It's August 2004. I'm sitting in a private members bar on Portobello Road in west London with Paul Simonon and Mick Jones, both former members of The Clash. Mick is slumped in a voluminous sofa, his skeletal frame on the brink of being swallowed whole by the combination of an oversized pinstripe suit and generous soft furnishings. His receding hair is greased back and his sallow skin appears to shrink around his cheekbones and teeth. He reminds me of Dustin Hoffman's Ratso character in Midnight Cowboy, but with added London cool.
Paul's roguish good looks and sinewy frame have filled out with age. A hat hides his thinning hair and where once he came over as the band's gun-wielding thug, he now has the air of amiable barrow boy-turned-art dealer. He continually leans forward, apparently revelling in the interview limelight. "People only ever wanted the singer or the guitarist in the old days," he complains while tucking into a bowl of chips.
We're here to discuss the reissue of the 1979 album London Calling, the record that saw The Clash flirting with rhythm and blues, reggae, ska and rock - in effect transcending their purist punk-rock origins. It's a record that they're both fiercely proud of. Jones declares it to be "the sound of a real band really in tune with each other" while Simonon talks about "breaking free from what people expected of us."
The story behind the album has been endlessly recounted in the years since it was first released. However, as the beers flow, talk comes round to the impact the band had on so many people. Jones's conversation gradually descends into sniggers and quips while Simonon becomes ever more animated, talking with hazy-eyed nostalgia about the days when The Clash inspired kids to pack up their possessions and leave home in pursuit of the band.
"It's true we connected with so many people in a very meaningful way," says Paul. "What's really nice is that I'll meet people and they'll chat to me like I've known them for ages - but they'll be Clash fans. It's like having this extended network of friends."
Mick chips in: "Ultimately, though, we were just doing what we liked doing, playing the music that we liked - never thought about the effect we were having too much. We never had time to think about it."
So what would you do if your kids ran away from home to follow a band? "I'd probably say 'good for you - go for it,'" says Paul. "But only if it's the Libertines," adds Mick, who is their producer.
I was 14 when I first left home to follow The Clash. It was early 1977 and the impact of punk rock was just beginning to be felt in the nation's classrooms. Like so many kids of my generation the cocktail of punk's apparent unbridled anger and my own hormones proved too potent to contain. In the course of what seemed like only a few weeks my voice broke, I gave my mum cheek, I cut my hair short, converted my flared jeans to drainpipes, acquired baseball boots and a ripped T-shirt, and got beaten up. This was for being "a punk", setting a pattern that was to define the next few years of my life.
My first Clash gig was at the Harlesden Coliseum in 1977. I told my parents I was staying at a friend's house. My friend did the same and we duly "left home". For two kids from the middle-class town of Marlow-on-Thames it seemed like the punk-rock thing to do.
Harlesden Coliseum was decrepit. The fake alabaster decor was in an advanced state of decomposition, the flecked wallpaper peeling off in strips to reveal disintegrating walls. The carpet was sticky underfoot, the air dense with the smell of damp, stale cigarettes and body odour. It constituted the perfect setting for my first encounter with the London punk scene. It also seemed the perfect venue for The Clash, who took the stage to taunts about their newly signed deal with Sony Records. The band's reaction was to deliver a set of all-consuming ferocity.
The picture is still clear in my head: Joe Strummer screwing his face up to snarl at - rather than into - the microphone, his leg pumping uncontrollably like a piston; Mick Jones attacking his guitar and his amp as if he hated them (they kept packing up, as if they hated him); peroxide-blond bassist Paul Simonon swinging his instrument low like a weapon, a slow-burning cigarette hung constantly from his bottom lip in defiance of the laws of physics. It doesn't go away, that kind of imagery, not when you encounter it for the first time.
After the gig I worked up the courage to approach Joe Strummer. He was holding court at a makeshift bar, enjoying a couple of beers and praise for the show. I waited until the crowd thinned, wandered over to him and said hello. He seemed to me to be the epitome of cool in his Clash uniform of heavily stencilled combat gear. But it was his teeth that really compelled my attention. They appeared to be decaying in front of my eyes, ravaged, presumably, by a combination of negligence, bad dentistry and cheap speed. As he spoke a continuous stream of spittle flew from his mouth.
I attempted to make intelligent conversation. I asked him why he sang a song called "White Riot" while the DJ played reggae all night - did it, I wondered, annoy him at all? The spittle turned to froth. Did I not understand that "White Riot" was all about his respect for black people and their stand against oppression? Had I not listened to the lyrics, in which he sang that he wished white people would take the same positive position?
