The Clash release Sound System, a box set of the band’s entire re-mastered works on 9 September. Conceived and compiled by the band, it’s a unique collection by one of the most influential British groups of all time. The collection is a powerful and significant reminder of the band’s enduring and important political legacy. A legacy that grows and does not diminish. Their music is just as powerful now as it was then when they first entered the fray with White Riot in March 1977. Time distorts this historical moment.
Looking at the hit parade from that month, Leo Sayer was at number one with the saccharine When I Need You, Julie Covington belted out Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and Mary MacGregor was Torn between Two Lovers. The only tune to cause any stirrings was David Bowie’s glorious Sound and Vision. Yes, 1977 was the year of punk but the biggest selling single was Mull of Kintyre by Wings. David Soul was that year’s poster boy. The impact that punk had on the top 40 was negligible.
Although the Sex Pistols were deemed by the press, government and the majority of the country in Jubilee year as the anti-Christ, they should have crashed into the charts at number one with their second single God Save the Queen. Banned by the BBC and commercial radio it was the biggest selling single of Jubilee week but was mysteriously relegated to number two as the powers that be installed Rod Stewart’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It at number one.
White Riot reached a lowly 38 on the charts, but it heralded a change. Punk protested against the monarchy and aristocracy and highlighted youth unemployment, racism and injustice. Culturally and politically punk was at the centre of everything. The Labour government of the time thought that this nasty youth uprising would fizzle and burn out as quickly as it arrived.
As I sit in front of the assembled three remaining members of the Clash, reunited for the first time in 20 years, I think about the current politicians that cite the band as an influence. I’m not going to waste valuable editorial space name checking the culprits, but they know who they are. Sitting happily is ace bassist Paul Simonon, looking very dapper I have to say, guitarist/vocalist/genius Mick Jones and one of the most technically inventive punk drummers of all time, Topper Headon.
What is striking as we sit down to talk is that there is not a mention of politics, or that breakthrough year of ’77, or how times have changed. What I witness is three immensely talented, emotional individuals, talking about the legacy of punk’s most articulate ambassador Joe Strummer. No “we did this, they did that” malarkey, just pure unadulterated affection for lead singer Joe, who died from a heart arrhythmia in 2002. The gaping hole is there, it’s an enormous vacuum, but that vacuum is filled with love and admiration. You can feel Joe floating around, he could walk in at any moment, late because his cab had not turned up.
The atmosphere is strange until the spell is temporarily broken by the hairy face of Noel Edmonds who appears on the TV monitor presenting the latest edition of Deal or No Deal. For a few moments we are transfixed. “Now, twenty six grand, that’s a good offer,” exclaims Mick.
I regale them with the tale of my son’s girlfriend’s appearance on the show and how much she won.
“If she had carried on, how much could she have won?” Paul asks quizzically.
“A hundred and twenty grand,” I reply.
I compose myself and turn off the hairy face of Edmonds and get down to the job in hand. Paul stares at the blank screen, disappointed that I have ended our little shout at the TV game.
It’s just lovely hanging out with one of the greatest bands ever and I save my questions about Joe until the end of the interview. Sadness descends as I ask them individually what he meant to them and their lives.
“He is irreplaceable,” says Topper. “And working on this anthology has made me realise just how irreplaceable he really is. Paul brought the style and the visuals, Mick brought the music and Joe brought the political cutting edge.” Mick pipes up: “And Topper was ‘le battery’, he was the engine that kept us going. We were lucky because we found each other. We came out of nowhere and it’s not easy to quantify what happened between the four of us.”
Paul is looking upset and chokes a little with his reply, “He was one of my best friends really. We experienced a lot together and it’s very difficult to talk about Joe. I’ve lost a lot of friends and you never get over it. You just come to terms with it.”
We end our conversation a little sad. We all miss Joe. We regroup to have the obligatory photo. As I find myself posing with the group Paul quips, “Come and stand here where Joe should have been.”