This song is about Clash frontman, the late Joe Strummer, looking back at his life, acknowledging the complications and responsibilities of adulthood.
Kind of odd to read ripped-and-tough lyrics like these and think that the cynical punk rocker was an avid tree-hugger. In fact, Strummer founded The Carbon Neutral Company (originally called "Future Forests"), dedicated to planting trees all over the world in order to combat global warming. Strummer was also the first artist to record, press and distribute records while remaining carbon neutral.
The line "Love 'n' hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands" is yet another reference to the 1955 western-gothic thriller The Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum plays the world's creepiest preacher / con artist who chases two orphaned children across the American Midwest in an attempt to gain the hidden loot of their father, who was a robber. Mitchum has the tattoos on his knuckles. Every single time you see any character with anything tattooed on their knuckles, it's a shout-out to this film. As most-referenced film memes go, this is right up there with a boy and alien on a bicycle flying in front of the moon, Clark Gable saying "I don't give a damn," and Citizen Kane's "Rosebud."
The song is also about refusing to conform to authority, and the difficulties of not "selling out" to the "man" - something on The Clash's mind very much in terms of a growing up as people standpoint as well as the perspective of being a popular rock band trying to stay true to their roots as they sold more and more records.
The amusing lyric, "he who f--ks nuns will later join the church" is a metaphor for teenagers who rebel against authority growing up and becoming authority figures themselves, becoming all that they fought against before. Journalist Lester Bangs believed the lyric about a "gimmick-hungry yob" related specifically to Sham 69 lead singer Jimmy Pursey, although as The Clash were friends with Pursey and the band this unlikely and is more likely a generic reference to bands trying to make a quick buck out of rock music.
"Death or Glory" was originally written on the piano, and initially rehearsed at a much slower pace more as a reflective ballad. The main reason the song was sped up was to avoid its obvious similarity to Max Steiner's "As Time Goes By" ballad from the film Casablanca. It was apparently one of the band's favorite songs to record for the London Calling album, and producer Guy Stevens added to the energy of the recording by throwing chairs around the studio whilst the band were laying down the tracks.
The Clash always liked the song, but never had the time to rehearse it properly to do it justice in a live setting, something that was confirmed by singer Joe Strummer in an interview with the Eccentric Sleeve Notes fanzine in July 1982. It only featured very rarely in the band's live set, with it's first appearance coming at the Rainbow in July 1979, before appearing a few times on the 1980 16 Tons tour and the pre-US Festival warm up gigs in 1983.
A cover version by Dave Smalley features on the 1999 Clash tribute album City Rockers.