Clash Classics Revisited: ‘Complete Control’

The Untold Story of: ‘Complete Control’ (1977)

Mick Jones’s plaintive and heartfelt cri de cœur of: “c.o.n..control!”, as heard on the Clash’s third single ‘Complete Control’, was not just the pivotal point on the band’s third and finest single to date, but it was also serving notice that ‘the only that mattered’ were in a combative and defiant state-of-mind.

More specifically it was not only a protest at the perceived lack of respect being shown towards the Clash by CBS Records, but it was also a tilt at the band’s evasive manager/ handler, Bernie ‘I invented punk’ Rhoades. When one considers the chaos that was swirling around the band at the time, and let’s not forget that this was not only punk’s ‘year zero’, but also when the *‘Two Sevens Clash’d, the very fact that the Clash could write a song as incredible as ‘Complete Control’, was remarkable indeed. This is that story.

Prior to the signing of the band’s controversial £100,000 record contract with CBS in the November of 1976, an episode that was recounted in the lyric of the band’s contentious second single ‘Remote Control’: “they had a meeting in Mayfair, got you down and wanna keep you there!”, the Clash could do no wrong. Once the record contract was signed however, a not insignificant chorus of disapproval from the press and concerned ‘commentators’ began. One piece of criticism that must have stung in particular, came directly from one of the arbiters-of-all-things-punk; Mark ‘P’ Perry. Perry was the founder and chief reviewer of the trailblazing London-based fanzine ‘Sniffin’ Glue’, who, prior to the band’s signing with CBS, had been proudly proclaiming that the Clash would: “challenge the old order” and “shake things up”. Upon hearing of the band’s CBS deal however, he was reportedly incandescent with rage, and declared unequivocally in the pages of the very next issue of ‘Glue’, that: “punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS!”.

cmplete cntrl pic

Some of this opprobrium dissipated a little when the Clash released their debut single ‘White Riot’, a furious, Ramones-like, stomping, two-minute headrush of insistent punk polemic. Unfortunately, the combination of an easy-to-misinterpret title when allied to a wrong-headed reading of its overly simplistic lyric, led many to believe that it was in fact a de-facto call-to-arms for ‘white’, right-wing, direct action. As Joe Strummer would be forced to reiterate ad nauseum over the next few years, it was in fact an almost tongue-in-cheek chiding of ‘white’ working class people, for their continued inaction in the face Draconian government policies. A serious and protracted downturn in the UK’s economy had led to mass unemployment and poor living conditions in virtually every community across Britain, irrespective of nationality or heritage. Strummer was in fact suggesting that perhaps ‘white people’ should follow the example of the British-African community in Notting Hill, London, who had attacked phalanxes of police during the previous summer’s carnival, by: “throwing a brick”.

Despite the confusion regarding Strummer’s ‘White Riot’ lyric, it was generally very well-received both critically and commercially, which seemed to stay at least some of the ‘sell out’ criticism, and the brilliantly chaotic shows the band played across the country at the time, garnered positive reviews. However, any newly acquired positivity and ‘ground gained’ was lost once again when CBS took the unprecedented step of releasing a follow-up single to ‘White Riot’, without any consultation with the band whatsoever. And, as if that wasn’t insult enough, the powers-that-be chose another two tracks from there brilliant eponymous album: ‘Remote Control’ and ‘London’s Burning’.

The Mick-sung ‘Remote Control’, which was a fine album track, but clearly not single material. This was coupled with not only an inferior ‘live’ version of ‘London’s Burning’’ but a version that was in stone age mono! This woefully misjudged single was released on 13th May 1977, and much to the relief and amusement of the Clash, the single performed poorly chart placement-wise, and it quickly and quietly disappeared without troubling the UK’s ‘Top 40 Chart’.

After the ‘Anarchy in the UK Tour’, on which the Clash were billed as ‘special guests’ to the Sex Pistols, the Damned & the Heartbreakers, the band made their way back to London’s Ladbroke Grove, to take stock of what had happened over the previous eighteen months. As the band reconvened in a local hostelry, the word ‘control’ or more appositely the lack thereof, was being bandied about continually. Not only had CBS released ‘Remote Control’ without discussing this all-important next move with the band, but the band were also felt that they were being manipulated and harshly treated by the press. The Sex Pistols had signed to several major labels and had money thrown at them at every turn, but for some reason they appeared to be immune from criticism.

reverse artwork of Complete Control

Manager Bernie Rhoads, emboldened by alcohol or by his naturally hubristic manner, decided to weigh-in with his thoughts, and as Joe recalled somewhat gleefully a couple of decades later: “We had a meeting with Bernie in The Ship {pub} in Soho after the tour. We told him we were pissed off that CBS had released ‘Remote Control’ without our say-so. It was then that he dropped the bombshell that he believed that in order for us to get back on course again, that we would have to give him ‘complete control’! He really did use those words… I came out of the pub laughing, as did Simmo, and we both ended up collapsing on the pavement outside in hysterics!”

