The Clash devolved from punk snots to self-destructive louts. A new live set captures the band in its ragged glory.

Published October 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On paper, the October 1982 pairing of the Clash and the Who at Shea Stadium in New York should have been historic. And maybe it was. In theory, the intergenerational punk invitational was a momentous relay, at which the once-fiery godfathers of alienated youth rock could pass the torch to their most eligible offspring. But the flame had already gone out, and the race was over long before soundcheck. What spectators in the stands saw was no climactic showdown but a dismal zombie dance of two once-great bands now fueled by success rather than inspiration. By the time the Clash and the Who were done pulverizing what was left of their punk ideals, the only thing that had been revealed was that self-delusion and crass hypocrisy can strike without regard to age.

Yet on the Clash's new live album, the grandly titled "From Here to Eternity," the one track recorded at that concert doesnt sound like the bell tolling on punks English dream. While the band plays "Career Opportunities," a biting proletarian gripe from its first album, a shade slower (and longer), its otherwise true to the studio original, down to the crappy mix and uncoordinated Joe Strummer-Mick Jones joint vocals. Other songs from a Boston theater date a scant month earlier on that same tour are cut from the same loudly flapping but sturdy cloth. In fact, the entire 17-song collection, which documents a four-year stretch beginning in early '78, sounds like it could have been come from one set. The album's diversity -- the reggae lope of "Armagideon Time," a cover starring nasal toaster Mikey Dread; the blue-beat guilt trip of "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais"; the somber moodiness of "Straight to Hell"; the urban guerrilla-riddim rumble of "Guns of Brixton"; the racing New York rhythm rock of "Magnificent Seven" (with vocal audience participation) -- is due less to any growth in the band's concert ambitions but from the original records, artifacts that are now so far removed from Limp Bizkit land that the Clash fighting the law (... but the law won) in 1978 might as well be the Bobby Fuller Four doing the song in 1966.

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When the Clash crossed the Atlantic and first revealed themselves to obsessed Americans in early 1979, the Londoners welcomed themselves with the defensive disdain of "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." and then a musical barrage of furiously wound energy and death-or-glory conviction. (Which might actually have been abject post-colonial nerves sublimated into cocky aggression.) Back at New York's Palladium later that same year, they brought along keyboardist Mickey Gallagher, enough guitars to outfit Cheap Trick and a not-entirely salutary measure of confidence as seasoned stage hands and burgeoning rock stars.

In early '80, the Clash paid a final call on the Palladium, a rock shrine that is currently a hole that will soon house New York University students. The band's instinct for onstage anarchy battled to a draw with its self-imposed challenge of "London Calling," an expanding nova of an album whose restraint, variety and subtlety broke punk's clutches without renouncing it. With the solipsistic intimacy New Yorkers grow to expect, the cover photo, of Paul Simonon wielding a bass with seconds to live, had been shot at the venue on the group's second visit there.

What had first excited me about the Clash was also a photo, this one printed in the New Musical Express (or maybe it was Melody Maker) of Joe Strummer, clinging to a mike stand (as he often did) on his knees. The singer's head was whipping around so that his mouth was trailing a few centimeters in a contortion that reeked of pure rock release. Or so I imagine remembering clearly. The yellowed newsprint is somewhere in a box in my closet, and thats where its gonna stay. Whatever the particulars, that moment in late '76 made an impression, attaching a sense of excitement to the word "Clash" that was better than any of the other 999 the photo might have conjured up.

In 1991, Legacy Records was preparing to reissue the only Clash long-player not already on CD: "Black Market Clash," an artistically strong 10-inch oddity of rarities and studio leftovers from 1980. The modest project quickly blossomed into a full-blown box set, fraught with all the complications possible to the estranged, quarrelsome and jealous remnants of a non-functioning band possessing such a favorable contract that no compilation of any sort could be released without their unanimous permission. Which was, needless to say, difficult to obtain. Active vendettas continued, dormant prejudices resurfaced and greedy debates erupted over the inclusion of each songwriter's compositions.

The more the band (minus alternating drummers Nicky "Topper" Headon and Terry Chimes, both of whom had been kicked out of the band at one time or another and neither of whom seemed to have a say) got involved, the weirder and worse things got. Plans sent to them came back rearranged and broken, like fragile toys loaned to hyperactive children, or an innocent nymph sent out to play by the river with Frankenstein's monster. The two who were managed by one's former girlfriend had, years earlier, with the Iago-like encouragement of their highly dubious manager, sacked the third, a disastrous rift that had leveled the band, leaving a now-all-but-forgotten cultural hangover.

At one point, the corporate junta to which I was serving as an unpaid advisor against the promise of getting to write the liner notes plotted four discs (under the dubious title "Scrawl on the Wall" -- I was pushing for "Garageland," but no one wanted to know) with live tracks from the Clash's calamitous summer-of-'81 stand at Bond's, a former clothing store in Times Square. Three tracks here are from those shows: "Complete Control," "Guns of Brixton" and Jones' smartly rendered "Train in Vain."

Sensing the rare opportunity of having its hated major label over a barrel, Strummer, Jones and Simonon attacked like vultures. They nixed the box's live component and instead proposed that it be released as a separate live album the following year. The band's dreadlocked Super 8 pal Don Letts had filmed the Bond's shows for a documentary that was going to be called -- accurately as well as ironically -- "The Clash on Broadway." So putting seven and seven together to get 22, the Clash -- in their infinitely twisted determinism -- decreed that "The Clash on Broadway" would suit a three-CD retrospective of their studio work. It didn't, and left more than a few wondering what the title had to do with anything. (Letts' film is finished and about to be released as the career history "Westway to the World.")