Well, no actually. First of all The Clash hadn't actually released a record at this point so there was no way I could have analysed his lyrics. Secondly, I hadn't grown up in multi-racial Notting Hill Gate. And, despite going to gigs in the multi-racial town High Wycombe, I had never previously been forced to face up to my own inherent racism. It was an attitude that had been born from the simple fact that there were no black people in Marlow. I was ten when I met my first black kid. Some nice white middle-class family had adopted him. I can still remember being told in the playground that if the black kid touched me his colour would rub off on me. Even as a 14-year-old, race riots - or indeed the very concept of "racism" - meant little to me.
So Strummer forced my eyes open. And to confirm my new-found awareness I started drinking Red Stripe in High Wycombe's Rasta pub, The Red Cross Knight, and, when The Clash hit the road again in May 1977, skanked enthusiastically to the band's version of Junior Murvin's roots-rocking classic "Police and Thieves". I became a vocal supporter of the Rock Against Racism movement. And when, in April 1978, The Clash played the RAR Carnival at Victoria Park in Hackney, there I was handing out badges, unquestioningly.
Back in Harlesden, however, the tongue-lashing Strummer meted out went on and on and left me reeling. This was not what one expected of narcissistic rock stars. But he did stop eventually, at which point he put his arm round my shoulders and told me to "piss off 'ome". I stumbled into the Harlesden streets feeling like I'd just been pulled up by a teacher. It was while I reflected sombrely on this that I was knocked cold by another punk and robbed of the £1.20 I had to get home with. It wouldn't have happened, of course, if my attacker had realised that I was now a close friend of Joe Strummer's.
So how exactly did a middle-class kid from a middle-class town come to follow The Clash around? Well, as a young teenager it certainly wasn't their political stance that excited me. At that time the dole meant nothing to me and, as I've already mentioned, I was completely ignorant of any concept of racism.
In retrospect I think I was drawn to the macho air that surrounded the band. It may not appeal much now, but as a teenage boy their tough-guy, outlaw image was something to aspire to. The Clash, far more than the Sex Pistols or the Damned, were a gang. And, more to the point, they made us - their hormonally challenged disciples - feel like we were also part of the same gang. They were, they argued, the same as us and everything about them portrayed an us-against-them attitude. It comes as no surprise to hear, more than 25 years later, Simonon still talking about his "network of friends".
That gang vibe was a key component of the punk "stance". Kids like me were never hard enough to be skinheads. In fact, like most punks, I was happier to write poetry than fight. But like it or not, aggro attended punk wherever it went. The media waged a daily war on us; complete strangers adopted the blood sport of "punk hunting". We just took it on the chin, or wherever else the blows landed, because we had a cause. We were martyrs, the beatings a right of passage. We would show our wounds to younger, aspiring punks. The cuts and bruises were much, much more meaningful than button badges. And we got great stories out of it: I remember bragging about being jumped on by a gang of Teds when in reality a single Elvis impersonator had punched me for spitting at him. We were only reducing ourselves to type. I was a punk: spitting is what we did. He was a Teddy Boy: hitting punks is what they did. He probably told his friends that he'd taken on a gang of us. The fact that we sat next to each other in double-English on a Tuesday afternoon would certainly have been left out of the narrative.
Punk offered the chance of reinvention. We were all keenly downwardly mobile, throwing away what we saw as the entrapments of middle-class life in favour of what we perceived to be working-class attributes. This meant swearing a lot, chewing imaginary gum and sneering at "the straights".
The mad rush to punk self-reinvention was especially notable in the generation about to head off for university. Virtually every 18-year-old went off as a hippy, only to return at Christmas quoting the first Ramones album, hair shortened (side bits still over ears though), styled by Oxfam.
My own three-strong gang comprised Nutty (the son of a toilet-roll salesman), Gerrard (who later became briefly famous for finding an original painting by John Lennon in a skip) and myself. But by the summer of '77 our number had swelled considerably. Among the future DJs, movers and shakers of the late 20th century, Roald Dahl's grandson used to hang out with us. Can't remember his name. He was at Eton at the time. And one of the girls started to bring along her boyfriend. His name was Steve Redgrave, a huge, quiet fellow. He wore a torn school shirt with the names of his favourite punk bands written in ballpoint all over it. But that was as far as he went. He had other interests. He amiably put up with us giving him stick for not being punk enough and puffing up and down the Thames in a rowing boat when he could be going to gigs and changing society.
