30 Years Ago: The Clash Close Out Their Career With the Underwhelming ‘Cut the Crap’
They were The Only Band That Mattered and then they didn't. Between 1977 and 1982, the Clash released five essential albums, starting with their eponymous debut and culminating with their biggest selling album, Combat Rock.
Those whirlwind five years saw the band grow from seedy London clubs to headlining "New Wave Day" at Steve Wozniak's Us Festival in 1983. Hold onto that "new wave" label -- we're going to come back to it in a little bit.
The band saw some churn in the early days, most notably the departures of guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Terry Chimes, but for all intents and purposes the Clash 1.0 lineup was set by '77 and continued through the recording of Combat Rock. Due to his heroin addiction, drummer Topper Headon was fired before the band began their 1982 tour in support of the album, so Chimes returned to the drum stool. However, drugs weren't the only rot that had set in: singer-lyricist Joe Strummer and principle songwriter Mick Jones were at each others' throats. The Clash camp grew so tense that Chimes left again after just a few months. The band hired Pete Howard to replace him, and this is the lineup that completed the Combat Rock tour and began work on the album's follow-up.
The band was always open to diverse influences, but like many '80s artists Jones (one of punk's great guitarists) had become enamored with the decades hottest toy: the synthesizer. Additionally, in the documentary The History of the Clash, subjects suggest that Jones had his "pop star ways," whatever that may mean. With the relationship already soured, both were too much for Strummer, who fired his songwriting partner and bandmate. Jones and his keyboard were out, presumably in the interest of maintaining the Clash's punk mojo.
Guitarists Nick Sheppard and Vince White joined Strummer, Howard and bassist Paul Simonon for the Clash 2.0, but there's one other essential player in this little drama: Clash manager Bernie Rhodes. Rhodes was a seminal figure in the early punk scene, particularly in the formation of the Clash. Strummer considered him a mentor -- it was Rhodes who suggested the band take a political bent, for example.
With Jones gone, Rhodes stepped in as the main songwriter and producer (under a pseudonym) for Combat Rock's follow-up, tentatively titled Out of Control. The problem was that Rhodes was not a Mick Jones-caliber songwriter. His taste leaned toward the sort of lightweight new wave that typified the mid-80s, heavy on the kinds of electronics for which Jones allegedly was fired.
Album opener "Dictator" typifies Rhodes' baffling take on what Clash 2.0 was supposed to sound like: drum machines, keyboards and overproduction. The result didn't sound like the Clash but some unholy spawn of Joe Strummer and Oingo Boingo.
Meanwhile, Jones was exploring similar territory with his new band, Big Audio Dynamite. That band's debut album, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, beat Cut the Crap to market by a few weeks, but more importantly it beat Jones' old mates at their own game. Tracks like "Medicine Show" demonstrate the former Clash guitarist's keen ear for combining the best of '80s dance music and studio technology (keyboards, sampling) -- a keen ear that Rhodes did not possess.
Bootlegs of the Clash's 1984 shows reveal that beneath the overproduction lay some decent songs. There may not be a "Train in Vain" here, but stripped of Rhodes' nonsense "Are You Ready For the War" (titled "Are You Red...Y" on Cut the Crap) is a perfectly tasty Clash track.
"We Are the Clash" is the only track on the album that directly reflects the fight going on between the Jones and Strummer camps at the time. When Jones threatened to team up with Headon and tour as the Clash, Strummer wrote this cut which, ironically, sounds more like the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." than anything in the Clash discography. That doesn't seem to be an accident: Strummer even mimics Johnny Rotten's vocal trill as if to remind listeners that the Clash were members of punks first graduating class.
The only track on the album that managed to find its way into the Clash canon is "This is England," a song with a chorus designed for drunken crowds ready to sing along. Even Mick Jones admits that it's a good song, though he also suggests that it would've been better with his help. He's probably right.
The album didn't exactly flop -- it cracked the top 20 in England and the top 100 in the U.S. -- but at the time it was an extreme disappointment both to fans and most critics. Within months of the album's release, the Clash 2.0 called it quits.
Strummer and Jones reunited as songwriting partners for Big Audio Dynamite's sophomore album, No. 10, Upping St., released in 1986. In addition to co-writing five of the record's nine tracks, Strummer served as the album's co-producer. Jones returned the favor, helping out on Strummer's tracks for the Sid and Nancy soundtrack. The band appeared to be headed toward a reunion at the beginning of the new millennium, but Strummer's untimely death in December 2002 cemented Cut the Crap as the unfortunate punctuation mark on an otherwise flawless musical legacy.