Well, well: I’m delighted to report (on 4 Feb) that a more elaborate version of this essay on Bowie will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of Louder Than War, the glossy version.
Update: and here it is!
What do the sand tiger shark, parasitic wasps, and, in select moments, the UK music press have in common? They eat their own. As I note in Stealing — and, since it’s still May (month 5), I’m focusing on an element in ch. 5 — if the first rule of rock fandom is to be into this band before anybody, the second rule is to be into and over a particular band before anybody.
When The Clash made the live venue rounds in late 1978, the UK music press lined up with their (pitch)forks in hands, salivating at the ready. Like any decent shark, they could smell blood — and why? Because The Clash had dared to release a second album, and thereby subject themselves to the orgiastic feast of critical discourse, where critics first took turns at the grinding wheel, sharpening their knives, before taking a seat at the table.
Here’s my summary of the frenzy, from p. 70:
The tyranny of the new explains it in part, and the frequency of publication of the weeklies in the UK (versus the bi-weekly and rarely timely issue of Rolling Stone) played a role, but I think there’s also something English here, something that doesn’t translate on the west side of the Atlantic–where we love second acts, and phoenix-esque rises from the ashes (for better or worse, in some cases).
I’d love, too, to hear your thoughts on this matter.
Here’s a live clip from that era, too.
Happy 2015, K-SAT readers, and thanks for tuning in. Let me do a quick 2014 wrap, and then offer a few words about punk film stuff, brand spankin’ new and old.
2014 was a lovely year, with accolades for Stealing All Transmissions coming in from London, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago (and elsewhere). C’mon New York, c’mon Rolling Stone: I’m thinking of you Kory Grow! Sure, I suppose some of my comments about the current state of “the Stone” in Stealing were sub-flattering, but I assure you it’s business, not personal.
There’s much fun to be had with Julien Temple’s The Clash: New Year’s Day ’77. Mr. T. stays true to form to his collage aesthetic, with juxtapositions of clips from a variety of sources to take stock and make sense of more-Moderate-than-Great Britain 38 years ago. It’s a solid companion piece to his London: The Modern Babylon, which streamed on Netflix briefly, and now is unavailable. Modern capitalism can be so baffling–and I’ll get a more in-depth review of this gem soon.
With the new year commencing, I am going to switch things up a bit on my Sunday posts: drawing on the depthless resources of youtube, to begin, I’m going to dedicate Sundays in January to an elaboration of stuff reviewed in chapter 1, February for chapter 2, etc. I will, of course, provide enough framing for folks who haven’t read Stealing. Here goes …
April 23, 1976, is a watershed day in punk lore. On the east side of the Atlantic, proto-Clash members attend a Pistols-101ers gig to size up Joe Strummer, and Vivien Westwood decks a concert-goer and the dust-up gets a big write-up in Melody Maker. On the west side of the pond, folks in NYC celebrate the release of the Ramones’ debut album and the weekend premiere of *The Blank Generation,* Ivan Kral’s home-movie project featuring footage of Television (here), Blondie, Talking Heads, The Ramones, and a dozen or so other acts making rock’n’roll fun again at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.
As you can see, it’s truly a DIY affair, with Kral with a light in one hand and his Bolex in the other, crawling around the stage (and staging some footage in the Village) to capture the gorgeousness of Tom Verlaine, Debbie Harry, Wayne County, among others.
Wayne County, of course, had close ties to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, which thrived on provocation, genre-bending staging, and gender-bending themes. Patti Smith was there, and so was Candy Darling and other Warhol doyen. As Penny Arcade recalled in Please Kill Me: “Anybody could be in … the Ridiculous Theater. It was all street stars. Homosexuals, heterosexuals, lesbians – it didn’t matter, nobody cared about those things. It was all outsiders.”
