For all their leftist political fervor, musical richness, and fiercely uncompromised delivery, The Clash still suffered accusations that they sold out when they signed what looked like a relatively lucrative deal with CBS records in 1977. Those charges came from grassroots fans and critics like Mark Perry, who wrote in his seminal British punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue that “Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS.” A a couple years later, they were grandiosely billed as “the only band that matters,” a quote then CBS employee and NYC-based guitarist Gary Lucas takes credit for. While they would come to regret the CBS deal, even after their breakup in 1986, it’s also undoubtedly true that their uncomfortable tenure with the corporate giant helped their early, career-defining work reach a much wider public—and, as one writer argues, may even have broken barriers for the rise of independent punk labels.
But enough about commerce---I’ll let the music speak. In video above, the band performs at Sussex University Brighton on May 25, 1977. This show, part of the White Riot Tour, marks the beginning of their time with CBS, shortly after the release of debut album, The Clash. In very washed-out, grainy black and white, watch them play “Capital Radio,” “Protex Blue,” “Cheat,” and “Remote Control.” Joe Strummer begins the set with a nod to the band’s own sense of how much they “mattered,” mumbling “Okay, ‘Capital Radio’… with words that mean something” before they tear into the track.
In the second part of this footage (above) the band bangs out “White Riot” and “Police and Thieves.” It’s hardly a quality editing job, here, and the audio is mostly boomy reverb (despite the major label deal), but it’s still some pretty amazing archival footage. One thing to note is that this 1977 film documents the band after a crucial lineup change. While drummer Terry Chimes played on recorded versions of these songs (credited as “Tory Crimes” on record), he left the band soon after, to be replaced by the excellent “Topper” Headon (Chimes returned in 1982 when Headon was overcome by his heroin addiction). Their headlining White Riot Tour included supporting bands The Jam, The Buzzcocks, and The Slits.
If debut album The Clash was mostly raw, gritty punk rock with sprinklings of reggae, and the follow-up Give ‘Em Enough Rope a little too polished for some fans (at CBS’s insistence), the double album London Calling surely marks the band’s writing and recording apex. It tops so many critics’ “top” lists that I hardly need say more about it to introduce the high-quality film above of a February 27, 1980 Paris show. The contrast between the White Riot tour footage and this is stark: we get full-color, well-lit video and fairly decent live sound, and the band is much tighter, having worked a full three years at this point with drummer Headon. The above set includes London Calling classics like the title track, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” “Jimmy Jazz,” and “Train in Vain.” Part of what the contrast between these two sets of footage signifies is the increasing confidence and polish of The Clash as they made their way from their first gig at the Black Swan opening for the Sex Pistols in '76 to the worldwide punk phenomenon they became by 1980. If it’s true The Clash sold out, they mostly did it with more style and integrity than pretty much anyone before or since.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness