The Clash - Give 'Em Enough Rope (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Clash

Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978)


Shortly before the recording of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the Clash were working on recording “1-2 Crush On You,” which would later become the B-side to “Tommy Gun.” It was suggested that they get a saxophone player to play on the track, and drummer Topper Headon suggested his old friend Gary Barnacle. One day, two of Gary’s brothers showed up at the rehearsal with an air rifle that piqued Headon’s interest, so he, bassist Paul Simonon, and the Barnacles went up on a roof to shoot at some pigeons. Someone mistook them for terrorists shooting at trains and contacted the police. Soon, there was a helicopter overhead, the street was taped off, and the police were taking them away to jail. The band’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, was nowhere to be found to help the boys in jail, so co-frontman Mick Jones called on Caroline Coon, a journalist and good friend of Paul Simonon, to help get in touch with their record label and bail the bandmates out.

This was the moment where the band’s relationship with their manager, Bernie Rhodes, started to deteriorate. Rhodes, who had started the band as an attempt to outdo his former mentor, Malcolm McLaren’s, Sex Pistols at their own game, had rode the band hard for their first album to create a tight and technically proficient punk rock sound in contrast to the Sex Pistols’ more anarchistic and sloppy playing style. Rhodes is a strange character in the history of The Clash, being both the man who helped them reach some of their greatest successes, and the man responsible for some of their worst decisions, and ultimately the person who both put the band together in the first place and broke them up at the end. When Rhodes would leave the band after Give ‘Em Enough Rope, he would free the band up to embark on their greatest creative journey, the wildly eclectic London Calling. But, after too much time without Rhodes’s stabilizing influence, the band would take experimentation too far with the messy and inconsistent Sandanista!, so the band brought Rhodes back in and he brought them down to Earth on Combat Rock. But on Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Bernie Rhodes, becoming distant following the pigeon shooting escapade that became known as the “Guns on the Roof Incident” (giving co-frontman Joe Strummer a title for one of the songs on this album), we see some of the eclecticism, that would later become The Clash’s trademark, just starting to seep into the music.

The other significant event in the history of The Clash was the introduction of Topper Headon into the band. Headon, whose primary musical interest had never been in punk but rather in soul and jazz, originally joined the band thinking that he would use The Clash as a stepping stone for more creatively fulfilling projects. Little did he know that The Clash were about to become one of the most musically diverse groups in the world, giving him plenty of opportunities to dabble in any genre of music he chose. He would never move on to bigger and better things like he planned because, despite being a phenomenal drummer and arguably the best punk drummer of all time, his heroin addiction ultimately consumed him and resulted in him being kicked out of The Clash and failing to ever really find another gig or emerge as a solo artist until after he got clean much later in life. But Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the first album to feature Headon on the whole album (as he did not appear on the UK version of the self-titled album and only appeared on a few tracks of the US version), demonstrates the young and able version of Headon who could drum circles around anyone anyone, and it really made the group’s sound more dynamic.

Ditching producer Mickey Foote, who had given The Clash their gritty sound on The Clash, Sandy Pearlman was brought in to produce Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Pearlman’s primary work was as the producer of all of Blue Öyster Cult’s albums between 1972 and 1978, plus two more of their albums in 1985 and 1988. Pearlman gave the album a much slicker and cleaner sound than The Clash, as you can hear in the opening track, “Safe European Homes.” This song is probably the band’s biggest and best stadium rocker next to “Police on My Back.” “Safe European Homes” comes in with guitars absolutely blazing, but in such a clean and controlled way. But, being The Clash, they naturally put in a ska breakdown near the end of the song. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure out that Joe Strummer is saying “Rudie can’t fail” over and over again at the end of this song, a phrase that would become the title and chorus for a song on the following album.

“English Civil War” borrows the melody and some of the lyrics of the American Civil War tune “Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” although some Americans like myself might remember it as the more toned down versions of the song: “The Ants Go Marching” and “The Animals Went in Two by Two.” Strummer’s lyrics tell the story of an English civil war against The New Party, a short lived fascist party in England in the 1930s. Presumably, Strummer is warning about the possibility of fascism coming to rear its ugly head again. Then comes “Tommy Gun,” a song about the bravado that comes with being a gun toting maniac and war monger. This is one of the places where we see the big difference between Topper Headon and former drummer, Terry Chimes, as Headon came up with the idea to make the drums sound like a literal tommy gun, something that Chimes probably wouldn’t have had the technical chops to pull off. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” by far my favorite song in the world that has my name in it, shows some of that eclecticism starting to peek into the Clash’s music, as this song is a wonderfully swinging, piano-centric, honkey-tonk number.

There are very few Clash songs that aren’t particularly political in nature, but the few non-political songs they produced were usually written by Mick Jones. “Stay Free,” which has the unfortunate honor of sharing its name with a brand of feminine hygiene products, is Jones’s tribute to a childhood friend of his who fell in with the wrong crowd and ended up going to prison. Between the organ music in the song, the beautiful yet subtle bass line reminiscent of “Lost in the Supermarket” which would appear on the next album, and the softer, less distorted chords, “Stay Free” is less a punk song than just a general rock song. While the rest of The Clash would constantly hate on rock bands that weren’t punk, like the Rolling Stones, Jones secretly loved big stadium rock bands and was too timid to tell his bandmates this until later in their careers after the relationship between Strummer and Jones turned sour. Little did he know that his own bandmates were full of it when they claimed to hate such bands, too.

The final track, “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” got its name from the famous song that David Bowie had written for Mott the Hoople called “All the Young Dudes.” The song mocks “All the Young Dudes” because, again, Strummer liked to keep up the punk attitude of hating everything that came before punk in the 60’s and 70’s. In many ways that was a façade, but it was a façade he was dedicated to keeping up. The song talks about the frustration of being a young man in the music industry, with all the pressures that come with that, although at the end of the song Strummer recognizes how lucky he is to be doing this and not working in a factory. With its more subdued sound, “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” also foreshadows some of the less aggressive songs that we would see on London Calling like “Lost in the Supermarket” and “Death or Glory.” Really, that’s the reason that this album is sometimes overlooked when talking about The Clash: it’s an album that really serves as a stepping stone between two superior albums. If you listen to The Clash and immediately follow it up with London Calling, I’m sure you’ll find the difference in style very jarring. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the transitional phase between the two albums, where they started to pull away from Rhodes’s influence and where they incorporated an extremely talented drummer to fill out their sound and where they first started to create an eclectic style which they would later become known for.