Back-stabbing, bullying, busking: how The Clash disintegrated

Joe Strummer in 1985
(Image credit: Brian Rasic / Getty Images)

The official statement, released September 10, 1983, was brief and blunt: ‘Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon have decided that Mick Jones should leave [The Clash]. It is felt that Jones drifted away from the original idea of the group...’ 

If you had asked anyone in the know, they would have told you that The Clash were dead long before that axe fell. The band had divided into two camps – Mick Jones on one side and everyone else on the other. Strummer, Simonon and manager/svengali Bernie Rhodes constantly rowed with Jones over contentious issues like tour schedules, album lengths and The Clash’s musical direction. 

Jones had also become obsessed with the New York hip-hop scene and was growing tired of his second banana role in the band. On-stage, Jones had reinvented himself as the Clash’s co-lead singer. Off-stage, he spent his time messing around with beatboxes and synthesisers while his Les Paul collection gathered dust in the corner.

On Jones’ insistence, a brief holiday break in 1982 had stretched into a nine-month indolence. Not only was nothing being worked on, but the boys were not on speaking terms. The Clash’s only activity in 1983 was a mini-tour leading up to an appearance at the mammoth, three-day Us Festival in California.

The Clash were a man short at the time. Drummer Topper Headon had been sacked the year before and his predecessor/replacement Terry Chimes signed up for the Combat Rock tour but chose not to stay on. Following a series of auditions, an astonishingly powerful and prodigious 23 year-old from Bath named Pete Howard came onboard to slam the cans. But Pete was soon to discover that this dream gig was more like a nightmare. The Clash’s ongoing, behind-the-scenes dysfunction was not going to make his job an easy one.

Pete: “After the auditions, they basically just said, ‘Go away and learn everything.’ Not ‘these songs’ – everything. We had some rehearsals in Notting Hill, and basically Mick wouldn’t turn up. If he turned up at all, he would turn up three hours after everyone else had. The tension between Mick and Joe was palpable.”

After the Us Festival, the band did very little. “I didn’t get a phone call for four months,” says Pete Howard. “And then all of a sudden I got this incredibly fucking vitriolic phone call from Joe, saying ‘I fuckin’ sacked the stoned cunt! Whose side are you on, mine or his?’ And I was like, ‘Uh-uh-uh… yours, Joe, yours!’”

The band wasted little time in replacing Mick. A series of auditions were held at The Clash’s rehearsal space, Lucky 8. The lucky applicant was 24 year-old Nick Sheppard, former guitarist for 70s punk act The Cortinas. Marathon rehearsals were held and over a dozen new Strummer songs were worked on. “It was more a back to basics approach, after the excesses of Mick’s last days,” says Sheppard, “[Joe’s new songs] were far more of an eclectic bunch of tunes than we ended up with. Lots of world music influences - Latin, African grooves – that kind of thing.”

However, ‘that kind of thing’ wasn’t what Rhodes had in mind for the new Clash. ‘Back to Basics’ was soon upgraded to ‘Back to Punk Rock,’ or ‘Rebel Rock’ as Joe rechristened it. After a couple weeks of rehearsals, another new guitarist, Gregory “Vince” White, was brought on board. The new Clash became a three-guitar band.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

A middle-class boy from a wealthy family, ‘Vince’ was ‘punked’. “Vince’s real name is Greg,” says Sheppard, “but he was told that he had to change it because it wasn’t cool enough. Paul said, ‘Name me one cool guy called Greg.’ To which Vince instantly replied, ‘Gregory Isaacs’ [aka ‘the Cool Ruler’]. That shut everyone up!”

A rowdy new batch of face-punching rants was eventually chosen to be played on tour. Three Card Trick, Jericho, Are You Ready For War, The Dictator, Sex Mad War, Glue Zombie and This Is England displayed rockabilly, funk, reggae, surf and Brazilian influences, but were wrapped up in an iron-hard blanket of guitar aggro that strongly recalled second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope

“I felt a similarity of intent between the new songs and that era, although it was never specifically mentioned,” says Nick. “I think the twin Les Paul sound lent itself very well to that style, and songs from that period translated very quickly to the new set-up. Bernie was adamant that we both play Les Pauls: he wanted the Pistols’ guitar sound.”

