Take a quick glance at the Clash’s 1982 album Combat Rock and you’ll see photographer Pennie Smith’s image of four men standing together, just off the rails. Perhaps coincidentally, that’s also where they stood, figuratively, as a band.
After releasing the triple-LP Sandinista! in 1980, a political and multicultural album that also made many critics’ lists of year-end bests, they toured and rested through much of 1981 before going back to the studio — first in London, and then back to New York’s Electric Lady Studio where they had recorded Sandinista!. The triple album was considered a disappointment at home in the U.K., but charted even better than their landmark album London Calling in the U.S.
By January 1982, after they finished recording 18 tracks for what would become Combat Rock, and hit the road again for the six-week Far East tour of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Thailand.
But during the recording sessions, tensions were high. Frontman and co-founder Joe Strummer felt the band was drifting apart creatively, and he and co-founder Mick Jones, in particular, had been at odds over the direction of the record. In his Rolling Stone review of the album, David Fricke wrote, "Combat Rock is an album of fight songs," as its name suggests.
With a collection of songs that are ostensibly about the impact of the Vietnam War — having been influenced by Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Pat Gilbert, author of Passion Is the Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash, wrote, "The Clash, it seemed, had acquired the knack of writing ugly truths about America with a directness white American songwriters didn’t then dare, and wouldn’t manage to do as boldly until [Bruce] Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. two years later."
But many of its songs could arguably double as more personal tales, particularly Jones' "Should I Stay or Should I Go." So while that image of four pals seemingly on track for a long, acclaimed run as punk kings, it also foreshadowed their end. The photo shoot from which the cover image was drawn took place on a Petchaburi Road railway line in Thailand at the end of that Far East tour, where illness and debauchery began to take over. Due to a variety of circumstances, the band decided to take a couple of weeks off in Bangkok after playing the infamous Thammasat University, where 100 students had been massacred six years earlier.
Drummer Topper Headon's heroin addiction flared, while bassist Paul Simonon contracted a tropical disease that left him hospitalized. Meanwhile, Jones went missing and Strummer drank at the local go-go bars. According to Bombed Out!, this may have been the band's greatest misstep.
"In Thailand we only did one gig, but ended up staying for two weeks after Paul got ill," Jones later said, according to the site. "It was on the photo shoot for the Combat Rock cover, and Paul jumped in what he thought was a puddle but was actually some kind of black mud with loads of flies in it."
Soon, Headon was fired and replaced with the band's original drummer Terry Chimes, though he has since come to terms with the turn of events, following a long struggle with drugs.
“Joe wouldn’t have sacked me if I hadn’t been a raving heroin addict, trashing hotel rooms, throwing up, late for rehearsals. He had no choice... I was in a state," Headon said. "We were kids … It was the best thing that could have happened. We made all that fantastic music and then imploded at the top.”
But following the Far East tour, they returned to the studio to listen to what they had recorded. Having already released London Calling and Sandinista!, they wrestled with whether the 18 tracks could form another multi-LP package.
Jones fought for a double-LP with longer, more dance-friendly songs and had already mixed the first version of the album, initially known as Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg. The rest of the band, especially Strummer, favored a single-LP with shorter mixes. Manager Bernie Rhodes, whose re-hiring had already been a point of contention between the band's two creative forces, suggested tapping Glyn Johns, who had worked with the Rolling Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin, to remix the album. Along with Strummer and Jones, he cut the 77-minute double album down to a 46-minute single. Songs were omitted, making it a 12-track record, and individual tracks were trimmed.
But Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg is a highly sought after bootleg, and is still considered one of the best albums that never was. Fans have circulated several unofficial versions of it over the years.
“Mick was intolerable to work with by this time,” the late Strummer remembered in the Clash documentary, Westway to the World. “He wouldn’t show up. When he did show up, it was like Elizabeth Taylor in a filthy mood.” Jones later regretted his behaviour. “I was just carried away really, I wish I had a bit more control,” he reflected. “You know, you wish you knew what you know now.”
Despite the album boasting two hit singles, "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and "Rock the Casbah," Strummer and Simonon decided to fire Jones, too. The next year, Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite, and the Clash hired guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard in his stead.
Their next album Cut the Crap received exceptionally poor reviews, and Strummer and Simonon disavowed the album as part of the band's discography. By 1986, the Clash disbanded.
It was announced in 2002 that the Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year. Strummer, Jones and Headon wanted to play a reunion show to coincide with their induction, while Simonon bowed out, feeling it wasn't in the spirit of the old band. But it was never to be, after Strummer died unexpectedly of a congenital heart disease in December 2002.