John Vaccaro is not a name well-known in punk history, but like Chrissie Hynde, Mark Mothersbaugh, and a host of others, he made his way from Ohio and made his mark on the Lower East Side, by directing a host of beautifully trashy plays for the Playhouse. Vaccaro wanted performers, not actors, and as he quotes himself here, was fond of aphorisms such as, “Most people lie in their beds. I like the truth in mine.” I don’t know much about the genesis of this clip, but it certainly speaks of the fun history you can produce in the digital age. Definitely worth a few minutes of your time.
Have a great week!
Happy day, Clash-o-philes!
It’s a day of rest, so they say, and I’ve got The Clash’s *Sound System* on my mind–okay, not the big, expensive one, but something that amazon (and others, I figure) are calling 5 Album Studio Set–which is not to be confused with 5 Studio Album Set, which is the same thing, but presently $0.21 more expensive. Nice work, amazon!
Note: this packaging may reference Paul’s inaugural arrival in the states in ’78, when he showed up at JFK carrying nothing more than a carrying case of LPs.
The reviews, of course, are nicely compiled at theclashblog, and Tim provides useful commentary on each commentary. In brief: reviewers are happy to talk about The Clash’s importance (big), the price of the boxset (big), and are having difficulty finding the time to actually listen to the music and–most importantly–to determine whether the remastering by “Tim Young and The Clash” yields new sonic pleasures to those of us who already have the studio albums (either on vinyl, CD, or iTunes). I’m staying away from those reviews for the moment
With that in mind, I sat down with Pete, as good as a listening comrade you could find, and I loaded up the CD carousel with the original discs alongside the new discs and compared a sample of key tracks. We started, of course, from the beginning and the exercise was worth the purchase price. No other recent purchase has compelled me to sit in the sweet spot of stereophonic sound and enjoy music the way we used to.
Why I’m suspicious that some of the reviewers haven’t found the time to actually listen to the discs: the discs are vinyl black, even on the flipside. There’s no room, of course, to discuss the visuals in a 70-word review (see Rolling Stone), but for those of us who were raised on vinyl, it’s an especially nice touch, and an indication I figure of Paul’s impeccable aesthetic sensibility. (Yes, that’s my book there in the image below–more on its fate below.)
Of all the LPs, I figure Mick & co. would be tempted to mess with *The Clash* the least. It wasn’t supposed to be an audiophile object: that was the whole point of The Clash in ’77. It did, of course, prevent the release of *The Clash* in the US (CBS deemed the LP “too noisy”) and, largely because of the New York fan base, went on to become the best-selling import LP in the US to date. If you’re interested in repeating this exercise at home, make certain that you’re comparing *The Clash* UK version, rather than the US version, as the tracks on the US release of *The Clash* in 1979 got a different treatment in the final mix.
So, here goes my own interpretive dance about architecture, as E. Costello once noted … The first thing you’ll notice with the new discs is the mix is loud. It proved a challenge bouncing between CDs, simply because the *Sound* version carries extra decibels. “Janie Jones” opens sparingly, of course, with the drums, guitar strum, and Joe’s voice and, on the *Sound* version, the phasing of the vocals is sharper, the bass is a tad warmer, and the drums are sharper in the mix. With “Cheat,” the slight but still noticeable improvements hold sway: Joe’s vocals are a bit sharper, the drums a tad snappier, and it sounds great. With “White Riot,” especially, the proof is in the Yorkshire pudding. Mick’s sweet guitar lick just before the vocals sounds crisper, but it’s the opening chorus that grabbed me anew: the vocals are cleaner and still carry more urgency. The stereo phasing is great, and Terry Chimes could hit those drums damn hard, and it’s clear-as-class-warfare in this mix. (It was also good to compare this version to the US mix, which substitutes a police siren for Joe’s counting off the tempo, and is otherwise now to be regarded as a weird period piece.)
More comparative listening notes to come next week. Even the 5 album set is a big package, and there’s plenty to work through.
I hope a few of you fine readers have had a chance to check out my book, which is now presently without a publisher. If you like the book, and you have some connections to a press that might like to take it over, please be in touch. I appreciate any and all considerations, no matter how small or remote.