After rehearsals, Joe would subject his new band to marathon pub sermons. Strummer was a man on a mission – a mission to save the world from Ronald Reagan and Duran Duran. Combat Rock’s success had done nothing but bolster Strummer’s messianic complex. The mandate of the new Clash was nothing less than total revolution.

Seeking to secure The Clash name, a mini-tour was booked in Southern Calfornia in January ’84, a mere few weeks after the new line-up had been in existence. Despite touring without record company support, the dates received a substantial amount of press attention, adding to the pressure on Strummer to make it all work. 

The credit or blame for the new Clash would fall solely on his shoulders, and he was touring with a band unaccustomed to large venues. Of the new members, only Howard had played to more than 200 people. And as if there wasn’t enough pressure to begin with, Mick’s zealous legal team harassed the new Clash at every turn, seemingly just out of spite.

“The pressure on Joe was big,” says Pete Howard. “I mean, fucking hell, Bob Dylan came back to see him after we played. And Joe – he was crying. There was a lot to take on. In that respect, I can understand why he had to see himself as being in fighting form. He believed in Bernie as his trainer very much like a boxer.”

Nick: “I always thought we should have done some commando-style secret club gigs before we played any halls or arenas. If you’ve never played those big stages, there’s a lot of adjusting to do.”

Without a record to promote and no corporate advertising, most gigs were not on the scale of the 1982 US tour. Except in San Francisco. There the new Clash played to a capacity crowd of over 10,000 gone-apeshit fans. San Francisco was chafing under Ronald Reagan’s rule and the new Clash were treated as conquering heroes. It should come as no surprise that a Clash-influenced punk scene emerged not long after in the Bay Area.

After California, the band flew to Europe and found that The Clash were superstars on the continent. They were front page news in the European music press and headlined larger venues than they were used to playing in the US and UK. Then, in late February, while preparing to play the first of two nights at Milan’s Palasport stadium, Joe received news that his father had died.

“I only saw my father once a year [after being sent to boarding school],” Joe had told the LA Times in December 1983. “He was a real disciplinarian, who was always giving me speeches about how he had pulled himself up by the sweat of his brow: a real guts and determination man. What he was really saying to me was, ‘If you play by the rules, you can end up like me.’ And I saw right away I didn’t want to end up like him.”

The Clash live at the Brixton Academy, 1984

The Clash live at the Brixton Academy, 1984 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Strummer’s relationship with his family was strained. Joe once said that if he had seen his father more than once a year he “probably would have murdered him.” His only sibling, brother David, had succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide in 1971. In his increasingly volatile state of mind, this latest tragedy was the last thing Strummer needed.

“When we were in Milan, Joe was fucking mental,” remembers Howard. “He stayed up for about three days drinking bottle after bottle of brandy, and berating everyone around him for their weaknesses, and just really fucking losing it. We had a couple of days off or something, and we didn’t see him. And then he came back. We were all soundchecking and Vince was pissing and moaning saying, ‘I can’t hear my fucking guitar in the monitor.’ And it led to an argument. Bernie was going, ‘Look at you. You’re so fucking pathetic. You’re so middle-class, you’re so fucking weak.’ He said, ‘Look, this guy here’s just fucking buried his father, and you don’t hear him talking about it, do you?’ I remember that time very clearly as being among the worst.”

“I didn’t find out what had happened until the next day,” says Nick. “He didn’t know us that well, so I guess he didn’t feel comfortable sharing his hurt with us.”

In the UK, the pressure was even more intense. For the past four years, the press slagged The Clash for abandoning punk and now they were slagging them for returning to it. Though the NME admitted through gritted teeth that the tour was a ‘lightning sell-out’, long time Clash-basher Gavin Martin dismissed a Brixton date as ‘the heaviest and most orthodox rock show I’ve ever seen The Clash play.’

“After the first album, The Clash hardly ever got good press,” says Sheppard. “Have a look at the recent NME collection of Clash articles.”

