Paul Simonon’s place in cultural history was assured by a single out-of-focus photograph taken in New York on either September 20 or 21 (opinions vary) of 1979. The Clash, three years old and about to release their third album, were playing at the Palladium, a bigger venue than they were used to. They were too far from the audience, the sound was poor, and for the final song Simonon decided to vent his frustration on his bass guitar. “It was a tool, that’s how I saw it, and I got a bit moody, as was my nature in those days,” he recalled 25 years later of smashing it, axe-like, into the stage. The resulting picture was the cover of that third album, London Calling, one of three shots grabbed by photographer Pennie Smith before she ducked.
The image is glorious: provoking passion and rage, love and hate, it’s punk-rock incarnate. Yet it’s also misleading: first, the album inside is barely punk rock at all, but something more sophisticated, both older and newer in ways few could have conceived. And Simonon, the blurred figure destroying his instrument, may have been ‘moody’, but he was by some degree the most mellow and peaceful member of the band and its entourage. For proof, consider that this is a man whose 60th birthday party in December, 2015 united Blur’s Damon Albarn and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher on the same stage.
What isn’t in dispute is his right to be there. Paul Simonon is, even among the perennially maligned breed of bass guitarists, criminally underrated. His influence is vast: that image alone launched a thousand bands, and the way he wore his guitar strap (very low) inspired a thousand more, starting with Joy Division’s Peter Hook. His contribution to The Clash was as vital as the passion and polemic of Joe Strummer, the flash and guile of guitarist Mick Jones, and the prodigious musicality of drummer Topper Headon. Without Simonon, The Clash would still have been great, but with him they became icons.