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A Riot of Our Own

The Clash's Mick Jones tells us all about the year that was so massive his band wrote a song about it -- in 1976.

The television went off at around 11 or 12 at night to the sound of the national anthem. Then there was only a test card on throughout the night, and nothing was open. No wonder we wrote loads of songs. We were bored.

Me and Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon would spend our days mucking about, playing a few songs and shouting at each other — just young guys having a great time. I don’t think we had jobs. The idea was not to, and there weren’t that many to be had, anyway. Now, looking back, I like our first album [The Clash] best, I must say, because it doesn’t sound like anything else. We were in a studio and they were saying, “You gotta do it this way,” and we were saying, “We don’t want to do it that way!” The record’s not really produced; it’s more like anti-production. Plus, we recorded “1977,” which was sort of a statement of intent from our group: No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. We had slogans for lyrics — we used to display them on our shirts. On one hand, these artists we grew up with weren’t going to be there for us anymore. But on the other hand, they were influential because they led us to our music.

If there’s one moment that stands out from 1977, it might be when we became the first punk band to do a show at the Rainbow, in May, which is a big theater in London where Frank Zappa was thrown off the stage and broke his leg. The crowd rioted — well, they hardly rioted, but they threw the seats into the orchestra pit. The whole thing was in the papers, and everyone got really excited. Same thing with being on the Anarchy Tour the year before with the Sex Pistols: I remember going up and down the country, and halfway through the afternoon, we’d hear that the gig we were heading to had been canceled. People were protesting, but they weren’t even sure why. They were protesting the idea of us. But we were quite cool people, really. Very well behaved.

We were friendly with the Sex Pistols. There was camaraderie to a certain extent but obviously some competitiveness, as well: You’re on a different team. If there was such a thing in the punk days as one set of people who thought of only destroying and one set who thought about creating, that was the Sex Pistols and us. We had two different approaches, opposite ends. There were a lot of people who felt like the Pistols did, though, and I guess that’s why they only made one album. We never took a break, and look what happened to us. Groups that do take a year off and get their heads together generally survive. I mean, even when we were going, it usually took three albums to get known. If you managed to stick together that long, you might have a chance of getting somewhere. Now it’s much faster. It’s a fierce thing; you maybe have one shot. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

Once we started to stretch out in different musical directions, people were saying, “You can’t do that — it’s not punk.” But who were they to say what’s not punk? On the other hand, we may have become exactly what we originally set out to be against, without even knowing it. We tried to deal with the contradictions as best we could, but we just got bigger and bigger, didn’t we?

All types of bands are called “punk” now, but it wasn’t just a kind of music; it was what you were. The Roxy only lasted 100 days — just a burst of creativity and energy — and after those 100 days, things got shut down. By the time we got to America, it was called new wave, wasn’t it? We thought that was a haircut.

AS TOLD TO STEVE KANDELL

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