by Michael Goldberg
Monday, January 13, 2003
Hanging With The Clash
Back in '78, a young journalist encountered Joe Strummer and Mick Jones
The first time I laid eyes on Joe Strummer, it was the fall of 1978 and he was standing next to Mick Jones in a San Francisco recording studio, overdubbing vocals on "Safe European Home," a song that would appear on The Clash's second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope.
While I watched the two British punks through two layers of soundproof glass, I heard Strummer's voice raging from the state-of-the-art monitor speakers. Gruff, guttural, uncouth, even barbaric, it was a voice that many fans of rock might have called "ugly" at the time. But like many others who fell under the spell of The Clash, I thought it was unique, tuneful and just plain wonderful. It was a voice that sounded like it was communicating "the truth," or, at least, ideas that the singer totally believed were the truth.
The group's debut album, The Clash, hadn't been released in the U.S. at the time; Epic Records thought it too raw for American ears. I'd bought an import copy as soon as it showed up at Aquarius Records, which in the mid-to-late '70s made a point of importing British rock albums before their U.S. release. Having already immersed myself in New York punk for the previous three years (Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids all of which was considered punk at first), as well as the Sex Pistols' singles and their one and only studio album, and having been a fan of The Stooges, the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, The Dictators and '60s garage rock, I found that The Clash spoke my language. As soon as I put their debut on, I knew it to be a masterpiece.
If you haven't listened to the English version of The Clash recently, I suggest you pull it out, or pick up a copy. Every song kills! In retrospect, it's like a greatest-hits album, only it was the group's debut. "Janie Jones," "Remote Control," "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A.," "White Riot," "What's My Name," "London's Burning," "Career Opportunities," "Garageland".... And a spectacular cover of Junior Murvin's Lee Perry-produced "Police & Thieves."
The Clash is an album that, in a way, destroys your preconceptions about what an album can be. It mixes up the personal and the political, and it mixes up rock, soul, and Jamaican music with punk. It's about being a hardcore music fan, and it's about being a citizen of the world.
Ignorant American Journalist
Strummer and Jones were in San Francisco completing work on the second album, which was being produced by Sandy Pearlman. That meant a lot to me. Pearlman produced and co-managed the Blue Öyster Cult, whose first few albums are quite amazing rock albums; he had also produced The Dictators' debut, Go Girl Crazy. The idea of The Clash as produced by Pearlman was exciting.
I knew Pearlman, as well as Howie Klein, who at the time was helping The Clash make their way about San Francisco. Between the two of them, I was able to get myself access to a Clash recording session. I had read what I could find about the group. There was, in fact, little information available at that time (the Web and its easy access to band info would not exist for another 15 years).
On the album jacket it said The Clash comprised guitarist/singer Mick Jones, guitarist/singer Joe Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer "Tory Crimes," whose real name was actually Terry Chimes. What I didn't know was that Crimes/Chimes had been sacked and the group's current drummer the one who had played on the Give 'Em Enough Rope sessions and been touring with the band in Europe was Topper Headon.
And so, the ignorant American journalist from the local daily walked right into the trap. Taking a break from recording, the duo (Headon and Simonon were back in England) headed for the small studio lounge. Pearlman brought me in for an introduction.
Twenty-six-year-old Strummer, a short, stocky man with a rotting, chipped front tooth that added menace to what seemed to be a perpetual sneer, slouched in the corner of the room. He wore dark glasses and a battered black leather motorcycle jacket. His short, oily brown hair was combed back like a '50s rockabilly singer's.
"So how much you gonna make on this story, anyway?" badgered Mick Jones, as he banged away at a pinball machine. He looked over at Strummer and they both laughed.
"I don't think we should do this interview," continued Jones, who was 23 at the time. Hauntingly thin with shaggy black hair, a two-day shadow of beard and a sly grin, Jones resembled a young Keith Richards.
"I don't either," Strummer muttered, turning away. "He didn't even know who was in the band. Thought I was a roadie." They both laughed again.
That was The Clash. Constantly testing. Not willing to put up with any bullshit. They were not only bored with America, they were bored with Americans, or at least Americans who didn't know what was up.
In their songs, The Clash depicted England in bleak, unsympathetic terms, but in the U.S. recording studio, when I asked them about conditions in the UK, Jones spat, "Not as bad as it is here! That's definite. You've got your Hershey bars and your Dr. Peppers. There's a lot more fucking work to be done here than in England. Everyone watching TV. It reminds me of the Roman Empire. And every American I met is a bullshitter. This place tends to look not very real. Unreal. I don't give a shit about Britain either. I don't think Britain's any good."
That "unreal" quality that Jones saw in the U.S. was articulated in one of the songs they were completing for the album. In "Guns on the Roof," Strummer sings, "And I like to be in the U.S.A./ Pretending that the wars are done."
