By the time they reached the end of the 1970s, The Clash were no longer mere home-grown punk rock sensations but versatile professionals approaching the impending uncertainty of the 1980s with a musical confidence highly at odds with the general unease felt by many as Britain prepared to enter its first full year of Thatcherism. Incorporating a varied palette including punk, ska, lounge jazz and hard rock, The Clash utilised a number of styles to masterfully impose the strong political themes of career defining third studio album London Calling; it was, however, a reggae influenced tale of social unrest that arguable provided the album’s finest moment.
‘Guns of Brixton’ was the first Clash recording that had been written by bassist Paul Simonon and, such is the quality of the track, it’s rather a surprise that only two further Simonon compositions were subsequently added to the group’s discography (‘The Crocked Beat’ on Sandinista! and a little known B-side called ‘Long Time Jerk’). Kicking in to gear with Simonon’s iconic bassline, the fractured guitars, reggae flavoured grooves and the urban menace of its lyric, all make for an atmospheric and somewhat prescient capturing of the disintegrating relationship between police and the black community that effectively led to the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985.
It was also the first Clash song to feature Simonon on lead vocals; the requisite amount of caustic emotion in his voice apparently caused by his staring directly into the eyes of a CBS record executive who had come to visit the studio on the day of recording. The lyrics reference the 1972 film ‘The Harder They Come’ and its main protagonist Ivanhoe Martin; the film’s soundtrack, featuring songs by Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, was pivotal in delivering reggae to a mainstream audience and contained many of The Clash’s favourite tunes of the time.
Less discerning punters may be more familiar with the bassline as lifted note for note by Fatboy Slim for Beats International’s ‘Dub Be Good To Me’; a pilfering that led to a UK number one in March 1990.