Formed as the first shots of the punk revolution were being fired, The Clash storm onto the UK scene with their debut performance on the Fourth of July, 1976, at The Black Swan in Sheffield, England, as the opening act for The Sex Pistols. While America celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of its independence from Britain, the UK was in the midst of another revolution, this one staged on its very own shores. One eyewitness was singer/guitarist Joe Strummer, then the frontman of a popular pub-rock band called the 101ers.
Before a gig at a London club called the Nashville Room in April 1976, he watched as that evening’s opening act took the stage: “Five seconds into their first song, I just knew we were like yesterday’s papers. I mean, we were over.” The group was The Sex Pistols, and their effect on Strummer was life-altering. Within weeks, he’d accepted an invitation from guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon to leave the 101ers and join their as-yet-unnamed and drummer-less new band. Together, the three of them would form the core of a group their fans would call, with all sincerity, The Only Band That Matters.
The first live gig the Clash ever played had its predictable rough patches, but their enthusiasm and commitment were there from the start, as were their unique musical and visual esthetics. The Clash were instantly distinguishable from the group that inspired them by virtue of their sincere political bent. While the Sex Pistols sneered and preached anarchy, there was always a barely disguised element of hucksterism to their social agenda. The Clash, on the other hand, quickly established themselves as the zealous and decidedly un-soft advocates of leftist causes like racial justice. As U2 guitarist The Edge later wrote of the Clash, “This wasn’t just entertainment. It was a life-and-death thing. They made it possible for us to take our band seriously….It was the call to wake up, get wise, get angry, get political and get noisy about it.”
It took some months following their debut gig for the Clash to work out the kinks and find the drummer, Topper Headon, who would complete their definitive lineup. Even 25 years later, Joe Strummer could still quote nearly verbatim one of their early reviews: “The Clash are one of those garage bands who should be swiftly returned to the garage, with the doors locked and with the motor left running.” Undiscouraged, the Clash released an acclaimed, self-titled debut album in the spring of 1977, and over the next two-and-a-half years, they released a second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978), that was Rolling Stone magazine’s pick for album of the year, and a third, London Calling (1979), that the same magazine chose as the greatest album of the 1980s.