The band regrouped at their rehearsal space, which was called, not unreasonably: ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ (Mick Jones: “I thought it was a Jewish thing!”), located next to a British Rail depot in Camden Town, Chalk Farm. It was here that Joe and Mick told Paul and the newly installed drummer Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon, that they had worked up two new songs.

Th melodically and dynamically stronger of the two was called ‘Complete Control’, and the song’s premise was clearly predicated on recent events and on Bernie’s hilariously misjudged phrase of a few nights earlier. Legend has it that apart from the line about a promotional trip to Holland, and the hilarious “you’re my guitar hero!” ad-lib tacked-on later by Joe for the recorded version, Mick Jones wrote both the music and the lyric for ‘Complete Control’. This was something that Joe was more than happy with, as it was a welcome diversion from the usual: Mick/music, Joe/lyric formula that he felt that had become perhaps a little predictable of late. The lyric was deftly direct, impossible to misinterpret, and was clearly cathartic, containing such lines as “they said we’d be ‘artistically free’ when we signed that bit of paper, they meant: ‘let’s make a lotta money – and worry about it later!’” and the final, declamatory: “I don’t trust you, why do you trust me!”. Irie!

As for the second new composition ‘City of the Dead’, it was back to the usual compositional ‘division of labour’ of: Mick/ music and Joe/lyric. This is an incredibly imaginative lyric, with Joe vividly describing the fights that would break out along the King’s Road in Chelsea between youth gangs and football hooligans, and where the backdrop is a post-apocalyptic city where: ‘the streets are full of dread’. Joe even found room to include a less-than-oblique reference to ex-New York Doll and current Heartbreaker Johnny Thunders, who had allegedly brought ‘heroin chic’ with him from Stateside, both aesthetically and literally: ‘“don’t you know where to cop”, that’s what New York Johnny said’….

Once the arrangements and lyrics had been finalised, Bernie was duly summoned, and in another brilliantly assertive and calculated move to wrest some semblance of control back to the band once again, the Machiavellian-like manager that not only would he have to tell CBS that there were to be no more songs culled from the album, but that they wanted ‘Complete Control’ to be produced by a third party: the legendary Jamaican producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry!

Lee ‘scratch’ Perry, although still in his late twenties, was already a legendary producer. He owned the famous ‘Black Ark Studio’, which was situated just behind his house in Washington Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica. Not only had he heard and approved of the Clash’s version of ‘Police & Thieves’, a song he had co-written and produced with Junior Murvin, but he liked the band’s version so much that he had apparently pinned a picture of the band just above his mixing console in tribute to them. Happenstance also plays a role here, because Perry was in London at that very moment with Bob Marley & the Wailers, and amazingly, he agreed to produce the ‘Complete Control’ recording session.

The stars having aligned accordingly, all parties decamped to Whitechapel’s Sarm Studios, in the January of 1977 and the recording of what would turn out to be a ‘Clash classic’ began in earnest. As was often the case when the Clash attempted to do something different, and especially so when one factors in that Perry’s production techniques were famously, err, ‘unconventional’, the sessions were predictably chaotic.

During the tracking session, some Clash and Perry biographies have claimed that Perry blew out a studio mixing board, whilst attempting to get an especially cavernous bass sound out of Paul Simonon’s bass amp. This was confirmed by Mickey Foote, the trusted Clash sound man who had been manning the mixing desk at live shows, and had assisted on the first album. He remembers the incident like this: “Lee was shit hot – but he very nearly blew the whole control room up!”

joe and scratch
Joe Strummer & Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry

As for how the band themselves remember the session, in a 1979 ‘Hit Parader’ magazine interview, both Joe and Mick recall Perry likening Mick’s purposeful approach to guitar playing as “playing with an iron fist”.

Ultimately though, Perry’s contribution to the track proved to be problematic – the band went back and mixed the song themselves to bring the guitars out and lessen the ‘slap back’ du-like, echo that Perry had added to to the track.  As Mick commented somewhat diplomatically years later: “it was great what Lee did, but we had to go back and fiddle about with it. His echo sounded underwater to our ears and we brought the guitars up a bit.”

