The Clash were one of the first bands I got into as a teenager—late as usual, they broke up just before I started listening to them. I started with Combat Rock, then worked by way through the rest of their albums, learning the words and getting to know the recordings the way you do as a kid: fiercely, intimately, with a kind of loyalty and affection usually reserved for other human beings. The one exception was Give ‘Em Enough Rope. I bought it on tape from the Our Price on Putney High Street in London, while visiting my grandparents, and when I got it back to their flat at the top of the hill I discovered that there was no cassette in the case. I took it back the next day, but they didn’t have another copy, so I walked out with a Billy Bragg album (Life’s A Riot with Spy vs. Spy).
London Calling and Sandinista were both taped off people I knew, but for some reason I never got a copy of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and although I heard it a few times over the years, and got to know a couple of the songs quite well, I never spent much time with it until recently. When I put it on heavy rotation, the first couple of spins weren’t overly exciting, and I questioned whether I’d want to keep listening to it for as long as other records, but it grew on me.
The Clash had a raw, lean clarity that was lacking from later albums, replaced with something else, a kind of passionate social eclecticism, that took the band to a sustained creative peak across their last three ‘proper’ records (Cut The Crap doesn’t really count as a Clash album). On their debut they sound like The Buzzcocks, with their single-minded aesthetic and frantic energy. When they recorded Give ‘Em Enough Rope that was gone, but their subsequent sound hadn’t quite ripened, and for that reason this record is usually not accorded a central place in the band’s canon.
Giving it some time over the course of several months has helped me to hear it in a new light, though. These are good songs, that address their topics with exactly the attitude you’d expect from The Clash. They have a broad emotional range, from the yearning, youthful nostalgia of Mick Jones’s vocal feature ‘Stay Free’ to the sarcastic fury of ‘Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad’, to the belligerent self-justification (already a feature of Joe Strummer’s lyrics) of ‘Cheapskates’. They are also made, broadly, out of the same stylistic materials as the stuff on their best albums. They’re just not quite there yet. It feels like everything that made London Calling so good is already present: they’ve lined up their ducks, but they haven’t quite managed to knock them over.
It’s a record with energy, and with engaging melodic and lyrical hooks—‘Drug Stabbing Time’ is one of the funniest refrains in their whole oeuvre. And granted they had a few takes to get it nailed, but it’s also got some great rhythm-section playing, borrowing its grooves from rock ’n’ roll and power-pop. It’s hard to listen to a punk record and forget everything your ears know about the characteristic sounds of Oi and hardcore, but this was a time before punk had its own vocabulary, when it stole and repurposed music in the same way as fashion, and the record is a delightful ‘fuck you’ to mainstream aesthetics. Perhaps it’s most interesting as a document of the band’s creative transition, but it’s a lot of fun in its own right.