In late 1982, the greatest punk band of all time was in the midst of a swift, sad decline: Though the Clash had just released their most commercially successful album, Combat Rock, they had also just booted longtime drummer and then-smack addict Topper Headon — a move that, according to late, great frontman Joe Strummer, sent the band “limping to its death.” The following year would see the departure of singer-guitarist Mick Jones, and the classic Clash lineup would never cut another record. But you wouldn’t know much was amiss from this solid, long-bootlegged live set, which was recorded on October 13th, 1982, when the Clash opened for the Who at New York’s Shea Stadium amid falling rain and wild jeering from Who fans.
Live at Shea Stadium has its flaws: Devotees will rightly quibble with the set list, which is light on rarities and cuts from the Clash’s brilliant debut. But the album captures a rousing, crystalline-sounding Clash show, featuring stone classics like “Tommy Gun” and “Spanish Bombs.” A handful of great cuts illustrate what made the Clash so exciting: On “Career Opportunities,” Strummer wittily rails against corporate hegemony, and when the Clash segue from the protopunk-funk “Magnificent Seven” to the reggae jam “Armagideon Time,” they prove they’ve got big ears and bigger ambitions. The playing is tight, if not as ferocious as when Headon manned the drum kit.
There are hotter single Clash shows out there; would that someone release the October ’81 gig at the London Lyceum. But Live at Shea is notable for catching the Clash before their growing artiness ruined some later songs. And Strummer’s weird charisma is in full view: Near the end of “Clampdown,” he rants against the hostile crowd about how he’d like to “practice chemistry” on the “72,000 guinea pigs” at Shea. It’s both nervy and oddly endearing — much like Strummer himself.