Was Punk Rock For Sale?
Spencer J. Quinn
The Clash at the 1983 US Festival
On Memorial Day weekend, 1983, The Clash held their final concert. It was a meaningful one aside from that, given that it was part of a four-day festival in San Bernardino, California that featured some of the most popular music acts in the world at the time. The Clash headlined what was called New Wave Day on Saturday, May 28, and played to perhaps 100,000 people in the stifling heat. Organized by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the second US Festival (which is pronounced like the pronoun, and that reprised the inaugural event from September of the previous year) was an attempt to merge cutting-edge pop with cutting-edge technology, where concertgoers could listen to music as well play the latest video games in air-conditioned tents. It didn’t quite work out that way, since the majority of the fans just wanted to get high and party.
It was not exactly The Clash’s scene, and front man Joe Strummer tried to make everyone aware of this between songs during his band’s brilliant, if somewhat petulant, set. This performance was memorable not merely for the music — which included some the band’s best work — but also for Strummer’s tone-deaf attempts at lecturing the crowd out of its hedonism and apathy. What might work in front of unemployed, disaffected youths in a working-class pub in England is probably going to harsh a few buzzes in sunny California. But Strummer didn’t seem to care. Before launching into “London Calling,” he told the audience:
All right, then. Here we are in the capital of the decadent US of A! This here set of music is now dedicated to making sure that those people in the crowd who have children, there is something left here for them later in the centuries!
Well, all right! This is exactly what a young customer wants to hear after shelling out his parents’ hard-earned cash for an evening’s pop music entertainment. Then again, this is The Clash. They never were mere entertainers, were they?
After a haunting, frenetic rendition of “Somebody Got Murdered,” sung by Mick Jones (an ironic moment given that someone did get murdered at the festival the following day), Strummer pontificated:
I know the human race is supposed to get down on its knees in front of all this new technology and kiss the microchip’s circuits, but it don’t impress me overmuch when there ain’t nothing but a “You buy! You make! You buy! You die!” That’s the motto of America! . . . And I tell you those people out in East LA, they ain’t gonna stay there forever. And if there’s anything gonna be in future, it’s gonna be from all parts of everything, not just one white way down the middle of the road. So if anybody out there ever grows up, FOR FUCK’S SAKE!
So Joe Strummer was not happy. Why? The band hadn’t wanted to play at the festival to begin with, but were somehow roped into it. They were originally promised that the ticket prices would be $17, and were annoyed when that figure got bumped up to $25. Also, they were not pleased that Van Halen, who would headline Heavy Metal Day the following evening, were getting paid $1.5 million to perform. This is perhaps one reason why The Clash went on stage beneath a big banner which read, “THE CLASH IS NOT FOR SALE.”
And you know who else wasn’t happy? Mick Jones — but he seemed most unhappy with Strummer. After chugging through “Guns of Brixton,” Strummer was about to launch into another tirade (at 19:48 in the video) when Jones simply cut him off with the opening chords of “Know Your Rights.”
Strummer then shut up and sang for the next 15 minutes or so, and even at one point urged some “hostility” from the audience — but in a heartfelt, friendly kind of way. “I need some feeling of some sort! Yeah! Some collective, you know, hey, we’re all alive at the same time at once, you know?”
One high point comes at 33:58, when Strummer segued into The Clash’s unreleased song “Jericho,” which is a hop-stepping, power-chord spiritual, complete with a Chuck Berry solo from Jones. It’s a strikingly unique tune, even by The Clash’s high standards.
Perhaps this is why Strummer returned to the pulpit moments later:
I suppose, uh, you don’t want to hear me going about this and that and what’s up my ass, huh? Try this on for size. “Well, hi, everybody! Ain’t it groovy?” Ain’t you sick of hearing that for the last 150 years? Look, I know you’re all standing there looking at the stage. But I’m here to tell you that the people that are on this stage, and are gonna come on, and have been on it already, we’re nowhere! Absolutely nowhere! Can’t you understand that?
Got it? Everyone performing at the second US Festival, including The Clash, were apparently nowhere. I’m sure the concert organizers and other performers — to say nothing of the paying customers — loved to hear that little piece of advertising.
Then, as if to prove himself wrong, Strummer and The Clash ripped through the remainder of what was a brilliant set: “Safe European Home,” “Police on my Back,” “Brand New Cadillac,” “I Fought the Law,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “Train in Vain,” “Clampdown” — a selection of their best work, faultlessly performed. Despite Strummer’s abrasive attitude, the crowd cheered mightily when it was over and waited in vain for an encore. They had to be told over the intercom that, like Elvis, The Clash had left the building.
