Three Clash songs inspired by The Who

The Clash

The early punk music ethos was to burn down the musical Library of Alexandria and start over. Punk music reinvented rock using simple barre chords, politically charged lyrics, and a confrontational image as a reaction to the complicated prog rock and soulless pop music of the 1970s. However, not every historical group survived. The Who, well-known 1960s mod rockers, were among those spared.

In their own right, The Who were hugely influential. They first appeared on the scene in the 1960s. They pioneered the use of distorted guitar tones and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, adrenaline-fueled rock songs for the younger generation. Tracks like My Generation,’ ‘Substitute,’ and the pop art single ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ would not have seemed out of place in the punk rock scene. So it stands to reason that the band influenced early punk bands like The Clash.

Clash founder and guitarist Mick Jones listed The Who as one of “the big five” influential British rock bands. It was alongside The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, and The Kinks. Growing up in the mid-1960s, with The Who at the forefront of London’s rock scene, Jones and his bandmates should have had an appreciation for The Who. The appreciation appears to be mutual, with Who guitarist Pete Townshend reportedly a fan of the punk scene. The band even tried to cast Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten as the lead in their 1979 film Quadrophenia. However, the production company was unable to find insurance for the volatile frontman.

The Who’s influence can be found in a variety of Clash songs. But it is most noticeable in three of the band’s early tracks. However, Jones used the riff of the classic Who track ‘I Can’t Explain’ as the basis for multiple tracks in the early days of the group, most notably the song ‘Clash City Rockers‘. They released the song as a single between the band’s first and second studio albums. It talks about a lack of job opportunities and the need for ordinary people to stand up to authority. These themes appear in many early Clash songs.

But ‘Clash City Rockers’ represents one of the band’s first forays away from the classic punk rock sound and toward something more experimental. The track features a heavy influence of ska and reggae owing predominantly to bassist Paul Simonon’s love of the genres. The riff for ‘I Can’t Explain’ ultimately forms the foundation of it.

Previously, the riff served as the foundation for The Clash’s ‘Capital Radio‘. They included a free single with certain copies of their self-titled debut album. The song is an indictment of mainstream radio and chart music. The single encapsulates the anger and shock value of those early punk records, beginning with the lyrics “Yes, it’s time for the Dr. Goebbels Show.” One can hear The Who’s riff clearly, though with much more distortion, in one of The Clash’s heaviest songs.

The Clash, ever resourceful, repurposed the ‘Can’t Explain’ riff on their 1978 track ‘Guns on the Roof’. The song is taken from their incredible sophomore album Give ‘Em Enough Rope. It was inspired by an incident in which members of The Clash accidentally shot racing pigeons with air rifles on the roof of their rehearsal space, prompting a CID visit. Musically similar to ‘Clash City Rockers,’ the track begins to sound like someone is playing an incorrect 45 rpm copy of ‘I Can’t Explain,’ before the unmistakable tones of Joe Strummer kick in.

The Who had already made their mark on rock music by the time punk arrived. Their unforgettable songs, still enjoyed today, were responsible for soundtracking the swinging sixties. But as it turns out, they also had a part to play in the formation of punk rock. Those four chords have a lot to answer for.

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