CREEM editor: Micael Puland/Getty. Photo by: Michael Puland/Getty
JOE STRUMMER and I are sitting in a bar, talking about his band. I ask
him about “I Fought the Law” and its relatively unexpected success on American radio. Doesn’t he think it odd that the one song promising to break the Clash in America is a tune he didn’t even write?
Joe shakes his head in disgust, something he’s been doing quite a bit of. “It just goes to show ya, ya know?” he says.
“I’d just like to say this: America, how is it we make 29 brilliant records and you won’t give us a drop of airplay – and we make one shitty one and you lap it up? How is it? Tell me ... “
Howard Johnson has a lot more going for him than HoJo cola. His hotels, for instance. Right in the middle of beautiful downtown Detroit sits a real beauty of a scrap-heap, the kind of mammoth, overgrown monstrosity that only the Motor City or any other dying metropolis can provide. Vertical, not horizontal, it shoots upward and leaves little room for people to walk about comfortably. The ceiling of each floor’s hallway hangs down ominously, threatening the safe passage of anybody over six feet tall and adding even more to the already-pervasive claustrophobic atmosphere. The view outside – cars and buses streaming in every direction, city construction men attempting to beautify what can’t be beautiful with their jackhammers and sledges – it all says more about Detroit than any chamber of commerce ever could.
In the lobby, we sit waiting for the Clash’s bus to take us to an afternoon soundcheck at the nearby Masonic Temple, tonight’s venue. A well-dressed, fifty-ish man sticks some change into a lobby vending machine as we wait and pulls out a fresh new copy of the latest Penthouse magazine. Outside, a weary-looking black man, old and hunched over, sticks his arm deep into a city garbage can and pulls out a prize – an empty Stroh’s bottle that some unknowing tourist didn’t realize was worth five cents. He sticks it into his half-full burlap sack, throws the sack over his shoulder, and walks on, halfway to his own bottle or halfway to his own copy of Penthouse. Who cares? Welcome to Detroit.
We climb on the bus.
Mick, had you any preconceptions about what America would be like before you come here?
Mick Jones: Yeah, plenty
Mick Jones: Most of my preconceptions were absolutely true.
Mick Jones: Everything’s bigger here. And the food tastes twice as bland. Like the tomatoes, for instance – they’re so big, but they don’t taste like anything. Everything’s been given a shot of something. It doesn’t seem quite real.
How about you, Paul? Any preconceptions about your Detroit audience?
Paul Simenon: I dunno. Only that they must all have cars or something.
Detroit is the Clash’s fourth stop on this, their second American tour. They began at Monterey – an ex-hippie’s failed attempt at recreating the ‘60s festival and a total financial washout – and reportedly went down a storm, pulling in encore after encore. They’ve hit Minneapolis, Chicago a night ago, and tomorrow they’re on their way to Boston. They have a way to go yet, and they want to make sure everything will be running smoothly for tonight’s Detroit show.
At the Masonic Temple, the equipment is already set up. The band goes through several numbers, extending them, obviously less concerned with tightness and more concerned with sound quality. Everything sounds good – the system, the players, the monitor system they weren’t quite sure about – and another part of the band, the less disciplined, more adventurous part, surfaces. They have no one to impress but themselves, and they sound terrific. They ought to do more things like this. In public.
“Clash will one day sell millions of records in America…but in the 1990s.” — Joe Strummer.
Clash bassist Paul Simenon is upstairs relaxing in a Masonic Temple dressing room. The soundcheck is over, and Simenon sits talking to the most spectacularly beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.
Some questions about the band’s new album. The one you just recorded, OK? What were you looking for when you asked Guy Stevens to produce it? “Madness,” Simenon says. “And we found it.”
“Well – he’s just loony.” Simenon points down at the tape recorder. “Like he’d pick this up and just throw it somewhere, ya know? He wouldn’t care.” A smile creeps up on his face. “Like we had this big piano in the studio, right? He poured beer all over it. Once everybody was getting ready to watch Marilyn Monroe films on the telly, right? He started crying. He walked over to the telly, hugged it and then poured beer all over it. And then it blew up. So we didn’t do much telly-watching while we were recording.”
