Faster and slower forms of music go in and out of fashion. The Clash make a good case study since, under the influence of the Ramones, they sped up before releasing their weirdly fast first single, then slowed down as they developed musically.
The Ramones’ first single “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976) is usually listed as a very fast 172 beats per minute. They played even faster in concert. The Ramones did two shows in London on the Fourth of July 1976 weekend and immediately caused the nascent Sex Pistols and the Clash to speed up their tempos.
Thus the Clash’s Ramones-like first single in 1977, “White Riot,” was played at a frantic 204 BPM.
By way of contrast, here’s another hard-rocking leftist protest song, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” from 1969, which clocked in at about 133 bpm:
Over time, as the Clash learned to play their instruments better and developed an interest in a wide array of musical styles, they slowed down, although they always tended to play faster than most musicians would think ideal.
Ian Schneider’s MeanSpeed.com website lists the times of all 18 singles on the Clash’s compilation album Singles. Note that the Clash’s marketing decision making was always debateable, and a number of these tracks were curious choices to promote. In general, the Clash weren’t a great singles band: they worked fast and released an immense amount of material (about 120 tracks in these six years).
Even what’s now their signature song “London Calling” struck me back in 1980 as needing one more hook. Still, the great double album named after the song was released two days after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which made the band’s combination of Nuclear Freeze weenie prudent politics overlying Strummer’s innate romantic Kiplingesque militarism a potent combination in that anxious hour. It’s probably not a coincidence that just about the last song Strummer released in his lifetime was a long rendition of Daniel Dravot’s song, “The Minstrel Boy,” from The Man Who Would Be King, which played over the credits of Black Hawk Down.
Their well-known last two singles “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggest what they could do when they spent some time working on singles.
Technical note: For the graph above, for the singles “Know Your Rights” and “Hitsville UK” I divided in half Schneider’s BPMs because the dominant beat (the one you’d dance to) is much slower than the hard to hear secondary beat.
Below the fold are videos of the 18 singles.
a) meanspeed=203.9 beats per minute
a) meanspeed=160.0 beats per minute,
a) meanspeed=172.6 beats per minute
“Clash City Rockers”
a) meanspeed=167.2 beats per minute
“(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”
a) meanspeed=103.2 beats per minute
a) meanspeed=160.6 beats per minute,
“English Civil War”
a) meanspeed=160.1 beats per minute
“I Fought The Law”
a) meanspeed=151.8 beats per minute,
The much better Bobby Fuller Four version from the mid-1960s is said to be 148.3 so The Clash didn’t speed it up too much.
a) meanspeed=132.4 beats per minute
“Train In Vain”
a) meanspeed=122.6 beats per minute
That’s fast for a Motown-type song.
a) meanspeed=70.2 beats per minute
Heavy reggae ballad. Here’s the dub version from 35 years ago.
“The Call Up”
a) meanspeed=120.2 beats per minute,
a) meanspeed=200.3 beats per minute
The main beat is probably 100.
“The Magnificent Seven”
a) meanspeed=116.7 beats per minute
Rap back when white lefties didn’t worry about cultural appropriation. Heck, that’s all the Clash did was appropriate.
“This Is Radio Clash”
a) meanspeed=123.0 beats per minute,
“Know Your Rights”
a) meanspeed=220.1 beats per minute
Joe talking slowly over a a weird rhythm. I don’t think anybody would dance to the 220 beat. The 110 beat is dominant. This appears to be from Steve Wozniak’s US Festival in 1983. The live version is slightly faster than the single.
“Rock The Casbah”
a) meanspeed=129.5 beats per minute
“Should I Stay Or Should I Go”
a) meanspeed=112.9 beats per minute,
a) meanspeed=225.82 beats per minute
This live version is much faster than the album.
Data: Ian Andrew Schneider