The Clash: Cut the Crap
Released: November 4, 1985
“‘Anyone can write a punk song!’ That was our mistake.”
– Kosmo Vinyl, Clash press agent
The Clash broke up in 1983. No really, look at their website: 1982’s Combat Rock is the last studio album listed, just above a note about the band’s performance at the US Festival, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s disastrously expensive gathering of music stars in San Bernardino, California. The Clash famously demanded that a donation to a charity be made in their name, in response to the festival’s blatant commercialism and high ticket prices. The site ends its blurb about the festival by stating that guitarist Mick Jones left the band soon after, “effectively signaling it’s end.” The site’s unfortunately ugly boom box navigation bar even shows a radio dial that only takes you from 77 to 83.
If you were a recently converted fan you might be fooled into thinking that the US Festival really was the end of the Clash, but the band in fact staggered on for two more years, just long enough to release one last record. That album, Cut the Crap, is—like the Velvet Underground’s Squeeze—a disowned release, excluded from box sets, biographies and documentaries. Unlike Squeeze though, it was not the product of a pretender to the throne but two of the Clash’s founding members. How could half of one of punk’s most seminal bands have made an album so awful they’d rather wipe it from history than accept it as part of their discography?
Things started to fall apart in 1981, though Sandinista! saw the Clash at a creative peak. While the triple album was an indulgent and mixed affair, it displayed a stylistic range that few bands could have claimed at the time, incorporating punk, reggae, dub, hip-hop, jazz, rockabilly and gospel. They were heavily in debt though, and soon turned to their former manager, Bernard Rhodes. Rhodes had been an associate of infamous Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren, supposedly giving the Pistols their name. Inspired by McLaren, he helped form and establish the Clash in 76, pushing the band to write about politics.
Rhodes was dumped shortly after the band’s second album, in favor of a more traditional management agency, but by 81, the Clash needed some shaking up. Rhodes, like McLaren, was fond of publicity stunts, and his first idea upon being rehired was an excellent one: a series of residencies at various venues, most notably at New York’s Bond’s Casino. The Bond’s residency was greeted ecstatically, tickets selling out rapidly, fans mobbing the venue to get in, critics and observers hailing the 17 shows as a defining moment in New York’s vibrant early 80s art scene. Rhodes it seemed, had delivered, and in 1982 the Clash were poised to become the biggest band in the world.
Rhodes’ influence was not entirely positive though. Strummer had always had great affection for him and seemed to trust his guidance, to a degree that would later seem foolish. Both Strummer and Rhodes frequently talked about recapturing the rough punk spirit of the Clash’s earlier records, a sentiment that conflicted with guitarist Mick Jones’ restless interest in new musical styles. 1982’s Combat Rock was originally envisioned by Jones as another double album, an idea that the rest of the band squashed. Still, Jones’ eclectic fingerprints were all over the album and it went on to produce two singles, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah,” their first true hits and the songs that finally broke the Clash in America.
Despite this success, relationships were quickly deteriorating. Drummer Topper Headon was the first casualty, fired for his heroin addiction. Over the next year, Strummer, Rhodes, bassist Paul Simonon and press agent Kosmo Vinyl slowly found themselves turning against Jones. The conflict was caused by many factors. Jones was often late to rehearsals, and frequently stoned. Perhaps most importantly, Jones seemed more and more interested in pop and electronic sounds, and took to the idea of becoming a rock star easier than the rest of the band. Strummer, son of a diplomat who’d spent most of his adult life trying to shroud his privileged upbringing in grimy punk idealism, was said to be repulsed by the idea of becoming wealthy or touring stadiums, though it seemed at the time to be the Clash’s destiny, as evidenced by their legendary Shea Stadium show opening for The Who. Shortly after the US Festival and one final, dispassionate recording session, Jones was fired by Strummer and Simonon.
Jones’ contributions to the band had been invaluable, but Strummer was fiercely determined to push on without him. The new Clash would consist of Strummer, Simonon, Pete Howard on drums and two new guitarists to replace Jones, Nick Sheppard of the Cortinas and the temperamental Vince White. Despite an intense marketing push and an ingenious “busking tour” of UK cities, reception to this new incarnation of the band was lukewarm. Undeterred, they headed into the studio for what would be the Clash’s most difficult and disorderly sessions yet.
Strummer may have thought the heart of the Clash was still beating, but Cut the Crap sounds like the work of a different, much lesser band. Opener “Dictator” is an absurd barrage of sounds: horns, radio chatter, static, electronic marimbas and most ironically, an avalanche of synth sounds. The insanely busy production recalls the foibles of so many artists in the same decade: the ugly “Borneo horns” of Bowie’s Tonight, the garish, plastic rock ’n’ roll of the Beach Boys’ Still Cruisin’. Cut the Crap was produced by Jose Unidos, a pseudonym for Bernie Rhodes, who believed he could step in and take the place of Mick Jones as the band’s sonic guide. He encouraged the constant wash of synthesizers and effects, brought in studio musicians to replace band members and used a drum machine in place of Pete Howard on most songs. Rhodes’ grip on the Clash had never been so strong and his work as producer made the album’s poor quality inevitable.
