This feature originally ran in April 2017 and is being republished for International Clash Day.
What really made The Clash “the only band that matters” was their ability to evolve. Over six studio albums, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon proved that punk rock wasn’t being confined to power chords and lots of spit. It meant taking societal conflicts and themes and pouring them into a variety of sounds and stories that connected with the people at any given time, which is why they eventually went from a blitzkrieg of noise on their 1977 self-titled debut to reggae, dub, funk, ska and rockabilly over the five albums that followed.
(Listen: The Opus on The Clash’s London Calling)
Because they were so varied — seriously, listen to “White Riot”, then “Rock the Casbah”, then “The Magnificent Seven”, and then something like “Straight to Hell” or “Sean Flynn”, it’s unreal — The Clash have long been ideal for celluloid. Their range of sounds can soundtrack a number of scenes, and they have over the years, though not as many as you might think. In fact, it wasn’t until the ’90s that producers (and, ahem, Strummer himself) became hip to the idea that The Clash were ideal for the cinema. Since then, they’ve graced both living rooms and theaters alike.
Ahead, we put together 10 songs by The Clash that really amped up a handful of great (and exceptional) films, including one that doubled-down on the boyos to perfection. Since we’re focusing solely on films, we unfortunately left off a number of ideal and iconic appearances on the small screen, from “Train in Vain” offering a nice aural metaphor in season five of The Wire to “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” terrifying Winona Ryder in the first season of Stranger Things. Rest assured, these moments were in our heads the whole time, but sadly, they don’t belong on this list.
So, put down the “Remote Control”, click ahead, and try not to be too “Hateful”…
Make sure to subscribe to the latest season of The Opus, which further breaks down the band’s seminal album London Calling.
10. “Police on My Back”
Knocked Up (2007)
God bless Judd Apatow. The guy clearly appreciates the power and diversity of Sandinista!, the band’s cruelly underrated 1980 triple album that bafflingly remains polarizing among fans. Case in point: Both 2007’s Knocked Up (“Police on My Back”) and 2009’s Funny People (“Junco Partner”) pull from the album, though if we’re splitting hairs, the former wins out. Sure, it’s a cover of The Equals’ deep cut of the same name, but there’s no denying how Jones and Strummer’s double-guitar work embellishes the stress and tension of the titular scene in question. When Katherine Heigl’s lead character, Alison, comes to the sobering realization that she might be pregnant, her sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), rushes her to the pharmacy, tipping off a hilarious montage that follows the two of them trying out various pregnancy tests. It’s fast, it’s punchy, and it’s effective, especially when Jones shouts, “What have I done?” Good question, Joe.
09. “I Fought the Law”
Sing Street (2016)
So much of John Carney’s coming-of-age musical comedy Sing Street revolves around teenage rebellion. Which is why it makes sense that the Irish filmmaker would find room for Strummer and co., and he does, even if it’s admittedly a very short inclusion. Early in the film, when Conor first starts attending the free state-school, Synge Street CBS, he’s reprimanded for wearing his brown shoes when the rules require every student to wear black shoes. He pleads that he doesn’t have the money to buy a new pair and that his current shoes are, in fact, brand new, but it’s tough luck for Conor, who’s sent out in his socks. The Clash’s brilliant cover of Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought the Law” plays for a quick gasp as he walks the dirty halls, stepping in a muddy puddle no less, on his way to class. It’s a harbinger for all the great music to come and a perfect accoutrement to one of Conor’s first run-ins with the law. He later writes a song about the experience.
08. “Police and Thieves”
21 Jump Street (2012)
On paper, The Clash are totally out of place in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s ultra meta remake of the ’80s television series 21 Jump Street. The soundtrack to the 2012 comedy went H.A.M. on the likes of EDM party poppers LMFAO, while also ironically ricocheting between past radio relics like Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” and Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever)”. But “Police and Thieves” finds a warm seat among the bunch, namely because of Simonon’s bass line and how the bubbly melody captures the budding bromance between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. Similar to the previous entry for Knocked Up, this one finds the English rockers in yet another montage, specifically when the two officers lend each other a helping hand during their rigorous police training. As expected, Hill’s got the brains and Tatum’s got the brawn, but it’s watching them lean on one another that makes the genesis of their relationship more of a revelation.
07. “Know Your Rights”
American Splendor (2003)
It’s a damn shame more people don’t talk about American Splendor. Despite its accolades at Sundance, Cannes, and the Writers Guild of America, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini 2003’s biographical comedy-drama film about the late underground comic writer Harvey Pekar seems to have been relegated to the trenches over the years, which, to be quite honest, is where many might have expected it to wind up — including Pekar himself. Nevertheless, it’s a very poignant film that features one of Paul Giamatti’s greatest performances to date and some clever filmmaking. Speaking of clever, the music ain’t too bad either, and The Clash pops up about a quarter of the way through the film, when comic writer Joyce Brabner is introduced in a Delaware comic book shop. “Know Your Rights” plays in the background, perhaps as a subtle nod to Brabner’s own work, which has traditionally leaned toward the political spectrum. Smart call, smart film.
06. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
With T2 Trainspotting, Danny Boyle had the tough task of not only following up one of the most iconic films of the ’90s, but arguably the most important soundtrack of the decade. He prevailed, though, because he realized that you can’t capture lightning in a bottle; you have to just let it happen. Now, the jury’s still out on whether or not the follow-up’s soundtrack will be as iconic as its predecessor — odds aren’t in its favor, given that soundtracks don’t mean much these days — but it does have its share of iconic moments. One such moment involves, you guessed it, Strummer and the boys, specifically their 1977 single “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”. The rousing anthem scores the much-hyped reunion between scagboys Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) as they wax nostalgic about their glory days and gush about famous football plays of yesteryear, all of which is given a surreal, stylish finish by Boyle’s keen eye. Choose life or choose Clash?
04./05. “Janie Jones”/”I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Every so often Martin Scorsese drops a film that’s either confounding or very unlike him. In the past, it’s accounted for some of his most interesting work (see: 1985’s After Hours) and also some of his least interesting works (see: 2008’s Shutter Island). 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead fits somewhere in between, a hazy, psychological drama that’s as brilliant as it is chaotic. An even more on-edge Nicolas Cage is at the center of it all as a rattled paramedic who hasn’t saved a soul in months and begins to see the ghosts of his past during his graveyard shift. He’s surrounded by a handful of veteran character actors, though, specifically John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore, and each one offer a unique spin on their depressing rides through New York City. As per tradition, Scorsese stockpiles an essential playlist, weaving through stuff like R.E.M. and Johnny Thunders and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, but it’s his cardiac arrest of The Clash that makes the biggest dent. Blame it on Sizemore’s equally manic energy, but the back-to-back inclusions of “Janie Jones” and “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” put you right in the driver’s seat with Cage, right as he starts to really unravel. Now, let’s find some friggin Valium.
03. “London Calling”
Billy Elliot (2000)
“London Calling” is not only the greatest song in The Clash’s catalog, but also the most ubiquitous, which explains why it’s so often used in television and film. Over the years, it’s served as an easy and hip way to establish the English capital without resorting to dialogue or script. In 2000, director Stephen Daldry said to hell with all that with Billy Elliot and opted to use the song for a scene that’s more akin to something out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Now, if you recall, the entire dance drama is set in Northeastern England, specifically during the 1984–85 coal miners’ strike, and that heated political climate informs much of the story’s stakes and proceedings. This particular scene highlights the trauma and terror those riots had upon its citizens. As Strummer rallies against Margaret Thatcher’s politics in the iconic tune, we watch as Billy (Jamie Bell) slips out of his ballet practice and witnesses his union bully brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), being chased and eventually beaten by the cops. Daldry treats it like a music video with the whole thing rolling along at the stormy pace of The Clash’s desperate rhythms.
02. “Rock The Casbah”
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
“I’m sorry, don’t listen to me. I’m on mescaline. I’ve been spaced out all day.” Wes Anderson has carved out his share of memorable characters over the years — trust us, we ranked ’em all not too long ago — but he really went the extra mile on his ancient Schwinn when he put the finishing touches on Owen Wilson’s Eli Cash. The unofficial member of the Tenenbaum family is one of the more mysterious souls in Anderson’s oeuvre, spending his days walking in and out of literary talk shows, binging on VHS tapes of porn, and testing every kind of drug with Egyptians or similar foreign friends. He’s out of his mind, mostly because he’s a total drug addict, but unlike the skagboys above, there’s a vintage swagger to his addiction that’s, for lack of a better word, alluring. So, what’s this got to do with The Clash? Well, in one particular scene, Eli’s enjoying one of his many vices to the sounds of “Rock the Casbah”, and the Combat Rock dance-punk single couldn’t be a more appropriate song to Eli’s entire ethos and demeanor. He’s a tortured soul whose heart wants to rebel and whose mind only wants to dance.
01. “Rudie Can’t Fail”
Grosse Point Blank (1996)
What else did you expect? For many, including this writer, Grosse Pointe Blank was their proper introduction to The Clash, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Strummer scored the film and his influence is all over the two volumes of music that came out of the film, which hit theaters in the Spring of 1997, back when soundtracks could afford to be spread out over two discs. Both are excellent and were must-owns for anyone old enough to push “play” on a Sony Walkman at the time, but the first installment is really what everyone had on their shelf. Seeing that “Rudie Can’t Fail” was the second track on the first disc, coming right after Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” (the unspoken theme of the film), The Clash were there for the taking, and many lucky souls followed the breadcrumbs to the rest of their discography. Although, in hindsight, it probably helped that “Armagideon Time” was also in the film and on the first volume, and given that both are heavily indicative of the band’s ska/reggae tendencies, it was likely a jarring experience to go back to their 1977 self-titled debut and hear the punk rock squall of “Janie Jones”. Regardless, both the film and the filmgoers were better off for having Strummer and The Clash involved.