The critics were also put off by the paramilitary ambience of the new Clash’s shows and what Lola Borg of Record Mirror described as their fans’ ‘total hero worship’. Strummer also had a beef with The Clash’s fans due to the revival of ‘gobbing’ ( the charming punk custom of honouring your favourite band by spitting on them). Strummer had contracted hepatitis in 1978 from a well-aimed gob, and following the death of his father he had no intention of humouring this repugnant ritual. After facing a nightly rain of phlegm, Strummer’s string snapped. Towards the tour’s end, he singled out a gobber and, well, threatened to kill him.

A bootleg of the Brixton Academy gig, March 16, 1984, captures his rage: “Are you a gobber? Have you spat on me? Well, get the hell of here then, you berk!” he shouts from the stage. “Listen! I’m prepared to murder someone tonight! I don’t give two fucks! I want some fucking human respect – when I clear my throat, I do it on the floor! I’m serious! I’m prepared to kill someone! I don’t give a fuck anymore! Blood – if you want it, let’s have it! Let’s get down to it! And fuck the lot of you!”

Following this drama, the band then returned to the US for a relentless two-month jaunt. Having experienced several difficult tours, Joe and management laid down the law to the new lads. Joe, obsessed with military metaphors, repeatedly referred to his band in interviews as his ‘new recruits’ and his ‘new platoon’. Bernie, for his part, saw himself as The Clash’s drill instructor.

(Image credit: gett)

Pete: “There was a lot of [the attitude that] when you’re on the road, that’s it. You don’t contact your fucking family. If you do, you’re a pussy. No girlfriends on tour, we don’t want women around. Bernie used to frequently talk about boxers not being allowed to fuck their wives before a fight. And I do understand where that comes from, because if you’re going to look at yourself in the world arena, then you have to be up for the competition.”

But Bernie was also more abrasive and abusive. “He’d ask questions like ‘What would you do with a million dollars?’ to which every answer proved you were an idiot,” says Nick. “I stared at his ‘new’ nose and said I’d have my ears pinned back. It was like being hauled into the headmaster’s office, and served as much purpose.”

Pete: “It was constantly, every day, ‘Right, tonight you’re going to wear sunglasses.’ And then after that show, it was like, ‘You look like a wanker in sunglasses. Never wear them again.’ I remember having an argument with [Clash road manger] Kosmo Vinyl once. I was saying, ‘This is like being in the fucking Moonies. You’ve got this fucking dwarf Buddha standing up there handing out dictums, and you have to follow them. I don’t think like that, I don’t want to live that way.’ And he just said, ‘That is how it is. You take it with Bernie or you don’t take it at all.’ And then he went on to tell the story about Bernie turning Joe from a nothing to a something. And he said, ‘If you don’t believe that Joe is an iconic figure, then that’s your issue. But most of the world who know of him do believe that, and Joe believes that Bernie made him that.’”

For all of his middle class pedigree, Vince White was the wildest card in the deck. Though picked primarily for his Townshend-like antics during his audition, Vince had the chops to back up his pose. But there was something feral about him, a hint of barely suppressed violence in his perpetual smirk. Bernie would soon discover he got more than he bargained for when he brought Vince aboard.

“Bernie was going out with this kind of crazy wild-child girl from Detroit who was probably a third his age,” says Sheppard. “We were all in a restaurant, everyone was there around the table. And this girl had been flirting around a bit for days. Anyway, she got up and went out. Then Vince, about two minutes later, got up and went out. And when they both came back in, [we knew] they’d been fucking in the car park. I don’t know if Bernie sussed it or not, but he didn’t give it away.

“My bedroom in the hotel was next to Bernie’s, and me and Nick could hear this argument beginning, so we basically brought everyone in, and we were all in my bedroom leaning against the wall, pissing ourselves laughing at Bernie, with that ‘ridiculouth lithp’ of his, going ‘You slag, you fucked my fucking bird? You slag!’ To be honest, my respect for Vince went up quite considerably after he’d done that. It was one in the eye from all of us, really.”

