THEY CAME FROM GARAGELAND
Life with the Clash was about as wild as it gets in rock 'n' roll. And road manager . Johnny Green lived it every gig of the way. Twenty years later he's telling the story
Sunday 03 August 1997
THE MESSAGE had gradually filtered through that Bernie had been negotiating with CBS about the second Clash album. He had told us about the plans with an enthusiasm that was not really shared by the band. It was apparent that CBS, perhaps seeing the way that raw punk had mellowed into well- produced "new wave" music, wanted an album with no expense spared on production that would appeal to the American market and assimilate the Clash into the mainstream.
"They want Sandy Pearlman to produce it," he told us. Mick the muso was keen to play about in a "proper" recording studio, and for the Clash to break America. The others went along with him.
Pearlman had produced American rock band Blue Oyster Cult, who were touring Britain. CBS arranged for the Clash camp to see the band at the Hammersmith Odeon. Sitting to watch a band at a huge rock venue strongly associated with early-Seventies "progressive" rock acts wasn't the Clash's style. Topper watched the drummer, all the time tapping his hands on the seat- arms and his knees; Paul stared around the audience looking, vainly, for someone with style; Mick got into the music-making, if not the music, listening to where the guitars and drums kicked into the songs, checking what amps and guitars the band used. Joe and I sloped off to the bar mid- song. We found it almost deserted, ashtrays overflowing, the uniformed barman making towers of plastic glasses, striped with the yellow and brown dregs of unfinished pre-gig drinks. There were one or two Blue Oyster Cult fans with long hair, satin bomber jackets and stack heels strutting about.
I said, "We're just watching an empty spectacle. There's nothing really going on there." Joe agreed: "Yeah. How is it that American rock'n'roll bands don't cut it, when Elvis, Bo Diddley and all come from there? Now they ain't got no fire in their belly."
"I hope you don't end up sounding like that with Pearlman producing the album."
"No, Jones will see to that. We won't let him. I don't know nothing about production, but I trust Jones to take care of Pearlman. We know what we want."
"Why the fuck are you working with him, though? He wears a baseball cap and Earth shoes!"
"It don't matter, Johnny. So long as we make our point. It's what we're saying and how we do it that counts, and the better it sounds the more people will hear it, y'see? He can't touch our music, only the sound of it. That's why we are here. That's why we are flirting with this stuff."
I found it all repugnant - the Blue Oyster Cult T-shirts and merchandise for sale, the noise of the songs filtering through layers of fire doors into the bar, the veneer of American rock glamour. I knew what Joe was getting at, though, and hoped he wouldn't be let down.
Soon after the concert we all went to a reception to meet Pearlman and our American CBS stablemates. We were very out of place - the members of the other band were standing about sipping champagne, with their coiffured hair, flared suits and wives and girlfriends wearing cocktail dresses. They were all tiny; even in their stack heels they made Topper look tall. The whole do was very showbiz, very self-congratulatory; vol-au-vents and profiteroles were everywhere. We stood in a corner, sneering. We didn't like what we were seeing, and Bernie's doctrine, passed on to the Clash, was that the opposite of like was hate. We were not going to smarm around a man who had changed his name to Buck Dharma! Food started flying about. A guy spotted a cream cake hurtling towards him and ducked. His wife copped it, smack on the chest. Her day was ruined. He was angry.
"Who the fuck threw that?"
He squared up to us - a bunch of louts in the corner. We were used to confrontation. He wasn't. Dear Ellie Smith, the press officer, defused the situation with her charm. We left and headed for the nearest back- street boozer. Joe and Mick were still confident that they could use Sandy Pearlman to their own ends. Paul had loved the laugh. "What a pompous balloon we burst!'
As always when the Clash faced a new challenge, they went back to their roots as a live band, and I was asked to set up a few impromptu gigs, which Bernie thought would also give Pearlman a chance to see the band perform and get a taste of what he needed to capture on record.
One of these was in the sports hall at Lanchester Polytechnic, near Coventry. The dressing room was a sports changing room, with tiled walls and floor. Someone had had the bright idea of putting Crocker on the door. It was hectic backstage, as with any thrown-together gig, but eventually we had improvised enough to get all the amps, lights and mikes set up, and I started clearing the dressing room of hangers-on so the band could prepare for their performance. There was a knock at the door. "What?" said Crocker.
"What d'you want?"
"I just came to say hi to the guys."
"Well, you can't. Fuck off, mate."
After some to-ing and fro-ing Pearlman burst into the room. He just had time to say hi before Crocker whacked him. Crocker could fight, as he had proved in many bars, gigs and motorway service stations. Pearlman went down, blood streaming on to his shirt and the floor. We all tried to stifle sniggers, except Bernie, who ran across to Pearlman and pulled out his linen handkerchief to dab at his face. He called for water and started cleaning him up. We were amazed. The Clash stepped over Pearlman's supine, groggy figure and hit the stage. It was usually my job to fire the band up before a gig. This time Crocker had done it for me. I don't think he ever said sorry to Pearlman. So far, we had met Pearlman on his own territory, and he had met us on ours. Both times it had been a disaster.
This short Midlands tour helped to road-test the Give 'Em Enough Rope material, but I was sad about a missed opportunity. The TV show Tiswas was always a good reason for getting up on Saturday mornings. It was a kids show, but acquired a cult following of adults. The Clash - the band that wouldn't do Top of the Pops - had really hustled to get on the show while we were in the Midlands. Eventually they were invited to appear, and were really excited about it. We were going to meet Chris Tarrant, Lenny Henry, Spit the Dog and Sally James, the sexy leather-clad co-presenter. It was a live show, and come that Saturday morning, Mick wouldn't get up. At a hurried conference, we decided that Joe and Paul would go to the show, Topper and Mick would stay behind. And I would stay to look after them. We kicked around the hotel in Birmingham, and watched the show on TV. Joe and Paul were "put in the cage" on Tiswas. It looked great fun. I sulked and drank. I felt like someone had nicked my Cup Final ticket. But Mick was unrepentant. For him, when he surfaced from bed, nothing had happened. He couldn't understand why I was upset. As far as he could see, this television show was just a silly aside to the main business of making music, and in a way he was right. But I was in it for the crack ...
