Considered too crude by Epic Records, The Clash was never released in its original form in the U.S. Instead, a compilation LP that included ten of the album's cuts plus seven songs from later British singles and EPs was issued in 1979. (Nonetheless, the English version of The Clash is one of the biggest-selling imports ever.) Those British 45s expanded the group's musical range and lyrical attack, and made it clear that this was a group of musicians determined to leave its mark on rock & roll.
With its immense guitar sound, their second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, recorded with Blue Öyster Cult coproducer Sandy Pearlman, pushed things even further. The LP prompted critic Greil Marcus to write, "The Clash are now so good they will be changing the face of rock & roll simply by addressing themselves to the form — and so full of the vision implied by their name, they will be dramatizing certain possibilities of risk and passion merely by taking a stage."
With London Calling, the Clash have matured on all fronts: the playing is more skilled and relaxed, though no less intense. The songs draw on a wider variety of influences — rockabilly, R&B, honky-tonk, reggae — and cover a broader range of topics, from Montgomery Clift to the Spanish Civil War to the Tao of Love. And the group's sense of humor, which had been buried before by their Sturm und Drang, is more evident than ever. Some of the credit must go to producer Guy Stevens, a legendary British music-business eccentric. Stevens, who among other things produced four LPs for Mott the Hoople, a band that influenced the Clash, found a way to capture all sides of the Clash on record.
"'Clash City Rockers'!" Shouts Joe Strummer, slamming his mike stand to the floor of the Warfield Theater stage. Immediately, Mick Jones rips into that song's power-chorded intro, and the American leg of the Clash's "Sixteen Tons Tour" is officially under way.
"We're gonna do a song about something that no one here can afford," Strummer says the instant "Clash City Rockers" ends, and the band bashes out "Brand New Cadillac," a rockabilly oldie covered on London Calling. From there they tear into "Safe European Home" from the second album; next, keyboardist Micky Gallagher, on loan from Ian Dury's Blockheads, joins them onstage, and the group launches into "Jimmy Jazz."
Like the Who, the Rolling Stones in their prime or any other truly great rock & roll band, the Clash are at their best onstage. The music, delivered at ear-shattering volume, takes on awesome proportions; for nearly two hours, the energy never lets up. Strummer, planted at center stage, embodies this intensity. Short and wiry, his hair greased back like a Fifties rock & roll star, he bears a striking resemblance to Bruce Springsteen. When he grabs the mike, the veins in his neck and forehead bulge, his arm muscles tense, and his eyes close tight. He spits out lyrics with the defiance of a man trying to convince the authorities of his innocence as he's being led off to the electric chair. His thrashing rhythm-guitar playing, described by one friend as resembling a Veg-o-matic, is no less energetic.
But the Clash also convey a sense of fun, the spirit of a celebration. As Mick Jones and Paul Simonon race back and forth across the stage, and as Topper Headon flails away at his drums, you can't help but want to dance. And that's exactly what this audience — a surprisingly mixed crowd of punks, longhairs, gays and straights — is doing. Everyone is on their feet. Hundreds are mashed together, dancing, at the foot of the stage, while at the rear of the hall, people are bobbing up and down in their seats.
After eighteen songs, the Clash leave the stage. The band returns with Mikey Dread, the dub singer who opened the show (dub is a form of reggae popularized by Jamaican DJs who talk, chant and sing over backing tracks). The first song of their encore is "Armagideon Time," the B side of the English "London Calling" single. As a white spotlight pierces the ominous blue stage lights and focuses on Strummer, he begins intoning the lyrics: "A lot of people won't get no supper tonight/A lot of people won't get no justice tonight/The battle/Is gettin' harder ..." Coupled with Jones' scratchy guitar lines, Simonon's mesmerizing bass and Gallagher's loping organ fills, the effect is eerie. When Mikey Dread begins chanting "Clash, Clash" near the end, the whole scene takes on an air of frightful prophecy. Five songs later, the show is over and the fans begin to leave. Outside on Market Street, one can't help but notice the movie marquee abutting the Warfield's. It reads "Apocalypse Now".
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