A remarkable shot 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 some confidence where the band were 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, and at the same time, the “of the left” (Strummer on the band’s politics) Clash released the brilliant four track The Cost of Living EP. The songs contained therein were a clear indication that the Clash 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, 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 and musically adventurous songs were 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, which was released in December 1979.
This was an album that was so musically cohesive and gravitas-heavy that it would finally register in America, so much so that 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 and led to Joe remarking incredulously and correctly:
“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 rearguard 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!” Said Mick famously) not unlike a meticulously drilled military unit.
In a laudable demonstration of largesse, the band would task their crew (usually Johnny Green and "the Baker" aka Barry Auguste) with sourcing who the best local, unsigned band 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 more than likely that Mick Jones would have been cognisant 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…
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 later that I would be able to fully comprehend and make sense of what was really transpiring in those long gone, rare, special moments. They conjured forth an ancient and ephemeral power that very few artists have ever been able to do, and probably didn’t even realise that were doing it, which emphasises just how instinctive and organic it is. For me those moments when band and audience are in absolute synch is a total both a validation and proof positive of the redemptive power of music to enrich one’s soul and spirit.
The Clash were, and in some senses still are, both an aesthetic and a raison d’etre as well as being a band. They were a force of nature: this was pure rock & roll, and if you were really attuned to them, then for you they were, and still are, "the only band that mattered."
*"Under Heavy Manners" is a song by the Jamaican reggae legend Dr Alimantado and was a Clash favourite, and is thus highly recommended!
**"Clash City Rockers": the Clash’s third single, released (in the UK) 17th February 1978