One of the more popular songs by The Clash, this one uses a very unusual technique: Spanish lyrics echoing the English words.
Singing the Spanish parts with Joe Strummer was Joe Ely, a Texas singer whose 1978 album Honky Tonk Masquerade got the attention of The Clash when they heard it in England. When Ely and his band performed in London, The Clash went to a show and took them around town after the performance. They became good friends, and when The Clash came to Texas in 1979, they played some shows together. They stayed in touch, and when The Clash returned to America in 1982, they played more shows together and Ely joined them in the studio when they were recording Combat Rock at Electric Ladyland Studio in New York.
In our 2012 interview with Joe Ely, he explained: "I'm singing all the Spanish verses on that, and I even helped translate them. I translated them into Tex-Mex and Strummer kind of knew Castilian Spanish, because he grew up in Spain in his early life. And a Puerto Rican engineer (Eddie Garcia) kind of added a little flavor to it. So it's taking the verse and then repeating it in Spanish."
When we asked Ely whose idea the Spanish part was, he said, "I came in to the studio while they were working out the parts. They'd been working on the song for a few hours already, they had it sketched out pretty good. But I think it was Strummer's idea, because he just immediately, when it came to that part, he immediately went, 'You know Spanish, help me translate these things.' (Laughs) My Spanish was pretty much Tex-Mex, so it was not an accurate translation. But I guess it was meant to be sort of whimsical, because we didn't really translate verbatim."
According to Strummer, Eddie Garcia, the sound engineer, called his mother in Brooklyn Heights and got her to translate some of the lyrics over the phone. Eddie's mother is Ecuadorian, so Joe Strummer and Joe Ely ended up singing in Ecuadorian Spanish.
About two minutes in, you can hear Mick Jones say, "Split!" While it sounds like it could be some kind of statement related to the song, Joe Ely tells us that it had a much more quotidian meaning. Said Ely: "Me and Joe were yelling this translation back while Mick Jones sang the lead on it, and we were doing the echo part. And there was one time when the song kind of breaks down into just the drums right before a guitar part. And you hear Mick Jones saying, 'Split!' Just really loud, kind of angry. Me and Joe had snuck around in the studio, came up in the back of his booth where he was all partitioned off, and we snuck in and jumped and scared the hell out of him right in the middle of recording the song, and he just looked at us and says, 'Split!' So we ran back to our vocal booth and they never stopped the recording."
The line, "If you want me off your back" was originally the sexually charged line "On your front or on your back." In April 1982, the famed '60s producer Glyn Johns was brought in to slash the album down and make it into a mainstream-friendly single-LP. In addition to cutting parts of songs out, he insisted that Mick Jones re-record this line, fearing that US radio stations would not touch a record with such a sexually suggestive line.
These sessions as a whole were in bad blood, with Jones furious that his original mixes of his songs were being massacred against his will, and it was this combined with other factors (such as the return of controversial manager Bernie Rhodes) which resulted in the breakdown of the band and Jones' sacking in 1983.
Mick Jones in 1000 UK #1 Hits
by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh said, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go? wasn't about anything specific and it wasn't pre-empting my leaving The Clash. It was just a good rocking song, our attempt at writing a classic."
In a 2009 Rolling Stone
article on The Clash, they state that Jones wrote this song about his girlfriend Ellen Foley, who acted on the TV series Night Court
and sang with Meat Loaf on "Paradise By the Dashboard Light
It was speculated that the song was also a comment on Jones' position in the band, pre-empting his sacking in 1983 by over a year and a half. Strummer pondered this in interviews, as did Jones. "Maybe it was pre-empting my leaving" he noted in 1991, although he did conclude that it was more likely about a "personal situation" - presumably his relationship with Foley.
Psychobilly is the punk version of rockabilly; it's a fusion genre which also gets a nice sound out of elements of everything from doo-wop to blues, but with that punk edge to it. "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" resembles early punk, almost retro style, and so could be called rockabilly. More than anything, it compares very nicely with The Cramps.
"Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" is possibly one of the most covered Clash songs by dint of being one of the most popular. Just some of the groups to cover this song include Living Colour, Skin, MxPx, Weezer, ZZ Top, and The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Anti-Flag covered the song at various festival dates in 2012, and more memorable versions exist by Die Toten Hosen and Australian pop star Kyle Minogue. It even shows up in "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Polkas On 45" medley - a takeoff on the "Stars On 45 Medley
As a UK #1 single, what song did it replace as #1 on the UK charts? "Do the Bartman" by The Simpsons
. Speaking of charts, while this song was their only #1 in the UK, The Clash got even less respect in the US; their highest chart on the Billboard was #8 for "Rock the Casbah
". That's amazing when you consider how much airplay they get on the radio.
Introduced into The Clash's live set in Paris in September 1981, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" sat awkwardly in the set after Jones was fired - it was a hugely popular song so fans expected it to be played, but its author and singer was no longer in the band.
For a while in 1984 it was performed with new guitarist Nick Sheppard singing lead vocals, with the song developing into an aggressive Metal thrash with bellowed Punk-style vocals. In the end The Clash Mark II dropped the song altogether, although not before they also added some nasty lyrics about Jones (as was common in the post-Jones Clash, sadly). Two much more representative versions are the version of the song filmed at Shea Stadium in 1982 (supporting The Who) for the music video, and the version from Boston in 1982 that features on the From Here To Eternity live compilation.
Ice Cube and Mack 10 did a rap remake of this song for the 1998 Clash tribute album Burning London.
This was re-released as a single in February 1991 after it was used in a Levi's jeans television ad. It went to #1 in the UK, but didn't chart in the US.
Cheekily, Mick Jones used a vocal sample from this track on one of his post-Clash projects, Big Audio Dynamite. You can hear it on their song "The Globe."
This is a key song in the '80s-themed Netflix series Stranger Things. It was first used in the second episode (2016), where the character Jonathan Byers introduces it to his younger brother, Will to distract him when their parents fight, telling him it will change his life. When Will gets abducted into an alternate universe, the song becomes a way for him to communicate, and a source of comfort. The song is used several times throughout the series.
To secure the rights, music supervisor Nora Felder had to explain to the band how it would be used. Through scene descriptions, she convinced them they would honor the song.