With nearly 40 years of hindsight, we can see that Strummer did have a point, however. Who were the acts preceding The Clash on New Wave Day? It was Divinyls, INXS, Oingo Boingo, Wall of Voodoo, The Stray Cats, The English Beat, and Men At Work. Anyone remember them? There’s some tolerably good pop music in there, I’m sure, but nothing with The Clash’s urgency and staying power. And the same could be said for the heavy metal acts the following day: Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpion, Triumph, and Van Halen. If you’re into metal, I’m sure this lineup was about as good as you could get in 1983, but nobody would have gone to these bands for insight on what was happening in the world back then, let alone now.
Rock Day that Monday had some more substantial acts, including Los Lobos, The Pretenders, Joe Walsh, Stevie Nix, U2, and David Bowie. Calling these people “nowhere” might be a bit harsh, since many of them did make lasting music. But with the possible exception of U2, which had just released its hit record War, none of them could compete with The Clash when it came to piss and vinegar, when it came to screeching truth to power, and all that. None of them were punks. The Clash had been geniuses at keeping that seething outsider attitude while maturing as a band. They ended up being as musically eclectic as the Rolling Stones, yet maintained their subversive edge. They never turned their backs on melody, harmony, and all that other stuff that makes music so nice. But with them, it was more than all that, wasn’t it? As Lester Bangs pointed out, “The Clash are authentic because their music carries such brutal conviction, not because they’re Noble Savages.”
What other rock band could we say that about?
In many ways, we can look at The Clash at the US Festival as the last, dying gasp of the 1970s, when most of the Rock n’ Roll Overton window could still appeal to mainstream audiences. Remember in 1979, when The Ramones appeared on Sha Na Na? By 1983, however, corporate rock had more or less taken over. It seemed that most popular acts were competing with each other to see who could be the shallowest or most irrelevant while moving the most units with their polished pop music. Meanwhile, the new wave/alternative scene, the classic 1970s punks’ inheritors, began repelling mainstream audiences with music designed to appeal only to their snooty, college-educated cliques. Bands like Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, and Sonic Youth were a hard sell for people who admired the production values and tonality of The Beach Boys and The Beatles. After The Clash, the only 1980s band that had the potential for artistic integrity and mainstream success, The Replacements, just couldn’t be bothered, it seemed, to take their work to that level.
The only person who seemed aware of all this back then was Joe Strummer. He acted like a humorless, self-important scold, and said a few cringy things — but he wasn’t wrong, was he? Peering back 40 years through the Internet, one can appreciate his concerns about the future, which were quite prescient. We can appreciate his loathing of degeneracy and commercialism, which are bad for one’s soul, despite his strident Left-wing moralizing. Seriously, has degeneracy and commercialism in our mainstream culture gotten any better since then? Joe Strummer deserves credit for noting the rot before almost everyone else had.
We can also appreciate Strummer’s emphasis on race, which made him and The Clash suis generis in the rock world. I wrote about this very thing in relation to The Clash’s terrific “Safe European Home,” which might be the greatest racial rock song of all time. “Those people out in East LA” didn’t stay there forever, did they? These days, they’re effectively running California. And as for that “one white way down the middle of the road,” whites today are beginning to see what it feels like to be on the gravelly shoulder. It’s no fun, is it? Perhaps if the concertgoers at the US Festival in 1983 had paid more heed to Joe Strummer and less to David Lee Roth the following evening, when he chugged a bottle of Jack Daniels and stumbled around the stage while forgetting the lyrics to his songs, then maybe things would be a little better today.
At the very least, the legions of Clash fans can point to Joe Strummer’s ghost and say, “I told you so.” The Clash was never for sale.
Only, they were.
I’d like to end this essay here, vindicating one of my all-time favorite bands on a triumphant, if somewhat melancholy, note, but something happened during The Clash’s performance that night which deserves mention. Unfortunately, no photographs or video evidence of it exists on the Internet, so we have to rely on word of mouth from people who were actually there.
In response to one of Strummer’s rants, the festival organizers decided to do something clever. On the screen behind the band while they were still playing, they projected a photo of the $500,000 check written out to The Clash in return for their services that evening. That’s $125,000 per band member for what amounted to one hour and 15 minutes of work. $100 grand an hour — and excuse me, but who is not for sale? Yeah, I know, there were roadies, agents, and management to pay. There were taxes, transportation, food, hotel, and the like as well. Would it be wrong to assume that each band member pocketed $70,000 that evening? That’s over $208,000 in today’s money.
