finding the story

Finding the Story

In 2004, while conducting research for an article on illegal file-sharing (all in the name of science, of course), I found an mp3 entitled, “Clash-Palladium-WNEW-Sept21-1979.mp3.”

The sound quality matched up well with the aesthetic, and Strummer’s between-song, improvised patter proved durable and endearing. At the time, I lacked the software-savviness to separate this 77-minute track into discrete songs, so I rarely cued it up in the subsequent years, content with the studio versions of these songs I knew quite well.

The title of the track, though, proved puzzling. The Palladium was in New York, of course, and Sandinista!—along with the hip-hop-esque “This is Radio Clash” and the accompanying video, which I knew from the early days of MtV—attested to The Clash’s affinity with New York City. But the second half of the title proved enigmatic. What were The Clash doing on WNEW-FM, a station staffed with veteran deejays from the days of free-form FM radio? How did such a concert take place in September 1979, in a theater with more than 3000 seats, less than a year after their American debut, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and just two months after the release of the Americanized version of their first LP, The Clash? (The original pressing was deemed to raw for American radio.)

Some rudimentary sleuthing confirmed, first, that The Clash (UK) was, by July 1979, the best selling import LP in the US, and that New York-based rock journalists such as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau were Clash devotees—or even proselytizers. Next, I learned that Paul Simonon’s impersonation of Paul Bunyan, which served of course as the cover image for London Calling, took place at the Palladium, and that the historical record indicated that it happened that same night. (I’ll return to this veracity of this claim in a follow-up post.) I then tracked down Richard Neer, former deejay and program director of WNEW, and author of FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, which provides a sober account of his experience as labor and management during the heyday and demise of free-form radio. I e-mailed him, waited two weeks, and then e-mailed him again. Within the hour, my phone rang. It was Richard Neer. I had yet to prepare a single question. I had yet to set up my phone to record interviews. Still, the research was now officially underway, and I typed furiously as we spoke at length about Bruce Springsteen, Mel Karmazin (now the CEO of Sirius XM Radio), and The Clash.

My next interview was with the lovely Meg Griffin, one-time deejay at WNEW and WPIX, and now at Sirius XM Radio. Griffin recalled how she and other deejays, including Pam Merly, Vin Scelsa, and Joe Piasek, sought to expand the symbolic boundaries of free-form radio, and how they met considerable resistance, from management and fellow deejays alike. At the end of our extended interview, Ms. Griffin opened up her Rolodex to provide me with the contact information of a host of colleagues. The project continued to gain steam and, after a brief flirtation (and ultimately a heartbreak) with The New Yorker (it’s a big club, I hear), I expanded the story into Stealing All Transmissions.

For folks familiar with the 2012 version, the 2014 has nearly doubled in size, and the foreword by The Baker, longtime backline roadie for The Clash, is one the best bits of punk memoir ever. Seriously.

It’s late August, and the kindle version of Stealing 2014 is available with the paperback (pre-order) at PM Press, and as a stand-alone item at amazon.com and for pre-order at amazon.co.uk.

 

 

11 thoughts on “finding the story”

  1. What about Rodney Bingenheimer? Many many big rock writers and underground fanzine writers depended upon Rodney’s show. He was ALWAYS first. Did you talk to him or any of us in LA? SF? Just curious. Looking forward to reading this! I photographed them in CA 1979-80 and England, June 1980. Ah-mazing photos and stories I pray I can share. So much good info still out there!

    1. Jenny, thanks for checking out my page, and for chiming in! I lived in LA in 86 and 92, and was a Rodney-on-the-ROQ devotee. He undoubtedly played a big role in priming the scene for The Clash and their brethren, but my story focuses almost exclusively on NYC, so I didn’t track down my heroes and others on the west coast. The book began as an article, so it was never designed to be the definitive story of The Clash in the USA. I do hope you enjoy the book!

  2. I appreciate your response. I understand it’s impossible to ever tell ‘the definitive story’ about anyone or anything. LA played such a HUGE role in early punk, esp the Ramones, Clash, Patti Smith .. the list goes on and on. Rodney isn’t getting younger but is a vast resource for amazing stories. He did so much. As did our local fanzines, Back Door Man, Slash and Flipside. As did many writers like Richard Meltzer, Darcy Diamond, Gene Scalatti (spelling?) who wrote for Creem and other mags. Plus of course, Greg Shaw of Bomp and more.

    People ALWAYS say I shot the 80’s. I always correct them, because it’s vital to know the 80’s happened cos of what we in LA, NY and England (and San Francisco to some degree) created in the mid-to-late 70’s. I finally realized why people who KNOW my photo archive still say I shot the 80’s. Cos that’s THEIR reference. But it started earlier.

    We did a lot in LA. Especially for the Clash and Sex Pistols. Sadly, those bands STILL, for the most part, have NO idea just how hard we worked behind the scenes for their success. How much we wanted Epic to release the first Clash album and tour before Feb 1979.

