Death ended hopes of a Clash reunion

Friday, March 7, 2003

NEW YORK -- One Sunday morning last December Joe Strummer faxed a message to Paul Simonon, his old friend from the Clash. Simonon was the holdout.

Strummer, Mick Jones and "Topper" Headon wanted to perform at the Clash's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and the singer urged Simonon to stop being churlish and dig out his bass guitar.

Simonon never had the chance to answer. Strummer died of a heart attack that very day, instantly rendering the question moot.

It will be left to others to salute the Clash at Wednesday's Hall of Fame ceremony at New York's Waldorf Astoria. Their fellow inductees include AC/DC, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the Police and the Righteous Brothers.

The Clash combined leftist politics, a fiery punk spirit and a musical restlessness that fused reggae, rap and funk to muscular rock. Rivals of the Sex Pistols in the London punk scene of 1977, the Clash moved past the initial fury to record "London Calling," in 1979, now regarded as one of rock's best albums ever.

Following a sprawling, three-record set, "Sandinista," the Clash recorded some of their biggest hits, "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go," before swiftly burning out.

The Clash "were just about the most important band to ever walk the planet," writer Pat Gilbert said in the liner notes to an upcoming greatest hits set.

"I wrote that myself in a rare moment of vanity," guitarist Jones said with a chuckle.

The induction, and Tuesday's release of the two-disc set, "The Essential Clash," should rekindle interest in the band -- if the special Grammy Awards performance of "London Calling" with Bruce Springsteen, Costello and Dave Grohl in a salute to Strummer hasn't already.

"We didn't always get it right, but we gave it a go," Jones said. "And we asked a lot of questions and also turned people on to a lot of cool stuff."

Jones' exit -- he was fired by Strummer and Simonon for erratic behavior in 1983 -- spelled the end of the classic Clash, although it limped along with replacement players for a couple of years.

"We never had a break," Jones said, "so we went speeding on into the wall, really."

Jones has stayed in music, writing and producing, although his post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite, exists only as a Web site now. Strummer was the most active, and was recording with his new band, the Mescaleros, at the time of his death.

Strummer's job in the Clash was drawing up the concert set lists, so he took particular interest in helping decide what went on "The Essential Clash," Simonon said.

With 40 songs, the set is able to convey a measure of the band's ambition. All of the expected highlights are included, yet it goes deeper than most hits collections. There's seven songs from the usually overlooked album, "Give 'Em Enough Rope," and 1980's atmospheric, late-night New York song, "Broadway." There's even one song from the post-Jones Clash, "This is England," with cheesy synthesizers that make it the only cut to sound dated.

Interestingly, the British version of "The Essential Clash" is markedly different from the U.S. version. "Broadway" or "This is Radio Clash" aren't on the U.K. version, while "Groovy Times" and "Whiteman" are only available overseas.

That's partly a reflection of different songs being popular in different places, and partly a compromise between squabbling band members.

"Joe had quite a strong input," Simonon said. "He was really behind this project. Like all of us, he was proud of the legacy. There are a few tracks that could've made it but didn't, but that's what happens within a group. Everyone has a shout. But Joe was very enthusiastic about writing out lists for it."

When the idea for the disc was broached, Simonon thought, "Why bother?" It has no new or unreleased songs, and all of the band's old albums -- plus a box set -- are still available. But he realized "The Essential Clash" is primarily for a generation that didn't get to experience the band first-hand, young fans who hear their heroes talk about the Clash as an influence and want to check them out.

The surviving band members and Strummer's family will attend the induction ceremony.

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