Yet, Joe Strummer was still pissed off.
Of course, I don’t begrudge my boys financial success. I hope the surviving Clash members and Strummer’s widow are set for life and then some. And if Strummer had simply kept his socialist yap trapped that evening, no one would have said anything. But lecturing an unwilling audience about the evils of decadence and commercialism while sitting on top of a $500,000 paycheck is what the kids today call a bad look. You cannot get around that.
I don’t think any of this harms The Clash’s musical legacy, or that of the band members themselves. This is little more than a droll anecdote when compared to their music’s timeless quality. There’s also the irony that the biggest loser in all of this (aside from the poor bastard who got murdered) was Steve Wozniak, who blew around $25 million putting on both festivals. The fact that some of the biggest acts in the world were able to play in one place and at one time for an affordable price because of the poor business sense — or neglectful munificence — of a Silicon Valley billionaire does rather shed a whole new light on this “decadent US of A” business, doesn’t it?
This affair also reminds me of The Clash’s main competition in the United Kingdom’s punk scene back in the 1970s. In 1977, The Sex Pistols released their classic album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and then famously disbanded the following year. (Coincidentally, their last performance was in California as well.) If it didn’t quite predict The Clash’s downfall, which was well in progress during the US Festival, Never Mind the Bollocks does offer brilliant commentary on the things that were torturing Joe Strummer’s soul six years later.
Never Mind the Bollocks can be described as a superheated, boiling mixture of contempt, derision, outrage, and disgust aimed at all things complacent and bourgeois about Western culture at the time. England has no future; there’s anarchy in the UK; the Queen ain’t no human being — you know the drill. Who wants holidays in other people’s misery while the Berlin Wall is still standing? Who can’t scream their bloody fucking heads off when there are so many liars and vacant people lying around? And don’t get Johnny Rotten started on what he thinks about abortions.
And then . . . and then! As if they were about to run out of things to bash, The Sex Pistols decided to devote the final song on the record to abusing their record label. Why not? And the lyrics are right out of the Joe Strummer playbook. They complain that EMI is concerned only with profits, and are so cocksure in their power and their “unlimited supply” that they can afford to exploit an innocent band like The Sex Pistols. But, as Mr. Rotten informs us so indignantly, The Sex Pistols are not for sale. “We are ruled by none!” he snarls:
And you thought that we were faking
That we were all just money making
You do not believe we are for real
Or you would lose your cheap appeal
Don’t judge a book just by its cover
Unless you cover just another
And blind acceptance is the sign
Of stupid fools who stand in line
“EMI” is an exquisite rock song, perhaps the best on the record and one of the greatest of all time. It’s edgy, energetic, catchy, and it gets better the louder you play it — the sign of any great rock song. It’s also sung impeccably by Rotten, who could roll his R’s better than Hitler. But that ending! In perhaps the most powerfully ironic moment in the history of recorded music, Johnny Rotten ends his anti-capitalist, anti-commercialist diatribe with uncharacteristic open arms and a very characteristic Bronx cheer:
At first, a baffling conclusion. Who or what is A&M? And then it sinks in. A&M is a competitor of EMI — as in A&M Records. But why say hello EMI and goodbye to A&M? Haven’t The Sex Pistols been reviling EMI along with pretty much everything else all this time? Why the sudden reverse?
Then it sinks in again: money. EMI finally offered The Sex Pistols enough money, and so kept them from going to A&M, who presumably could not match’s EMI’s offer. And what does that mean? It means the entire “EMI” song is a lie. All this talk about unlimited supply and stupid fools was just nonsense. EMI isn’t such a bad company after all. Despite what they claim, The Sex Pistols had been faking and moneymaking all along.
You can extrapolate from the whole record in the same way. If “EMI” is bullshit, then so is “Anarchy in the UK,” “God Save the Queen,” and the rest. All that profane indignation was just an act. When it’s over, Never Mind the Bollocks unravels like no other record or work of literature I’ve ever encountered. It completely discredits itself by artfully stating (or, really, not stating) that nothing means anything when compared to the bottom line!
This is what Joe Strummer meant when he said that everyone performing on stage during the US Festival 40 years ago was “absolutely nowhere.” He was appalled by the crass commercialism of the music industry, which was fueled by the all-too-human weaknesses of greed and narcissism. Despite the splendid music his band continued to produce, most people couldn’t tell the difference.
And there was nothing he could do about it — not least because he and his $500,000 check were part of the same system. All he could do was gripe, and come to the regrettable conclusion that all artists must face sooner or later: When the money is right, everything is showbiz.
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