Tom Morello: The Band that Made Me Who I Am


No one ever called my high school punk rock group “the only band that matters.” That was the Clash. We were the ones playing ditties like “She Eats Razors” and “Beat Me, Whip Me, Make Me Feel Cheap.”

Dave Vogel introduced me to the Clash when he brought a copy of “London Calling” into the office of the high school newspaper where I was working. I was struck by the cover — the band’s Paul Simonon smashing his bass onstage. Badass. I borrowed the album and recorded it on a cassette. That low-grade Dolby-suffering tape burned its way into my head, heart and soul. The Sex Pistols made me notice punk rock. The Clash, made punk rock streetwise but political, raw but musically sophisticated, personal in spirit yet global in reach. It soon became my favorite band.

A week after listening to London Calling, I wrote my first political song — “Salvador Death Squad Blues,” a rocking commentary on the Reagan administration’s atrocities in Central America.

“Salvador Death Squad Blues” by The Electric Sheep

The Clash’s concert at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago in 1982 began to change my life, even before they played the first note. I bought a T-shirt in the lobby, but rather than the usual wizards and dragons on the heavy metal shirts I was accustomed to, the Clash shirt had a single phrase emblazoned over the heart — “the future is unwritten.”

When I saw them play, I knew exactly what that meant. The Clash performed with passion, purpose and an unflinching political fire. They self-identified as a band of the people, as humanistic socialists. You can hear their unflinching intent in “Know Your Rights,” English Civil War,”Straight to Hell” and “Career Opportunities.” There was such a sense of community in the theater that it seemed like anything was possible. I was energized, politicized, changed by that night. Yes, the future was unwritten, and we fans and that band could write it together.

At the center of the Clash hurricane stood one of the greatest hearts and deepest souls of 20th-century music, the band’s rhythm guitarist and singer, Joe Strummer. At the Aragon, Joe was playing through the same little amp that I had in high school. That proved to me that you didn’t need walls of Marshall stacks to make great music. All you had to do was tell the truth, and really, really mean it.

When I first went on tour, Clash tapes and bootlegs were the most important part of my on-the-road music collection. They were an inspiration and consolation on those long, freezing European bus rides.

In listening to even crappy bootleg tapes, you could hear the peerless drumming of Topper Headon effortlessly steering the band into genre-fluid realms no other punk band could handle. You could feel the cool rumbling reggae rhythms of Simonon’s bass demanding justice from Kingston to Brixton. Mick Jones, the McCartney to Strummer’s Lennon, shone as a brilliant arranger and tunesmith, always looking forward musically, and pushing the boundaries of what was possible for a punk band, or any band. And you could always hear in Joe Strummer’s ragged, passionate voice that he truly believed that the world could be changed with a three-minute song. He wasn’t up there for ego or rock star glory. He was playing with the determination to change the damn world.

The band would have countless meetings where they would discuss their lives, their opinions, their political views, what they meant to one another, and what it was important for them to say in their songs. You could feel that commitment in every note of their music. And as Joe says near the end of the great Clash documentary “Westway to the World,” a band’s chemistry is everything. He gives a tearful speech lamenting the eventual dismissal of Headon, and then Jones. There is a potency to that classic Clash lineup that reminds us that there are some bands that people like, some bands that people love, and then there are some bands that people really *believe in*. The Clash was most certainly one of those.

When I was with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and as the Nightwatchman, journalists would snarkily ask me, “What the hell is someone with your politics doing on a big label like Epic Records?” While I’d usually answer with flowery sermons about spreading an important message around the globe, I could have answered with two words: the Clash. I wasn’t a cool kid digging through record crates in hip Chicago indie stores. The reason I heard them was because Dave Vogel bought the Epic Records release “London Calling” at Musicland at the Hawthorn Mall in tiny, suburban Vernon Hills, Ill. I didn’t find The Clash, The Clash found me. The Clash chose a path that was not elitist, a path that was crucial to broadcasting their message, a path that was crucial in having it reach me.

The Clash’s influence, and its ability to turn the personal into the political, and vice versa, echoes on songs throughout my own career, from the Nightwatchman’s “Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine,” to “Mary Celeste,” off my The Catastrophists EP to “Save Our Souls” from my latest album. If any of the songs I’ve been involved in have been able to energize or politicize one person in the same way that the Clash affected me, the decision to sign with Epic was well worth it.

I had the opportunity to play with Strummer on his collaboration with Johnny Cash, “Redemption Song,” and on his song “It’s a Rockin’ World.” I have never been more nervous in my life than when I was introduced to him. Very little recording got done, but a lot of storytelling over quickly ingested bottles of red wine did. I took the opportunity when Joe was holding court to pick up and strum his famous Telecaster with the “Ignore Alien Orders” sticker on it. That guitar launched a thousand bands and was the reason I play a Telecaster on such songs as “Vigilante Nocturno.” Holding that historic guitar, on which Joe had written and performed my favorite songs through the years, was sublime.

The last time I saw Joe was when he and his band the Mescaleros played at the Troubadour about a year before he died. He played with all the passion and intensity he had in the Clash’s heyday. He was a vital artist to the end.

His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to try to make a difference with a guitar.

In the great Clash anthem “White Riot,” Joe sang:

Are you taking over,

Or are you taking orders?

Are you going backwards,

Or are you going forwards?

I have answered those four questions for myself every day since I first heard them.

They epitomize what the Clash was about, a band that combined revolutionary sounds with revolutionary ideas.

To me, they are still “the only band that matters.”

Previous essays in this series can be found here.

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