The Bust-Up: The Clash

In this periodic feature, I’ll take a look at the endings of bands with interesting flameout stories.

The Clash

The more I learn about the Clash, the more convinced I am that their implosion is a lot like the reentry burnup of the space shuttle Columbia– the fiery, visible disaster was just the inevitable result of seemingly innocuous events that happened quite a while before.

In the case of Columbia, a chunk of foam insulation broke off of the shuttle’s external fuel tank during launch and smacked into the ceramic tiles that comprised the craft’s heat shield. These “foam strikes” were common events during shuttle launches, and were considered no big deal. Columbia made it into space and spent 2 weeks in orbit conducting business as usual. Then, as the shuttle broke orbit and glided through the atmosphere at Mach 24, the heat shield failed where the foam had struck. At the speed the shuttle was travelling, this was fatal; the craft wrenched itself to pieces, and the wreckage burned itself down to the ground.

And so, the Clash. I think they were pretty much cooked the second they signed their contract with CBS. Mark Perry of the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue famously said that “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS;” I’ve never agreed with that sentiment, but I do think that the signing of that particular contract started a countdown that led, more or less inevitably, to a rump version of the band releasing a farewell album so terrible that polite society has chosen to pretend it doesn’t exist.

The problem isn’t that they signed to a major label; or at least not directly. The problem was that they signed a terrible contract (and I suppose you could make a pretty solid argument that all major label contracts were terrible at that point), one whose terribleness would be compounded by the band’s bad business decisions (often well-meaning, sometimes just boneheaded) and by the bizarre actions of their on-again, off-again manager Bernie Rhodes.

The Clash’s CBS contract – negotiated by Rhodes, with the misinformation, control freakery, and mindfuckery that would be his hallmark – was breathtaking in its shittiness; the band thought they’d signed a 5-album deal, with an album to be delivered every year. Later examination of the small print revealed that they were actually on the hook for 13 albums. Even without the small print, though, an album a year for 5 years is a brutal grind if you take a look at the time involved to write, record and mix the music and then tour extensively to support the records (look at modern bands of roughly the Clash’s stature- Phoenix and Wilco average 2-3 year gaps between albums. And those are single albums, not doubles or triples). They’d gotten a big advance for signing the contract, but their royalty rate for album sales was terrible, and later decisions would compound that problem greatly.

In the modern era of shitty recording contracts, bands often make pretty much nothing on their albums and make their living by touring. While some people made that work in the punk era, it was never something the Clash could swing. Their tours always lost money by the bucketful. They – admirably – insisted on keeping ticket prices cheap for their fans, but refused to scale down their tour accommodations or streamline their road logistics to compensate. This meant that each tour was bankrolled by tour support loans from CBS, putting the band continually deeper into debt with CBS, ratcheting up the pressure to get that next album out.

If you look at the big picture here, then, you’ve got a band trapped in a financial grind that gets worse with every year that passes and every tour they go on. Every time they thrashed, the net got tighter. Like I said, it was inevitable that the pressure would crack them.

Let’s take a quick walk through the chronology.

The band was formed in 1977 by Mick Jones and Bernie Rhodes (who, as an associate of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, was plugged into London’s nascent punk scene; Rhodes has claimed that he was the real prime mover behind the Sex Pistols, and that he was 100% the brains behind the Clash; he has also claimed to be the man behind the iMac, so the claims of Bernie Rhodes should be taken with an immense block of salt). A combination of genuine talent and Rhodes’ undeniable promotional skills quickly brought them to the top of the London punk heap, with labels competing to sign them. They signed with CBS, and, as far as I’m concerned, the breakup clock started ticking.

Not that you could tell right away- there was genuine camaraderie within the band, with their personalities and talents meshing to an astonishing degree, especially after drummer Topper Headon joined the group (Headon and Mick Jones would serve as the group’s musical backbone; Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were essential, irreplaceable parts of the band, but neither one would ever be called a world-class musician). Their first two albums and surrounding tours were well-received; they also put the group heavily into debt to CBS, but not any more deeply than other groups at the time.

It was 1979 when events started to creep up on them. Bernie Rhodes, who balanced his promotional abilities with an ugly controlling streak (among other things, he was fond of trying to engineer deals to trade, say, a member of the Clash with a member of the Sex Pistols just for the hell of it) was fired by the band when they got tired of the headfuckery and the half-baked harangues about Marx. Rhodes responded by suing the band, locking up their cashflow.

As this was going down, they found themselves due to work on their third album- they owed CBS one every year, after all- without much material for it. Desperate times can bring out the best in people, though, and the Clash responded by sequestering themselves in a rehearsal space and working up a couple of hours’ worth of new stuff, and then marching into a recording studio and recording a stone-cold masterpiece. 1979 and the process leading up to London Calling marked the band’s high-water mark both musically and in terms of intraband relations.

London Calling was a masterpiece; it was also 19 songs long. Which meant that it was really 2 albums’ worth of material. But the Clash (who really do have to be given immense credit for walking the walk as well as talking the talk, to nearly suicidal extremes) insisted that it sell for the same price as a regular album. CBS balked at first, but relented after the group agreed to take reduced royalties from album sales. The label also insisted that the double album count only as one against the 13 the band owed the label (and it was around this point that someone noticed that it was 13, and not the 5 the band thought they owed).

London Calling shipped (in the UK) in December of 1979, meaning that the clock on a 4th album due in 1980 started ticking immediately. Much of that time was spent touring, however; and, while the band was getting along, by this point they were basically never not on the hook for either touring or recording, and it’d been that way for 3 straight years. Strummer and Jones fucking around in a New York studio turned into a rolling recording session (with some session musicians bouncing in and out), and before long the band had a pile of groundbreaking, experimental new material that they were really excited about.