Cut the Crap is filled with chant-along choruses, apparent attempts at fusing fist-pumping Oi! pandering with the requirements of the Clash’s new stadium band status. Far from anthemic, the mobbed choirs sound moronic, shouting cliche street wisdom like “BE COOL UNDER HEAT” over machine gun drum blasts. This trick is deployed in nearly every song, and you find yourself exhausted from it by track three. The collapse of the band’s songwriting ability is stunning at times. “Play to Win”—a street argument between Strummer and sound engineer Fayney intercut with a chant about “graffiti bandit pioneers”—might have snuck in easily among the sprawl of Sandinista! but here it sticks out as a lazy experiment. The jiving, keyboard soloing, slap bass, teen dance inanity of “Fingerpoppin’” might be the most embarrassing moment of the Clash’s career, particularly Strummer’s cringe-inducing cool guy vocal delivery.
Lead single “This Is England” is Cut the Crap’s sole bright spot, and thus one of the last decent songs any incarnation of the band produced, a survey of modern English life, touching with nuance on subjects like nationalism, police brutality, declining British industry and the Falklands War. Even the football chant chorus works here, reading potentially as another layer of commentary rather than a poor production choice.
Outside of “This Is England,” Strummer’s politics had never sounded limper, when they were even evident or audible behind the album’s glossy cacophony. Songs like “Dictator” and “Are You Red.. Y” contain the kind of insights one would expect to hear from a recently enlightened high schooler: the rich hate the poor, nuclear war is inevitable, there are dictators in third world countries doing terrible things and, believe it or not, some of them are even supported by the US. In the past, Strummer’s lyrics had been sharp and clever, bolstered by the innovative music they were paired with. These songs are lazy and empty, like unspecific diatribes and vague calls to action from a former radical trying to stay hip.
“We Are the Clash,” maybe the album’s silliest song, sums up everything wrong with this new iteration of the band. It’s a supposed rebel anthem that instead sounds like the theme song of a carefully curated brand: “We ain’t gonna be treated like trash / We got one thing / We are the Clash.” Listen to the Clash, rebel against authority, buy a t-shirt too, so everyone can see. For the first time the Clash—a band once so dedicated to their beliefs and their fans that they would forgo money to lower the price tag of an album or donate to a good cause—sounded like rich, out of touch rock stars, straining for relevance, the exact fate Joe Strummer had been trying to escape.
Something fundamental had been broken, the spirit and excitement of the Clash had gone, and those that it left behind were cynical, exhausted and out of ideas. Strummer had finally started to see the writing on the wall and the effect was devastating. He had lost both of his parents in sudden, quick succession in 1984 and making a new album could have been a distraction, but instead the disastrous sessions only dragged him deeper into misery. He slowly stepped back from the album, leaving Bernie Rhodes to finish it and christen it with it’s dreadful title. No longer under Rhodes’s spell, Strummer collapsed into depression and guilt. Mick Jones had been right in his distrust of Rhodes, Strummer now realized, and his firing had doomed the band. It was too late to fix things. Jones had already moved on to form the group Big Audio Dynamite and was preparing their first album. The best Strummer could do was salvage their friendship, but there would be no reunion.
At the end of 1985, Strummer decided to break up the Clash. Bernard Rhodes refused to let this be the end, trying to convince the remaining members to keep playing and even holding auditions for a new singer. The Clash without Joe Strummer may sound ridiculous but it was a perfectly viable idea to Rhodes. After the departure, his real feelings about the band became clear: they were manufactured, his creation and mouthpiece, and they could all be easily replaced. Like a football team, he was said to have insisted. Auditions were held and overseen by Rhodes and Kosmo Vinyl, but the rest of the band had fled and nothing ever came of it. The Clash was now truly dead.
It may be easy to paint Bernie Rhodes as the architect of their demise but the Clash’s protracted destruction is one of the most complicated of any band, three years of petty conflicts and shortsighted mistakes. The Clash, once cleverly marketed by their label as “The Only Band That Matters,” were for a very brief moment on the cusp of actually becoming the most important band in the world, and instead they collapsed. No wonder they wanted to wish away those disastrous years. But maybe they dodged a bullet, maybe Strummer was right to be somewhat leery of success. U2 may have gladly picked up that baton they dropped, becoming that band of great political import, the band that “matters,” but today they’re more often to be mocked for their hypocrisies and pretentious postures than looked to for guidance.
That the Clash folded in the face of success is not very surprising, but could they have truly hit it big without compromising? Is it possible for any band to do so? Might it have been worth finding out? Strummer, said to be consumed with guilt over his role in the Clash’s slow dissolution, probably asked himself those questions for years. What Joe Strummer seemed to prize above all else, from his days spent squatting in abandoned buildings to that 1985 busking tour of blue collar neighborhoods, was a connection to the streets, the working class, the oppressed, a connection to a kind of rugged authenticity that had been glimpsed but never touched in his globe-trotting childhood. The inevitable struggle born from creating anti-authoritarian music within a commercial music industry has always been at the heart of punk rock, and for Strummer it was life or death. In 1985, at perhaps the darkest point in his life, his parents dead, his band falling apart, maybe the naive rebellion of punk was all he had left to cling to. From the liner notes of Cut the Crap:
CLASH COMMUNIQUE OCTOBER ‘85
Wise MEN and street kids together make a GREAT TEAM…but can the old system be BEAT?…no…not without YOUR participation…RADICAL social change begins on the STREET!…so if you’re looking for some ACTION…CUT THE CRAP and Get OUT There.