Nick: “Bernie brought Vince in as ‘The Punk’ and got what he asked for.”

As the tour progressed, Joe introduced subtler tracks from Sandinista! and Combat Rock into the set. Under the heavy duty discipline, the once-ragged band had matured into a raging, razor-sharp, rock’n’roll leviathan. “We were definitely a heavier, more hard rock proposition than the previous incarnation,” says Nick. “Our versions of Broadway, Magnificent 7 and Rock The Casbah didn’t mess about.”

The boys in the band, White, Simonon, Sheppard and Strummer

The boys in the band, White, Simonon, Sheppard and Strummer (Image credit: Getty Images)

The reviews praised the power of the band, but questioned the relevance of punk in 1984. Which is not to say punk wasn’t still in favour with the punters. The band’s entrance into the mainstream had brought a younger and more athletic audience whose approval was often displayed through acts of mayhem. Near-riots broke out at venues in Philadelphia, Chicago and Providence. But as the tour progressed, nerves began to fray. Like the original Clash, the new band soon discovered that Rhodes’ Spartan ideals didn’t apply to himself: he flew between gigs, while the band spent “three months in a fucking Greyhound bus because we were so fucking middle class that we were used to luxury”.

“[That sort of suffering] doesn’t make you into an elite, mean killing machine. It just makes you angry,” says Pete. “We were at a soundcheck at a gig and Bernie just said something that was just one thing too fucking far, and I just left and packed my bag. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t leave at that point because I would have liked to have fucked Bernie over, for him to have to cancel gigs. But he actually curled around my legs like a fucking cat: ‘You know, you’ve got to understand the pressures, we really value you being in it, blah blah blah.’ Two days later, he was being exactly the same all over again.”

The band had some good times, too. “We saw Black Flag in Atlanta. We had other great days off in Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit,” says Sheppard. “Shopping, eating soul food, watching protest marches, being taken out by great looking girls – I’ve had worse jobs, believe me.

“In Philadelphia, we stayed at the same hotel as The Grateful Dead. When I got on the bus in the morning neither Joe nor Kosmo had been to sleep, and Joe had this pillow of ‘hippy hair’: Kosmo had set up a Mohawk barber service in the Dead’s entertainment suite and cut mohawks all night!”

Paul Simonon, who had chafed under Mick’s excesses, enjoyed his time with the new Clash and acted as a mentor to them. Pete:

“Everybody was sort of muttering, ‘If Joe could get away from Bernie, then this thing could be really good.’ And Paul was very much of that party. He’d never really stick his neck out about it, but he was one of us mutterers who were going on about Bernie the whole time.”

The band returned from their US marathon, ready to go into the studio and do the album. But then came the news that Joe’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Right on the heels of his father’s death, the news sent Joe into an emotional tailspin and The Clash’s back was broken for good. Joe left the band to fend for themselves. A mini-tour of Italy in September was undertaken without Joe rehearsing with the band.

Joe’s sole preoccupation in the second half of 1984 was tending to his dying mother. The Clash withered without his involvement. Rhodes took advantage of Joe’s plight and finally seized his long-sought “complete control” of the Clash. He booked a studio in Munich to record a new Clash album, the notorious Cut The Crap.

Most of the backing tracks were assembled by anonymous studio musicians, using the very synthesisers and drum machines that led to Mick Jones’ dismissal. Pete Howard was replaced by some dolt with a drum machine, which was like replacing a Maserati with a Matchbox. When White and Sheppard were finally summoned to provide guitar overdubs, they were stunned to discover that the album was nearly complete.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Inevitably, Joe and Bernie soon fell out. Rhodes took the master tapes from the Munich sessions and disappeared. Boxed in by his new contract, Joe was powerless to stop him. He went so far as to track down Mick Jones in the Bahamas and beg him to rejoin The Clash, only to be rebuffed. The album was one of the most disastrous ever released by a major artist and a complete failure artisically and commercially. To get out of a depression, the band went on a ‘busking tour’ of the north of England in May ’85. Paul Simonon later called it one of the band’s best times, but it couldn’t last. Strummer called a band meeting in October. “We sat down, and Joe said, ‘It’s over’,” says Pete Howard. “He gave us a thousand pounds each. I said, ‘You followed Bernie’s advice, and this is where it got you.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