At the time, the most uncool thing you could be was a "weekend punk". It's what the London cognoscenti called us Thames Valley youngsters, and that's exactly what we were. Correspondingly, in time-honoured anthropological fashion, we would sneer "weekend punk" at anyone who didn't measure up to our exacting standards: wearing the right clothes, buying the right records or being seen at the right gigs. Steve Redgrave was a full day short of qualifying as a weekend punk.
In May 1977 I "left home" on a number of occasions to follow the Clash's "White Riot" tour around the country. These adventures were funded by savings from odd jobs and, of course, Christmas, birthday and pocket money. I even started dealing in second-hand records at school and later, in a particularly enterprising move, selling such bootleg classics as the Sex Pistols' Spunk.
We got to the gigs on a mix of naïvety and bravado. We often hitched and relied heavily on punks in other places for food. We sometimes even managed to grab a sandwich from the band and their entourage. Obviously, there was also a degree of subterfuge involved. In fact, you could say that The Clash taught me to lie convincingly to my parents and, on occasion, to my friends. My entire family were oblivious to what I was up to. Even today my parents refuse to accept that this episode in my life ever took place. At the launch for my most recent book my dad picked up a copy of my biographical blurb and, after reading about my Clash adventures, declared at the top of his voice that "this man is a liar!"
But I was never gone long enough for them to become suspicious. I was, however, now spending enough time in the band's orbit to be on nodding terms with them. Joe I'd come to see less as a pedagogical figure and more as a cool older brother. Paul was always the one I most wanted to be like - he seemed street-tough but indefatigably concerned with the welfare of other people. Mick I was less sure of. His sneer was always unsettling. He had no inhibitions about showing his dislike for us juvenile weekend punks.
But I was having the time of my life. I'd been to Eric's Club in Liverpool and the Electric Circus in Manchester. I'd joined in with my fellows and ripped up chairs at The Rainbow in London (an act that we repeated a year later for Siouxsie and the Banshees) and talked my way backstage on numerous occasions, to chat with Clash iconographer, film-maker and Roxy Club DJ Don Letts. I even blagged my way, blind drunk, into sleeping on the floor of one of the band's hotel rooms in Leicester. To this day I've no idea whose.
In the year that followed I took in a few one-off dates around the country. Each time "leaving home" only to return early the next morning. It was in June, on the 1978 "Clash On Parole Tour", that I decided to bite the bullet and actually run away to follow the band on a permanent basis. The first date was at Aylesbury Friars. I was wearing white jeans, red military jacket (both embellished with home-sewn zips) and ripped Clash T-shirt.
After the gig one of the hangers-on (who I now realise was Ray Gange who starred in the Clash film Rude Boy - although I was studiously indifferent to the ever-present cameras at the time) handed me a button badge giving me backstage access. The dressing room was a whitewashed breezeblock box with mirrors on every wall. The floor was a rubble of beer cans, empty amphetamine wraps and comatose punks. I went straight up to Joe and told him I was coming on the road with the band. He told me to "piss off 'ome" again. Undaunted, I turned up the following night at Queen's Hall in Leeds. This time Joe told me I was an idiot. So I spent the night on the floor of Mick's room, along with a horde of stranded fans eking out their own space among the cans, wraps and guitar cases.
This wasn't the greatest fun in the world and the following day I decided to go home. Paul rather sweetly did offer his floor on future dates if I decided to continue with the tour. However, by now I'd made the discovery that the romance was better than the reality. My bed at home in Marlow was preferable to Mick Jones's hotel-room floor in Leicester and the illusion of being a part of The Clash's extended family had somehow just dissolved. It had never figured in my fantasy that I'd actually have to share the experience with other fans.
In September 1999, at a party to celebrate the release of the posthumously released Clash live album From Here to Eternity, I reminded Joe about the time he stopped me from leaving home. He stared at me, obviously not believing his ears. I went on to explain how that experience had changed my life. His reply was typically direct: "Don't blame me for your life - I don't want that on my shoulders."
"Like Joe said, we were just a band, we didn't want the pressure of everyone else's expectations on us," says Paul Simonon, back again in the Portobello bar in 2004. But I have to leave, to catch the last train home. I make my excuses and a quick exit.
As I reach the door Paul comes running after me with his phone number. "If you've missed it, give me a call and you can kip at ours." I feel like I'm 14 again - but I go home anyway.
'London Calling, the 25th Anniversary Edition' is out now on Columbia recordsReuse content