Culture

Never Mind the Beatles: America Met the Clash 35 Years Ago This Week

4461-7742-large

Next week I’ll be writing about the 50th anniversary of the so-called British Invasion and the Beatles’ epochal debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

(I’ll also be debunking some of the myths that quickly grew up around that event…)

Meanwhile, this week marks the 35th anniversary of the Clash’s first American tour, to support their Give ‘Em Enough Rope LP.

Sure, their debut U.S. single — a thundering cover of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought The Law” — was climbing up the American charts.

But the Sex Pistols’ only close encounter with the U.S. the year before had proven fatal. 

Fans and detractors alike wondered if Big Bad America would also crush the Pistols’ only still-standing rivals, especially since the Clash had dubbed their first visit the “Pearl Harbor Tour,” and launched almost every U.S. gig with the bitchy anthem “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A” — to determine “if the crowd had a sense of humor.”

Appropriately enough considering the tune had started out as a song about love — not a love song, per se, as those were frowned upon — that gesture rather resembled a little boy’s expression of affection for his female crush: pulling her pigtails.

Because for all their faddish political bombast, the Clash’s frontmen had loved America from afar for years.

vn42d


Entering the U.S. via Vancouver, February 1979.
Photo: Bob Gruen

Mick Jones’ mother had apparently loved America more than she did her son.

When he was a boy, she’d run off to the U.S., never to return — but occasionally mailing American music magazines back to her only child, now in his grandmother’s charge.

So Jones memorized interviews in CREEM and nurtured a single ambition: to live the wild, glamorous life he read about in those pages.

Strummer’s passion for rock and roll was sparked at boarding school, when he first heard the Rolling Stones’ cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (that is, a British cover of an American song):

That’s the moment I think I decided here is at least a gap in the clouds… And that’s the moment I think I fell for music. I think I made a subconscious decision to only follow music forever.

Forever, but quietly, at least after joining the Clash. When the UK punk movement was at its most Stalinesquely judgmental, Strummer kept his love of mid-century musical Americana a secret.

By Februrary 1979, though, Strummer and Jones were confident and successful enough to defy punk strictures.

They’d moved beyond the primitive, stereotypical “three chords, three minutes” musical model with Give ‘Em Enough Rope.

More blatantly, they declared their debt to American music and culture with a single unmistakable gesture:

They hired Bo Diddley to open for them on their first U.S. tour.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMZjAOoX6nw


Bo Diddley joined The Clash as their opening act on their 1979 US Tour– opening up a radical, young, new crowd to the sound of the man many consider to be one of the most important pioneers of American Rock & Roll music. Bo Diddley himself made no bones about stating that HE was THE beginning of Rock & Roll. Bo Diddley not only influenced sound– he also influenced the attitude, energy, and look of Rock & Roll for decades to come.

Marcus Grey writes:

All four members of the band found Bo immensely entertaining company on the Pearl Harbor tour bus, with his advice about taking the money upfront (…) his insistence on sleeping sitting upright and giving his bunk to his guitar, his constant slugging from a lethal alcoholic drink named rock’n’rye, and his bottomless fund of homespun wisdom and anecdotes about life on the road.

Indeed, Diddley’s oft-reprinted “Guide to Survival” is a cult classic, featuring such gems as:

Always take a lawyer with you, and then bring another lawyer to watch him.

If you wanna meet a nice young lady, then you try to smell your best. A girl don’t like nobody walking up in her face smelling like a goat.

[D]on’t put your ears in the speakers.

Alas, years later, a much older Bo’s memories of his time with the Clash mostly concerned the band’s high volume…

bo-diddley-the-clash-tour-photograph

On Dolly Parton’s borrowed tour bus, with Bo. Photo: Bob Gruen

To promote Give ‘Em Enough Rope, someone at Epic Records came up with the enduring slogan, “The Only Band That Matters.”

That, however, was the extent of Epic’s enthusiasm.

The label told the band’s new manager-in-all-but-name Caroline Coon they had no intention of funding a U.S. tour; their tour budget, they insisted, was tied up with Toto and the Fabulous Poodles.

After Coon fronted $6000 of her own money, Epic suddenly found a spare $30,000 laying around, and Coon and agent Wayne Forte booked a series of 2000+ seat venues, which promptly sold out.

Early fans like Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro were among the crowd at New York City’s storied Palladium on February 17, where, Rolling Stone enthused in a rave review, the Clash “conquered America”:

Listening to them, one not only believed in the world at war they sang about, but also wanted to enlist, on their side, on the spot. That night, the Clash were victorious, and, if only for a short while, so were we.

Unreported at the time — especially not in Joe Strummer’s piss-and-vinegar, all upper case “tour diary” commissioned by England’s punk purist New Music Express — was a tiny yet telling incident that took place the night before the band mounted the stage.

It’s a throwaway anecdote that accidentally captures, in miniature, the beginning of the end of the Seventies, as two cultures collided and one era split into two.

As road manager Johnny Green recalls, Strummer called him first thing in the morning, hoarsely begging Green to come to his room right away.

“I’ve done something awful. Terrible. I shouldn’t have done it.”

Having learned of Sid Vicious’ ignominious end just days earlier, Green’s mind raced.

“Done what?” he demanded, bracing himself for the answer.

“I went out last night with Andy Warhol to Studio 54,” a shamed Strummer confessed.

Adding, according to some versions:

“And I enjoyed myself.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpKWH8nXjBI