Wow, Strummer died. That one hits close to home, there was a time when the Clash was The Only Band That Mattered, and don’t you forget it. I can remember in 1982 going on advanced nondisclosured training on DEC’s new database product, and the people in the test database were Joe Strummer and Mick Jones and so on, and a very few of us shared private chuckles with the engineers, we were the in-crowd. Herewith a ten-year-old essay on those times, with the Clash at its centre.
In 1992 or thereabouts I published a series of pieces in The Absolute Sound, an audiophile/music magazine. This is part of one of them (from TAS #90 I believe); I don’t remember signing the copyright away. I’ve edited the text somewhat.
Saved By the New Wave · The Seventies may not have been the Sixties, but they weren't bad, musically. What happened? Punk/new wave happened, and then they tell me there was some other music too.
I don’t know exactly what age-group window revelled in the rude bracing blast of late-70’s punk energy, but I hope to talk about it without either boring those who were there or baffling those who weren’t.
In the mid-70’s, we rockers were all wallowing in self-pity. Rock ’n’ roll was being crowded off the charts by malignant disco (which, as Mick Jagger once pointed out, went from Spanish to Australian and sexy to moribund). Many musical eclectics had followed the hollow gods of Art Rock steadily downhill with ELP ’n’ Yes ’n’ Genesis ’n’ mumble mumble mumble... Others had pursued the fear-rush of Heavy Metal through Led Zep to Deep Purple to Aerosmith to Rush and various forms of self-parody. Either way, it was pretty poor. FM Rock, which had been exciting and “heavy”, discovered the playlist and began to die.
Teenage Head · I first encountered the term “punk rock” in a newspaper story. Then somebody told me he’d heard some on a BBC relay and it sounded pretty neat. Then we decided, in our small campus town, to put some on at the pub. We’d been running an All Night Disco there with great success, so that night we relabelled it an All Night Punko and brought in probably the first ever Canadian punks, Teenage Head (They had a nice souvenir button for sale: Gimme some Teenage Head).
The place was packed; initially with the curious, then with the converted (the others left fast). Wow, that guitar roar—both Heavy Metal and Art Rock had forgotten about three-chord-Chuck-Berry-riffs-played-fast (which some have accused punk of being no more than but who cares). Also, they played short songs and ended them crisply with a bang. Mind you, it got weird when they covered the James Gang’s Walk Away—but it actually works pretty well in that style. I was in love. That was the thing about punk, you only had to hear about 45 seconds of it and you knew one way or the other.
Hey, Ho, Let’s Not Go · The word spread fast—we started seeking out the punk stars. And before I get to the good stuff, I gotta mention the worst musical experience I’ve ever had: the Ramones live. Critical orthodoxy has always been behind the Ramones, but I wanna shout it loud that the emperor’s naked—these guys were no-talent bums who played out of tune, off the beat, wrote forgettable songs, milked their crowds shamelessly for applause and encores, and worst of all, didn’t even seem to believe in what they claimed to be doing. Also they played ridiculously loud to an extent that I haven’t heard equalled in 25 years of loving loud music. A pox upon them, not that you’d notice, with their complexions. Actually, I suspect they’re all clear-faced preppies who put on acne appliqués.
Clash · But around the same time, I caught the Clash’s second North American tour (sorry, not hip enough to have been there for the first). In Toronto, some mega-cretin had booked them into a hall normally reserved for opera, Broadway, and other mega-safe stuff. It had extremely tasteful appointments. The first three rows of seats were pulverized. You had to be there. Over the next few years, I took in the Clash every time they came near.
In their prime they pushed as much raw power out off the stage as anyone ever has. Furthermore, they were serious—something that’s hard to combine with rock ’n’ roll passion. At one point the slogan was “The Only Band that Matters”, and it was as much a matter of concert attitude as lyrical content (which you usually couldn’t understand anyhow).
Courage and White Lights · Part of it was courage. At the end of a Clash concert, the crowd traditionally rushed the stage. Traditionally, they were allowed on stage. Traditionally, the encore was played with a couple of hundred backbeat-crazed rowdies up with the band. I spent a few years in the concert business, and take my word for it, that’s big-league courage.
To be fair, part of it was lighting design. At Clash concerts, when the openers were finished, and the stage lights came back up, those lights were pure, raw, white, un-gelled. The band was pale-faced, dressed in black, stark. White Light, White Heat, and then White Riot. (Was no-one but me ever disturbed by the reaction of the White Punks on Dope in the Clash’s audience to that song? This didn’t drive me away from the shows; I rationalized that like most Clash songs, you couldn’t actually hear the words most times.)
Records? The first record and London Calling will still be played a hundred years from now, and maybe some of Sandinista.
Declan Aloysius McManus · The other music from that musical moment that stands out in my mind is sitting on my shelves: Elvis Costello and the Attractions Live at Hollywood High (Columbia AE7-1171). This is a 45-sized 33-RPM record, marked “Not For Sale”, that was distributed with the Attractions’ Armed Forces LP. I’ve seen it from time to time in used-vinyl bins.
For a while there in the 70’s, Declan Aloysius McManus was definitely On To Something. (His glasses, hair, and deportment suggested that he was also On Something, but hey, that was then.) Yes, he’s a good pop tunesmith, and the lyrics are intelligent, but there’s both more and less to it than that. More, because the first few records have a way of rewriting the brain’s neural pathways. And less—well, listen to Less Than Zero off My Aim Is True. All you got, let’s be honest, are standard pop chord changes and a backbeat. Why, then, the huge impact of the snarled lyric “And I hear that South America is comin’ into styyyyyyyle”? If you know, award yourself a Ph.D. in pop culture.
Anyhow, Hollywood High has the definitive version of Watching the Detectives, probably the single most essential EC song, and a chilling over-the-edge Alison as well. The sound is technically only OK, but something gives it a spooky ambience that I’ve rarely heard equalled. I think maybe it’s the performance and the music, and the time.