Simenon is extremely happy with the new album, as is the rest of the band. Sandy Pearlman’s production efforts on Give ‘Em Enough Rope, its predecessor, seem to have left no small impression.
“I’m not as pleased with the second album as I’d like to be,” Simenon says. “I dunno ... it’s just like ... “ He pauses. “It doesn’t seem loose enough, that’s all. Seems a bit uptight.”
Mick Jones, who’s just walked into the room, is even harsher. The new album, recorded within two months, slam-bang, in and out of the studio, seems the total antithesis of the carefully measured, laboriously drawn-out Pearlman affair.
“I didn’t realize the significance of how quickly it was done until people kept bringing it up,” says Jones of the new LP. “That’s only because all the records over here take nine years to do. And believe me – the big production, the last one – we’ve done it, we’ve done it the American way, and it don’t work, and it’s a load o’ shit. So we’ve done it the English way now and we’ve got two albums instead of one. And it’s all much better. Guy Stevens is probably the best English producer of the last two decades.”
“Definitely,” says Simenon.
In the Howard Johnson’s bar, Joe Strummer is methodically removing ice cubes from the mixture of orange juice, grenadine and tequila that makes up his Tequila Sunrise. He’s putting them in the ashtray that sits on the table between us, talking about America to yet another anonymous American. He’s also talking about business.
“Clash will one day sell millions of records in America,” he says. “But in the 1990s.”
You plan to stay together that long?
“No,” he grins. “It’ll be like on TV, ya know? Thirty Hits From the Temptations, Twenty-two Highballin’ Truckers’ Hits. It’ll be one of those. Thirty-nine Greats From Old England or Remember the Seventies. Yeah, they’ll buy all that shit – and now, when we need the dough, need it to keep going, we’re gonna get the two fingers. But that’s how you like it over here, don’t you? Repackaged nostalgia.”
Again, Strummer looks disgusted.
“I saw a fuckin’ Jackie Wilson record on sale on the telly, right? And Jackie Wilson’s lyin’ sick ‘n half-dead in a New York hospital, but they’re still floggin’ it. I bet Jackie Wilson don’t see none of the $9.99 that goes for that.”
So what do you think of American audiences so far?
Mick Jones: “Well, they’re pretty receptive, at least on some levels. They seem to listen, they seem to be aware. I mean – it’s not like it’s made out, it’s not like they’re all dummies or something. No, the people that come to our concerts seem to be pretty alive.” What exactly are you talking about?
“The mass American audience that goes to see all the heavy-metal groups and drop quaaludes and throw firecrackers? Man, if that’s representative of America, then you know you’re in shit as well as I do ... “
Joe Strummer is still back at the bar, talking about business, while a nearby cocktail pianist plays Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak.” It’s an interesting scene.
It’s also been fascinating watching Strummer speak. At first, he makes absolutely no eye contact with me – making it painfully obvious that a) he’s only speaking with me because he feels he should, and b) personally, he doesn’t like me in the least. But as he warms up to the subject – record company screw-ups, American screw-ups – he looks me straight in the eye. He’s talking advice now, advice to newer bands who’ve seen the Clash grow and become what they now are. He’s talking about traps on the wayside for new, younger bands, unavoidable corporate politics that might be avoided. Maybe.
“I’d say that there are several smart things you can do,” says Joe. “Number one – set up your own business operation before you start, so that – number two – you can peg your own prices. And I’d say, speaking personally, that it’s a bit of a wind-up to get with a major label. You never make a penny out of it, as far as I can see.”
How would you have done things differently?
