The Backstory Behind A Clash Classic: ‘Complete Control’ (23/09/77)

After the appropriately chaotic ‘Anarchy in the UK Tour’ of December 1976 on which the Clash were billed as ‘special guests’ of the trailblazing Sex Pistols, The Clash made their way back to London’s Ladbroke Grove. Joe has commented that after he was dropped off the tour bus he walked for miles alone, totally depressed on a comedown after the 24×7 adrenaline high of being on the punk ‘rock and roller coaster’ for the previous for three weeks – “Colder and hungrier than I’d ever been before..”

The band reconvened in The Ship pub a couple of days later and the word ‘control’ or the lack thereof seemed to be being bandied about continually. Not only had the Clash’s label CBS/ Epic released second single ‘Remote Control’ without their tacit approval (it didn’t bother the charts anyway), but since signing their £100,000 recording contract, the band felt that certain sections of the music press that had been broadly supportive before, were now turning on them. This was particularly galling as the Sex Pistols had also signed to several major labels and  had substantial sums of money thrown at them (not that they saw any of it), but for some reason they were deemed to be above criticism.

At this informal meeting band manager Bernie Rhoads decided to weigh-in with his thoughts as Joe recalled somewhat drily twenty years later: “We had a meeting with Bernie in The Ship 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 should 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 in hysterics!”

The following afternoon when the band regrouped at their rehearsal space, the pragmatically-named ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ in Camden Town, Mick played Joe, Paul and the recently recruited ‘Topper’ Headon a new song that he had been working on called  ‘Complete Control.’ It was unusual for Mick to come up with both the music and a virtually complete lyric, but Joe was more than happy with this, because it was a diversion from their usual method of: music by Mick and lyrics by Joe. Mick’s lyric was direct, impossible to misinterpret and even a little cathartic, sample line:

‘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!’

Once an arrangement had been worked up and the lyric had been finalised the band told Bernie that: (a) no more songs were to be released from The Clash and that; (b) that they wanted to record ‘Complete Control’ with a ‘name’ producer: legendary Jamaican recording studio alchemist Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Perry was already a producer legend. He was also the owner and in-house producer of the equally legendary ‘Black Ark Studio,’ situated just behind his house in Washington Gardens in Kingston, Jamaica. I say ‘was’ because in a few years hence the extremely superstitious producer would deliberately set fire to the studio, convinced that a demonic duppy had taken up residence, and that it was now haunting the place!

The ‘Upsetter’ was already cognisant of and approving of The Clash’s punky/ reggae take on ‘Police & Thieves’, a song which he had co-written and produced with the lilting-voiced Junior Murvin. In fact, he’d been so impressed with The Clash’s take that he had tacked a picture of them just above his mixing console in tribute to them. Happenstance also plays a role here, because Perry happened to be in London at that very same moment with Bob Marley & the Wailers. Much to the delight of The Clash Perry agreed to produce the ‘Complete Control’ recording sessions.

The stars having aligned accordingly all interested parties decamped to Whitechapel’s Sarm Studios in January of 1977 to record what was destined to be an immediate ‘Clash classic’ 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 unpredictable.

According to legend, Perry somehow managed to blow out an expensive and hard- to- replace Neve studio mixing board whilst trying to conjure forth an especially cavernous bass tone from Simmo’s bass. This seemingly unlikely tale was confirmed by Mickey Foote, the band’s ‘live’ sound man whom produced The Clash : “Lee was shit hot – but he very nearly blew the whole control room up!”

As for how the band themselves remember the session? In a 1979 Hit Parade magazine interview, Mick proudly recalls how Perry likened his purposeful approach to guitar playing to “playing with an iron fist”. And Lee’s take on the session? “They were good boys, but man they played loud!”

Ultimately though, Perry’s attempts to produce the track to a standard which fit both the style of music and garner radio station traction would prove problematic. Ultimately this meant that the band would have to return to the studio for a second time but without Perry this time and iremix the song themselves. Mick commented somewhat diplomatically years later: “It was great what Lee did, but we had to fiddle about with it a bit. His echo sounded underwater to our ears and so to counterbalance that we brought the guitars up a bit.”

‘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 of Sounds describing the band’s third single thus “a hymn to punk autonomy at the very moment of its eclipse”.

The power and immediacy of ‘Complete Control’ meant that it slotted seamlessly into the band’s live set and was unveiled ‘live’ at the second Mont-de-Marsan Punk Festival in August 1977. Thereafter it would become an almost permanent fixture at live shows and is often cited by fans as their favourite Clash song.

The late, great Joe Strummer & Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 1998

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