Which Bands Mattered to the “Only Band That Matters”?

International Clash Day
Janice Headley

IDLES. Billy Bragg. Franz Ferdinand. Moby. Over the past eight years of celebrating International Clash Day, KEXP has spotlighted a wealth of artists who were influenced by The Clash. But what bands mattered to the “only band that matters”? Sure, there's the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, and the Small Faces — or, as guitarist Mick Jones calls them "The Big Five." But with hints of reggae, hip-hop, and rockabilly in their punk sound, we knew there had to be more. Check out a few of those influences below. 

Mott the Hoople

In the early '70s, English rock band Mott the Hoople were on the verge of breaking up until David Bowie wrote the 1972 glam rock anthem "All the Young Dudes" for them. And one of those young dudes pressed up to the front of the stage at all their following concerts was Clash guitarist Mick Jones.

“I followed Mott the Hoople up and down the country,” he confirmed to Gibson. “I'd go to Liverpool or Newcastle or somewhere — sleep on the Town Hall steps, and bunk the fares on the trains, hide in the toilet when the ticket inspector came around. I'd jump off just before the train got to the station and climb over the fence. It was great times, and I always knew I wanted to be in a band and play guitar. That was it for me.”

Jones took his fandom pretty far during his time in The Clash. First, he released a song on their 1978 album Give ‘Em Enough Rope titled “All the Young Punks.” Subtle. (The track was retitled "That's No Way to Spend Your Youth" on the American release of the album, either because the label didn’t think U.S. listeners wouldn’t get the reference, or… maybe they were afraid they would.)

Then, he brought in Mott the Hoople manager Guy Stevens to produce The Clash’s iconic third album London Calling. (Stevens produced the first four MtH albums, recruited their vocalist Ian Hunter, and took the initiative to name the band after an obscure Willard Manus novel. Two out of three ain’t bad.)

And then to confirm he was the ultimate fanboy, in 1981, Jones co-produced a solo album by Hunter titled Short Back 'n' Sides. He even contributes guest guitar and vocals, and brought in The Clash’s Topper Headon to help out on percussion. Here’s hoping Jones will someday pay it forward by asking a fan to produce his own solo album! (Are you listening, Craig Finn? Joe Talbot?)

Joe Strummer + Lee "Scratch" Perry // photographer unknown


Lee "Scratch" Perry

When The Clash recruited Paul Simonon to play bass, he brought a dub influence instilled since birth. Simonon grew up in the Brixton district of South London (yup, that Brixton), a neighborhood populated by immigrants of Afro-Caribbean descent.  As a result, he grew up listening to reggae, telling CNN in 2013, “that’s the only music that seemed to me at that time that had something to say for itself. Whereas Led Zeppelin, progressive rock, it didn’t speak to me. I couldn’t relate to it.”

Reggae helped expose The Clash to the idea of using music as a form of protest. In 1976, Strummer and Simonon were living in the Notting Hill neighborhood which was, at the time, mostly populated by poor, immigrant families who were being brutalized and oppressed by the police. Tensions exploded that summer during the Notting Hill Carnival riot, and the song that soundtracked the uprising was Junior Murvin’s single “Police and Thieves" (co-written and produced by legendary reggae pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry). 

Not only did the experience inspire The Clash's debut single “White Riot," it also led The Clash to including a cover of "Police and Thieves" on their self-titled debut, once they realized their original album track list was too short. (That's punk rock for ya.) Strummer infamously referred to their rendition as “punk reggae, not white reggae,” continuing at a 1984 concert in San Francisco, “We add some of our own culture to it, so this is no ripoff. I'm talking to you, Sting!" (calling out the frontman for The Police, who also used reggae influences in their songs).  

Murvin’s response to the cover was “they have destroyed Jah work!,” but his co-writer was apparently honored. Story has it, that when Perry heard their rendition of "Police and Thieves," he was so touched, he put a picture of the band on the wall of his Black Ark Studio in Jamaica, making them the only white artists tacked up there. And when the band asked him to produce their 1977 single "Complete Control," he readily agreed. 

They have destroyed Jah work!
                                                          — Junior Murvin

During that session at Notting Hill's SARM Studios, Perry also recorded The Clash covering Toots and the Maytals' 1969 reggae hit "Pressure Drop" and he captured an early version of "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais," a song Strummer wrote about going to see a reggae triple bill of Dillinger, Leroy Smart, and Delroy Wilson play in London. (Perry apparently not noticing — or, not caring — that Strummer was dissing his contemporaries for not having "no roots rock rebel" on stage.)