“I would have set up my own operation, for a start. You know, my own company, my own publishing, I’d set it up all our own. Maybe we couldn’t in those days, maybe if we did we wouldn’t still be here. I dunno – but if I had a chance to go back and do it again, that’s one thing I’d change, I think. ‘Cause the understanding is virtually nil, and you always are pulling in the opposite direction. Ya know, we pull pretty hard, but we face a battery of 60 lawyers. When we try to get the price down on one of our things we face a battery of 60 lawyers all pullin’ the other way. I just see it as a waste of spirit and effort and time. I think maybe if we got free we’d try to do something like that.” Can you get free? What’re the terms of your contract?
“It’s a 99-year deal with 18 tracks a year. Same sorta contracts like the ones they give at Sing-Sing.”
The bill tonight features not only the Clash but the Undertones, a very young, very talented outfit from Ireland whose debut LP should be out here soon on Sire Records. More than likely, few in the Detroit audience will have ever seen or heard the band before.
Not so with David Johansen. Johansen is to follow the Undertones, and Detroit is very much a New York Dolls stronghold. Johnny Thunders’ recent local gigs with former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer seem to have rekindled interest in what the Dolls have wrought. Detroit is very anxious to see David Johansen.
Have the things the band sung about on the first LP changed much since the record was made?
Paul Simenon: “No, I think those songs still ring pretty true. Probably more so, now. Like ‘Career Opportunities’ – we wrote it a couple of years ago, but the situation about getting jobs is worse, and it’s getting worse. Since Margaret Thatcher’s come in it, I dunno, things aren’t as easy for poor people. Or young people.”
Back in the bar again. Joe’s half-finished his drink and I’m on maybe the sixth or seventh beer of what’s become a very long day, asking If Joe thinks his experiences will ultimately be of any value to anyone but himself.
“At least some buncha jerks will read this article,” he scowls, “if you’re ever gonna write it, that is, and, I dunno, maybe it’ll help ‘em a little, maybe it won’t.
“Actually, I’d like to think that I’ve done all that for a good purpose. So you can pass on a message, so all that bollockin’ around wouldn’t have been in vain. But secretly I have to believe that you cannot tell one person anything – I can’t tell you anything, can’t give you no advice, ‘cause you won’t believe me until it happens to you. Not you personally, but to everybody.
“I mean it’s vice-versa, too, ‘cause I heard things like ‘don’t sign anything.’ Keith Richards, for instance, he did an interview five years ago. ‘Don’t sign anything, kids,’ he said. I read that, ya know, thousands of others like me read it – but I signed the fuckin’ thing. So I’m not sure. Only now I know, ‘cause I been ripped, now I know ‘don’t sign anything,’ but I had to be ripped to get here. Even though I read that before. So I’m not sure that what we’re sayin’ can really help anybody. Not until you’ve really been in it yourself – done in, done over.
“That’s why I don’t mind bein’ done over – ‘cause I know that I’m learning something. Slowly.”
Do you think you might be able to remove yourself from the situation?
“Lissen,” says Joe, “I’m in a situation where I couldn’t even go into a drugstore and get myself a hamburger. So I’m not in any situation I can get myself out of.”
I manage to make it to the Masonic Temple shortly after the Undertones’ set, which apparently met mixed reactions. Barry Meyer, also with the Clash on their debut U.S. tour, is back again between sets spinning 45’s and having a great time. The Detroit audience seems especially feisty, here to witness a headlining band they’ve heard on record, read a lot about, but never actually seen in person. When David Johansen emerges onstage, cheers are heard – but there’s a tacit understanding between the performer and the audience. He’s not the headliner, it’s not really his show, and what happens next is essentially Johansen’s own making.
In short: Johansen is superb. Three encores, Mitch Ryder and Four Tops tunes, even “Personality Crisis.” The audience loves it, totally behind Johansen, totally behind his surprisingly magnetic stage appeal. Fists raised in the air after his third encore, he shouts “DETROIT!!!” into the microphone and the audience shouts just as loudly.
And the Clash are next.
