The history of rock’n’roll bands turning their hands to reggae is not an edifying one. “D’Yer Maker” off “Houses of the Holy” by Led Zeppelin is a candidate for their worst song ever. The Rolling Stones’ take of “Cherry Oh Baby” on “Black and Blue” was far from being their finest moment. There are plenty of other attempts at reggae that I don’t even want to think about. There are honourable exceptions. Eric Clapton played a big part in bringing Bob Marley to the world’s attention with his excellent cover of “I Shot the Sheriff”. The Police fused pop and reggae to brilliant effect. “Walking on the Moon”, with its dub effects, really did sound like it was made in outer space. And Primal Scream used some heavy dub and bass techniques on songs like “Stuka” from their album, “Vanishing Point”.
But the Clash were different. The reggae sound was absolutely integral to their music. The reggae culture, coming together with punk in the streets of West London, under the Westway, was equally so. It was the most natural thing in the world for the Clash to take the wonderful “Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin and turn it into one of their greatest anthems. Amid all the garage punk that personifies the first album, “The Clash”, from 1977, “Police and Thieves” stands out, taking the wistful theme of the original, a lament about the gang wars and police involvement in Kingston, Jamaica and turning it into a commentary about life in late seventies West London. Joe Strummer’s rasp and Mick Jones’s piercing guitar solo take it from reggae to an urban rocker, but the the bass and drums remain at its heart.
Even better was the single “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, which somehow sums up what the Clash were all about. It celebrates reggae music but also howls in frustration. Frustration that the the music in the Palais erred towards dance rather than rebellion, while the punks in another dimension were suiting themselves up for a bit of money-making. OK, so this was a bit of Clash mythology about who were the true rebels, and they weren’t averse to a bit of dressing up; but it was a clarion call at the time. A call to celebrate the fusion of rock’n’roll and reggae. Joe Strummer didn’t want to be the only white man in Hammersmith Palais. Most of all it was just a great reggae rocker.
After a lurch into rock with “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” (still a great album) , the Clash came back with “London Calling” in 1979. This was the album when they really began to branch out, taking in all the genres they loved. Reggae was to the fore. “Rudie Can’t Fail” was a ska beat classic, aligned with the Specials and Madness and all the other Two Tone bands. “The Guns Of Brixton” was sinister and confrontational, with the bassist, Paul Simenon taking the lead on vocals. The bass line found its way onto a brilliant fusion of dance and reggae by Beats International (featuring Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim) called “Dub Be Good To Me”. It was based on the SOS Band’s dance classic “Just Be Good To Me”, with Simenon’s snaking bass giving it an extra dimension. In recent times Professor Green has taken “Dub Be Good For me” even further, with his “Just be Good To Green”. Great to see how music borrows and mutates to come up with fresh renditions. Finally, on ‘London Calling”, “Revolution Rock” steered to a more conscious reggae beat – it was a song that Bob Marley could easily have sung.
As a massive Clash fan, it is very tempting for me to say that “Sandinista” was the greatest Clash album of them all. A punk triple album, no less. Not one for the casual listener: therefore all the more attractive to the “real” fan. In truth it would have made a superb single album, a really good double. The reggae may not all have made the single album – there was too much of it – but for me, it was what made “Sandinista” special. The tune I love most is “The Crooked Beat”. As its title suggests, it features a loping bass line, which Paul Simenon (again) intones over. It’s not so much a song as a feel, a picture. It conjures up the London streets, the office blocks, the people rushing from A to B, and a man at ease with himself just cruising through the mayhem. Moving to the crooked, crooked beat. I don’t think they ever played it live. It was a mood.
There was more great reggae on the album: the jaunty “Junco Partner”, the eerie “One More Time” with its dub companion, and the echoey protest of “The Equaliser”. “The Call Up” verged on reggae too. The reggae rhythm was fundamental to “Sandinista”. And it didn’t just borrow reggae: it turned it over, used it in ways that no-one had tried before. The Clash gave as much back to reggae as they took.
“Combat Rock” didn’t advance the reggae cause, but “Ghetto Defendant” continued in the tradition of “One More Time” and “The Equaliser”. There were a couple of other great reggae moments in the Clash history. In between “London Calling” and “Sandinista” they released “Bankrobber” – my daddy was a bankrobber, he never hurt nobody – which was a joyous piece of music, with a wonderful dub version. Celebration time. And then “Armagideon Time” – and dub – which featured originally on a 10 inch single called “Black Market Clash”. It was a cover of a song by a Jamaican singer, Willie Williams, which I’d never heard of. It had a kind of dark majesty, and an entrancing bass line. Needless to say, there was a magnificent dub version, called “Justice Tonight”.
When you listen to something like “Armagideon Time” and compare it with the Clash’s beginnings, like “White Riot”, you might marvel at how far, sonically, they travelled in their short career. But at the same time it was all there from the start. The Clash, notwithstanding their rebel punk posturing, were rooted in all the sounds of seventies London. Rock’n’roll, metal, pop, R&B, dance… and reggae. The reggae-rock-rhythm.
As Smiley Culture once sang… level vibes, seen?