The Clash: Greatness from Garageland

UNANNOUNCED, TO SAY the least, a kid in boots, suspenders and short-cropped hair clambers through the photographers’ pit and up onto the stage of London’s Rainbow Theatre. Benignly ignored by band, stage crew and security alike, he wanders around the stage a little drunkenly, uncertain quite what to do now that he’s made it up onto the hallowed, sacrosanct boards and is not making quite the impression he thought. Decision flickers across his face, lit by the giant spots, and he grabs hold of the sing-er’s mike and prepares to join in on the harmonies. When the singer wants his mike back, the kid’s frozen to the stand in fear-drenched exhilaration so the singer has to shout the lines over the kid’s shoulder while the kid pumps in the response lines on perfect cue.

The encore over, the band leaves the stage and the kid’s stuck there in front of two and a half thousand people and unsure what to do next. With the merest jerk of his head the bass player motions the kid to join the band backstage and everyone goes home happy.

Sounds like some fantasy of what rock ‘n’ roll should be about or at least a case of a cunning audience plant, doesn’t it? It wasn’t. It was the Clash. And it happened just that way at the first of their three nights at the Rainbow in December.

That’s the thing about the Clash; they can break rules you hadn’t realised existed till they trashed ’em. That’s why, in a year, without any kind of Springsteen-like hype – except from zealot journalists like myself – they’ve gone from empty college and club halls to three nights at a major London venue. Like the Pistols, they’re so special that they’ve created not only their own style but also their own rule structure. Only the most carping would say that the Clash are like anybody or anything else.

Because of events like the one just described, the Clash command an awesome respect, even adulatory deification from their fans. Some of them really do seen, expect the Clash to slip ’em the meaning life in a three minute rock ‘n’ roll song. Mind you, full-grown rock writers have been known to make the same mistake. And to think, all that achieved with only two national tours of Britain and but one album and three singles (in total 17 songs, 19 tracks) in general circulation.

And I still don’t think the Clash realise themselves what kind of position they’re in. It’s as if they’re (very understandably) scared of facing up to the fact of that worship and its implications.

Here’s another little scene which might help explain what I’m getting at. A few days before I sat down to tap this through my crappy little Smith-Corona portable I found myself at a gig, competing with Clash meistersinger Joe Strummer for the bartender’s attention. (Incidentally, I won.)

Having known Strummer for almost two years, I wasn’t too surprised when, after exchanging the usual pleasantries, he turned on me a little drunkenly and demanded know who my favourite English band was. More than a little embarrassed, I told him:

“Your lot.”

“Nah, come on,” he replied, “Tell me who you really think’s the best.”

“The Clash,” my voice getting louder. “Honest!”

Joe didn’t believe. “I bet you’ll tell the Hot Rods the same thing tomorrow.”

So, here in cold type, let’s set the matter straight with an open letter.

Dear Joe,

The Clash are not only the best band in Britain. They’re the best band in the world. (I think that for a magnitude of reasons I’ll explain in good time.) For me, you’re the latest in a straight three-act lineage: Chuck Berry, the Stones, the Clash. No one else comes near. The Beatles may have written better songs but…The Pistols may have been a bigger force of change but. . . Fercrissakes, if I didn’t believe all this stuff, you don’t think you’d catch me spieling out all these cascades of yeeugh-making praise, do you now? There’s a whole lot more becoming things for an adult to do, you know.



P.S. But I still don’t believe that you’re the saint, let alone godhead that some of your more impressionable fans crack you up to be. I know you’re just as big a head-case as the rest of us.

Good. That out of the way, I can move on to telling you good and patient – you must be if you’ve got this far – readers just how and why the Clash have come to occupy such a prominent place in my – and a lot of other people’s – affections.

The Clash at core are three people. Mick Jones on lead guitar, vocals and Keef lookalikes. He was in the London S.S., about whom the myths outweigh the facts at least tenfold. Paul Simonon plays bass, smiles a lot, lopes around like a grossly underfed gorilla on a vitamin B-and-methedrine cure for malnutrition and catches the fancy of more women than the rest of the band put together–Patti Smith, for example. Joe Strummer sings in a manner that some find so unmusical as to be repulsive (you find those kind of philistines everywhere) and others reckon is compulsive and entrancing. Joe was the leading light in the “world-famed” 1O1’ers and still plays the same tortured, demonic rhythm guitar that was the highlight of that band.

