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Album Review: The Clash – Hits Back

4 min read

I first heard of The Clash in 2002 when I stumbled upon an obituary of Joe Strummer on the ABC Kids news program ‘Behind The News’. The image of these four skinny Englishmen with soldiers’ uniforms and guitars in the middle of an oil field would forever be ingrained in my mind.

TheClashHitsBackTo me, The Clash is one of those bands that never gets old. Their message of standing up for what’s right and their outfits have never gone out of style. Their music has been ingrained in pop culture through famous samples and features on film soundtracks.

Hits Back is proof that every band member during the band’s heyday were all crucial to the enduring legacy of The Clash. The opening song of the iconic 1979 album and of this compilation, London Calling, has Joe Strummer’s typically passionate vocals and the legendary guitar chops of Mick Jones all over it. It is also arguably the most well known Clash song, as it was featured on the soundtrack to ‘Billy Elliot’ and the countdown to the 2012 London Olympics.

The sequencing of Hits Back is based on the order of the set list used by The Clash at a gig in July 1982 at what is now known as Brixton Academy. The decision by the surviving members to use this running order appears to be a tribute to Strummer’s role in ordering the set list. It’s refreshing to see a different approach to sequencing a compilation, instead of the typical chronological order of most greatest hits compilations or an order that makes no sense (see Madonna’s double-CD compilation Celebration).

Hits Back, apart from  a few tracks, charges ahead with the frenetic, raw vitality of a rock gig. Listeners are transported to a sweaty, cramped mosh pit where they can’t help but jump and sing along to the songs. This exemplifies the best possible thing that an album can offer to the listener: the feeling of being taken away to another place. Having Safe European Home as the second track is a smart choice, as it must have worked well live and also keeps up the momentum on Hits Back.

Hits Back also avoids the trap of famous albums dominating compilations’ track lists, as album tracks off the London Calling LP are kept to a minimum. The track list (and thus the set list used during the band’s gigs) demonstrate the band’s versatility and willingness to try new things. There are tracks inspired by genres such as Motown-infused pop (Hitsville UK), rap (The Magnificent Seven), hip hop (This is Radio Clash) and reggae [(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais and Ghetto Defendant]. There are also tracks that don’t feature on their albums (Bankrobber), covers (The Clash’s well-known versions of I Fought The Law and Brand New Cadillac) and unconventional songs that make listeners scratch their heads (Wrong ‘Em Boyo). Of course, all the songs fall under the one common theme, that people should fight the status quo and stand up for their rights. Strummer and Jones made a fine songwriting team.

Another legendary track is The Guns of Brixton, written and sung by the eternally-cool pinup boy of the punk world, bassist Paul Simonon. His distinctive bass line has often been sampled, most notably on Beats International (which included the future Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook)’s take on the Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis (of Janet Jackson fame) composition Just Be Good to Me.

Drummer Topper Headon came up with the groove to Rock the Casbah,  the band’s sole US Top 10 hit. It is easily the most danceable Clash track, and it even has an instrumental remix for the clubs. As most listeners can recognise, the chorus was sampled in Will Smith’s millennium anthem Will 2K. I have a soft spot for this track, as it’s the first Clash track I ever heard (albeit subconsciously in late 1999) and the first Clash music video I ever saw, in that ‘Behind the News’ obituary report.

The 1982 concert set list ended with the slow burner Straight to Hell (famously sampled by M.I.A. in the smash hit Paper Planes), then-current hit and eternal classic Should I Stay or Should I Go and Garageland, a nice tribute to their garage band roots.

The addition of eight other tracks after Garageland may seem like an odd idea on paper, but these songs are far from filler. Recognisable, influential tracks like White Riot and This is Radio Clash make listeners wonder why they weren’t included in that 1982 set list. Their inclusion on Hits Back presents an interesting ‘what-could-have-been’ had The Clash played another eight songs in their set list.

The impact of The Clash on popular music and culture is undeniable. Their musicianship has also been duly recognised, not only through samples but also through Jones and Simonon’s recent collaborations with acts such as Gorillaz. It’s a shame that Strummer is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on in the music. Long live The Clash!

Buy ‘The Clash – Hits Back’ from Amazon

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