Mick Jones and Joe Strummer wrote this about their record company's heavy-handed management. It chronicles how The Clash signed a contract and immediately lost control of their music.
The Clash were upset that their label, CBS, made them release a song called "Remote Control" as a single, and came up with "Complete Control" as retaliation. So in the UK in 1977, The Clash released a single they didn't like followed by another one (this) that ridiculed the decision to release the previous one. From that point on, The Clash went to great measures to get control of how their music was distributed.
When the song was released as a single, The Clash issued this statement to the press:
"'Complete Control' tells the story of conflict between two opposing camps. One side sees change as an opportunity to channel the enthusiasm of a raw and dangerous culture in a direction where energy is made safe and predictable. The other is dealing with change as a freedom to be experienced so as to understand one's true capabilities, allowing a creative social situation to emerge."
This was the band's first album, but their record company would not release it in the US. This was yet another decision The Clash disagreed with.
The anti-establishment statements The Clash made on this song gave them a lot of credibility with their fans. As punk was ending, many bands were either fading away or changing their style, which was seen as selling out. The Clash managed to stay true to their values and gained a great deal of respect by doing so.
In the US, this album sold about 100,000 copies as an import, making it the biggest-selling import album of the '70s.
Mick Jones wrote most of the song, despite the fact it's credited as a Strummer/Jones joint composition. Joe Strummer ad libbed the "You're my guitar hero" and "This is Joe Public Speaking!" bits, and was so proud of Jones' efforts that except for a reference to a disastrous promotional trip to Amsterdam, he declared them finished.
This was not included in the original UK release of The Clash in 1977. When the album was released in the US in 1979, this was one of five songs added.
The Clash recorded the song at Sarn East Studios in Whitechapel in August of 1977, and it was drummer Topper Headon's first recording with the band since he replaced Terry Chimes earlier that year. It was produced by Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, and it's up for dispute just how much he contributed to the sound - engineer Micky Foote claimed that "he was s--t hot - he nearly blew the control room up," whereas Jones claims that "we went back and fiddled about with it. It was good what Lee did, but his echo sounded underwater to us. We brought out the guitars and made it sound tougher."
The title came from a conversation the Clash's manager Bernie Rhodes had with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. Joe Strummer noted in a 1991 interview that "Bernie and Malcolm got together and decided they wanted to control their groups... Bernie had a meeting in the Ship in Soho, after the Anarchy Tour. He said he wanted complete control. I came out of the pub with Paul (Simonon) collapsing on the pavement in hysterics at those words." (From Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz)
This was first played live, along with "Clash City Rockers
," at Mont de Marsan in August 1977 on their European tour, and remained a firm fan favorite until the end of their career - first as a set opener, then as the first song of the encore. A live version of the song played in New York in June 1981 is the opening track on the live compilation album From Here to Eternity
A bizarre cover version of the song by Kowalskis appears on the 1999 tribute album Backlash.