And then there’s the fourth man, Nicky “Topper” Headon, the drummer. He gets left out of the central three because he’s the last in a long line of skin-beaters with the Clash – Terry Chimes (a.k.a. Tory Crimes) plays on the album – and, although, Nicky’s occupied the stool longer and deservedly so than anyone else, he’s still relatively unimportant in the overall image of the band. But who knows, a year from now, he might be as important as Ringo was to the Fabs.

How did they come together? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, the line they usually hand out to gullible journalists is a heap of shit. They claim that Paul and Mick were trotting down Portobello Road one balmy Saturday, already intent on forming their own band, when they chanced upon Joe Strummer and, knowing him from the still-in-existence-at-this-point 1O1’ers, asked him to be their lead singer. After a couple of days to think it over, he junked the 1O1’ers and threw in his lot with Mick and Paul. That’s the fantasy. The reality, as usual, is both more complex and much less romantic.

To explain for the benefit of future historians of the social mores of the seventies, I must backtrack to the first time I encountered Mr. Strummer.

I’d been writing for this rag for a bit and I’d decided I wanted to do a short piece on what it was really like for a struggling band in London, supposed Mecca of rock ‘n’ roll. On the recommendation of a friend who’d known Joe since schooldays, I went down to a truly scummy college benefit to check out the 1O1’ers.

At this point (two years ago) I was just emerging from a five-year period where I was so disgusted by the rock ‘n’ roll scene that I spent all day in bed listening to Chuck Berry and reading Trotsky. I’d come to like quite a few of the current pub rock bands but however much I enjoyed them, I knew in my heart of hearts, there was something lacking. And, although, if pressed, I’d say it had something to do with lack of stage presence, it wasn’t till I saw Joe that night that I realised just what was lacking – full-blooded desperation to become a star and communicate with your audience and the sense to realise that not only is that a far from easy task but that, if you don’t find your own way of doing it, you might as well junk the idea right there and then.

The 1O1’ers were an immensely loveable but generally pretty ramshackle bunch who’d rip through Chuck Berry and R&B numbers with not a trace of genuflection at the altar of the greats. What they – or rather what Joe took–was theirs/his.

I became so enamoured with the 101’ers that what had started out as a short article ended up as a veritable thesis which Trouser Press has on file (and I hope they don’t dig it out, even if it is the definitive work on the subject). The day I mailed the piece, the band broke up. The rest of the 101’ers dropped into the limbo of obscurity but Joe, with much flourish, hair cutting and clothes altering, hooked up with Paul and Mick.

That something of the kind had been the offing I’d suspected since I’d been with Joe watching the Pistols (who were at this time supporting the 1O1’ers). As someone else put it, he saw the light and the Sex Pistols simultaneously.

Meanwhile Mick Jones, Brian James (later of the Damned) and Tony James (now in Generation X) had been sorting out their chops in a basement under the name of the London S.S. and the tutelage of future Clash manager Bernard Rhodes, a close pal of Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. The London S.S., unable to locate a suitable drummer, never actually played a gig but, according to the few who’ve heard them, their tapes were very impressive.

When Brian James walked off/was pushed off to form the Damned, the rest of London S.S. faced up to facts, chucked in the towel and went their separate ways.

This is when Mick joined forces with Paul – who’d never even touched a bass before (“I used to be an art designer till I discovered the Clash”) – and Keith Levine, who only stayed long enough to do a few early gigs and cop a co-credit for ‘What’s My Name’ on the album. He was a great guitarist but. . . well, just check out ‘Deny’.

Masterminded by their hustler-manager with tertiary verbal diarrhea, Bernard Rhodes, the three of them persuaded Strummer over a period of time that he was exactly the vocalist they needed. When Joe was finally convinced, the four of them moved into an enormous (but very cheap) rehearsal studio of their own and began to audition drummers. Getting the name was easy enough. After an initial flirtation with Weak Heart Drops (after a Big Youth song), they plumped for the challenge of the Clash. But getting a drummer wasn’t so easy.

They searched with an unusual but un-derstandable and probably correct attitude toward drummers. To wit, drummers can’t drum because they all suffer from a Billy Cobham complex and want to play as much as an egocentric lead guitarist. Therefore drummers have to be taught to drum. And drummers, being by and large nutters, don’t take too kindly to such condescension. Also, at this time, while the rest of the band were outwardly convinced they’d be an unqualified success, under the surface they were stone scared that they couldn’t live up to even their own belief in themselves. The tensions in the Clash camp (late summer ’76) were running so high that just sitting around the rehearsal studio could be an exceedingly uncomfortable experience.

