The song that helped The Clash break America

In the rebellious year of 1977, The Clash, though proclaiming to be ‘so bored with the USA,’ found an indelible connection with the very nation that seemed to irk them. The band’s history, intricately woven with the fabric of the United States, spans from the infamous New York riot to the hip-hop inspirations that led guitarist Mick Jones to venture into the creation of Big Audio Dynamite. The saga of “the only band that matters” owes much to the cultural tapestry of America, with its roots stretching back to the pivotal moment marked by the introduction of the song ‘Train In Vain’ to an American audience.

Their initial transatlantic expedition in early 1979, following the release of 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, proved challenging for The Clash. Despite sharing stages with rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Bo Diddley, the tour faced adversity in the small venues of rural America. Audiences were seemingly unprepared for the arrival of four London lads, clad in bondage trousers and homemade shirts, passionately voicing their message through microphones.

Amid the recording sessions for their acclaimed 1979 album, London Calling, the band experimented with Mick Jones’ composition ‘Train in Vain (Stand By Me).’ Originally intended as a promotional flexi-disc for the New Musical Express, fate took a turn when the NME’s plan fell through. Quick on their feet, The Clash ingeniously appended the track to the end of London Calling, discreetly absent from the initial track listing.

In a departure from their typical politically charged anthems, ‘Train In Vain’ stands as a rare romantic endeavor from The Clash. Inspired by Jones’ tumultuous relationship with The Slits guitarist Viv Albertine, the song reveals a vulnerable side of the guitarist. The central lyric, “you didn’t stand by me,” serves as a direct response to The Slits’ ‘Typical Girls,’ where Albertine wrote, “typical girls stand by their man,” referencing the Tammy Wynette classic.

This musical gem not only secured a place as one of The Clash’s finest efforts but also marked their breakthrough in the USA. Soaring to the 23rd position on the Billboard Top 100, ‘Train In Vain’ became the band’s first hit in the country. The success, while somewhat anticipated given the track’s commercial appeal, significantly boosted the overall recognition of London Calling, propelling the album to the 27th spot on the US album charts in 1980.

Buoyed by the triumph of ‘Train In Vain,’ The Clash continued to make waves in America with two more chart hits. ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go,’ from Combat Rock, reached 45 on the charts and experienced a resurgence in the UK after featuring in a 1991 Levi’s advert. However, their magnum opus in the US came in the form of the 1982 classic ‘Rock the Casbah,’ a rare composition by Topper Headon that became The Clash’s biggest hit across the Atlantic.

Leave a Comment