On Enemy Ground

The Clash: Live at Shea Stadium

With the sheer over-saturation of Clash related material out there, Sony’s release of Live at Shea Stadium is most definitely a last-ditch effort to squeeze every last drop out of modern-day Clash nostalgia. Coming not too far behind Julien Temple’s The Future is Unwritten, Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song, and a veritable mountain of reissues and remasters, it’s hard to think that Live at Shea isn’t just a textbook example of a major record label behaving, well, like a major record label.

Normally such a move would provoke all the derision this writer can muster. Live at Shea is an exception, however, for two reasons. One: this is The Clash! This is the band that politicized punk rock from its very inception, and brought rebellion back to rock ‘n’ roll in a way that still inspires to this very day.

Two: the album is a glimpse into a period in the band’s history that was simultaneously exalting and tragic — between things begun and ended, between the power of great music and ideas and the power of right-wing fear and reaction.

The Clash’s decision to open up for the Who on the mega-stars’ “farewell” tour of American stadiums in the fall of ’82 was itself an ideological quandary. The Clash was the biggest they had ever been, and were arguably one of the biggest groups in the world. Combat Rock was proving to be their most successful release to date, and was fast on its way to platinum status.

It seemed that the band’s incendiary message was reaching more people than ever before. For a group poised to take over the world, a stadium tour seemed the logical next step. For a group that had always taken an unflinching radical stance, though, stadium tours represented all that was wrong with rock ‘n’ roll. Everything from the flashy stage shows to the overpriced tickets smacked of how capitalism was ruining music.

Furthermore, as biographer Pat Gilbert puts it, “The group had always preferred the intimacy of medium-size venues. It was this philosophy of being able to see and communicate with their audience that lay behind their week-long residencies at modest venues . . .” In other words, stadiums were where all the democracy and solidarity of music was crushed by piles of cash and elitism.

The Clash justified the move by figuring (and rightly so) that the tour was a way to reach even more people. Sound logic, no doubt. The America that The Clash was returning to had entered a new and scary era. The rightward drift of official politics in the US mirrored the same in Britain. A year and a half into his presidency, Reagan had already crushed the air traffic controllers’ strike and signaled that he had more of the same in store for women, Blacks, and anyone who dared defy the new Washington consensus.

Combat Rock was filled with impassioned calls-to-arms, urging young people to dig their heels in and resist the upcoming onslaught. In an interview years later, Joe Strummer would recall his thoughts on the advent of Reagan/Thatcher: “[When] Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of England and Ronald Reagan became President of the U.S. . . . it was hard to tell who would be worse, but we knew that a tremendous struggle was ahead . . . their tendencies leaned to the far-right if not fascism.”

* * * * *

When The Clash took the stage at Shea on October 13th, rain was coming down in sheets. The prospect of playing in front of 50,000 screaming fans was indeed daunting. Bass player Paul Simonon recalls that “it felt a bit like miming because there were so many people there.”

Yet listening to the album today, one would never guess that the group was so nervous. Footage of the gig shot by documentarian Don Letts shows the four members throwing themselves around the massive stage with the same swagger and confidence that they brought to the countless club dates they had performed in previous years. Strummer even jokes with the audience at one point: “Will you stop talking at the back, please? It’s too loud. It’s putting us off the song, here! We’re trying to concentrate so stop yakking!”

The moments of raw power and vitality are numerous on Live at Shea. The opening notes of “London Calling” are punched out so forcefully they could shatter concrete. “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” possesses a rolling raucousness that can’t even be heard in the studio recording. And “Career Opportunities” — the only song from their first album played that night — carries all the immediacy it had when it was first performed by four unemployed punks in North London five years previously.

By the time the group finish off their set with a blistering version of “I Fought the Law,” they are holding the audience in the palm of their hand.

And yet, it’s also apparent that this is a band not too far from disintegration. Just prior to the tour the group had sacked drummer Topper Headon due to his growing heroin addiction, thus putting an end to the “classic” Clash lineup. Terry Chimes, drummer for The Clash on their first album, had been brought in as a last minute replacement.

The sudden change in personnel is evident on some tracks. While Headon had a background in myriad musical styles, Chimes was much more of a straight rock drummer. While he pulls-off the rap and dub beats during the group’s medley of “Magnificent Seven” and “Armagideon Time,” his playing is hollow and often sluggish.

Other more prominent schisms within the group are evident too. Those familiar with the group’s version of Eddy Grant’s “Police On My Back” will notice a section of the song when Mick Jones’ lead guitar part is strangely missing. The story here is that Strummer had walked up to Jones and physically grabbed the neck of his guitar to prevent him from playing.

The rift between Jones and the rest of the group had been growing for quite some time. He had disagreed with bringing original manager Bernie Rhodes back on board. He claims to have merely “gone along” with Topper’s sacking. And his original mix of Combat Rock had been shelved in favor of bringing Glynn Johns in to produce the final version.

Chimes was privy to how this bitterness was affecting the daily workings of The Clash: “By then Joe and Mick obviously had a difference of opinions on a range of things . . . They had devised a system where they didn’t have to confront each other all the time — there was an avoidance going on, which covered up the fact there were deeper issues there.”

* * * * *

Less than a year after the concert at Shea, Jones was kicked out of The Clash. That a founding member whose songwriting and virtuosity on the guitar had been an indispensable part of the group could be kicked out was evidence that their existence had become increasingly rudderless.

Combat Rock’s defiant protest hadn’t been enough to stave off the consolidation of Reagan/Thatcherism. As the heated struggles of the ’70s were pushed into bitter defeat, anyone with The Clash’s firebrand left-wing politics was forced into either abject obscurity or milquetoast compromise.

Compromise was never something The Clash was good at, and they continued to soldier on sans Jones. But with the movements that had long inspired The Clash — from the anti-racist forces to the Sandinistas — fighting for their very survival, the ground on which they stood became shakier by the day. It didn’t take long for one of rock’s most relevant groups to become a caricature, a music industry parody of what a “left-wing” band is supposed to look like.

“The worst moment was realizing that there was no way forward,” said Strummer some years later, “like the gap between rhetoric and the actuality. For example, talking about all the issues that The Clash raised and what your daily life would have been like if we’d have stayed together. . . You know, you’d never really have a life that would be real and yet you’d be expected to say something real about life to real people and make some real sense.”

Not long after the release of their universally panned follow-up to Combat Rock, the group would call it a day. The concert at Shea would simultaneously be their apex and the beginning of the end for The Clash.

One can’t help but listen to Live at Shea Stadium without remembering Strummer’s quip that “rock ‘n’ roll is played on enemy ground.” If a group like the Clash can walk into the belly of the beast and bring the same verve and immediacy that they delivered to anyone who ever listened to them is a testament to the power of truly great music. Knowing that they would be among the many brilliant political acts that imploded in the Reagan ‘80s makes these fleeting and final moments of greatness all the more prescient.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.