But, after rejecting various drummers who were more in tune with the band’s commitment but couldn’t really hack out the relentless trip-trap bottom line, they settled on Terry Chimes, who didn’t give a flying one about the politics (in the widest sense) of the Clash but made up for it by being one of the best drummers this side of Jerry Nolan.

Anyway, that’s how they’d shaped up to the point of their early gigs, so that’s enough of this hagiography. That’s not nearly as important as why the Clash are the CLASH.

Scene One:

Bernie Rhodes holds Clash preview for the press in the studio, subtly paralleling Paris schmutter previews. Giovanni Dadomo of Sounds is suitably impressed and reports that the Clash are the first band to come along that look like they could really scare the Pistols.

Scene Two:

The reaction sets in. When the Clash support the Pistols at a London cinema gig, Charles Shaar Murray says that they’re a garage band who ought to get back in the garage and leave the car motor running. (This prompts them to write ‘Garageland’).

Scene Three:

The sides settled, every Clash gig becomes an event. When Patti Smith comes over, she sees the Clash at the Institute of
Contemporary Arts and is so knocked out with them that she jumps up and “jams”. And some kid in the audience does a mock up of biting off someone’s ear (with the aid of a tomato ketchup capsule) and the picture gets in the weekly music press. By the time they play the Royal College of Art (Arty lot, aren’t they? Still, what do you expect? They all went to art college and wear some of the flashest clothes imaginable), emotions are running way too high. They play a set under the rubric “A Night Of Treason”. (It was November 5th, the night that honours the burning of Guy Fawkes, the bloke who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament). Some of the audience, when not lobbing fireworks around, take an extreme dislike to the Clash and start bunging bottles at the stage. The rest of the audience is split between Clash fans who already think their band can do no wrong and the uncommitted whose prevailing attitude is “Well, they are playing violent music and if you play violent, well you know what they say about what you sow…”

The band are certain how they feel about playing in a rain of bottles. Strummer lurches off stage and tries to sort out those responsible… personally.

The Clash style has been set. It’s a straight case of being ruthlessly certain about how you feel and what you want to do and making sure that no one gets in your way. Like the man said, “We ain’t looking for trouble but if someone starts it, it ain’t gonna be us that’s gonna be on the losing side.”

Remember this is back in ’76 when punk was still seen overwhelmingly as being POLITICAL. More than anyone else it was the Clash that everyone held responsible for putting down a party line. Now they’re all pretty much retreated from that position (except the Clash, they just smile Highway 61 smiles) and say aw, we’re really only into having fun, maaan. But then, you’ve no idea what a relief it was to have songs about something else than falling in love with some acne-infested adolescent or what a drag it is to be slogging our guts out “on the road” and staying in all these faceless hotels (when most kids in England have never even stayed in a hotel) or pathetic dirges about let’s have a little more rock ‘n’ roll.

I know rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be about the banalities of the pubescent dream but it had pretty much got to the stage where the average rock ‘n’ roll song was indistinguishable from moon/June bilge. If the Clash have done nothing else, they’ve given a big help to kicking out all that garbage (of course, many others have been working to the same end).

Strummer certainly didn’t come from any poverty-stricken background (on the other hand, he never really pretended to) but his songs were like a well-aimed boot plonked straight into the guts of an overfed and complacent music business.

And Mick Jones was no slouch either.

‘Career Opportunities’ for example:

They offered me the office
They offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC
Do you, do you really wanna be a cop
Career opportunities
The ones that never knock
Every job they offer you’s to keep you out the dock
Career opportunities
The ones that never knock.

Okay, so it ain’t gonna cop him a poetry prize (who wants ’em?) but it displays both a savage understanding of the demands for immediacy in a rock ‘n’ roll song and a large helping of witty comment on what it’s like to be given the choice of one shitty job or another shitty job. Of course, the Clash never thought they could really change things. They’re only (only!) a rock ‘n’ roll band, not a political party. But, if you’re gonna sing about something, you might as well sing about something that doesn’t usually make it onto pop singles. Unfortunately, while they handled it, lesser talents came along and decided that they’d have to write ‘political’ songs and, as a matter of course, mostly came up with insulting simplicities like Chelsea’s ‘Right To Work.’