As an aside, fellow reggae pioneer Bob Marley was also delighted by the mix of reggae and punk, inspiring him to write the 1977 single "Punky Reggae Party," which includes the lyrics:

I'm saying
The Wailers will be there
The Damned, The Jam, The Clash
Maytals will be there
Dr. Feelgood too

The Clash + Bo Diddley // photo by Bob Gruen


Bo Diddley

It took awhile for The Clash to make it big in America. Their 1977 self-titled debut wasn’t even released in America at first, because their U.S. label deemed it “not radio friendly.” (Joke was on them, because according to the 2000 documentary The Clash: Westway to the World, it went on to become the best-selling import of the year, selling over 100,000 copies.) Their following album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, only made it to number 128 on the Billboard charts, but the critical response was strong enough for CBS Records to send them on a nine-date U.S. tour in early 1979.

And who did they want to open? None other than rock n' roll pioneer Bo Diddley. They offered to pay him upfront, and he accepted, knowing full well that the punk rock audience might not respond to his blues-infused style. “You cannot say what people are gonna like or not gonna like,” he later said to biographer George R. White. “You have to stick it out there and find out! If they taste it, and they like the way it tastes, you can bet they’ll eat some of it!” (Sadly, sounds like Diddley ate it on some of those nights, with the Vancouver newspaper reporting that "when 51-year-old Diddley rhetorically asked the crowd who they loved in his 1956 hit song 'Who Do You Love?' —  they loudly answered with 'The Clash!' He was eventually pelted with debris and booed offstage.")

The Clash + Bo Diddley on the tour bus // photo by Bob Gruen


The Clash were enthralled by their guest, though, with Strummer telling the press, "I can’t look at him without my mouth falling open," adding, “In the flesh, he was more awe-inspiring than we could possibly imagine. He dressed like he was ready to fight. He always had his huge sheriff’s hat on and a giant belt buckle, and you were unmistakably in the presence of someone who gave no quarter.”

Strummer elaborated to Mojo Magazine in 2002:

My hero is Bo Diddley because… he was playing on street corner and knew that he needed something else. He wasn’t the fretsman in the world, so he went to a junkyard and got some ball cocks out of abandoned lavatory cisterns. Then he filled them with dried peas and gave them to his upstairs neighbor who became his maracas man. That’s the sort of thing I idolize Bo for. The spirit wherein you have to do something. To me, it’s an inspiration because I’m not the world’s greatest fretman either… people can get caught thinking it’s all about technique when it’s not really about technique all, it’s about something even more exciting and unidentifiable.

Bo, on the other hand... maybe less than enthralled. Hear him talk about his Clash tour experience in this 2002 interview below;

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five 

During that first trip to the States, The Clash fell in love with New York. In a 2003 interview with the Monthly Review, guitarist Joe Strummer reflected on the experience. “When we came to the U.S., Mick stumbled upon a music shop in Brooklyn that carried the music of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang… these groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.” 

The hip-hop influence is particularly strong on their 1980 triple-album Sandinista!, which opens with the track "The Magnificent Seven," said to be the first major label release of a white person rapping. (Blondie's "Rapture" wouldn’t come out for another six months.) Another track written during this era — their 1981 single “This is Radio Clash” — kicks off with a high-pitched laugh that Joe Strummer later said was directly inspired by Grandmaster Flash's "The Message." (Phil Collins claims the same is true for the maniacal guffaw he unleashes in the Genesis song "Mama," showing Grandmaster Flash's influence extends to places we never could've dreamt.)

To show their appreciation, The Clash invited Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five to open for them during their 17-night residency at New York City’s Bonds International Casino in 1981. (Each night featured a different opening act, like The Fall, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, poet Allen Ginsberg, KRAUT, and more.) Unfortunately, the majority-white audience was not ready for Flash's pioneering turntable skills or Melle Mel's rhythmic rhymes. Jones remembered to Gibson, "When Grandmaster Flash supported us at the Bond’s shows in New York, they were booed! Joe was quite upset. He went out onstage and yelled at the audience. He said, ‘Come on! You’re not being fair. You have to give them a chance!’” (You'd think they'd learn after their Bo Diddley experience!)

Joe Strummer confirmed the story to Uncut Magazine in 1999: “When we played Bonds in New York, the Brooklyn crowd bottled Grandmaster Flash off our stage. Now they’re all ‘hip hop wibbly wibbly wop, it don’t stop,’ with the funny handshakes and all that. But when we presented it to them then, they bottled it off. Grandmaster Flash doing ‘The Message’, and it was bottled off.”

...in respect to addressing the ills of capitalism and providing a smart class analysis, underground hip-hop, not the pop-culture stuff, picked up where punk left off and ran full steam ahead.
                                                                                                    — Joe Strummer

When Monthly Review suggested to Strummer that hip-hop replaced punk as the “dominant political pop cultural force in spirit, vitality, and creativity,” he replied, “No doubt about it, particularly in respect to addressing the ills of capitalism and providing a smart class analysis, underground hip-hop, not the pop-culture stuff, picked up where punk left off and ran full steam ahead.”


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