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40 Years of Revolution Rock: Remembering The Clash’s U.S. Debut

In the summer of 1999, Rancid was on the Vans Warped tour in Northampton, Mass. I was covering it for the Boston Globe and I went backstage before Rancid’s gig for a chat with Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen. 

I mentioned I’d seen The Clash a bunch of times, including their incendiary Boston-area debut 20 years prior. At that point, my interview with Rancid was all but over; they were interviewing me. With child-like glee. “What was it like?! Really?! And then what?!” Tim and Lars would have just been kids in February of 1979, Tim 13 and Lars seven. This is some of what I told them, adapted from a story I wrote way back then for a long-defunct, never online New England music magazine called Sweet Potato.

It’s about the first time I saw The Clash⸺maybe the most exhilarating experience of my rock ‘n’ roll life⸺and then, the last time I saw Joe Strummer. A 22-year span, with five or six other Clash/Strummer gigs between them.

Foreing Language by Can't Swim out October 11

In 1979, the English rock press was all in a snit because punk rock was over, had become an abject failure, a parody, a travesty, yesterday’s news, and maybe the best of the best had become the worst of the worst. That, you see, was the new perception of The Clash.

Their capital offense: The audacity of hooking up with Blue Öyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman for their second album (and first to be released in the US), Give ‘Em Enough Rope. It gave them a loud, punchy, dynamic sound (which Pearlman did for BOC, too) but to the backlash-enamored British press, Sandy seemed to de-punk and Americanize them into a more conventional “rock” band. 

Virtually every Clash fan I knew had bought The Clash as an import in the spring of 1977. We’d been living with it nearly two years. We bought the killer singles “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”/”The Prisoner” and  “Clash City Rockers”/”Jail Guitar Doors,” and knew the songs word by word, lick by lick.

If we weren’t buying the superhype laid down by CBS (“the only band that matters,” come on!), The Clash still meant a lot. And they were finally coming to town, a stop on their exploratory seven-date North American tour.  (CBS didn’t release The Clash in the US until July of 1979, and rejiggered it, subtracting four songs and adding four of the 45s. I can’t argue with the choices; the substitutes were better songs.)  

The Clash didn’t care that the English press was down on them. “We aren’t bothered about our press,” bassist Paul Simonon told me. “Don’t really give a shit. We get bad reviews and good reviews. We don’t mind; it’s good fun reading both of ‘em. It’s quite good actually, reading the bad ones, ‘cause it brings you down to reality a bit. When you have the good ones all the time, I dunno, I sort of tend not to believe it. I don’t like kidding meself.”

So, it’s Feb. 16th and The Clash take the stage at the (long-gone) Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. It’s their fifth US date. (They were back to play the larger Orpheum Theatre in Boston in September.) To say anticipation was high would be understating the case. The town was abuzz. 

Britain may have moved on from punk rock into post-punk⸺Joy Division and Gang of 4 were on their way⸺but although American fans had heard loads of homegrown & Brit punk, this was a very big deal. The Clash stood for something political: left-wing compassion for the underdog and anger at establishment toadies. But they also stood for the music. Theirs were barbed-wire songs of love and hate, career opportunities (“the ones that never knock”) and purpose. Take “Garageland” and its declaration: “I don’t want to hear about what the rich are doin’/I don’t want to go to where, where the rich are goin’/They think they’re so clever, they think they’re so right/But the truth is only known by… guttersnipes.”

Opening for The Clash in Cambridge: Bo Diddley and the art-punk Boston group the Rentals. (Not to be confused with Matt Sharp’s Weezer offshoot, which would come much later.) The Clash wanted to have a black act and a mixed-gender local act on the bill. Bassist Jane and guitarist Jeff Hudson fronted the Rentals, and all these years later, Jane says of The Clash set, “Oh, god, I was totally blown away. Reaching for punk perfection, The Clash was the high-water mark for authenticity, for energy, for commitment and for great songs. We were driven to a higher standard!”  

To this date, I’ve never heard a better (and more apropos) opening salvo than “I’m So Bored With the USA.” Strummer wrote it, he said, about how bored he was with American pop culture, which was shoved down the English kids’ throats thanks to TV. Particularly galling to Strummer were the multiple cop ‘n’ killers shows, hence the line, “Killers in America work seven days a week.” 

That line would seem truer now, not just in TV and streaming, but in real life. No further explanation needed.  The song had a small but radical change early on. It was originally “I’m So Bored with You,” an I’m-out-love-song which mutated into this searing cross-Atlantic condemnation. Talk about a contextual shift.

My god, this song exploded! The crowd was one with the band. We were on our feet, fists pumping. The Clash was bored with the USA, we were bored with the USA and the song was furious. Our boredom certainly had something to do with the staid mid-’70s album-oriented rock on FM as well as the music at the top of the charts: The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, the Village People.

After the gig, backstage, I asked bassist Paul Simonon, if in the midst of their seven-date North American tour, he was still bored. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely worse over here,” he said. “I don’t think that much of it, really. In England, it’s a bit better. People have enough time to be creative. Over ‘ere, it’s too comfortable. Everyone seems to be watching telly all the time. If I watch telly all the time, I go to sleep, I get dozy and don’t do nothin’.”

As to the band’s politics and their effect on the world at large, Simonon said, “We can effect change only in people’s thinking. It’s difficult. People have to do it themselves. We’re just pointing things out, really.”