And then, even more important, there was the music. Even early on (and especially after Small Faces addict Glen Matlock got the boot) the Pistols were very fond of heavy metal drones. I don’t think The Clash even listened to HM. Joe only cared for ‘50s rockers (especially bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, believe it or not) and reggae. Jones was deeply into Mott, which shows in the Clash’s attitude toward their fans both in their songs and their stage demeanour. And Paul Simonon was into football (listen to the chant on ‘Janie Jones’) and painting (look at the clothes, stage backdrops and all their visual presentation.)

By the time they’d done the Anarchy Tour with the Pistols, the Clash were in an unrivalled second position. They began to get the kind of press eulogies and fan worship that’d turn anybody’s head. How could anybody fail to react to them?

Onstage, Strummer is so obviously a natural star, forcing his body and Telecaster to ever greater heights of pain/pleasure, grabbing the mike and screaming lines like he really does care.

Mick Jones bopping around like a younger Keef (yeah, that comparison again) doing a military two-step and sending out shards of steely guitar licks.

And Paul lumbering around looking looser and more relaxed but thumping his bass while indulging in perverse, arcane calisthenics.

And the clothes. Obviously paramilitary in origin – zips and slogans featured very heavily – but whoever heard of an army splashing paint all over their tunics?

All this combines to make sure the Clash, even at their worst, are never mere music. I am absolutely convinced that it’s not only me that feels that they’re the ‘70s answer to the Stones. If asked, Clash fans will say they love ’em so much because “They’re good to dance to” or “I fancy Mick Jones” or “I just like ’em, that’s all”. If that is all, why do they shout out for ‘White Riot’ all the time at gigs? It’s not one of the Clash’s best songs, but it is the one that most represents where they’re coming from, what they stand for and, by extension, what particular fantasy they’re enacting for their audience. If the kids just wanted to dance or screw, they could go to a disco/home to bed. They want and get more but their lack of articulacy prevents them explaining what. Where success and even the music are subordinate to the stance – they’re saying not we play rock ‘n’ roll but we are rock ‘n’ roll. If Chuck Berry represents for me an idealised adolescence I never had, and the Stones were an adolescence that I lived through once removed because, like so many kids, I was too busy studying, the Clash are as good an excuse as any for me to live out a perfect adolescence ten years late. Hell, why else be a rock ‘n’ roll writer – there’s more to it than freebie albums, you know.

Which is also why – just like the Stones – while the Clash will fire imaginations, they’ll never become a grandiosely success-ful band. Some reckon they won’t make it in the States at all. I don’t agree with that. Judging by the recent Rainbow shows, they’ve got enough classic big stage rock ‘n’ roll choreography worked out to handle any auditorium. And their newer songs, like ‘City of the Dead’ and the as yet unissued ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ are played at a pace that even ears used to the Eagles can handle. Also, by slowing matters down a trifle, they seem to have upped the energy level – too much speed becomes nothing but a fast train blur. They learned their lesson on the first English tour. The set started out at 45 minutes. By the end of the tour it was down to 29 minutes and that included all the album plus ‘1977’, ‘Capital Radio’ (only avail-able on a limited edition giveaway – which is a pity because it’s one of their best songs), their truly awful version of Toots and the Maytals’ sublime ‘Pressure Drop’ and ‘London’s Burning’ twice. It gave their roadies something to boast about but if you wanted to keep up with it, you had to snort at least 2 grams of amphetamine.

This drop in speed/rise in intensity is obviously partly a result of their smoking a lot more dope and listening to a lot of very spliffed-out rasta roots reggae. They realised you ain’t gotta run at full throttle to give out the necessary power.

Nonetheless, the Clash have come in for a lot of criticism. Ignoring the early jeers about unmusicality, the most hurtful has been that they’re a kind of punk Bay City Rollers, programmed to do just what their manager tells them to do. Quite simply, that’s like saying that the Stones were only Oldham’s puppets. Of course, Bernie being some kind of weird conceptual artist lams in a fair share of the ideas but, at the last resort, it’s Mick, Paul, Joe and Topper that cut the cake on stage and record.

Anyway, I reckon that carping like that is just more proof of the Clash’s importance. Nobody gets into the same kind of polarisations about say Slaughter and the Dogs or 999. People only get into heavy-duty arguments about bands that really matter.

Look. If you already like the Clash, you’ll like ’em even more live (if they play a good show – which admittedly, they don’t do as often as they should). If you hate the Clash, you’ll either learn the error of your ways when you realize what great little pop songs they write or continue to hate ’em. The choice is yours.

All I can say is that any band that can bring a relatively cynical scribbler like myself to gush like a besotted fan, has got to be one of the most special things to have ever happened.

© Peter SilvertonTrouser Press, February 1978

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