Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Clash: Straight to Hell

"Straight to Hell" is the Clash's apex.

True, London Calling and The Clash remain the band's most crucial works. However, as distillation of each Clash man's strengths; Paul Simonon's dubby bass, Mick Jones' spidery riffs, Topper Headon's dense beats and Joe Strummer's malaria-fever dream spiels, the song "Straight to Hell" is unbeatable .

The song was recorded on New Year's Eve 1980 for a planned double album entitled, Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg (later judiciously pruned by legendary rock producer Glynn Johns into the single, if uneven album, Combat Rock). When released as a double A-sided single with "Should I Stay or Should I Go?", that hit completely overshadowed "Straight to Hell". Like a sleeper cell, the song waited, gaining strength, till now, twenty-some years later, when between M.I.A., Lilly Allen, Josh Rouse not to mention Elvis Costello and Jakob Dylan, "Straight to Hell" is ubiquitous.

I came to the song through a T-shirt. In early eighties Winnipeg, a pre-teen heard the Clash in fragments; a radio track here, a stolen cassette there and even that friend's-sister's-husband's L.P. of London Calling with the blessed lyrics sheet! And T-shirts. That skull n' bullets icon and that blunt order, "Straight To Hell" conjured up a raging Clash anthem attacking religious sectarianism. So imagine my shock and disappointment upon discovering that the song was a lengthy, somber Asian-reggae ballad.

I soon saw the error of my snap judgment. The music is hot, sweaty, tense and claustrophobic - The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now transmuted from celluloid to vinyl. Everything's percussive; Mick's playing congas with sticks, Joe's beating a lemonade bottle wrapped in a towel against Topper's bass drum and at one point Joe's panting drowns out everything.

Lyrically, Strummer is at the summit of his power, channelling the raw voices of Woody Guthrie, Allan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan into a seething and menacing State of the World address that roams from Britain to Vietnam to America.The song's brutal account of the world's indifference to its outcasts, makes it like a modern version of Woody Guthrie's, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)", which decried American mistreatment of Mexican migrant workers back in the forties. This compassion, melded to to such startlingly original music, is what keeps the song alive; after all, the poor, the homeless and the dispossessed are not only still with us, they're now pounding on our doors.

The Clash - Straight to Hell (Live from New York!)

Now, for the masochistic-obsessive, MRML presents twenty-two different versions of "Straight to Hell". You may listen in the jukebox below if you're really strong enough to endure it as one consecutive onslaught

{MRML READERS: Make sure to leave a comment on
"Straight to Hell",
the original or one of these covers!}

*A number of these songs are still in print, so if you do download them, for educational purposes only, please remove the files from your computer within forty-eight hours.

1. The Clash
This is edited 7" version - it's too damn short but check out that vinyl picture disc up above!

2. Elvis Costello and Jakob Dylan*
An Elvis and a Dylan (but the not the most iconic ones) make a curious combo that reveals the flexibility of a song, that did not sound so malleable on first listen. (Video here)
(*Thanks to Marky Dread for the nice rip)

3. Amy Loftus and Will Kimbrough
Americana Americans Amy and Will's may not have performed the only alt-country version of the song but it is amongst the most striking covers herein.

4. Steve Ketchen & the Kensington Hillbillies
These Canadians also play the song country-style (or as they describe it "Stan Makita at the Grand Ole Opry") but with more of a bluegrass feel.

5. Lilly Allen (feat. Mick Jones)
Lilly, Joe Strummer's god-daughter, got Mick Jones to sing and play on her cover, which has a few virtues, none of which include having come to any personal understanding of her Godfather's words.

6. M.I.A.
Brit-sensation M.I.A. didn't start the revival of this song but by using the guts of the song and adding a more violent take on the misery Strummer surveyed in his version, she created a 21st century anthem from it ("Paperplanes" video here).

7. Skinnerbox
Of course there's rocksteady version by these first-year Psych lovin' NYC'ers.

8. The Menzingers
While these boys from Scranton, PA pound the shit out of this song to great effect, they also succeed in making the original song seem even stronger.

9. The Pogues (with Joe Strummer)
This legendary Anglo-Irish band did a full-blooded Celtic-punk run-through of the song live (seeing it almost stopped my heart) but none of the recorded versions really capture that intensity.

10. Phil CodySomewhere between Dan Bern and Ani Difranco in the nineties New Dylan sweepstakes was Phil Cody, a performer of singular intensity. (video here)

11.Emm Gryner

Emm must have figured that if Tori Amos had gained fame by tinkling the ivories on an alternative rock anthem (see Tori's version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit") then she could ten-up Tori with an album of alt-rock standards called Girl Versions and so she did.

12. Josh Rouse
American singer-songwriter gives the song a Valium.

13.Bill Janovitz
This former leader of Buffalo Tom does a kinda bare-bones, college-dorm version but with just a hint of malice.

14. Balsam
These Swedish pals of the Hives performed a credible version during what seems like it must've been a pretty burning night of tributes to Joe.

15. Chum
SoCal band make the song instrumental surf-rock.

16. Joe Strummer and Latino Rockabilly WarThis song was a constant in Joe's repertoire and one always senses that he understood that it was one of his crowning achievements. (Mescaleros video here)

17. Red Letter Day
This U.K. band (in 1991, they played the Clash to Mega City Four's Buzzcocks) try to make "Straight to Hell" sound like an outtake from Give 'Em Enough Rope with a little less success than I'd have wished for.

18. Cienfuegos
Argentinean band do a Latin-tinged version partly sung in Spanish, all of which woulda made Joe happier than a pig in shit.

