When punk rock legends The Clash were ruling the roost in the late 70’s and early 80’s, they were well known as both “The Last Gang In Town” and “The Only Band That Matters.” They were the only band that stood up for what they believed in, both musically and politically. Their ideals have influenced many bands in various genres, and none more so than the recently reunited punk trio Sleater-Kinney, who have grasped The Clash’s mantle as the only band that matters and taken it to new levels of integrity.
Both bands were formed in turbulent times, The Clash in miserable late 70’s London, a city rife with unemployment and racial tension, and Sleater-Kinney in the riot girl scene of the 1990’s when women set out to reclaim rock and roll. As a result both bands’ debut albums contain plenty of honest sloganeering. The Clash covered the reggae anthem “Police and Thieves” and frontman Joe Strummer wanted a riot of his own in the seminal “White Riot.”
S-K’s early songs were anthems of female empowerment and rejection of male values, the likes of ‘A Real Man’ and ‘Be Yr Mama’ and Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s screaming vocals underpinning how much these songs meant to them.
Interestingly, both bands in their early days attempted to break from the past. The Clash’s mantra of “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones” demonstrated their Year Zero approach, while Brownstein claimed that she wanted nothing less than world domination for the band. From early on both bands wanted to change how people looked at music, and they succeeded.
Both bands’ political views were so vital to what they stood for. The Clash were aggressive in their anti-fascism/racism stance, which came just after punk’s early and regrettable flirtations with Nazism. The Clash played many anti-fascist events, worked with noted Jamaican artist Mikey Dread, and were early adopters of hip-hop. The band’s songs constantly dealt with political corruption, from the early diatribe about the state of England “Career Opportunities,” to the Spanish Civil War anthem “Spanish Bombs,” to the legendary triple album Sandinista! Even the band’s final hour, the not-always-great Cut The Crap featured the anthemic “This Is England,” a still-snarling look at the Thatcher era in England.
Sleater-Kinney’s songs also were heavily political, particularly on the post 9/11 album One Beat which featured “Combat Rock” and “Far Away,” both songs heavily critical of the Bush administration. Their feminist values were never far away though, as “#1 Must Have” dealt with the band’s disillusion with the riot girl scene they helped to create and the treatment of women at concerts, while “Ballad of a Ladyman” examined how the perceptions the band faced as a girl band.
Both bands took risks musically, as both started off as “straight” punk before evolving into something completely different. Following their debut album The Clash — who signed to a major label, which S-K never did — expanded their horizons by experimenting with funk, dub, early hip-hop, folk and even aspects of heavy metal. London Calling probably contains their best songs, but for the full Clash experience, and their ability to switch from one musical genre to another with success, Sandinista! is the one to go for. Similarly S-K evolved from the pure punk of Call The Doctor to the more refined The Hot Rock to the savage intensity of their final album before their hiatus, The Woods, which is almost Led Zeppelin-like in its attitude. Both bands trusted their fans enough to know they’d go along with them, and for the most part they did.
It will be interesting to see if the new music S-K produces contains the similar intensity of their earlier albums. The fact that they reunited for a new album (No Cities to Love, out in January 2015) and not a nostalgia tour is a promising sign. Of course there can never be a Clash reunion following the untimely death of frontman Joe Strummer in 2002, but the legend seems only to have increased since then, with the band’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and various box sets, reissues and documentaries.
The recent reunion and reissues from S-K made me rediscover how radical a band could be. Listening to all their albums again after five years not only showed the growth that the band made in their original run but it also made me realise how exciting and thrilling a band can be all over again, the sort of feeling you get when you first discover the bands you love. Listening to the new song “Bury Our Friends” only increased this feeling, as all the ingredients that got me interested in S-K in the first place — Corin Tucker’s impassioned vocals, Carrie Brownstein’s unique guitar style, and Janet Weiss’ thunderous drumming — were still at the forefront after all these years.
Hopefully S-K’s new album will continue to explore the political and personal issues they have explored in the past. Music can still say important things even in this social media obsessed day and age. The Clash proved that in the past and Sleater-Kinney can prove it in the future.
The Clash and Sleater-Kinney. Two bands formed in completely different circumstances but who had so much in common. They did what they wanted while remaining true to their punk roots. They both meant it man, to paraphrase the former Johnny Rotten. They made people want to form bands due to the visceral nature of their performances. And even if you just wanted to sing and shout along with the music, you could do that too. These bands could be your life, as a book once put it, and for many people they were, and will be again. All hail the last gangs in town – The Clash and Sleater-Kinney.