With the Clash’s towering ‘London Calling’ now just a year shy of its fortieth anniversary, any reappraisal of that substantial and nuanced album would understandably use its lead-off single ‘London Calling’ (07/12/79) as it’s starting point. However, if one were to wind the clock back to ‘day one hour one’ at London’s Wessex studios in the autumn of 1979, it was actually a ‘warm up’ version of ‘Brand New Cadillac’ which was fated to become the album’s first recorded track.
After the band’s less than ideal experience working with American producer Sandy Pearlman on Give ‘em Enough Rope in 1978, the Clash had decided unanimously that on their next album they would: (a) work with a British producer, and (b) that there should be more spontaneity in the recording sessions. Paul Simonon in particular had become utterly sick of Pearlman’s whining voice and ponderous ‘process.’, and on one particularly frustrating evening, after yet more interminable runs at the anthemic ‘Stay Free,’ the normally affable bassist had had enough. After unstrapping his Fender Precision he promptly put a size nine Doctor Marten boot into a door that abutted to the main control room. Perhaps Paul had remembered that Mick’s friend Robin Crocker had bloodied Pearlman’s nose at a Clash gig two weeks earlier, and thought that another physical assault might see the Blue Öyster Cult producer flee the album sessions permanently.
And so the band decided in the summer of 1979 that they had amassed a sufficient number of new songs to warrant looking for a British producer, and they decided that that producer should be Guy Stevens. Although Joe and Paul had worked with Guy before when the band had recorded some tentative demos Polydor Records, should they manage to find him then this would actually be Mick’s third meeting with the producer.
The then ‘rock & roll Mick’s first meeting with Stevens was in early 1976, but it was inauspicious to say the least. Mick had been playing in another one of his short-lived bands, the appallingly named Schoolgirl, and somehow they had managed to convince Stevens to listen to their set; the idea being that Stevens would give the band some useful feedback at the end. However, whilst the band ran down their set, Guy had proceeded to talk incessantly, cough and at one point he abruptly exited the control room and made a ‘phone call! As for his considered advice after the band had finished? “They don’t need two guitar players – get rid of the skinny one!” It’s a testament to Mick’s easy going nature then that he hadn’t held this rejection against Stevens, or more likely that Mick was thrilled to be working with his favourite band Mott the Hoople’s former manager and producer, that he chose to have a convenient memory lapse..
And so it fell to Joe as the biggest advocate for using the Stevens, who volunteered to go and try to find the peripatetic producer. Wessex’s sound engineer-cum-producer Bill Price, with whom the band had recorded the brilliant ‘ Cost of Living EP’ earlier in the year, informed Joe that Stevens could sometimes be found doing the rounds of some of the pubs close to Guy’s beloved Arsenal Football Club; in Highbury. Amazingly Joe found the inebriated producer in a pub in Ham Yard, which had formerly been a ‘mod’ venue in the sixties,, and where Guy had been both a DJ and a ‘face’ On seeing Joe, Guy visibly brightened and greeted him like a long-lost brother.
Joe duly outlined to Guy the band’s plan to record a clutch of newly written material at Wessex which would form the basis of an album that had the working title of the Last Testament. Stevens literally whooped with joy and clapped his hands together like a child when he heard that the band intended to use Wessex. When Joe asked Guy if it was the studio’s new Cadac 24-track solid state desk or the prospect of working with Price that had fired him up, Stevens joyfully informed Strummer ‘God, no Jose – Wessex is a half-mile from Highbury! I can go and pay my respects there every day before we make history!’
Joe would later recall this momentous meeting in the lyric of the song *‘Midnight to Stevens’ (1981) in which he would recount how Stevens had insisted that Joe try some of his ‘speed’ Not wishing to offend the often unstable producer Joe duly did: ‘Took one of his pills/ It boiled the blood in my eyes!’ At the end of their long evening as they were sipping whiskies Guy told Joe that he would love to hear to hear a few of the songs but he didn’t have a tape machine tape player – it had been stolen six months previously along with his prized collection of Stax and Volt 45’s. Joe sympathised with the now visibly downcast producer. Like the rest of the band Joe was was a fan of prime sixties-era American soul and R&B. Joe dropped Guy off in a cab and told him that he would sort out a new tape deck as well as a tape of the new songs they intended to record.