A final trip back to the bar. Joe Strummer is getting ready to leave, I’ve got yet another beer and the day’s third pack of Merit Menthols, a new record. I want to talk about Joe’s record company problems.
Joe, you’ve been saying that you’ve been done in and screwed over and taken advantage of. What exactly is the deal? What do you have to do that’s so terrible? What exactly is the obligation to CBS that’s so unfair you can’t even get a hamburger at a drugstore?
“How do ya mean ‘obligation?’”
I mean what do you have to give ‘em before you’re a free man?
“Preferably they don’t want us to die ... “
Yeah, right, but you said it’s a long-term contract. How long?
“Ninety-nine years. It’s a new kind of contract they’ve come out with to make sure you don’t get away ... “
Yeah, right. Ha ha.
“Look,” says Joe, glaring at me one final time. “All I’m trying to tell you is why the fuck should I tell you about my personal business deals? You asked me about my contract and I tell you it’s 99 years, right? If you had any fuckin’ tact you’d fuckin’ say it was a long one and leave it at that, right? But no, you gotta come back and drivel on about it, ‘how many albums is it’ and all that. These personal business deals are my business and not yours, and not all your readers’, right? I said we got a long contract and we gotta come out with a load of stuff every year, and if you wanna get the fuckin’ precise details, take a lawyer, go up to West 52nd Street, go up to the 21st floor and start there! And by the time you get to the 99th floor you’ll find out!!”
Uhh ... sorry, Joe. You’re just making it sound like you don’t have any kind of control at all. I mean, you must have some kind of artistic control, right?
“No! We’re gonna give that up as well! We decided it’s better – not only is CBS gonna sell the records, we decided it’s better if they make ‘em, too!! You know, it’s better if we just stay in Hawaii or somewhere like that. Maybe we could do one or two photo sessions and let CBS handle the whole thing!!”
Right, Joe. Yeah. Sorry if I offended you and all that –
“Look,” he says, getting up out of his chair, “I gotta do a show in a minute and you’re smokin’ cigarettes and blowin’ the smoke in my face an’ askin’ me questions an’ CLICK!!!”
At this point the tape recorder shuts off. Mainly because Joe pounds on it with his fists.
Life is great.
The Clash open their set with a new tune, a reggae-based thing few people seem familiar with. But as soon as Mick Jones breaks into “I’m So Bored With the USA,” the stage is rushed and the audience is screaming. Things are working as planned: Detroit loves the Clash, the band is tight, and everything each audience member has read and heard about the band is confirmed. And more so.
Until: Joe Strummer starts having problems with his guitar and kicks over his amplifier. Then the band plays “English Civil War” with Mick Jones bringing out an acoustic guitar and strumming while Simenon and drummer Topper Headon play on obliviously. And whatever momentum the Clash has achieved at this point halts altogether. A few unavoidable Detroit “BOOO”s are heard and things are never the same again.
Strummer grabs a microphone and yells, “In England when they don’t like us they throw bottles at us!” Then Paul Simenon sings his new number – another reggae-based thing, already recorded for the new LP – and at the song’s conclusion, a bottle is hurled onstage, followed by a few paper airplanes and a persistent, unrelenting chorus of booing, mixed with applause, that seems to set the band’s nerves on edge.
No matter. Mick Jones’ guitar playing isn’t affected in the least. He easily stands out, at least on this night, as the band’s most capable musician. Topper Headon and Paul Simenon have few problems, and Joe Strummer’s voice, despite the cigarette smoke, holds out just fine – but it’s plainly Mick Jones’ night. Even if no one in the audience seems to realize it.
The band returns for an encore, halfheartedly, and as they finish “Career Opportunities” Strummer grabs the microphone and screams, “WHAT DO YOU WANT US TO PLAY NEXT?” Of course, they don’t return.
As the audience files out of the hall, one angry Clash fan – now, apparently, an ex-fan – screams “The Clash is dead!!” And maybe a few people believe him, maybe a few people don’t.
This time I don’t get back on the bus.
Featured in the December, 1979 issue