    How angry and sad I still am that Malcolm, whom I photographed MANY times at Ramones, Blondie, and other LA shows (early on!) refused to let them play in LA. Whatta travesty! Yes, I took terrific photos from SF, but still … the band missed out on good times and fans if they ALSO played in LA. John and Jonesy live here, they love it! Damn you Malcolm!

    I wish I COULD write that book. I’m overwhelmed dealing with my photos. Takes time and money to write, how well I know. Thank you for what you wrote. But what do we have to do to be included in the history WE created too! No guts, no glory. Ha, we had guts. I don’t care about fame or my home town per se. Just history, that’s all.

    OH well, la de da, life goes on. MUCH success to your book, fer sure!

  3. I definitely remember WNEW broadcasting the Palladium show….I think that may have been the second time the Clash had played the Palladium, I believe they ended up playing this NYC (14th St between 2nd and 3rd Ave.) venue a total of three times. It would change from a live concert hall to a niteclub replacing Studio 54 as the “in” spot in Manhattan. It has since been demolished, currently on that site is a dormitory for New York University. If I also recall the actual broadcast there was quite a bit of London Calling included….without listening to it for years, I remember Joe Strummer talking about Freddie Laker, Junior Murvin and the manner in which he sang Police and Thieves and a chant for “gaffer tape- gaffer tape….here comes Johnny Green with the gaffer tape” sang to “Johnny comes marching home/English Civil War”. One of those top shelf cassette tape bootlegs that we thrived on while attending art school in Brooklyn in the early 1980’s. The book seems to be a must read I would think for those of us who appreciate the band.

    1. Hi Vaughn,
      You have an excellent memory! The Clash played the Palladium in Feb 79, twice in Sept 79, and returned for a one-off in March 80. Strummer did some great between-song improvisations about Freddie Lakers, Murvin’s falsetto, and the gaffer tape, all of which is captured in chapter 6 of *Stealing.* And: while I have my own self-interest in believing it’s a must-read, folks do seem to like my version of this history.
      Thanks for checking out the site, and for (terry) chiming in!

  4. OMG, ppl who love the Clash, like I, might NEVER read a book about Nirvana. It’s not a question of whether ppl like or don’t like YOUR version of this history. I am sure what you wrote is exciting and I am looking forward to reading it. I am not negating your POV. I am inquiring when, or if, anyone will ever tell that bigger, more accurate picture in regards to FIRST gen punk, whether the Clash, Ramones, etc which FINALLY includes LA. Because LA featured SO prominently in the Clash’s rise in the USA (we played our part internationally too). Unless YOU were there, you just don’t ‘get’ it. I WAS there and part of that mainstream and underground press via photos who helped spread the word and visuals of that great, early excitement. Without LA press, radio and media supporters, punk bands, including the Clash, very likely would have died an early death. I wish you success, as I have repeatedly said. I’m done.

  5. Thank you for your GREAT blog. You’re sharing a wealth of FAB info! Thank you because I am finally creating my photo/story book about the Clash. This is not a plug for what I am doing. ONLY that like you, we each find/create OUR own path. I can only APPLAUD you for what YOU DID write. I only asked so I could better SHARE your book w/my many friends and fans. They would ask the same questions. I want YOU to succeed! We’re all in this together!

    I could not write my book earlier, although I have thought deeply and worked hard for years. I have complex, somewhat painful, plus many joyful memories. I must summon a lot of inner strength and focus to communicate what’s so deeply in my heart and mind. Plus needs huge amount of time, many computer skills (and programs) and computer gear to deal with my intense photo archive. From MY LA woman artist AND press POV.

    I’ll leave it to others to dig up, analyze, write about this wonderful history to explore any of many angles/POV. My book is only from the most published LA punk woman’s POV: my experiences, thoughts and feelings. ESP my dealing with the press and media. I will let the photos do a lot of the talking too. Plus creative interpretations of my art. I write FAR more than just about ANY photographer. I know what ppl want to read cos they ask me daily.

    I planned on discussing LA (and NY, Brit and other) press, because I WAS part of it (still am). However, I don’t have the time, resources nor desire to make it the focus or get as deeply as LA press and media contributors deserve. My audience want more personal stories, as they have been telling me for years.

    I’ll do my best to open the lid to that Pandora’s box, knowing it’s fraught with critics and attacks that I left something out or didn’t tell MY story the way others want it (been there, heard that!). Perhaps inspire other(s) to dig more deeply into that treasure trove to reveal factual tales from early LA press history.

    You and I, and bloggers, book publishers, documentarians, et al: all write best from OUR heart. I applaud you and everyone who takes on this monumental task of sharing what the Clash means to us and more. My eternal gratitude for ALL you do. I mean it, man!

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