The Clash, the eponymous self-titled debut album by The Clash, was released 40 years ago last week, on 8 April 1977. How time passes by. It is widely celebrated as one of the greatest punk albums of all time, and one of the best debut albums. It was a record that made you sit up and take notice. It set the template for punk with its sharp shock songs full of passion and angry lyrics that were snapshots of the UK’s decay at the time.
The songs are short and intense, the speed-freaked brain of punk set to the tinniest, most frantic guitars trapped on vinyl. Rich in social commentary, attacking the fraught political and economic climate at the time, the collection of fifteen songs was unusually musically varied for a punk band, with reggae and early rock and roll influences plainly evident.
Despite all the hoopla over the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, a generation of disenfranchised, angry youth faced a grim reality of a dystopian future. In the latter 1970s, punk was the soundtrack for this alienated rage, an anti-establishment outreach of raucous, haywire impulses. Yet it remains timelessly inspiring. If you’ve never listened to this album, put it on your 100 albums to listen to before I go to heaven list.
Like a business startup, the Clash had raw energy, raw ideas and an attitude to take everything and everyone on. The classic line up which emerged from the creative tension of forming a band – Strummer-Jones-Simonon-Headon – made their mark. Each member brought a different influence, whether it was Joe’s folk lyricism, Mick’s rock adulation, Paul’s Brixton-born reggae, or Topper’s driving percussion, what you got was a unique blend.
Most of the first album was conceived on the 18th floor of a council high rise on London’s Harrow Road, in a flat rented by co-founder Mick Jones’ grandmother, who frequently went to see their live concerts. The songs were written over a twelve-day period, three four-day sessions Thursday-to-Sunday, beginning 10 February 1977, and recorded over three consecutive weekends at a cost of £3k.
The cover artwork was designed by Polish artist Rosław Szaybo, the album’s front cover photo, shot by Kate Simon, taken in the alleyway opposite the front door of the band’s ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ building in Camden Market. The picture of the charging police on the rear cover, shot by Rocco Macauly, was taken during the August 1976 riot at the Notting Hill Carnival – the inspiration for the track White Riot, their debut single.
The Clash wanted a riot of their own, and so they created one, not in the streets with bricks and bottles but on stage and in the studio with guitars and words. It may be an old fashioned thought now that a record can change the world, but it did and still stands up to this day as a brilliant document of the turbulent times, a luminous and revolutionary record.
I bought the record (one of those shiny vinyl things) and still have it close to hand to this day. It’s battered and scratched, the sleeve torn and frayed, but it’s a key part of my personal social history, but history relevant to now some 40 years on.
It was a platform to challenge prejudice, both without and within, that we could dance to, or jump about to. The first thing I ever liked about The Clash before I had even heard a tune was their name. In those heady days of mid-teens at parties of school mates, The Clash’s debut album was played over and over again. I recall one in particular as we all pogoed in the front room, every word to every song was sung as if our lives depended on it. The neighbours called the police because of the noise. This was a band capturing the moment. So were we.
Today, The Clash, their story and output, remains one of the most important signposts of my formative years. For five years, their lyrics, politicised and bristling with social conscience, had a far-reaching and ultimately enduring influence. They caught my ear and imagination, their mixture of politics and music shaped my beliefs and tastes.
Their musical experimentation and rebellious attitude was utterly inspirational and positive. For me, there remains a sense of urgency and anarchic inventiveness in their songs that roots them in the great musical moments of the late C20th. The songs more than stand the test of time, reminding you that music should speak to the politics, opinions and issues of society of the day.
So, I must admit, I still harbour a bit of attitude when it comes to Joe Strummer and company. A debut album like a stick of dynamite, it had heart and soul. I immediately got their vibe and saw their potential to speak to people. If you were lucky enough to see them, I don’t think you ever forgot it.
As I get older, it’s hard to separate songs from the memories we associate with them. People and places we used to know suddenly come rushing back with tremendous clarity after just a flurry of notes and words sung by a familiar voice you hear on the radio.