"The Clash on Broadway" wasn't their only logic-busting whim concerning the project (which, for me, turned out to be a financially satisfying fiasco), but it was typical of the irrational pragmatism that ruled an endlessly self-destructive but marvelous career. They ran hard and left a deep and lasting mark, but the Clash -- like the romantic rebels they worshiped -- were ultimately undone by the surprise of their own humanity.

My own memories of the Clash in concert are indistinct blurs of thrill, thrall and self-righteousness. At the time, the shows provided ear-splitting confirmation that the records were as real and direct as they seemed, that the band was neither a studio creation or an Oz-like projection. But what have we got to show for it now? "From Here to Eternity" is the genuine historical article, a sonic yardstick against which to measure those 20-year-old memories.

While by no means a greatest hits -- the band's eccentric song selection brashly (if not surprisingly) omits the top-20 U.S. hit "Rock the Casbah" (a song they couldn't make much out of live, anyway) as well as such classics of the studio and live canon as "White Riot," "Garageland," "Safe European Home" and "Tommy Gun" -- "From Here to Eternity" is raw, energetic and sloppy. With skinny tie culture relegated to bad-hair camp nostalgia on VH1, few bands of the period could suddenly resurface on record and not sound dated and ridiculous, but the Clash were no ordinary band. Except for Simonon's painfully numb vocals on "Guns of Brixton," these realistic performances are proud souvenirs, not embarrassing snapshots.

But the fact is (and I confirmed this suspicion by rewatching the concert sequences in "Rude Boy," the band's enthusiastically incoherent 1980 drama-cum-documentary), you had to see it to get it. The devout crowds, Strummer's leg-driving intensity and saliva-spattering bellowing, Jones' studied guitar-hero shuffle and frilly clothes, Simonon's animal poses -- the impossible cohesion of musicians doing their slashing and slamming with barely a flicker of acknowledgment that they aren't alone onstage -- that was the Clash. Their sound doesn't adequately convey the fury.

The Clash's stubborn refusal to do what was good for them was often mistaken for courage, but theirs was a bizarrely principled sort of nerve. Although their lyrics quickly abandoned the free-floating anomie that made so much punk interchangeable, record company malfeasance was a fight they liked. "Complete Control," the song that opens "From Here to Eternity" (as it opened many of the band's 1978 gigs), was the band's third 45, a rocking rebuke to English CBS for releasing "Remote Control" as a single against their wishes. (Not that either side of the dispute had any problems resolving their differences and plucking a hit single from the dust-up.)

While they would go on to name an album in tribute to Nicaraguan revolutionaries, sport Italian terrorist fan T-shirts and sing of "English Civil War," "Spanish Bombs" and "Washington Bullets," backyard culture wars were just as good. London Calling's "Right Profile," a film-freak's ode to the troubled life of Montgomery Clift, and "Capital Radio," which here provides Strummer with a platform to endorse exotic Americans Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs ("Wooly Bully") over London prole peers Sham 69, are typical.

In British parlance, the Clash were all mouth and no trousers, irrepressible rabble-rousers disinclined to shed blood. Their legal troubles were laughable -- petty offenses like spray-painting a wall and shooting pigeons. For a time, they did put themselves on the line for their fans, but as their enterprise became more ambitious and complicated (read former roadie extraordinaire Johnny Green's witty memoir, "A Riot of Our Own," for details), they generally marched into battle for more usual things. All egotistical rock stars make up twisted rules of conduct for themselves, but the code by which the Clash made people miserable was more twisted and paradoxical. In the end, the Clash disillusioned all but their blindest acolytes, capping a once-proud saga with a shameful coda (including a new lineup and an afterbirth album) and pained attempts to justify the same sort of hubris less self-conscious rock stars admit as bald arrogance. Their achievements in the uncharted world of big-league punk were unique, but their failings were absolutely ordinary.

It feels thoroughly ridiculous, like some old Bolshevik still mourning the death of Stalin, to be rehoisting the partisan flag at this late date, but the old records did, and still do -- to borrow from an advertising slogan used at the time -- matter. At least in their music, the Clash had standards. Their strongly worded statements about serious issues raised issues and challenged complacency while kicking asses with the sheer joy of their sonic assault. Leaving love, sex and the usual agents of angst to lower-minded outfits, the Clash took a literary approach to morality in songs that still seethe with bravado and invention.

Few groups of their day had the vocal and lyrical toughness to match their slashing slabs of guitar noise or the ability to proffer tender sentimentality without shame. And to their credit, the Clash have still not succumbed to the temptation of reunion, as have virtually all of their surviving contemporaries, from the Sex Pistols to Blondie. The enigma of who the Clash really were -- art-project phonies, naive political romantics, confused rock rebels, arrogant pseudo-intellectuals, substance-abusing hypocrites in camo gimmick gear -- will never be resolved. As Strummer warns here in a rushed and ragged "London Calling," "Now don't look to us/Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust." Don't expect an answer here.

By Ira Robbins

Ira Robbins is the editor of "The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock" and a 40-year veteran of rock journalism. He lives in New York with his wife, cat and records.

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