I find it interesting, given the typical view of punk rock (and of British punk in particular) as the music of rage and hate, that the first words of the Clash's debut album are about love. Its first song, "Janie Jones," begins with Terry Chimes' propulsive drumming--it sounds like the heartbeat of a kid amped up on amphetamines and the sheer joy of being alive. After a one-chord jab from Mick Jones' guitar come those words: "He's in love with a rock and roll world./ He's in love with a getting stoned world./ He's in love with Janie Jones' world." Joe Strummer goes on to sing about how and why the song's protagonist "don't like his boring job now," but those words of love both undercut and fuel the anger expressed in the rest of the song. That's part of what made the Clash such a great band: they were pissed off and confrontational because they loved people and wouldn't accept anyone mistreating them.
The Clash is my favorite album by my favorite rock band. Give 'Em Enough Rope is just barely less great, London Calling is their masterpiece and big chunks of Sandinista! and Combat Rock are excellent. Heck, I could maybe even mount something of a defense for Cut the Crap, which even the guys who played on it don't like. Despite all of this, I play their first album more than any of the others. In part, that's because its air of youthful intensity and discovery feels more and more crucial as I get older. To borrow from Wordsworth, I find that it's "the fountain light of all our day,/... a master light of all our seeing."
I also find it instructive to observe how Strummer and Jones, the band's chief songwriters, mine both the details of living in 1970's England and the traditions of rock and roll up to that point to create something new. "Janie Jones" is a perfect case in point. Its subject matter couldn't be more old school R&R: a young guy toughs it out at his crappy day job so he can get in his car after work and go out on the town with his girl. In a way, its music is likewise: basic I-IV-V chord changes. What makes the song distinctive is its speed, its roughness, its terseness, its clarity. It feels as if the band has no time for frippery or polish--they need to tell you what's going on, and they need to tell you NOW. "Janie Jones" accomplishes what Joe Strummer tried to do in his previous group, the 101ers: it takes the energy and simplicity of early rock and puts it in a vivid, modern (at the time) context.
Other songs on the album:
"Remote Control"--A list of complaints about life in London at the time: mindless work, crappy weather, no money, no political power, sheer boredom. Sets the scene, lets the listener know what he/she's up against.
"I'm So Bored With the USA"--A fast, three-chord rant against the influence of American culture and politics. Great tension between the drive and focus of the musicianship and the despair of the lyrics ("I'm so bored with the USA/ But what can I do?"). Like "RC," it sets up the terrain through which the band and listener must navigate.
"White Riot"--Inspired by the riot at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. The frustration built up in the previous two songs explodes into action. I love Paul Simonon's descending/ascending bass runs in the verses and Joe Strummer's breakdown into incomprehensible gibberish near the end.
"What's My Name"--Builds upon "Hate and War" and describes a London youth who turns to crime after struggling with peer pressure, dysfunctional family life, bureaucratic indifference and street violence. The Who created a similar character in their double album Quadrophenia. The Clash paint their angry-young-man portrait in one minute and forty seconds.
"Deny"--My nomination for the stupidest song the Clash ever wrote. I both laugh and wince every time I hear the line, "Boy meets girl, somebody gets run over." It does have documentary value, though--namechecks the London punk hangout the 100 Club and hints at the problem of heroin addiction ("You said you ain't had none for weeks/ Baby, I seen your arm.").
"London's Burning"--Another personal favorite. An anthem to being young, alone and desperate for something to do.
"Career Opportunities"--A companion piece to "Janie Jones." This song plays in my head whenever I check Monster and Careerbuilder and find them loaded with postings for high-pressure sales gigs, call centers, work-from-home scams and the Army.
"Protex Blue"--A catchy, funny complaint about a lousy brand of vending-machine condom. Helps flesh out the album's picture of 70's London.
"Police and Thieves"--One of the earliest meetings of Punk and Reggae. In retrospect, this track points toward the Clash's later musical experimentation and expressions of solidarity with oppressed, under-privileged peoples across the globe. Reportedly, Bob Marley really liked the Clash's take on this song.
"48 Hours"--A joyous, tossed-off companion piece to "London's Burning."
"Garageland"--A warm, proud yet self-deprecating tribute to young, poor kids picking up whatever instruments they can find, making some noise and speaking their minds. The perfect note on which to end the album.