You don’t hear The Clash on the radio these days, but I can’t really tell you how much it meant to me back in 1977. I had a tear in my eye then, and I do now thinking about it. Everybody would sing along, loud. Those guys were a huge influence. It’s about appropriating anger. It’s what we should be doing. And suddenly (except for perhaps a bit of knew-joint pain and a few locks of grey hair) it’s as if no time has passed at all.
Fast forward, this first album remains an echo of the exhortation created more than 40 years ago. It speaks to entrepreneurs that you can write your own music, your own story, you can do it for yourself. On their record sleeves they printed: ‘Made by the Clash’. That says it all. Frustrated entrepreneurs, doing it for themselves.
Today, there is almost unlimited digitally fuelled competition for ears and pennies. For musicians, buskers or professionals, it has never been easy to turn tunes into cash and make a living. Social media enables direct-to-fan relationships, but the double-edged sword of technology is the mass-market digital noise reverberating from iTunes to Spotify to Soundcloud, where new bands can’t compete due to the social marketing voice and reach of the established artists.
You have to shout loud and spend lots to be heard. There are only so many iTunes/Starbucks ‘free track of the week’ cards to go around, so what are the strategy lessons from The Clash for startups today, to get yourself noticed as a new business in a crowded, market place as a newcomer?
Stand for something, be true to your purpose The Clash did whatever they wanted, great bands have that sense of purpose. They have a set of values and they remain true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who share those same values. Like a band, put some voice in your content marketing and stamp it with your personality. When your earlier advocates realise that they could miss out on something unique and special, they won’t want to miss it, and will in fact share it.
Being different matters more than being better The Clash became successful because they were different. We had never seen anything like them before, they grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music at the outset. It’s like building an MVP – be different, stand out from the crowd, offer something different. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks – pivot.
Be an experience A Clash concert wasn’t just about the music, it was the experience. Likewise great startups like Uber and Airbnb don’t simply sell products, they sell experiences which add value, and we buy into. Give your customers a really great, memorable experience instead of pitching them another me2 product. Social media is a force because it enables connectivity and community, conversations about experiences happen, creating word of mouth and referral marketing. Create opportunities for your customers to connect and share their experience.
Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? The Clash were loud. I mean loud, really loud. Their records were meant to be played so everyone down the street could hear it. Well, I thought so. Music sells the album, t-shirts and the concert tickets. Like music, your product content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Be bold, and tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.
Established customer know your history, new audiences want your hits Communicate your business legacy and future value through targeted channels and voices. New music keeps fans coming back for more. Always generate new and fresh products to keep people engaged with your brand, but treat existing and new customers differently. Don’t just deliver repeated content, engage your audience with innovation and create new reasons for people to come back to you.
Ensure your band has an inspired front man When your business leadership requires you to replace founding members with energetic new blood, put your business’s values in front for all to see. For The Clash, the focus was on Joe Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility. What do you stand for as a leader? Make it part of your brand.
Don’t just copy songs Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional. Be an original, not a replica.
Be a brand, with an image. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. Is your business logo iconic and noticeable?
Harness nostalgia with innovation Great music enshrines an artist with the amber glow of posterity. Today, vibrant retrospectives of digitally remastered content show the artist has transcended their time and that they can now be appreciated outside of the context of their era. Recordings from the past sit comfortably with tunes from the present. In business terms, it’s where your moments from the past meet today’s innovation, you have to leverage the past whilst also pushing the future to stay current.
So that was The Clash in 1977. A new generation raised its voice. Loud, clear, fast, innovative and straight in the face of the establishment. And forty years later this knockout record still sounds furious and roars mighty and still inspires. The restless heart and honest soul of one of the few bands that mattered will never vanish.
Make your startup like The Clash, with positive attitudes and energy, belief that you can achieve something new and spectacular. This mindset and behaviour enthuses and influences others around you as to the possibilities that you have envisaged.
Ensure your startup has the vitality, focus and aims to make a difference. Life’s too short to go unnoticed, be audacious. Life is all about progression from good to great. Push yourself to be there. Make some noise – 1-2-3-4 Go!