As for Lee ‘the Upsetter’s take on the session? “They were good boys, but man they played loud!”

The ‘B-side’ ‘City of the Dead’, was a welcome departure from the punk-ola prototype, and was recorded at CBS’s own studio complex in London in August 1977, just weeks before the record’s release. The title was taken from an obscure British horror movie featuring Christopher Lee. On the rare occasions that the song was given an airing, Mick would often preface the song by saying that it was about being: “dead from the neck up”. Joe was clearly paying attention to Mick’s song introductions and ad-libs because this was a line that would make an appearance again on Give ‘em Enough Rope’s ‘All the Young Punks’ in 1978.

The lines, “don’t you know where to cop, that’s what New York Johnny said” were written in response to several unsavoury incidents involving hardcore drug abuse that occurred on the Anarchy tour in 1977. The ‘New York Johnny’ that Joe refers to is actually the Heartbreakers’ frontman Johnny Thunders, formerly of the New York Dolls. According to reports, several of the Heartbreakers were using heroin on the tour, and guitarist Thunders would dare other musicians to shoot heroin with him by offering the challenge of: “are you a man or a mouse?”. Nice.

The line: “we fall in love an’ fall in bed…. I know we both lie dead” may have been inspired by Mick Jones’ fractious relationship with his girlfriend at the time, Slits guitarist Viv Albertine. According to roadie Johnny Green, “Viv broke his heart… Mick used to cry and cry about Viv. He played the rock star normally with girls, but not with Viv, he really loved her.”

‘City of the Dead’ was also the first Clash song to feature additional instrumentation beyond just the four members of the band.  In this case, the recording features saxophone and pianos, the latter played by Steve Nieve from Elvis Costello’s Attractions.

Both sides duly completed, ‘Complete Control’ b/w ‘City of the Dead’ was released in the UK on 23rd September 1977, to almost uniformly positive reviews, with cultural commentator du jour John Savage describing it as: “a hymn to punk autonomy at the very moment of its eclipse”.

As always, there were a few detractors, with the BBC’s sole punk proselytiser (most of the time), John Peel proclaiming somewhat sniffily: “what did they expect after signing to CBS, an autonomous foundation for the arts?”. Err, but what about the music John?

The sinewy, propulsive power and immediacy of ‘Complete Control’ meant that it slotted into the live set seamlessly, and it was unveiled ‘live’ for the first time at the second Mont-de-Marsan Punk Festival in France in August 1977. Thereafter it would become an almost permanent fixture at live shows, and was often saved for the encores; its almost celebratory climax sending Clash fans home on a high.

Over the last four decades, ‘Complete Control’ has become an enduring and powerful anthem, a song of defiance and hope, and maybe this is why it always features prominently in those slightly erroneous ‘Best of the Clash’ polls. But what is often forgotten, is that the song was actually born from the ashes of the band’s first real crisis, which when one considers the pressure that the ‘Lions of Ladbroke Grove’ were under, makes the song’s very existence and popularity even more remarkable.

Unlike the Sex Pistols, who seemed to offer nothing more than a bleak nihilism as an antidote to the very real problems of the seventies, at least the Clash were attempting to try and understand what it meant to be young, alive and aware during those tempestuous and tumultuous times. And so, with the passing of time, ‘Complete Control’ has become a kind of musical lingua franca, and today it’s as much of a potent and defiant sonic weapon as it was at the time of it’s release.

Circa 1979 photographer unknown

 *’Two Sevens Clash’ was the debut album by militant reggae band Culture, which was beloved of punk and dreads alike. The title alluded to the upcoming ‘clash’ between July 7th, the seventh month and day, and the two sevens in the year ‘1977’. This had been declared to be a bad omen by rastafarian elders and would result in cataclysmic events unfolding in that year.

**In 2005 when the collector’s edition of the Clash on-the-road rockumentary ‘Rude Boy’ was released, the titular hero, played by Ray Gange, would pick ‘City of the Dead’ as his favourite Clash track. When he was quizzed about his somewhat unusual choice, he cited the line: “what we wear is dangerous gear, it’ll get you picked on anywhere” as having particular significance for him. When asked to elaborate on this, he explained that if one dressed as a ‘punk’ at that time, there was a very real chance of being chased and beaten up by marauding gangs of: ‘skins’, or ‘Teddy boys’ hence: ‘dangerous gear’!

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