In 1999, Joe tore himself out of his 10-year retirement, formed a new group and called them the Mescaleros with strong parallels with Clash II: the mix of new, Clash-like material and Clash favourites, along with the multi-guitar frontline, was taken right from Joe’s 1984 playbook. After an appearance in Australia in 2001, Joe hooked up Nick Sheppard and healed old wounds. “Joe apologised for what happened,” says Sheppard. “I told him I didn’t regret a moment. I know we were never the ‘classic’ Clash, but I’ve moved on, made some great music, and have a great life.”

Now playing with the highly regarded indie band Queen Adreena, Pete Howard never had the opportunity to square things with Joe. While recording a new album with the Mescaleros, Joe died in his home just before Christmas 2002. “Before he died, Joe said something in an interview. He said, ‘I felt really sorry for Pete, Vince and Nick, because you had a chemistry between four people that worked really well, and there was no way anyone could have replaced that.’

“And I felt somewhat exonerated by that. Because I was limping, mentally, for a while.”

Last Man Standing

In 1999, bassist Paul Simonon – the only member of The Clash who was in the band from the beginning until the bitter end – spoke about the last days of The Clash.

“How did it feel after Topper left? A bit empty. I mean, we didn’t realise that you were supposed to go on holiday and have a break from each other. We just worked non-stop really, from day one onwards. Inevitably it’s gonna catch up on you. Me and Joe were just pretty much sick of waiting for Mick to turn up and problems with his reliability and we just said, ‘Well, sod it.’ And that was it – we just asked him to leave.

“But it was interesting in a way ’cos one time in rehearsal, Joe got a piece of chalk and drew a line on the floor and said, ‘On this side there’s the musicians, and on this side there’s the entertainers’. And it was Topper and Mick on one side and me and Joe on the other. It was like: so there’s a few wrong notes – who cares, really? We want to see some people jumping around, we wanna see some excitement, we wanna be entertained, not us all standing dead still getting it all right. You may as well listen to the record.

“I suppose the end really came when Mick was out of the group. ’Cos with drummers we always had this sort of: they were there, and then they weren’t. But when Mick was out that was a big change because the musician of the group had left.

Simonon and Bowie backstage at Shea Stadium, 1982

Simonon and Bowie backstage at Shea Stadium, 1982 (Image credit: Getty Images)

“But then again, after Mick left, we had a pretty good time. We did loads of shows around America with these new guys, and we did the ‘Busking Tour’ which was really exciting [in May 1985, The Clash hitchhiked and busked around the north of England, at one point following Clash-copyists The Alarm from gig to gig]. Why did we choose the Alarm? Why not? Just to wind them up, really. 

"It was just being playful. We didn’t ever speak to them – they were probably very pissed off. Their bouncers were trying to get rid of us, red paint was chucked at us – it just made it more exciting. It was the last thing we should have done, really, but we had a lot of fun – it was as exciting as the Anarchy tour. You didn’t know where you were going to go next or what was gonna happen and I really enjoyed that.

“I think the last show we played was probably in Greece at some festival and that was really great. We had three guitars by that point, so it gave me a bit more space in some ways. I’d been practising break-dancing for some reason and in the middle of The Magnificent 7, I took the bass off and started spinning around. We were just so comfortable on stage by that point, it didn’t matter – it just mattered that people got a good show.” (Interview: Scott Rowley)

This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #80.

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Chris Knowles

Chris Knowles is the author of the novel, He Will Live Up in the Sky. He is also the author of The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll: The Mysterious Roots of Modern Music, the Eagle Award-winning Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes (RedWheel Weiser), and the critically-acclaimed Clash City Showdown: The Music, The Meaning and The Legacy of The Clash. He's co-author of The Complete X-Files: Behind the Series, the Myths, and the Movies (Insight Editions), the authorised companion to the long-running TV series.