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The Clash: Tough but Tender, They’re Taking America

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 315 from April 17, 1980 . This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member and want to learn more? Go to our Rolling Stone Plus benefits page .

“You don’t understand, mate. You just can’t leave those chairs there.” Joe Strummer, the Clash’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, is really wound up. He takes another puff off his cigarette and moves closer to the manager of San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. “Don’t you see,” Strummer continues in an urgent, guttural whisper, “people will fuckin’ destroy those chairs, rip ’em right out. They come here to dance, and that’s what they’re gonna do. I don’t wanna see kids smashed up against the stage in front of me just because there’s not enough room to dance.”

In a few hours, the Clash are supposed to be onstage at this 2200-seat art-deco palace in the first date of a nine-shows-in-ten-days blitz of the U.S. The tour comes on the heels of the group’s grueling, two-month trek through the U.K., and just before bassist Paul Simonon is due in Vancouver, where he will begin working with ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook on a film in part about an all-girl rock & roll band.

But despite this hectic schedule, the Clash and their U.S. record company, Epic, realized they had to strike now. After watching their first two critically acclaimed albums go virtually ignored by radio stations and record buyers in this country, the Clash released London Calling earlier this year. Broader and more accessible than its predecessors, the album — a two-record set that sells for little more than a single record — was immediately picked up by FM radio. After only six weeks, it is in the twenties on the charts and has sold nearly 200,000 copies. At this moment, though, the Clash are faced with another problem: they feel that some of the halls selected for this tour aren’t right for them — they have chairs secured to the floor, leaving little or no room for dancing.

“Just take out a coupla rows,” Strummer pleads.

“But we can’t do it,” the manager replies. “It’s too late. Besides, kids have tickets for those seats. Your fans waited in line for hours to get those seats.”

“Good,” says Strummer. “If they’re our fans, they won’t mind, ’cause they’ll wanna be standin’ anyway.”

“So what do we say when they come in with tickets and their seats are missing?”

“You tell ’em Joe Strummer took ’em out so they could dance. If they’re upset, we’ll give ’em a free T-shirt or somethin’.”

“But it’ll take hours.”

“We got lots of people here who can help. I’ll get down on my hands and knees and help if I have to.”

“We just can’t do it. …”

A little more than an hour later, the front two rows of seats have been removed. And Joe Strummer didn’t even have to get down on his hands and knees.

With the possible exception of the sex pistols, the Clash have attracted more attention and generated more excitement and paeans from the press than any other new band in the past five years. Their first LP, The Clash, released in England at the height of the punk movement in 1977, has been hailed by some critics as the greatest rock & roll album ever made. Its fourteen songs jump from the record with such ferocious intensity that they demand that the listener sit up and take notice — immediately. But perhaps even more important are the lyrics. While the Sex Pistols and other punk bands viewed the deteriorating English society with a sort of self-righteous nihilism, the Clash observed it through a militant political framework that offered some hope. Certainly a long battle was ahead, they suggested, but perhaps it could be won.

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.

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