The following day at Vanilla which was the band’s new rehearsal space in Pimlico, Joe tasked the Clash’s trusted road manager Johnny ‘gaffer tape’ Green, with obtaining a tape deck for Guy: ‘Go up West Johnny and for fuck’s sake get a receipt – tell him you’ll give him forty-five quid if he gives you a receipt for fifty! Oh, and stick this tape in it’ Green pocketed the money and the still-warm Maxell cassette tape of the half-dozen songs that the band had literally just recorded for Guy.
As has now gone down in Clash folk lore: having completed his mission Green proceeds to bump into an old school mate on the platform whilst waiting for his train back to Clash HQ They decide to retire to a local hostelry for ‘a few swift halves’ Disastrously Green gets wasted and falls asleep on the train home, leaving the tape player and its valuable contents!
The following morning a groggy Green awakes…and as his alcohol-addled mind slowly clears the sick realisation hits…‘Oh fuck!’ He is appropriately horrified at what has transpired and heads back to Vanilla suitably cowed and apologetic Fortunately for the hapless Green the Clash are a forgiving bunch and he is given money for another (cheaper) tape machine and a new cassette of songs This he duly delivers to Guy, or more accurately to Guy’s beleaguered wife Mary, as Guy is ‘In one of his moods’ and won’t come downstairs to take delivery of the tape player and its precious contents.
For the next couple of years every time Green hears a Clash bootleg that doesn’t start with ‘Brand New Cadillac’ he thanks all the gods that exist that whoever found the tape machine didn’t recognise the band, and decide to make a few quid by on the tape and press up a few bootleg copies!
It’s now the first morning at Wessex and the band and Bill Price exchange some standard musician-type pleasantries of the ‘Alright mate, how’s tricks!’ The band and Price are not strangers as Bill engineered and co-produced the brilliant ‘Cost of Living EP’ sessions earlier in the year. Over the next ninety minutes or so the uber-experienced engineer proceeds to assiduously and expertly ‘mike-up’ both the band’s amplification and Topper’s drums. Once some levels have been set, a horribly hungover Stevens, who has just suddenly appeared as if from nowhere pushes the studio’s intercom button (at the third time-of-asking) He says somewhat gruffly “Mornin’..is it still morning? Afternoon? Where’s Bill? Okay, okay whatever – boys, what have you got for me?”
The band have recently been warming up at sound checks with the Vince Taylor & the Playboys’ 1959 ‘B-side’ ‘Brand New Cadillac’, and so opt to play this to ‘loosen-up’ before attempting one of their new songs. This song was important to Joe as he insists to anyone that will listen that Vince was the UK’s Elvis and that it was essentially the first British rock& roll record. The band are tight and focussed after so many hours of writing and rehearsing at Vanilla and so they virtually eviscerate the eerie rockabilly classic. After they finish and are lighting-up cigarettes, Guy’s adrenalised voice suddenly booms over the intercom, his voice rapidly ascending from first to fifth gear ‘Great! That’s fantastic chaps! That’s track one in the can! Come in and listen!’
The band exchange dubious looks. That was just a warm-up! Topper, aka ‘the human drum machine’, is the first to respond ‘But Guy, it speeds up towards the end!’ Without missing a beat, Guy cackles and shoots back immediately ‘Boys, all the best music speeds up!’
The band are still exchanging unconvinced looks – they’re acutely aware that this is only ‘day one,’ and so they take they decide to be diplomatic and to humour Guy. They duly set their guitars on their stands and file into the control room. They look to the always calm and serene Price for a more measured reaction, but he remains as inscrutable as ever – he and Guy really are ‘night and day’.
Price hits the ‘playback’ button on the huge state-of-the-art console and the track begins: Topper counts-off four beats by hitting his drumsticks together, after which the song’s lupine-like guitar riff begins… Two minutes and fifteen seconds later Topper hits his snare for a final time, which effectively ends the song. They had to admit that song sounds huge, defiant, a little disquieting even. Producer, engineer and band look at each other – Stevens was absolutely spot-on – track one was indeed: ‘in the can’…
*From the US triple CD set ‘Clash on Broadway’