The Clash: Live, Loud and Very Direct!

◊ When the Lions of Ladbroke Grove Came to Town 

Photo by US Photographer Bob Gruen
Photo by US Photographer Bob Gruen

This remarkable shot is of the ‘lions of Ladbroke Grove’, aka the Clash, by the US photographer and friend of the band, Bob Gruen, taken circa 1978/79. The Clash were almost unique in that one can predict with a high degree of some certainty where the band are on their glorious timeline just by looking at the clothes they were wearing.

In May 1979, the right-leaning and divisive Conservative party, with the loathsome Margaret Thatcher at the helm, swept to power in the UK. At the same time and with incredible synchronicity, the “of the left” (Strummer on the band’s politics) Clash released the brilliant four track: Cost of Living EP. The songs contained therein were a clear indication and a signpost to the fact that the band were in a period of musical transition, and it was shortly after this stunning picture was taken that the band took to wearing post-WW2 ‘demob’ suits. This was probably because the new clutch of songs that they had been working up at ‘Vanilla Studios’ seemed to have a monochromatic, dark and austere feel to them; mirroring exactly how it felt to be young and *Under Heavy Manners. No future, if you will.

These new,musically adventurous songs, would be eventually honed to near-perfection and after the addition of an always-intelligent and constantly evolving Strummer lyric, the band decamped to Wessex Studios to complete what would become their magnum opus: London Calling.

This was an album that was so musically cohesive and gravitas-heavy, so much so that it would finally register with an America audience, and twenty years later Rolling Stone  voted it ‘Album of the Eighties’, which baffled the band and those who had bought it when it was released in the cold, dark December of 1979! A gracious and slightly baffled Joe, when informed of this remarked: 

“We’re humbled, err, but didn’t it come out in ‘79?!”

It also appears in this one-in-a-million shot as if the non-stop treadmill of intense playing, rehearsing and recording has somehow fused the front three into a mighty, six-armed musical spearhead or a benign battering ram, with ‘one take’ Topper providing a perfectly timed rear guard action.

After London Calling’s release, the band embarked on the now legendary 16 Tons tour which was a punishing thirty shows that reached all parts of the UK and Ireland (“we never took a day off!” quipped Mick famously).

1980-02-05-Flyer-Birmingham
‘Sixteen Tons’ was a favourite song of the bands that was played just prior to the band hitting the stage at full tilt!

In a demonstration of laudable largesse the band would task their crew (usually Johnny Green and ‘the Baker’ aka Barry Auguste) with sourcing who the best local, unsigned bands were, and once located they would be gifted a valuable third spot on the bill. Let’s not forget that some bands, like Coventry’s Specials for example, would be signed to a record label as a direct consequence of this invaluable exposure.

Second spot on the bill would be reserved for (usually) a non-punk and often non-British band, or sometimes past legends whose star had waned over the years. The Clash would try and help elevate them again by exposing them to a new audience although this didn’t always go down well with the less tolerant members of their often volatile and voluble audiences, much to the consternation of the band (Strummer: “open your eyes, your ears and diversify!”). Artists who would benefit directly from this noble gesture would be for example: Joe Ely (country), Mikey Dread (dub reggae) and Bo Diddley (rock and roll), so in some aspects The Clash’s attitude to their live bill was not dissimilar to Bob Dylan’s famous ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’, or the Rolling Stones’: ‘Rock and Roll Circus’. As an obsessive student of rock history and folklore, it’s highly likely that Mick Jones for one would have been aware of this.

Live and very much direct, the Clash ‘in the round’ were: incendiary, visceral, explosive – they absolutely rocked hard, so much so that at times they gave the distinct impression that they were plugging directly into some sort of ancient, supernatural force in order to draw the energy that they needed to careen  and pin-ball around the stage; often for two hours or more.….

After giving absolutely everything and usually after two sets of encores, it would really be over and they’d be gone, and the gathered throng would be left with their ears ringing and in a state of wonderment as they trooped toward the exit and were left thinking: “What just happened?!” For the next few days one would be walking just a little bit taller in ones’ DM’s or ‘brothel creepers’ and feeling a lot more energised than usual; inspired too.

It was to be some years hence before I would be able to fully understand & comprehend what was really transpiring in those long gone, special times. The Clash conjured forth an ancient and ephemeral power that very few artists have ever been able to do, and it was happening so quickly that they probably didn’t even realise that they were doing it! To me this demonstrates just how instinctive and organic this altered state is, and for me personally it’s these moments when band and audience are in a state of absolute synchronicity,that for me is both a validation and proof positive of the redemptive power of music, something that enriches our souls and spirits.

clash pic david gahr

Flamenco artists speak of a transcendental and ecstatic state that they hope to reach that they call: duende. This is when stridently strummed, triple-time, minor key guitar figures are combined with double-time, percussive hand claps, with the intention that this will ultimately elevate them to a purer place. I’m convinced that the very best rock & roll can do this too, and I believe that this mysterious and ecstatic ‘in the moment’ state is where the Clash would often reach and if you were open to it you would be taken there with them too..

The Clash were, and in some senses still are, a band AND and aesthetic, and the key to it all was their stunning rock and this would often lead to nothing less than an existential state/ experience. They really were a true, pure, force of nature and if like me you were really attuned to them, then you too will understand why they were famously dubbed: ‘the only band that mattered’. 

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*’Under Heavy Manners’ is a song by the Jamaican reggae legend Dr Alimantado, it was a Clash favourite and is highly recommended.

 

 

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