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The Clash: Sometimes Dirty, Mostly Clean
Directly influenced by both the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, the Clash added a healthy dose of roots music to the punk formula. While neither as hard as the Ramones nor as snotty as the Pistols, the Clash created a sound every bit as iconic. A major component of this was the dual-guitar approach of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. In addition, the fact that the members came from various rough neighborhoods and squats of London brought a severe political edge to their music and, by extension, to the greater punk movement. The pointed lyrics of Joe Strummer, combined with the mod-influenced music of Mick Jones, created a sound that appealed to punks but also to fans of rock and roll.
The Clash’s eponymous 1977 debut was powered by the driving P-90s of Jones’ Les Paul Jr. By 1979, when the band was recording its third album, London Calling, the Clash became the first of the punk bands to break away from the loud/fast rules and into new styles such as reggae, R&B, and rockabilly. Along with this change came new gear and a new sensibility of how to use it for maximum effect. Jones, the lead guitarist and primary songwriter, was into creating sound textures from the band’s earliest days. But he also participated wholly in the distortion onslaught that was expected in punk’s formative years. Circa 1976 and 1977, Jones relied on a Les Paul Jr. with P-90s plugged into an Ampeg V4 head and 4x12 cabinet. His early live sound was a boxy, nasal sneer that, while capable of cutting through the mix, lacked the depth of tone to carry the band’s newer, more complex material.
So during sessions for the band’s second album, Give ’Em Enough Rope, Jones began to upgrade. First up was a switch to what would become his signature ax for the rest of his time with the Clash, the Gibson Les Paul. Jones knew a good ax and he had many, including a sunburst ’58 Standard, a wine-red ’70s Custom, a white ’70s Custom, and a sunburst ’70s Custom. On the road in America in 1979, he picked up a rare all-white Gibson ES-295 that he used for a short period. In the studio, Jones frequently played a late-’70s all-black Fender Strat with a maple fretboard. It and a new Precision for bassist Paul Simonon were gifts from Fender.
During the Rope sessions, Jones was also hipped to quality tube amplifiers—specifically Mesa/Boogies—by producer Sandy Pearlman. Jones favored the 100-watt Mark I in combo form. He unloaded the speaker and used it to drive a single Marshall 4x12. For a period he even used the Boogie to run two 4x12s, but by the end of 1979 he had added a blonde 100-watt Mark II to drive one of the cabinets. That dual half-stack setup would be his main rig from then on. However, in early 1979 Jones began moving away from the straight-ahead punk grind and toward a wide, panoramic sound that filled the spaces in the Clash’s music. He added modulation effects too, specifically the MXR Phase 100 and MXR Flanger. Soon after, Jones also discovered the Roland RE-201 Space Echo. Jones used these pieces of gear extensively, both live and in the studio, for everything from light flanging effects to deep echo.
Joe Strummer, the Clash’s chief lyricist, lead singer, and rhythm guitar player, is one of the world’s best-known Telecaster players. He favored Teles for their simplicity, durability, and American working-musician vibe. He also liked the cutting bite of their bridge pickup, a sound well matched to his brutal playing style—the surname Strummer was no accident (though it was perhaps a bit understated). Strummer’s main Tele—the subject of a recent Fender signature reissue—was a ’66 model with a sunburst finish and a rosewood fretboard. He acquired the guitar in a typically cheeky manner: Short on cash, he married a woman looking for UK citizenship in return for the money needed to buy a the Telecaster. Not quite selling your soul, but certifiably punk, that’s for sure. Strummer banged away on this ax during his years with the infamous 101ers, the hardscrabble outfit of roots rockers who came to dominate London’s mid-’70s pub rock scene that preceded its punk outbreak. When the latter came around, Strummer packed up his Tele and joined the Clash. In the spirit of the times, he had friends in an automotive shop spray his sunburst Tele black (with a hearty coat of grey primer). Strummer played this guitar until his death in 2002, although he also had a backup Tele that sported a metal pickguard and had been stripped and refinished in a natural coat.
Between 1979 and 1981, Strummer’s main stage guitar was a white-blonde, mid-’50s Fender Esquire with a slab fretboard. In typical Strummer fashion, this guitar would soon sport a number of decals and a black racing stripe.
Strummer’s tone could be summed up in one word—clean. After dabbling with a number of heads and combos, everything from a Vox AC30 to a Marshall SLP, Strummer settled on a silverface 1970s Fender Twin Reverb. He used this until the end of 1979, when he switched to a Music Man HD-150 212. His famous quote on the subject, from a 1981 Musician magazine interview, was, “I don’t have time to search for those old Fender tube amps. The Music Man is the closest thing to that sound I’ve found…that plastic motif on the front is repulsive. Those little guys in bell-bottoms. Ugh!.” Strummer found the Music Man to be durable enough to withstand the Clash’s rigorous touring, and powerful enough to provide loads of clean volume, even when driving a 2x12 extension cab. His clean tone was a singular contrast to Jones’ saturated, effects-laden onslaught. Strummer’s Music Man came up for sale a few years ago and was purchased by Strummer fan and friend, Eddie Vedder. He wanted to use the amp onstage but, alas, found it too loud and too clean. Some horses can only be ridden by one rider.
For his part, bassist Simonon paid his gear dues early in the band’s history, working a string of no-name copy instruments. As the band got more attention, Simonon acquired a Rickenbacker 4001, which he disliked. He wanted a bass that was substantial in both weight and tone. In the end, he gravitated to the same camp as Dee Dee Ramone and Sid Vicious: a white Fender Precision and an Ampeg SVT. Simonon famously smashed this bass at a show at the New York Palladium in September 1979. This moment of anger and energy was captured by photographer Pennie Smith and became the iconic cover shot of the London Calling album. And the smashed Precision eventually found its way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unlike Vicious and Ramone, Simonon became quite proficient on his bass, mastering funk and reggae styles and following the creative path of the Clash all the way up the river to its ultimate breakup.
The Clash put the “rock” in punk rock. Unlike the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, the Clash successfully broke past the strictures of early punk to move into new genres and eventually create a signature sound. The gear the Clash used was key to this success.
Punk 2.0 and Beyond
Since his band changed the world with a stage full of cranked gear, Johnny Ramone has sold his Mosrite and Marshalls on eBay. Dee Dee’s basses and amps are long gone, sold to finance a lifestyle that eventually killed him. Jones of the Pistols still has his Les Paul, although he has a dubious history of selling and re-purchasing the storied instrument. Likewise, Strummer’s Telecaster has done time in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mick Jones has his old axes either stashed away or in his library in London. All these instruments that played songs of rebellion and anarchy, all these amps that were run at top volume to decimate so many hearts and minds, all of it now silent.
Many generations of punk have come and gone since that first wave. Late-’70s bands, American hardcore bands, Oi! and thrash bands. The genre and all its offshoots have had innumerable adherents through the years and on down to today. As always, the punks are the ones who step out front first to rebel against the status quo. Afterward, others come through the broken window. But it’s those first pioneers, the rebels so often cast as misfits or threats to society—the punks—who are the first in.
And doing that takes energy.
Want more punk? Click next for 10 First-Generation Punk Albums You Gotta Have