The song is often cited as one of punk's greatest singles and is a fiery polemic on record companies, managers and the state of punk music itself, the motivation for the song being the band's label (CBS Records) releasing "Remote Control" without asking them, which infuriated the group. The song also features perhaps the earliest usage of the phrase "guitar hero" in rock music, as sung by Joe Strummer to Mick Jones. The song also refers to managers of the time who sought to control their groups–Bernie Rhodes (of The Clash) and Malcolm McLaren (the Sex Pistols)–the song's title is derived from this theme:
Bernie [Rhodes] had a meeting in The Ship in Soho after the Anarchy Tour. He said he wanted complete control...I came out of the club with Paul [Simonon] collapsing on the pavement in hysterics at those words.
The track also refers to the band's run-ins with the police, their practice of letting fans into gigs through the back door or window for free and a punk idealism seemingly crushed by the corporate reality they had become part of and the betrayal and anger they felt. The overriding message of the song can be recognised in this couplet from the song:
They said, we'd be artistically free / When we signed that bit of paper.
This message was scorned by some critics as naïveté on the part of the band - the late DJ John Peel was one of those, suggesting that the group must have realised CBS were not 'a foundation for the arts', while others were strong in their support of the single, for example:
Instead of a piece of cynicism, Complete Control becomes a hymn to Punk autonomy at its moment of eclipse.
The track was recorded at Sarm East Studios in Whitechapel, engineered by Mickey Foote and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry. Perry had heard the band's cover of his Junior Murvin hit "Police and Thieves" and was moved enough to have put a picture of the band (the only white artist accorded such an honor) on the walls of his Black Ark Studio in Jamaica. When the Clash learned that Perry was in London producing for Bob Marley & the Wailers, he was invited to produce the single. "Scratch" readily agreed.
During the tracking session, some Clash and Perry biographies claim, Perry blew out a studio mixing board attempting to get a deep bass sound out of Paul Simonon's instrument, while a 1979 New Musical Express and Hit Parader article penned by Strummer and Jones stated that Perry had complimented Jones' guitar playing, saying he "played with an iron fist". Perry's contribution to the track, however, was toned down - the band went back and fiddled with the song themselves to bring the guitars out and played down the echo Perry had dropped on it. The song was also Topper Headon's first recording with the band, following the departure of Terry Chimes.