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“I’ve never liked the Clash….They would run out of steam halfway through their gigs because they would go so mad at the beginning….Strummer would start everything off and from there on in, it was just full-on speed.” —John Lydon
In the studio, the Clash was Mick Jones’ band. His tuneful guitar work, gift for songwriting, and recording wizardry made him a punk-rock Brian Wilson. While Joe Strummer’s lyrics adeptly framed social and political alienation, they needed Jones’ impressive musical vehicle to thrive. But onstage, the Clash made the technical aspects of songwriting seem secondary to its energy and visual style.
The Clash couldn’t live by the rules it created—which hurt both the band’s career and its reputation. From the minute it signed with CBS Records, conflict within the band arose over how to espouse revolution from a platform sponsored by a multinational company. And the Clash suffered a commercial and critical backlash for reaching beyond its capabilities—artistically (as on the ambitious and inconsistent Sandinista!) and politically (by taking stances on murky social issues). But the fact remains: As good punks do, the Clash tried to fix society’s problems and injustices with the hammer of rock ‘n’ roll. The result? Lots of great noise with little lasting social impact.
Taken from 1978 to 1982, From Here to Eternity: Live’s 17 songs span venues both small and large, offering a balanced view of the band’s career. Small punk-club dates are captured on “London’s Burning” and “What’s My Name,” taken from 1978 shows. Both show what Lydon was talking about: The band’s intensity sounds exhausting; undoubtedly, little energy was left by the end of each set.
That same enthusiasm sparks “Capital Radio,” taken from a 1980 London show, to eclipse the original studio recording with irreverent flair. Strummer, the consummate punk-rock hype man, snarls the first lines hard enough to make spit fly. Midway through, while Strummer slows down the action to riff on a radio DJ, Topper Headon drums up a tittering break that’s chased by his bandmates to a raucous and perfectly snotty climax.
The tracks most interesting beyond mere nostalgia, however, involve less straight-ahead rockin’ out and more adventurous live interpretation. “Armagideon Time,” a cover of an old dub tune, shows the Clash succeeding in performing reggae credibly. Granted, dub star Mikey Dread’s presence onstage must have helped, but the sincerity of the band’s relationship with the music shines through. And Strummer avoids the most common mistake of reggae cover bands: Instead of singing faux-Jamaican style and sounding like a jackass in blackface, he sings it straight—just like the American R&B stars so emulated in Jamaica.
An additional surprise is the effectiveness of pretty-boy bassist Paul Simonon’s playing on another quasi-dub effort, “Guns of Brixton.” The studio version’s got a hypnotic bass riff backing its tribute to black Londoners who rioted against police brutality; live, it turns into an even more ominous art-rock number, the dub bassline and drums overshadowed by looming guitar feedback.
At times, however, Eternity sounds like a studio record, without much additional inspiration. Although “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” is one of the band’s best singles, Combat Rock drummer Terry Chimes’ playing on the live version seems quite stiff compared with Headon’s deft work on the original. Regardless, hearing Strummer’s famous dis to the Jam—”The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned/They’ve got Burton suits and they think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money”—gives a moment of pause even today. It makes me wonder whether modern rebel rockers like Rage Against the Machine ever got Strummer’s point, and, considering the results, whether encouraging middle-class white kids to embrace black music was really
a good idea.
Always the punk-rock Springsteen, Strummer, now in his 50s, continues to wear his heart on his sleeve and, predictably, has grown sentimental, but not for the old days. On his new solo effort, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, he shows that he might have liked the disco and hiphop that so intrigued Jones more than he let on. (Strummer titled the Clash’s post-Jones album Cut the Crap.) Although nowhere near a dance record, Rock Art filters tons of little drum-loop moments, synthesizers, and occasional horns into a bucolic soundscape that emphasizes Strummer’s songwriting less than it does the skills of his young backing band, the Mescaleros.
It’s an even-sounding album on first listen, with nothing good jumping out, and it contains a few moments worthy of red-faced embarrassment. The opening track, “Tony Adams,” is one of the most typically Strummeresque songs on the record, with a ska beat and Strummered guitars, but it’s marred by a slight drum-machine feel and a poofy, fake-sounding horn. “Sandpaper Blues,” a weak-sounding attempt to be diverse from an artist with no need to try, sounds like the worst outtake from Paul Simon’s African-drum-driven work. Digital-sounding percussion, chanting, and other silliness prevent you from discovering if there’s really anything underneath all the bullshit.
Rock Art’s best tracks rely on Strummer’s inherent charm as a singer. “X-Ray Style,” a quiet effort built around strummed guitar and some subtle world-beat percussion, works because Strummer hasn’t lost his ability to sound intimate when he sings. And there’s a moment of quiet protest—”There’s people living now/Who ain’t got no heart/And never had none”—that builds powerfully into social critique: “Down on the border they crawl all the way/To get a clip of living with a clean-all spray.”
The record’s most challenging song, “Yalla Yalla,” is also its best. Like “X-Ray Style,” it builds around Strummer’s singing, but it trades guitars for a hiphop beat and pulsing synth repetition. Besides name-checking Kool Mo Dee (never a bad idea), Strummer mourns for lost freedom through effective free association: “Well so long, liberty/Let’s forget you didn’t show/Not in my time/But in our sons’/And daughters’ time.” It’s catchy, but, atypically of Strummer, hard to decipher. Hearing him explore grooves without conventional structure is disconcerting—but nice, considering that he could have easily made a ska-rock hybrid record and gotten a piece of the pie that he helped bake for current rock stars.
Rock Art is full of the restraint and contemplation many develop as their hair thins and asses sag—but therein lie its flaws. In the past, Strummer always made his indignation—whether misguided or not—sound compelling. But replacing youthful fervor with something more restrained takes real craftsmanship. Strummer rarely sounds like anything more than a mellowed bomb-thrower. He should call up Mick Jones, who’s got plenty of free time. CP