Lyrically "Straight To Hell" is a tour of the world, covering Britain, America, Vietnam and South America, and taking a jaded, caustic look at all of them before summing up in the final verse that the themes discussed in the lyrics - poverty, misery, disaffection - can be applied anywhere, and are present in any country in the world ("It could be anywhere, most likely could be any frontier, any hemisphere, no-man's land and there ain't no asylum here, King Solomon he never lived round here").
The first verse starts in The Clash's home nation of Britain, looking at the disaffected generation blaming immigration for society's ills ("If you can play on the fiddle, How's about a British jig and reel? Speaking king's English in quotation") as the British steel and manufacturing industry crumbles, leaving many millions unemployed in the harsh winter of 1980-81 ("As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust").
The second verse deals with the legacy of the Vietnam War, and the aftermath of Vietnamese kids growing up without ever meeting their fathers - American soldiers getting local women pregnant whilst on duty during the war, and the identity crisis that causes ("Lemme tell ya 'bout your blood bamboo kid, It ain't Coca-Cola it's rice").
The third verse looks at the impact of the drug trade in the US, and links to previous lyrical sentiments discussed in other songs on Combat Rock such as "Ghetto Defendant," where crippling drug addiction prevents the people rising up and fighting for a better life: "You want to play mind-crazed banjo, on the druggy-drag ragtime USA?, In Parkland International, Hah! Junkiedom USA, Where procaine proves the purest rock man groove."
There is an additional fourth verse commenting on the Latino drug dealers prevalent in New York ("Hey Chico we got a message for ya: vamos vamos muchacho"). On the original mix of the album, this verse was included on the full-length 6:50 version, but after much falling out between Mick Jones and Joe Strummer, the latter of whom wanted a single album with short, punchy songs, producer Glyn Johns was brought in to remix the album and edit the material down to fit on a single album. This verse was removed, bringing the song length down. Later the unedited version appeared on the Clash on Broadway compilation.
The backing track was recorded at the Electric Lady studios in New York on New Year's Eve, 1981. "Straight To Hell" started as a guitar doodle from Mick Jones, which was played around with for several months before finally drummer Topper Headon found a beat that would fit - in his own words, "You couldn't play rock 'n' roll to it. Basically it's a Bossa Nova." A Bossa Nova is a style of Brazilian samba beat.
Joe Strummer also reveals a secret from the recording: "Just before the take, Topper said to me "I want you to play this" and he handed me an R Whites lemonade bottle in a towel. He said "I want you to beat the bass drum with it."
So when you hear the bass drum beat on the recording, you also hear Strummer hitting the front of the bass drum with a bottle to thicken the sound. The sessions finished just before midnight. Strummer remembers: "We took the E train up to Times Square. I'll never forget coming out of the exit, into a hundred billion people, and I knew we had just done something great."
First played live on the Down the Casbah club tour in 1982, the song remained largely in The Clash's canon until their breakup in 1985, including in an unusual stripped-down arrangement on the acoustic Busking tour. Joe Strummer remained quite proud of the song and played it in his brief stint in The Pogues in the early 1990s, as well as with his solo band the Mescaleroes. The version on the From Here To Eternity live compilation is taken from a September 1982 show in Boston.
Plenty of covers for this song exist, the most popular probably being Moby's version for the Burning London
compilation which also features Heather Nova. British rapper M.I.A. entirely sampled "Straight To Hell" to form the spine of her hit single "Paper Planes
," and when the rap song "Swagga Like Us
" featuring Jay-Z, Kanye West and T.I. sampled heavily from "Paper Planes," The Clash also received writing credits. Mick Jones refashioned the song in 2009 for a War Child: Heroes compilation, and featured Lily Allen on vocals (Allen's father was Strummer's best friend).
The song was released as one variant of the "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" single, as a double-A-side.