Which they chose to submit to CBS as Sandinista!, a triple album. The motivation? Maybe they just loved all of the material so much they didn’t want to cut (or even hold back for a later album) any of it; I’ve always just assumed they wanted to fuck with CBS. Whatever their motivation, they were firm again that the 3 discs should cost the fans the same as a regular single album. CBS finally broke down and agreed, but only after the Clash essentially agreed to completely forego any royalties from UK sales, and that (again) 3 albums’ worth of material would count as 1 against their total.

So at this point, the debt to the label’s just getting deeper (no royalties to offset it), and a band aching to get out of their contract has essentially blown off 3 albums’ worth of material that could count against it. And by now, that album-a-year business would really start to be weighing on them. Remember, established bands these days typically record an album, tour to support it, and then take at least a couple of months off to get out of each others’ hair. I know it’s a little ridiculous to be talking about, “oh, won’t someone think of the poor rock stars not getting a vacation” when most of us reading this are lucky if we get a couple of weeks off every year, but: the thing is, touring really stinks. When I’m done with work, I get to go home and see my wife, walk my dog, and eat a home-cooked dinner. I don’t have to eat shitty road food and hop on a tourbus. And at my job, during a year I get paid for producing a year’s worth of webpages about MBA events; the Clash were producing several years’ worth of recorded music every year and going further into debt for it (I also have a dental plan).

I’m certainly not claiming that life in a critically revered rock band compares in any way to, say, the plight of people in China who work in factories with suicide nets. Of course not. But their situation by late 1981 was one in which it’d be very easy to be tired and stressed and very, very sick of each other.

Because here’s another thing- it’s really easy to get pissed at your bandmates. In my webcomic about band life, Nowhere Band, it seems like every third strip is about intraband fighting. It happens a lot. If you’re doing collaborative creative work where everyone cares a lot about the outcome and has strong opinions, it’s inevitable that you’re going to clash -zing!- and call each other motherfuckers at some point. We would get pretty testy with each other in my old band, and we were meeting for a couple of hours once a week and playing a couple of shows a year. The Clash were forced to be up in each others’ business more or less constantly, and playing for huge stakes.

And now the pressure was really on. Topper Headon, the drummer and half of the musical engine of the band, was developing a monster heroin problem. Bernie Rhodes was back on the management scene, playing head games with everybody. Recording sessions from this time yielded enough material for Jones to mix into a double album called Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg; CBS decreed that enough was enough with the goddamned double albums, and anyway there was too much experimental Sandinista!-type stuff here, and brought in an outside producer to remix the album and cut it down to a regular-length album, Combat Rock.

Mick Jones was not pleased about having his cut of the album rejected; his displeasure increased a steadily-growing distance between Jones and the rest of the band. As that became an issue, Headon’s heroin-induced unreliability got bad enough that the rest of the band fired him. Jones’ estrangement with the rest of the band continued to widen during a tour and round of rehearsals for new material; by this point, Strummer and Simonon found Jones flat-out hard to work with. Jones was often late, and was truculent when he showed up.

Finally, at the advice of Bernie Rhodes, Strummer fired Jones (by the way, the Clash bio Passion Is a Fashion takes some time to make a case that Jones was fired because Rhodes wanted to step into the role of musical director of the band; the fact that he produced and wrote most of Cut the Crap lends some credence to the idea). The firing of Mick Jones in 1983 was the critical incident in the bust-up of the Clash. That was the equivalent of the failure of Columbia’s heat shield. There were some death throes afterwards, including the regrettable Cut the Crap, but when Jones was shown the door it was for all intents and purposes over.

It takes nothing away from Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon to say that Mick Jones and Topper Headon had been the musical engine of the Clash. All four members wrote or helped write songs (although the vast bulk of that work was done by Jones and Strummer); everybody contributed something essential. But Jones had always functioned as the band’s musical director, dominating the arrangement and recording process. Jones’ musical and arrangement skills had been the element that made these songs Clash songs. With Jones (and Headon) gone, the rump entity remaining might call itself the Clash, it was just a name, and the fans and critics weren’t buying it.

Imagine Mick Jagger fronting a version of the Stones without Keith Richards, for a pretty close analogy.

It’s weird to talk about the Clash purely in terms of finance and their contract, but that’s kind of the point- it’s usually admirable for a band not to give too much thought about making money, but the Clash were more or less destroyed by the pressure resulting from the shitty contract. There was always a bit of a natural rivalry between Jones and Strummer (and a difference in songwriting focus- Strummer generally liked to talk about the issues, while Jones was more wont to sing about feelings), but it was healthy and productive for the first few years. It may have been inevitable for things to grow tough between them, but that process was undoubtedly sped up by the fact that the structure of their contract meant that there was never, ever a goddamned break when they didn’t have to be working on something. The fact that the two men resumed collaborating (generally with Strummer doing production work for Jones’ post-Clash bands) within a couple of years of the bust-up bears out the idea that it was situational pressure, and nothing deeper, causing the pressure.

What’s the lesson? There probably isn’t a useful one. Don’t sign any 1977-vintage major label contracts, I guess. More usefully, give yourself a break in your work schedule. Honor your ideals, but don’t take it to self-destructive lengths.

Hell, if you were an evil person, you could write a business self-help book called Don’t Release Sandinista! as a Triple.

Note on Sources

The two biggest sources for this were Marcus Gray’s Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling and Pat Gilbert’s Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash. Gray’s book is one of the best pieces of music writing I’ve ever come across; Gilbert’s book, well, it has its charms (the one thing it does better than Route 19 is make a goat out of Bernie Rhodes).

Other info comes from random Internet surfery, and from years of thinking and talking about the Clash.

Next in The Bust-Up

We’re going to get crazy and talk about Tin Machine.

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