The Clash have now assumed legendary status from the Punk era. They were a remarkable band. Some of the myths surrounding them are at odds with reality. Many of their achievements are often under- appreciated. I saw them live twice, and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros a further two times.
This review is about their finest hour, the run at the London Lyceum Ballroom supporting the “Sandanista” album in 1981. But I want to put the show in context.
I had seen them first at Leeds University on 27th Oct 1977 on the “Get out of control” tour. They were supported by the Lous, who were terrible, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids ,who were (very) good (by comparison) with a great rabble rouser in “Blank Generation”. The gig was a 2000 sell out with a suspiciously high guest list inflating the figure further. It was dangerously packed.
The Slits came on at 7.45pm and were canned off at around 8.10pm. It was a mercy killing. Richard Hell appeared at 8.30pm and blazed, impressively, through to 9pm leaving everyone wanting more. Then we waited, and waited. The crowd became more impatient, surges became more threatening, fights first broke out amongst the fans, then frustration became focussed on the empty stage. A few tried to clamber onto the stage. Nervous bouncers repelled them, punches were exchanged, the fans came off worst, and a terrace roar arose, combined with an almighty surge. Dozens began to scale the barriers fighting the bouncers back who were unsure whether they should flee, or protect the equipment. At that precise moment, the house lights went down, the stage lights came on, and the Clash appeared to “Leeds is Burning”. Cynical. Stage managed. Magnificent.
Their debut album was barely six months old and had been released amongst a deluge of competing compelling debuts. The material was not that well known, and it peaked at a respectable, but not impressive 12th in the Charts. They had released only one single, “White Riot” which made 38 in the singles charts, and “Complete Control” was barely a month old. The set list was not familiar.
It was a visceral, muscular, loud, performance, but it was not musically accomplished. It was like watching an 800m runner sprinting the first 100m. After that there was nowhere to go. Even “Police n Thieves”, which in theory should have provided band and audience with a breather, was played twice as fast as the recorded version.
Contemporaneous performances by The Buzzcocks, Jam, Stranglers and Boomtown Rats were far better musically , and more enjoyable gigs, even if they lacked the outlaw chic of the Clash.
Jail Guitar Doors
Clash City Rockers
Hate & War
Police and Thieves
I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.
What’s My Name?
Almost exactly four years on, Oct 19th 1981, everything had changed. They had released their fourth album, but they comprised no fewer than seven vinyl records. An output that matched the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who in their heyday. Their repertoire was considerable, diverse, critically acclaimed and well digested by the fans. They were playing on their home turf, London, at the all standing Lyceum Ballroom, for a seven sold out nights residency. Their last album, “Sandanista” had delighted, intrigued, outraged and appalled in equal measure. But for every old fan they lost, they gained four.
The Lyceum was a great venue, but artistically was a million miles from the 100 Club. On the Strand, distinguished, not a punk gig, but ideal. They had made it – but on their own terms.
It was a long, sprawling, majestic set. “Broadway” an audacious jazz infused opener in London’s West End, before the thunderous reggae stomp, “One More Time”. Musically they were on another planet from that Leeds Refectory gig. Light and shade, changes of pace, space between the notes, with Joe’s vocals now a plaintiff, soulful roar, rather than a hoarse howl submerged by a wall of sound.
Those bands that had previously been ahead of the Clash were now well and truly in their slipstream. The Jam were namechecking Michael Jackson as Weller edged towards soul, the Boomtown Rats had gone down the commercially successful “I Don’t Like Mondays” blind alley never to return, The Buzzcocks struggled to escape their formula, The Stranglers found their groove as a rock n roll band and the Pistols had imploded. Welcome to the Last Gang in Town.
What set the Clash apart was their ability to adopt, adapt and improve upon the constantly morphing musical landscape around them combined with listening to the astute image guidance of manager Bernie Rhodes till he left in late 78.
Somehow they were still hip, even though the setlist was a distant cousin of 1977. “White Man” and “Clash City Rockers” still blazed, but the lighter touch of “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Spanish Bombs” sounded just as good. There was no room for “White Riot”. “Complete Control” gloriously wrapped things up . It would never be better for the Clash.
1: Air raid sirens intro –
2: Broadway –
3: One more time –
4: Know your rights –
5: The guns of Brixton –
6: Train in vain –
7: White man in Hammersmith palais –
8: The magnificent seven –
9: Wrong em’ boyo –
10: Clash City Rockers –
11: Koka kola –
12: Ivan meets G.I. Joe –
13: Junco partner –
14: The leader –
15: I fought the law –
16: Charlie don’t surf –
17: Somebody got murdered –
18: London calling –
19: Clampdown –
20: This is Radio Clash –
21: Career opportunities –
22: Armagideon time –
23: Julie’s been working for the drug squad –
24: Stay free –
25: Safe European home –
26: Police and thieves –
27: Should I stay or should I go? –
28: Graffiti rap (Futura 2000) –
29: Janie Jones –
30: Brand new Cadillac –
31: London’s burning –
32: Complete control –
Oct 26th 1999, eighteen years later, I saw Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. It was an odd gig. Less than half full, maybe 400 there, Wolverhampton Wanderers were home that night, that Joe reflected may have hit the gate, yet Joe seemed happy, relaxed and determined to put on a good show. There was plenty of Mescalero’s material in the evening, and the Clash material was revamped, most gloriously on “Rock the Casbah”, which was stretched out, filled out, and beefed out in the highlight of the evening. After the demise of the Clash, it seemed as though Joe had found peace, and a purpose, it was a shame more people were not there to witness it.
Diggin’ the New
Nothin’ About Nothin’
Rock the Casbah
Quarter Pound of Ishen
Brand New Cadillac
The Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
Safe European Home
Rudie Can’t Fail
The last time I saw Joe was as support to The Who at the NEC Birmingham, Nov 8th, 2000. It is a paradox that although The Who were definitely part of the Old Order that the Clash usurped, The Who were very supportive of Strummer and the Clash. Giving a resurgent Strummer a helping hand was typical of Daltrey and Townsend.
Joe was superb. A tight ten song set, three Mescalero compositions, then onto the Clash stuff. It was a gem of a performance. “London’s Burning” took us all back twenty -three years to the beginning. “The Harder They Come” was a joyous reggae workout, but the killer double was. “Casbah / White Man”. Live, “Rock the Casbah” was transformed, the Mescalero’s imbuing it with a sophistication, rhythm and joie de vivre that the “Combat Rock” cut never quite reached. “White Man” was belted out as though Joe had just written it. The wild Arena applause gave the man, and his music, the recognition that the song deserved. “I Fought the Law” was the song that non Clash fans knew, “White Riot” was played not as a punk blast, but at skiffle speed, stripped down, an old favourite with a new time signature – and he was gone.
The Harder They Come
Brand New Cadillac
Rock the Casbah
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
I Fought the Law
I was driving to our office Christmas party on 22nd Decemeber, 2002 when the radio broke the news that Strummer had died of a heart attack, aged 50. You never know how you are going to react when you learn of the demise of your heroes. I pulled to the side of the road, stunned. A small part of me had died too. I reflected how cruel life was, just when his talent was re-emerging for a new audience, he was gone.
“I’m the White Man in Hammersmith Palais, only looking for fun”