Monday, June 21, 2021

The Only Band That Matters

The 101ers
Formed as the first shots of the punk revolution were fired, The Clash stormed onto the British scene with their debut performance on July 4, 1976, at The Black Swan in Sheffield, England, as the opening act for The Sex Pistols. While America celebrated the Bicentennial anniversary of its independence from Britain, the U.K. was in the midst of another revolution, this one staged on its very own shores. One eyewitness was Joe Strummer, then the frontman of a popular pub-rock band called the 101ers. Before a gig at a London club called the Nashville Room in April 1976, he watched as that night's opening act took the stage: "Five seconds into their first song, I just knew we were like yesterday's papers. I mean, we were over." The group was The Sex Pistols, and their effect on Strummer was life-altering. Within weeks, he'd accepted an invitation from guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon to leave the 101ers and join their as-yet-unnamed and drummer-less new band. Together, the three of them would form the core of a group their fans would call, with all sincerity, The Only Band That Matters. If you're doing the math, it took just three months for that catalytic first gig to be actualized.

That first live gig had its predictable rough patches, but their enthusiasm and commitment were there from the start, as were their unique musical and visual aesthetics. The Clash were instantly distinguishable from the Pistols by virtue of their sincere political bent, one that wasn't just a part of the problem, but a part of the solution. While The Sex Pistols sneered and preached anarchy, there was always a barely disguised element of lazy hucksterism in their social agenda. The Clash, on the other hand, quickly established themselves as the zealous and decidedly un-soft advocates of leftist causes. As U2 guitarist, The Edge later wrote, "This wasn’t just entertainment. It was a life-and-death thing. They made it possible for us to take our band seriously. It was the call to wake up, get wise, get angry, get political and get noisy about it."

It took some months following their debut gig for the Clash to work out the kinks and find Topper Headon (drums), who would complete their definitive lineup. Even 25 years later, Joe Strummer could still quote nearly verbatim one of their early reviews: "The Clash are one of those garage bands who should be swiftly returned to the garage, with the doors locked and with the motor left running." Undiscouraged, the Clash released an acclaimed, self-titled debut album in the spring of 1977, and over the next two-and-a-half years, they released a second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), that was Rolling Stone's pick for album of the year, and a third, London Calling (1979), that the same magazine chose as the ultimate LP of the 1980s.

The band’s first single “White Riot” was as punk as punk gets, demanding "a riot of our own," but even by the time their debut LP came around, they were embracing reggae and generally proving more musically visionary than their contemporaries, embracing the idea of punk as a liberating force, not a studded creative straitjacket. They were the existentialists to the Pistols' nihilism, a band who wanted to rebuild the world rather than cavort gleefully in its ruins. And so, while punk devolved into fundamentalism, a home for a gazillion bands with mohawks who mistook the "Here's three chords, now form a band" idea for a veneration of ineptitude and ignorance, The Clash expanded their horizons.

London Calling and Sandinista!, in particular, took the idea of deconstructing music and ran with it, finding the band romping adeptly through the history of rock 'n' roll. And, just as unfashionably, the band had something to say. Earnestness has long been seen as a death sentence in pop music, the polar opposite of a rock stance that's too cool to care about anything at all. But for a while, The Clash managed to transcend this, singing about the Spanish Civil War and capitalist alienation and a wealth of other topics, and did it with a degree of eloquence and intelligence that would be lost on the majority of their contemporaries. 

For me, The Clash remain a band of the era, difficult to embrace in our post-millennial world. The issues remain, but even London Calling loses something in the time translation. Doesn't matter; The Clash weren't about vinyl, but about being there, and for me, though it was just once, it was one of those moments "come unstuck in time." The Roxy, April 27, 1980. Oh my God, "Stay Free," "Somebody Got Murdered," "Safe European Home," Kenya crying that they didn't do "Lost in a Supermarket," everyone tripping. This was the venue where, not more than a month later, Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits accused me of stealing Rickie's beret, where The Go-Go's played on Sundays, where Darby Crash used my head instead of the banister while Laura gave me head on the stairs - I loved the Roxy). The Clash are a fixture of my nostalgia and all I have to hear is "Tommy Gun" and I'm right back there taking Laura by the hand, "Come on. Let's go back stage."

Go easy, step lightly, Stay Free...

When I left L.A., I was listening to Gentle Giant and Jetro Tull, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was on the radio - so it was 40 years ago. My parents, meaning my mother and my step, were done with L.A., and my father'd already moved on, opened his studio in an old 5 & Dime in Jerome, Arizona (a ghost town resurrected by the art community), and he didn't have the time for me. I didn't want to go. Nicki Onstad was my first girl and she'd taught me things, lot of firsts revolve around my meeting Nicki, and I can still hear her today. "I just love marijuana." It was a part of the last conversation we had, the night before all our shit was crammed into a Dodge Dart and we drove off leaving L.A. behind. I was 16.
I wrote to her, sent her postcards, and I called from Yuma, Arizona and Fort Stockton, Texas; from the middle of nowhere. I was the one who left, but she'd already moved on. There was, nonetheless, this sense of sabotage in the back of my mind that the whole scheme to leave L.A. would implode, and we'd be back and Nicki and I would get high and stay that way happily ever after. In the meantime it was the back seat of the Dodge all to myself, like a traveling wigwam, me and my music and the Indian blanket my Father bought me in Monument Valley. I had four 8-Track tapes I'd made: Tull, Yes, ELP. The end of an era.
In 1980, I went home. Three years passed. I saved the money to buy a pale yellow 1973 Austin America. I took I10 all the way to Hollywood and checked into a cheap motel on La Cienega; then I drove straight to Sunset Blvd. It was a crisp, cool March evening and the billboards were lit up, yet everything had changed; it wasn't mine anymore. The sounds and visions in my head were somewhere in between 1968 and 1976. This was L.A. Where were the singer/songwriters driving old Porsches down from Laurel Canyon? Where were the GTOs? Hell, where was David Crosby? The billboards were lit up, but L.A. was dark. Punk made its mark and my Stoned-Pony hippie town gave way to X, The Plugs, Circle Jerks, and an assortment of post-punk jittery, hopped-up slam bands. Metallica was playing The Starwood. There was an erotic bakery next to the Whiskey. Piercings and black leather were everywhere (there wasn't a jeans jacket to be found). Clearly I'd have to adjust.  
I called a girl I'd known since Van Nuys High, the singer in a band called Ella and the Blacks. I crashed at her apartment for a month, until she got sick of it. I contemplated leaving again, my city had turned its back. Then, on a Saturday in April at Danny's Oki-Dog, I met Kenya and Cathy and Laura. They were on the list at the Roxy; did I want to go? They liked my car. They needed a ride. The band was The Clash. The sun was going down on a hazy L.A. Fuck yeah, city in the smog, city in the smog; don't you wish that you could be here, too?