“I gave the lyrics to Joe to sing. He said, No, you’ve gotta sing it, they're your lyrics”: The Clash's Paul Simonon on how he wrote the punk icons' defiant classic The Guns Of Brixton

The Clash in 1979
(Image credit: Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images)

Have you ever tried to write a song? It’s actually annoyingly hard, especially if you want to write one that becomes an all-time classic for the ages.

Imagine being Paul Simonon, then, iconic bassist in The Clash, a band with two genius songwriters in Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. The Clash were three albums in to their career before Simonon decided to get involved in the songwriting and he managed to knock out an all-time classic at his very first go. The song he penned was none other than the masterful, defiant The Guns Of Brixton. And in a recent interview with The New Cue, he recalled how it came about.

“I always had lot of things brewing, but I was distracted by working with Bernie Rhodes on the artwork and clothes or chucking paint over clothes," the bassist said. "From day one, we were pretty much non-stop touring. We didn’t have a holiday for as long as it lasted. It was seven years non-stop. Things were brewing that never came out and then it went into that song. There you go, let’s try that again.”

The track was inspired by the 1972 Jamaican film The Harder They Come, starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff as Ivan Martin, an aspiring musician who came to realise how corrupt the industry is and became a gangster instead. Simonon admits that bringing the song to the band was somewhat daunting, given that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were already celebrated songwriters.

“That’s the thing, with Strummer/Jones how do you compete with that?” he told writer Chris Catchpole. “It’s not competing, it’s just trying to have your own voice.”

As it turned out, the bassist's bandmates were raring him on.

“Mick and Joe were always really encouraging," Simonon says. "In fact, I initially gave the lyrics for Guns Of Brixton to Joe to sing. He just said: No, you’ve got to sing it, they’re your lyrics.”

Simonon's song, with its memorable chorus - "You can crush us/ You can bruise us/ But you’ll have to answer to/ Oh, the guns of Brixton" - took on an added relevance and resonance following the Brixton Riots of 1981 and 1985. 

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.