-culture roots to make them the most enduring band of England’s first wave of punk. Let’s celebrate their longevity by counting down the 10 best Clash songs of all time.
10. “Safe European Home”
The Clash’s reverence for Jamaican music is evident in many of their songs, but their trip to the island nation left them disturbed by the crime-ridden conditions there. The band referenced the hard times of Jamaica while handily parodying their own insulated first-world view of the world on “Safe European Home.” The soaring guitars and overlaid vocals from Joe Strummer and Mick Jones make the song a great rock anthem as well as a combination of The Clash’s simultaneous senses of humor and political awareness.
9. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
The Clash’s first blend of reggae and punk remained their best despite their frequent dabbling in the Caribbean-tinged genre. It fits the subject matter too, beginning with a disappointingly passive reggae show the band members attended before shifting towards more broadly political topics about “wealth redistribution” and “turning rebellion into money.” Slow burn verses give way to thrilling guitar assaults again and again, providing an early glimpse into The Clash’s future as far more than snarky, aggressive riff machines.
8. “Know Your Rights”
“This is a public service announcements –with GUITARS!” What a way to kick off an album. “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock is a blistering guitar track brimming with creative interplay and aggression that doesn’t rely on speed alone, as so many punk bands do. Some of the band’s most confrontational lyrics find Strummer wailing with abandon in the guise of a government announcement portraying a dystopian future where cops are free to kill and free speech only comes with the caveat “that you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”
7. “Lost in the Supermarket”
Even The Clash’s most personal songs contained some shreds of larger political and social importance. Strummer’s “Lost in the Supermarket” is something of a ballad by the band’s usual standards, chugging along on a discotheque dance beat as Jones tenderly recounts a childhood defined by suburban loneliness and dehumanizing commercialism. The band’s playing and dynamic is all but perfect here, but the true highlight must be the heartbreaking emotion that underlines this vision of the suburbs.
6. “The Magnificent Seven”
When most white rockers tried their hand at the burgeoning hip-hop genre in the ’80s, the results were laughable at best and unbearable at worst. The Clash are the acceptance to the rule, perhaps because of the band’s world music savvy and their understanding of music as a political and cultural force. Strummer’s talk-singing falls somewhere between rapping and his signature wailing, but the funky bass loop and danceable beat pay clear tribute to NYC’s early hip-hop acts without losing the looseness and edge that turned hip-hop into a phenomenon.
5. “White Riot”
One of the Clash’s most purely punk songs, “White Riot” is a two-minute burst of raw energy that stands out for a catchy singalong chorus that’s enough to make you start a one-man mosh pit within the comfort of your home. The lyrics are some of the band’s most purposely incendiary and easily confused — rather than advocating race riots as some believed, Strummer merely wanted white U.K. youths to find their own cause to riot and demonstrate against the oppressive status quo, as many black citizens already had.
4. “Stay Free”
The Clash’s 1978 release Give ‘Em Enough Rope is too often overlooked, condemned for its glossy production work from Sandy Pearlman, but there’s no denying the band’s songwriting strength in this transitional album between the punk power of their self-titled to the worldly influences of London Calling. “Stay Free” is a lovably personal rocker about Mick Jones’ old gang of friends that feels anthemic despite the lack of any clear chorus, a sign of Jones’s melodicism that would get a better workout on subsequent albums.
3. “Straight to Hell”
The other side of this double A-side single from Combat Rock — “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — is far more popular, but “Straight to Hell” is the superior statement. The downtempo bossa nova drumbeat and moody wailing keyboards handily distract from some of the band’s best lyrics, blending anger and intelligence to bemoan the tragedies of colonialism from blue collar factories to Vietnamese jungles. The unusual music that sounds as though it might come from anywhere in the world drive home the painful global message of the song.
2. “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”
Tacked on at the last minute and originally excluded from London Calling’s tracklist, “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)” was a real treat for early listeners of the band’s double LP magnum opus. Its irresistible melody from Mick Jones and familiar yet uniquely poignant post-breakup lyrics make it one of the poppiest songs from The Clash’s career and helped to elevate its status from hidden track to ubiquitous staple of rock radio. Luckily, the song is too damn catchy to get sick of.
Feel free to substitute your own favorite London Calling track here, but in my book, “Clampdown” stand a little higher than the rest of an album consisting almost entirely of immediate classics. Creative use of the band’s familiar four-piece dynamic abounds throughout a blistering riff-happy rocker that distills Strummer’s contrarian beliefs about capitalist society, warning listeners not to become “young believers” and devote themselves to a life of meaningless work and routine. Somehow the music manages to rival all that lyrical power without sacrificing the unshakable sense of fun present in so much of The Clash’s work. They were bold and confrontational, but that just made their expertly-written melodies that much harder to resist.