It was supposed to be a night of triumph for the Clash, but the band's induction Monday into the Rock and Roll of Hall of Fame will have a bittersweet cadence. "It's going to be a quite sad occasion now," Mick Jones says in a near whisper. "Now it's going to be reflecting on what may have been instead of what really is."
What might have been: Jones and his old bandmate and foil, Joe Strummer, striding to the stage with the other members of the Clash to tear into "White Riot," "London Calling" and the other molten songs that made them the great experimenters in punk and the avatars of political rock.
What really is: The Clash will go to New York without one of their two singer-guitarists. In December, Strummer died of a heart attack at age 50, and the Clash is irrevocably separated from its legacy. Strummer's death came as the band had just begun exploring that legacy -- there's a new two-CD career retrospective, a DVD with a rare short film starring the band, and, most intriguing to fans, talk of a reunion tour and a performance next month at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio. Now bassist Paul Simonon has said the group won't even perform at the induction.
Strummer's death was a sobering event for the generation of fans that watched the uncompromising Clash bring punk out of the underground and into the rock mainstream -- the group was the Beatles of punk in songbook breadth and influence. Jones, Strummer and the other members had been vetting that songbook for the new retrospective, a sentimental chore for Jones even before Strummer's death.
"This sort of collection is for the people who might want to discover the Clash at this time, and it's, like, quite comprehensive in that way," Jones said. "All of the songs got a lot to say. They are all about something, so it's kind of a worthwhile thing."
Jones was speaking in a telephone interview from England. His voice was small and shy on the line, especially when topics turned to Strummer. He, Strummer and Simonon created the Clash in 1976 in the ferment of the London punk scene. Their debut album, not released in the U.S., would become the bestselling import album ever here, and the group would be hailed as "the only band that matters." Drums were handled by Terry Chimes and, later, Nicky "Topper" Headon.
The band began unraveling in the early 1980s, and Jones was fired in 1983. He went on to create Big Audio Dynamite, while the Clash would cease to exist by the decade's midpoint. But the Clash's amalgam of rock, reggae, hip-hop and sonic effects would have them hailed as a band ahead of its time.
"We were in the right place at the right time, to tell you the truth," Jones said. "We always took on fully of our environment, and we always made our environment part of the music. We were around New York a lot when that hip-hop thing was starting and, obviously, in London at the right time for the punk thing. We always took it all on board."
To prepare for the 40-song "The Essential Clash," due in stores Tuesday, Jones revisited the Clash albums and found that the first, "The Clash," remains his favorite. "We didn't know what we were doing. We knew what we didn't want to do. I think they're all great -- they represent where we were at that moment in that process and in the world. But that first one was really pure. We didn't want to listen to anybody. You couldn't really reach us then. We didn't really want to be reached."
By the end of the band's run, Jones and Strummer were at odds, but Jones said they reconciled in subsequent years and "were good friends" in their recent history. Jones wonders if the Clash could have created whole new career chapters if cooler heads had prevailed in 1983, although he doesn't dwell on the matter. "If we had a holiday instead of just going so fast, maybe we could have found out," he said. "But that's not what happened."
Jones says he hasn't prepared comments for the induction ceremony ("I usually do stuff like that on a napkin"), but he knows what spirit he will be taking to the event.
"Music is a great vessel for a message. Music is so appealing, and if you have something to say and can put it to some music that people feel, that's still something that can go a long way. Joe was very proud of this and wanted to do it well. We all do, and we're very proud of representing where we come from."
The Clash, calling
The Ramones and the Sex Pistols opened the door for punk around the world, but no punk band left a more satisfying body of work than the Clash.
The greatest Clash album: "London Calling" -- The cover photo is a play on the cover of Elvis Presley's first album -- with a twist. Where Elvis was playing an acoustic guitar, the Clash's Paul Simonon is about to smash his bass guitar on the stage floor. In that spirit, the Clash was not only trying to assault the tame, conventional direction of corporate rock, but also break through the limitations of punk by adding touches of everything from rockabilly to reggae. It all came together here with glorious confidence and punch.
The best overview:
"The Essential Clash" -- This two-disc compilation is a great companion piece to "London Calling." It duplicates only seven tracks from that album and gives you a generous 13 selections from the U.S. and U.K. versions of its self-titled debut collection -- its other essential album.
-- Robert Hilburn