My non-interview with The Clash made for great copy, of course, and though they didn't give me a real interview that day, I left with enough material to write one of the first pieces about The Clash to appear in an American newspaper.
"We're Not Minimalists"
A year later, it was a different story. I'd somehow passed the test. Perhaps the fact that I'd written honestly about them in the San Francisco Chronicle, and was covering them for the New Musical Express, had something to do with it. For whatever reason, Strummer and Jones had agreed to sit for an interview following their performance at Tribal Stomp II, a rock festival held at the site of 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, where the group shared the stage with the Mighty Diamonds, the Chambers Brothers, Big Mama Thornton, Canned Heat and others.
It was mid-September 1979, and the beginning of The Clash's second tour of America. Jones and Strummer sat on the edge of a twin bed in the cramped bedroom of a small cottage around a bend in the road from the Carmel Mission, south of Monterey, eating white toast covered with a thick layer of baked beans and drinking Budweiser. The low rhythmic murmur of taped reggae music drifted through the cool night air from an adjoining cottage.
I asked them about making "political rock," expecting them to launch into an explanation of the politics in their songs. Instead, contrary as ever, Strummer countered that he didn't like to be called a "political" band. "All I see is people, not politics," he said. "I just see people. We see it as a trap. A hole to get shut up in."
Though it made for good copy you know, British punks with political message The Clash were a band, like The Beatles, like the Rolling Stones. They were about making music. That should have been obvious. From their first singles, The Clash drew on sophisticated and varied influences to make music that was extremely musical. While they had many messages to communicate, their recordings demonstrated that they wanted to go down in history as a great band, a band that made recordings that passed the test of time, recordings as great as those of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Phil Spector and all the others.
They had, in fact, agreed to work with Pearlman on their second album because they wanted the opportunity to make a record in a state-of-the-art recording studio with a seasoned record maker and see what they could accomplish. "We're not minimalists," Jones told me. "Where they [most punk bands] tend to keep themselves in one line, we tend to go in every line possible. All sorts of different sub-tracks."
What this meant, in practice, was that The Clash were comfortable injecting a polka rhythm into one song and a Cajun accordion part into another. They could jam with country-western singer Joe Ely (who appeared onstage with them that afternoon in Monterey) and with rockabilly revivalists such as L.A.'s Rebels. They used reggae rhythms and applied dub production techniques to their rock 'n' roll. You can, of course, hear all of this and more on London Calling and Sandinista!, albums that are prime examples of what a global punk sound could be.
In the cottage, as the cool night breeze blew the white curtains, Strummer sipped his beer. "Imagine me sitting around going...." He adopted an exaggerated self-righteous tone: "'Brother, we've got to change the world, brother. Pass over the songbook. Give me the felt tip pen. 'Cause we got to change the world.' How can we do that? That's what all these other nerds are doing. Really, they are. And I don't like it. It stinks."
It's hard to know if The Clash's initial anti-rock-star stance was real or not. I think that there were internal conflicts within the group, and that, as men in their mid-20s, they didn't really know what they wanted. "They [the audience] could be up there as easy as me," Strummer said. "In a way, we were just there. And that was it. You feel lucky. Why you instead of him? Why you? Don't know why. Don't ask me the fucking meaning of life, 'cause I don't know it."
Already, The Clash were stars in England and would soon find themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone, selling out theaters across the U.S., and at one point opening for The Who in stadiums. "I find it humiliating," Jones said that day, when asked about being treated like a "star." "I try not to be anything other than just a human being. But you can't just say 'I don't want to sign autographs' if there's a hundred people there."
Change The World?
Joe Ely pushed open the cottage door and stepped in. Strummer, Jones and Ely exchanged greetings. Ely helped himself to a beer and took a seat as Strummer continued, "We feel a bond with our audience, but we hate them too. Best way I can explain it is imagine if you were standing on the dock of the bay and lots of fish come. Ten thousand fish, and they all come to look at you and opened their mouths. You know what I mean?"
As we continued to talk, the subject of political rock came up again. Or rather, the question I asked was, can rock 'n' roll even great rock 'n' roll really change anything? For Strummer and Jones, it turned out, the answer was clear. Music meant just about everything to the two of them of course it could have an impact, for they had felt it firsthand. "Maybe it won't change anything," Jones said. "But I still believe in it. I have a lot of faith in the music as a really good force. As something worth doing. Perhaps we're too ambitious a band. I would say rock 'n' roll can contribute toward some minor change." Then he added stubbornly, "But it ain't gonna tell the politicians what to do. It ain't gonna save people from wars.
"We're dealing with the power of music here," he continued, his eyes flashing. "And it really can soothe furrowed brows and all that stuff. And it works and it can make you feel better when you have the blues. But when you ask, can music change someone, can an attitude change anything? I don't know.... You're talking about a nation [America] of Kiss lovers."
"But," said Strummer, ever the optimist. "We'll have a go at it."