Clash @ US festival — Mick’s swan song was 30 years ago today

Happy holiday weekend, for those of you in residence in the greater (or lesser?) US o A. It’s a day of remembrance, of course, and for honoring folks who lost their lives in battle. Perhaps, in an alternate, more just universe, there would be at least a symbolic ritual damning the politicians who rushed the country headlong into war–and then another war and then another war, knowing that their sons or daughters would rarely, if ever, be put in harm’s way. Just the sorta stuff that really rankled Mr. Strummer, in particular. Check out George Saunders’ short story “Home,” about life after wartime, excerpted here.

Following the aftermath of Altamont, in December 1969, rock fans largely shied away from big music fests in California for quite awhile. Folks still gathered for music in large numbers in Iowa for the Wadena Rock Festival and Wisconsin for Sound Storm and the People’s Fair, but much was quiet on the western front in terms of music fests.

So Steve Wozniak of Apple fame decides to organize a big rock fest in 1982, over Labor Day weekend, and heck, it’s groovy southern California, so what could go wrong? Some sources claim the temperatures were up to 110F, one life (and $12M) was lost, but an opportunity to get bands such as Gang of Four, The Ramones (both late additions, it seems), English Beat, Oingo Boingo, The B-52’s, Talking Heads, and The Police on one bill couldn’t be all bad, right?

The following year, Wozniak ups the ante (adds a country day), and gets The Clash–or what’s left of it–to headline the bill. This incident is well-documented in biographies by Gray and Gilbert, and is worth checking out in terms of the impact of the return, like a cursed phoenix, of Bernie Rhodes. So here’s the allure of US, which stood for “Unite Us in Song,” for Rhodes and Kosmo Vinyl: get the band working again, 150,000 fans, $.5M, and heck: since Pete Howard’s willing to work cheaply (roughly $200 / wk.), and he’s got no power in the group, it made it easier for the Joe-Paul-Bernie brigade to make things harder for Mick–although Mick seemed to have plenty in reserve for (self-inflicted) marginalization, too.

Driven by Bernie’s (megalo)mania, Joe pitches a pre-concert fit over ticket prices and remuneration, delays the band’s taking the stage for two hours (complete with press conference), and for what?: as Gilbert notes, “It was the social banditry philosophy again: The Clash burst in like a bunch of crazy outlaws, shoot the place up, take the cash and then redistribute it among the needy” (p. 335). In the end, some of the $$ did go to London pirate radio stations.

Upon taking the stage, Joe jack-hammers the mic stand, tries to make a point, but the Americans aren’t listening. They just want to rock’n’roll. (The clip below cuts in-and-out, but it’s good footage of how the show begins, the sound quality is good, and there’s a clear shot of Joe and Paul swapping guitar and bass in advance of “Guns of Brixton.”)

The fact that Paul dons a Clash t-shirt for the gig is not a good harbinger, and the show ends badly: at the immediate close of the set, deep into the night, the side-stage DJ addresses the crowd, and Kosmo Vinyl imagines he’s trying to prevent The Clash from taking an encore. So he clocks the guy. Mick’s second into the scrum, and it ends almost as quickly as it’s begun. It boosts Vinyl’s spirits, but the ebullience is short-lived, and it’s not widely shared. As roadie Digby recalled, on behalf of himself and The Baker, “It left a really nasty taste in our mouths … No, it wasn’t a good Clash gig” (Gilbert, p. 337).

By the fall equinox, Mick received his walking papers, and ran with it. Within a few hours, he identified the next course of action. Within a span of 25 months, the brilliant This is Big Audio Dynamite was on the shelves and the airwaves.

The Bottom Line? In the mid-80s, Joe needed Mick more than Mick needed Joe, and–while this claim may merit a longer piece–you need not look further than the first two BAD LPs. The first LP has nary a weak spot, and the strongest tracks on the follow-up are the ones not co-penned with producer Joe Strummer. From my informal polling, a US/UK divide emerges on which album is more beloved, as my English comrades prefer No. 10 Upping St. Your thoughts?

Thanks for reading to the end, and have rock-steady week!

Coda: if you liked this post, and you’re up for an affectionate, literate insider standpoint, click here.

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