The Clash played 16 songs, following “Bored” with “Guns on the Roof” and “Jail Guitar Doors,” the set a mix of songs from the two albums plus the singles. In the middle, “Police and Thieves,” Junior Murvin’s reggae song The Clash had made their own. A long siren call signaled its start and a searching spotlight roamed the stage as guitarists Strummer and Mick Jones kicked in with the terse, staccato riffs that dominate the tune, Strummer singing passionately. They capped the set with a four-song encore, closing with “London’s Burning” and “White Riot.”

None of the Clash guys talked much between songs, which were delivered loudly, quickly and with utmost freneticism. Drummer Topper Headon added a punch Terry Chimes (aka Tory Crimes) didn’t convey on that first album. Jones and Simonon crisscrossed the stage all night, frequently winding up at the other’s mic stand. When Jones didn’t make it on time to sing harmony, it didn’t matter – he simply joined in on the following line. Simonon was anything but the typical stoic, John Entwistle-esque bassist. He stalked the stage, mugged, twisted his bass up behind his neck. Headon rarely looked up from his kit and made his snares sound like machine gun volleys. It was Strummer, though, who was most riveting⸺like a caged leopard looking for an escape route.

They worked so hard, sweating it,” said the Rentals’ Jeff Hudson. “Fast songs! Topper was really fun to watch, really drove the music. They ended [their set] and all ran toward us [backstage] and collapsed in a pile in front of us on the floor. I remember looking down on the them breathing heavy. They gave as much energy as any band I have ever seen. They carried their political messages as an honor, on a mission to save the people for real.”

Post-set, Strummer was almost a different person. Still dressed in the black leather jacket and trousers, same chains around his torso, with his black leather cap on. Whatever theatrical anger he’d had on stage had vanished. He wasn’t boozing it up or partying. He seemed reserved, almost taciturn. When he spoke, he mostly looked downward, glancing up occasionally to make sure you were following his drift.

I asked the inevitable question about punk rockers like The Clash making money through the major label system. 

“When we make some, we might have an answer for you,” Strummer said. “I don’t see how it’s possible. Maybe if you sell some records, you make some money.”

I ventured that, while that had yet to happen in the US, hadn’t the band done well in England?

“Well, we sold a lot, yeah,” he said, “but it didn’t seem to do us much good. I mean as far as money’s concerned, I think it’s because of those debts we racked up before we sold the records. I don’t have any good news about our finances for you. I haven’t heard any good news in a long time. But I don’t want to talk about it. I’m sick of people coming up and going, ‘Hey, hey, what are you doing with all the money?’ You know, I’m just sick of telling people there ain’t any ‘cause it’s boring to go on about it.”

One thing Strummer did want to tell me about, politics aside, was what punk rock meant to him.

“At least the young people are playing rock’ n’ roll now. In ’76, they weren’t ‘cause they couldn’t see how they could ‘cause all the groups were just too big. How can you be like Yes and have a secret ambition to be a rock ‘n’ roller? You think, ‘Forget it, I’ll go back to my cleaning shop.’ Now, people in England realize that anybody can be a star and that goes without exception. And that’s a vital thing in rock ‘n’ roll. The beginners have gotta realize they can be stars; otherwise they ain’t gonna bother with it.” 

On October 12, 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks, I saw Strummer for the last time in Worcester, Mass. at a large club called the Palladium. On this night, Strummer took the stage with his backing quintet, the Mescaleros, with a large US flag hung behind the stage. Strummer and company began with an instrumental Irish traditional song, “The Minstrel Boy,” a tune that’s been played at many of the funeral services for the New York firefighters who died following the attacks. 

Strummer, singing with squinty eyes, often facing the side of the stage, dressed as always in black, and hammering out rhythm guitar chords, looked pretty much the same as he ever did, which is to say sharp and impassioned. Long ago (with The Clash and beyond), he’d broken from the fast-loud-short orthodoxy of punk and moved to incorporate a world of sounds: dub, reggae, rap, funk, Celtic, Middle Eastern, and more. 

That’s the journey on which Strummer remained two albums deep into the Mescaleros era, which seemed to have rejuvenated him. Their two-hour set had the feeling of a band working together, not a solo artist plus hired hands. The flavorful lead lines often came from fiddler Tymon Dogg (a sometime Clash contributor) on his knees or on his feet, who also played Spanish guitar; Martin Slattery contributed on various keyboards and horns. The music was a crazy quilt of sound; the mood these guys put across was very much one of, as Bob Marley once termed an album, positive vibrations.

You could say Strummer’s mind-set was more mellow, if by “mellow” you don’t mean complacent and settled. His music was less agitated, less all-out galvanizing, more groove-centered and flowing. Strummer’s vocals were often lost in the somewhat echoey sonics, but he’s never been, to these American ears, the most intelligible of singers. 

The show ended with a tribute to late Ramones singer Joey Ramone. Strummer and his gang played “Blitzkrieg Bop,” with its “Hey ho, let’s go” optimism, sense of expectation, and, yes, cartoon violent imagery intact. These guys doubled the Ramones length, kept it beatin’ for maybe four minutes. It proved to be a sweet bracketing of the set⸺a somber tribute to New York’s finest first responders at the onset and a raucous paean to New York’s finest punks at the end.

Strummer died Dec. 22, 2002, a victim of undiagnosed congenital heart disease. After his death I was talking to Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle. “Joe Strummer was the backbone to the whole punk thing, really,” Diggle said. “He was very humane, and he was a great punk orator as well, bringing a political and social awareness. Strummer’s songs challenge you to examine your life and find yourself through music.”