Have a delightful and dub-heavy week!
Happy sweltering Sunday folks. It’s not yet 730am where I hang me head, and it’s already plenty sticky. The birds enjoy it, though, and if you listen just right, you can pick up a thread of the melody of “Guns of Brixton.”
I’m inclined for the moment to remain agnostic about The Clash box set due out in September, but since its release date nearly coincides with my birthday (hint-hint kind readers 😉 ), I’m confident I’ll get swept up in the hoopla at the end of summer. In the meantime, I’ve got a different release on my mind: London Calling in the US, which of course was just over 33 1/3 years ago, and its reception in the US. London Calling, of course, yielded The Clash’s first single to chart in the US (“Train in Vain,” #23) and, in turn, secured the band’s footing among a “popular” audience west of the Atlantic. (Here’s a touching rendition by Mr. Jones at the Rock and Roll Public Library from August 2009. I just dare you not to sing along.)
As I explore in more detail in Stealing All Transmissions, Tom Carson’s nearly 1800-word review (April 3, 1980) in Rolling Stone was a big deal, and is nearly 30 times longer than many of the LP reviews in what remains of a once-proud magazine. Reading Carson’s description of “Death or Glory” today still gets my skin a-tinglin’. The review is, like the record itself, “so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.” There’s an innocence to the review, too, for it’s not prisoner to the cross-references available via google or wikipedia, and we can forgive Carson for not realizing “Brand New Cadillac” is a Vince Taylor tune. I hope we can also dig Carson’s insistence that there might love, even unrequited love, in a revolution, and that distinctions between the two in life and popular music criticism (e.g., the “good” English Beat of Wha’ppen? vs. the sell-out English Beat of Special Beat Service) are fraught at nearly every turn.
(The review is also available here, but with more typos, and lacks the decency to note that, in-house, London Calling was proclaimed the finest LP of the decade.)
Tom Carson, The Clash, London Calling (Epic)
By now, our expectations of the Clash might seem to have become inflated beyond any possibility of fulfillment. It’s not simply that they’re the greatest rock & roll band in the world–indeed, after years of watching too many superstars compromise, blow chances and sell out, being the greatest is just about synonymous with being the music’s last hope. While the group itself resists such labels, they do tell you exactly how high the stakes are, and how urgent the need. The Clash got their start on the crest of what looked like a revolution, only to see the punk movement either smash up on its own violent momentum or be absorbed into the same corporate-rock machinery it had meant to destroy. Now, almost against their will, they’re the only ones left.
Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band’s last recording, railed against the notion that being rock & roll heroes meant martyrdom. Yet the album also presented itself so flamboyantly as a last stand that it created a near-insoluble problem: after you’ve already brought the apocalypse crashing down on your head, how can you possibly go on? On the Clash’s new LP, London Calling, there’s a composition called “Death or Glory” that seems to disavow the struggle completely. Over a harsh and stormy guitar riff, lead singer Joe Strummer offers a grim litany of failure. Then his cohort, Mick Jones, steps forward to drive what appears to be the final nail into the coffin. “Death or glory,” he bitterly announces, “become just another story.”
But “Death or Glory” – in many ways, the pivotal song on London Calling – reverses itself midway. After Jones’ last, anguished cry drops off into silence, the music seems to scatter from the echo of his words. Strummer re-enters, quiet and undramatic, talking almost to himself at first and not much caring if anyone else is listening. “We’re gonna march a long way,” he whispers. “Gonna fight – a long time.” The guitars, distant as bugles on some faraway plain, begin to rally. The drums collect into a beat, and Strummer slowly picks up strength and authority as he sings:
We’ve gotta travel – over mountains
We’ve gotta travel – over seas
We’re gonna fight – you, brother
We’re gonna fight – till you lose
We’re gonna raise –
The band races back to the firing line, and when the singers go surging into the final chorus of “Death or glory…just another story,” you know what they’re really saying: like hell it is!
