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.