19. Moby feat. Heather Nova
In case you haven't heard enough moody version yet, let a former member of of the Vatican Commandoes and Bermudan-Canadian alterna-chick Heather Nova do one more.

20. Hot Club de Paris
At first this U.K. band's acoustic Brit-pop version is just sorta there but it grows on you...

21. The Great Depression
My fellow Danes (on my father's side anyway) do a quiet, menacing take, which reminds me a bit of the National's version of "Clampdown".

22. The Clash
The whole 6:52 one from Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, later released on The Clash on Broadway box set.

The Clash - Straight to Hell (live at the US festival, 1983)

Straight to Hell
(The Clash)

If you can play on the fiddle
How's about a British jig and reel?
Speaking King's English in quotation
As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust
water froze
In the generation
Clear as winter ice
This is your paradise

There ain't no need for ya
Go straight to hell boys

Y'wanna join in a chorus
Of the Amerasian blues?
When it's Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say papa papa papa papa-san take me home
See me got photo photo
Photograph of you
Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Lemme tell ya 'bout your blood bamboo kid
It ain't Coca-Cola it's rice

Straight to hell
Oh Papa-san
Please take me home
Oh Papa-san
Everybody they wanna go home
So Mamma-san says

You wanna play mind-crazed banjo
On the druggy-drag ragtime U.S.A.?
In Parkland International
Hah! Junkiedom U.S.A.
Where procaine proves the purest rock man groove
and rat poison
The volatile Molatov says


Go straight to hell

Can you really cough it up loud and strong
The immigrants
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
Any hemisphere
No man's land and there ain't no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived round here

Go straight to hell boys

"Straight to Hell", it should not be forgot, also begat a wretchedly wonderful Alex Cox punk rock spaghetti western (in which Joe stars) - you'll get the idea from this scene.


  1. Always thought 'Straight to hell' was a brilliant song.
    I first heard it on 'Combat Rock'; later, when I saw the cover of the 12" I thought it quite inappropriate; it looked like a bad hardrock single, while it was a great, moody, immensely sad but beautiful song. You explained it very well in your post.
    The subject of the song (lots of people to whom is being said: sorry folks, right now we can't be bothered to help you in any way, even if it's our fault you lead such miserable lives) comes across perfectly (especially during the lines: "There ain't no need for ya, go straight to hell boys" - the crime of simply refusing to do anything about this kind of injustice is made very clear, and the delivery - the lyrics, the way they are sung, and the music maximize the effect)
    I know a couple of versions of the Clash: the long version from Clash On Broadway may be the best (although possibly this is the best version because it's the longest: for me, it just can't go on long anough)
    From the cover versions I know the Lily Allen version and the Moby/Heather Nova version: the last one is very good: it's quite different than the original, but the atmosphere is retained.
    I'm curious about the Pogues version; I've got almost everything from both The Pogues and the Clash, but not this version.

  2. mate this is just8 i love the long version not sure if im quite ready for a lily allen version though as i remember how she butchered a specials track.but hey what do i know?all the best old chap

  3. Nice work Jeff a couple here I don't have and am pleased to have the Bill Janovitz version. Glad the Elvis Costello rip was useful,
    All the best great site.

  4. Just8

    I appreciate a lot of the covers just for choosing a blunt yet poetic song that was never a hit.

    I to would take the long version as the definitive one (and I's usually all for brevity).

    Hope you enjoy the Pogues + Strummer version


    Yeah the Lilly Allen version ain't great but in this case even the weak covers build the song's stature.


    Thanks again and glad you enjoyed the whole piece (fuck I spent a lot of time with that song this last week!).

    Now if I can plan my Sandinista live album...

  5. WOW! I had noticed several covers recently, but was not aware of so many. Thanks, also for your "liner notes" that I always enjoy. Do you happen to know form which show the JS & Latino Rockabilly War version comes? I have never heard a live recording of them in such good quality and would love to hear the whole show.

  6. Alphish

    Thanks,those sort of kind words keep us business.

    I found the LRW song on its lonesome but I will see if I can dig up the rest of the show.

  7. Hi jeffen, a brilliant post, I never realised how any covers of this great song there were.

    I'm with you, the long version is the best, and it would have to be an outstanding cover to ever beat the Clash original. It was great fun listening to all of those covers, thanks for the incredible effort you must of put into this post.

  8. Yeah this post turned into an obsessive quest but I'm glad lots of people enjoyed it.

    I may need to not hear that song for awhile now.

  9. Brilliant research, can I link to it on my next blog post?


  10. Tim

    Thanks for the comment - it was an unusually laborious post.

    I'd love a direct link on your blog to this post!

    (You'd be amazed that almost 200 people have downloaded that compilation even though it consists of the same song twenty-two times!)

    (Speaking of which I'll put you on my links under 'blogs'.

  11. Thanks again Jeffen - post about this is up tonight on my site.

    I actually listened to all 22 as well....I'm liking Hot Club de Paris' version a lot. I like them in general, good angular stuff - wish they'd play over here.


  12. Tim

    Thanks for the link. Looking back at all the comments (which kinda dribbled), in all my replies I complained about the time involved in this post, which looks kinda whiny.

    I loved putting this post together.

  13. I am gonna try to listen to the compilation. That is one doozy of a comp, but I will try. That picture disc is, as george clinton would say, the BOMB.

  14. Thanks for the effort that went into this, I know it was a while back now, but I enjoyed it.
    The reason I'm commenting is that I need to check if I am going mad... but the U2 song "numb" does owe a lot to "straight to hell".... right? Or is it just me?


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