Merry and tough, passionate and large-spirited, London Calling celebrates the romance of rock & roll rebellion in grand, epic terms. It doesn’t merely reaffirm the Clash’s own commitment to rock-as-revolution. Instead, the record ranges across the whole of rock & roll’s past for its sound, and digs deeply into rock legend, history, politics and myth for its images and themes. Everything has been brought together into a single, vast, stirring story – one that, as the Clash tell it, seems not only theirs but ours. For all its first-take scrappiness and guerrilla production, this two-LP set–which, at the group’s insistence, sells for not much more than the price of one–is music that means to endure. It’s so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.
From the start, however, you know how tough a fight it’s going to be. “London Calling” opens the album on an ominous note. When Strummer comes in on the downbeat, he sounds weary, used up, desperate: “The Ice Age is coming/The sun is zooming in/Meltdown expected/The wheat is growing thin.”
The rest of the record never turns its back on that vision of dread. Rather, it pulls you through the horror and out the other side. The Clash’s brand of heroism may be supremely romantic, even naive, but their utter refusal to sentimentalize their own myth – and their determination to live up to an actual code of honor in the real world, without ever minimizing the odds – makes such romanticism seem not only brave but absolutely necessary. London Calling sounds like a series of insistent messages sent to the scattered armies of the night, proffering warnings and comfort, good cheer and exhortations to keep moving. If we begin amid the desolation of the title track, we end, four sides later, with Mick Jones spitting out heroic defiance in “I’m Not Down” and finding a majestic metaphor at the pit of his depression that lifts him – and us – right off the ground. “Like skyscrapers rising up,” Jones screams. “Floor by floor–I’m not giving up.” Then Joe Strummer invites the audience, with a wink and a grin, to “smash up your seats and rock to this brand new beat” in the merry-go-round invocation of “Revolution Rock.”
Against all the brutality, injustice and large and small betrayals delineated in song after song here – the assembly-line Fascists in “Clampdown,” the advertising executives of “Koka Kola,” the drug dealer who turns out to be the singer’s one friend in the jittery, hypnotic “Hateful” – the Clash can only offer their sense of historic purpose and the faith, innocence, humor and camaraderie embodied in the band itself. This shines through everywhere, balancing out the terrors that the LP faces again and again. It can take forms as simple as letting bassist Paul Simonon sing his own “The Guns of Brixton,” or as relatively subtle as the way Strummer modestly moves in to support Jones’ fragile lead vocal on the forlorn “Lost in the Supermarket.” It can be as intimate and hilarious as the moment when Joe Strummer deflates any hint of portentousness in the sexual-equality polemics of “Lover’s Rock” by squawking “I’m so nervous!” to close the tune. In “Four Horsemen,” which sounds like the movie soundtrack to a rock & roll version of The Seven Samurai, the Clash’s martial pride turns openly exultant. The guitars and drums start at a thundering gallop, and when Strummer sings, “Four horsemen …,” the other members of the group charge into line to shout joyously: “…and it’s gonna be us!”
London Calling is spacious and extravagant. It’s as packed with characters and incidents as a great novel, and the band’s new stylistic expansions – brass, organ, occasional piano, blues grind, pop airiness and the reggae-dub influence that percolates subversively through nearly every number – add density and richness to the sound. The riotous rockabilly-meets-the-Ventures quality of “Brand New Cadillac” (“Jesus Christ!” Strummer yells to his ex-girlfriend, having so much fun he almost forgets to be angry, “Whereja get that Cadillac?”) slips without pause into the strung-out shuffle of “Jimmy Jazz,” a Nelson Algren-like street scene that limps along as slowly as its hero, just one step ahead of the cops. If “Rudie Can’t Fail” (the “She’s Leaving Home” of our generation) celebrates an initiation into bohemian lowlife with affection and panache, “The Card Cheat” picks up on what might be the same character twenty years later, shot down in a last grab for “more time away from the darkest door.” An awesome orchestral backing track gives this lower-depths anecdote a somber weight far beyond its scope. At the end of “The Card Cheat,” the song suddenly explodes into a magnificent panoramic overview – “from the Hundred Year War to the Crimea”–that turns ephemeral pathos into permanent tragedy.
Other tracks tackle history head-on, and claim it as the Clash’s own. “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” updates the story of Stagger Lee in bumptious reggae terms, forging links between rock & roll legend and the group’s own politicized roots-rock rebel. “The Right Profile,” which is about Montgomery Clift, accomplishes a different kind of transformation. Over braying and sarcastic horns, Joe Strummer gags, mugs, mocks and snickers his way through a comic-horrible account of the actor’s collapse on booze and pills, only to close with a grudging admiration that becomes unexpectedly and astonishingly moving. It’s as if the singer is saying, no matter how ugly and pathetic Clift’s life was, he was still–in spite of everything–one of us.
“Spanish Bombs” is probably London Calling’s best and most ambitious song. A soaring, chiming intro pulls you in, and before you can get your bearings, Strummer’s already halfway into his tale. Lost and lonely in his “disco casino,” he’s unable to tell whether the gunfire he hears is out on the streets or inside his head. Bits of Spanish doggerel, fragments of combat scenes, jangling flamenco guitars and the lilting vocals of a children’s tune mesh in a swirling kaleidoscope of courage and disillusionment, old wars and new corruption. The evocation of the Spanish Civil War is sumptuously romantic: “With trenches full of poets, the ragged army, fixin’ bayonets to fight the other line.” Strummer sings, as Jones throws in some lovely, softly stinging notes behind him. Here as elsewhere, the heroic past isn’t simply resurrected for nostalgia’s sake. Instead, the Clash state that the lessons of the past must be earned before we can apply them to the present.
London Calling certainly lives up to that challenge. With its grainy cover photo, its immediate, on-the-run sound, and songs that bristle with names and phrases from today’s headlines, it’s as topical as a broadside. But the album also claims to be no more than the latest battlefield in a war of rock & roll, culture and politics that’ll undoubtedly go on forever. “Revolution Rock,” the LP’s formal coda, celebrates the joys of this struggle as an eternal carnival. A spiraling organ weaves circles around Joe Strummer’s voice, while the horn section totters, sways and recovers like a drunken mariachi band. “This must be the way out,” Strummer calls over his shoulder, so full of glee at his own good luck that he can hardly believe it.” El Clash Combo,” he drawls like a proud father, coasting now, sure he’s made it home. “Weddings, parties, anything… And bongo jazz a specialty.”
But it’s Mick Jones who has the last word. “Train in Vain” arrives like an orphan in the wake of “Revolution Rock.” It’s not even listed on the label, and it sounds faint, almost overheard. Longing, tenderness and regret mingle in Jones’ voice as he tries to get across to his girl that losing her meant losing everything, yet he’s going to manage somehow. Though his sorrow is complete, his pride is that he can sing about it. A wistful, simple number about love and loss and perseverance, “Train in Vain” seems like an odd ending to the anthemic tumult of London Calling. But it’s absolutely appropriate, because if this record has told us anything, it’s that a love affair and a revolution–small battles as well as large ones – are not that different. They’re all part of the same long, bloody march.
# # #
Welcome back to radio SAT, where of course our thoughts are with the good folks of Boston.
For this week’s gem, I turn to Sir Jonathan Richman, one of Boston’s favorite sons, and a track from his debut, self-titled LP Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
The most heralded LP in the Richman oeuvre, of course, is The Modern Lovers, which charts at no. 48 on the recently compiled 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time, courtesy of the folks at this odd periodical called Rolling Stone magazine. There’s lots to savor here, and plenty to gnash teeth about, but I’ll save that for another day.
Meanwhile, I hope Jonathan’s dancing proves infectious, and that you have a playful rest of your week.