THE CLASH were good, but it took a big event to make them realise just how big they had become.
The band were a late addition to the bill at the Anti-Nazi League rally in Victoria Park, London, which included Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, punk poet Patrick Fitzgerald and the Tom Robinson Band. We had already heard about and discussed the open-air concert, organized in response to the growing strength of the National Front. John Dennis, the ANL organiser, had approached Joe about doing the gig. His angle was flattering. He said the whole event would have more clout if the Clash were involved. The band agreed to do it, but were worried about the pure practicalities of playing to a huge crowd in a flat field in the middle of the afternoon - something we hadn't done before. We were always very careful to be in control of the music and how it was presented.
Mick said, "Do they know what they're doing? Are they capable of organising something this big?"
But that wasn't the real problem. The event was about more than just music, and we all realised that and discussed it endlessly. Just whose pole were the Clash tying their flag to? Was there a left-wing group behind the Anti-Nazi League? Would the Clash be seen to be endorsing their politics?
Bernie fanned the flames of doubt. "Are they sure they know what they're doing?" he asked me on the phone. "Do they really want to be knocking about with these student types? Isn't it all a bit safe and cosy? Aren't they preaching to the converted? And what's it going to achieve?"
It was all part of his strategy, keeping people on their toes, making them ask questions, not just toeing the line, even if the line did appear to be radical. I told Joe Bernie's views.
He said, "Yeah, but tell Bernie people have gotta walk before they run. If people get out of their bedsits for the day it'll have achieved something. If they think about politics just enough for 'em to know they hate fascists, that's something." John Dennis was mild-mannered, neat and conventional. He looked more like a lecturer than a student. He phoned me and fired questions: "What will you need? What are your requirements backstage? What sound equipment will you need?" I said we would be all right with whatever the other bands were using. "Don't worry about us, we'll fit in." I reported his concern back to Bernie, who uttered the dreaded words: "What about the backdrop?"
The bloody backdrop, of a fighter plane, was the bane of mine and the Baker's lives on the road, and a source of hilarity to the Clash. Not only was it heavy to lug into position on awkwardly shaped stages - and every stage was awkwardly shaped - we then had to cover it with black polythene sheeting, and, seconds before the band came on stage, balance precariously behind it on whatever we could find, ready to unwrap it, like the Queen unveiling a plaque at a hospital, just as the applause started - usually while Mick and Joe screamed for last-minute adjustments to their guitars ...
I had to get back on to Dennis and ask about the height of the stage roof, its width, how much room at the back ... He didn't know, and it threw a spanner in the works, leading to much practical and technical discussion. Soon it became the only thing about the show that Bernie cared about.
Appearances were all-important to him. He had recently screeched to a halt beside me as I hurried up Parkway. "Nice quiff, Johnny," he said. I had just shelled out a fiver in Evans' gentleman's hairdressers for a two-back one-forward roll-over the back, so I was chuffed. But he screeched off again before I could get down to business.
He called me just days before the show. "Listen, can you get hold of a cheap van for the Victoria Park gig?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. What for?"
"You've got to take a film crew with you."
On the morning of the show I had to go out and pick up the van - the cheapest I could find in Greater London - from a company known to us as Avawreck. It broke down three times on the way from Rickmansworth (via Camden) to Hackney, with the backdrop tied on the roof because it was too big to go inside. As we approached the park, the Baker started moaning.
"Oh, look at the state of that," he wailed, pointing at a bloke with a beard in a grey woolly. The Baker was a bit of a snappy dresser in his own idiosyncratic style. He had had little contact with student life and confronting it en masse was a shock to him.
The gear was set up smoothly. This wasn't the sort of day for detailed soundchecks. Me and the Baker just used our judgement. We went to pick up the band. They were all excited about the show. As we drove in through the crowds it started to sink in that this was big - not just big, but huge. It was different to anything we had ever done before. There were columns of cops, blokes with collecting buckets, blokes selling Socialist Worker, giant trade-union banners, leather jackets, tweed jackets, green hair, no hair.
There was a jaunty atmosphere in the changing rooms of the old lido. All the performers were in there together, and there was a feeling of unity - united both behind the anti-National Front cause the show was promoting, but united in being part of the anti-Establishment. This wasn't Live Aid. There was a lot of good-natured banter. Mick walked in wearing a peaked cap, looking like a bus conductor. Someone shouted, "Did you come by bus? Tickets please!"
There was general mock horror when people realised he was going to wear it on stage (eventually he threw it frisbee-like into the crowd after a couple of numbers). With all the musicians about we barely noticed the addition of Dave Mingay and his film crew to our team. They were starting filming what was to become Rude Boy. Bernie had vaguely mentioned something about the filming, and they were the last thing on my mind that day. It was a shambles backstage, like a huge student gig, except for the professional entourage of the Tom Robinson Band. They were a pro outfit, and as far as they were concerned it was the Anti-Nazi League starring the Tom Robinson Band. Now we liked the guy - we took the piss out of his ground-breaking homosexual stance by shouting: "Backs to the walls, boys", when he came in the dressing room." He laughed with us - it was his road crew that were the cold, clinical professionals. His band did what his roadies said, and it was our first whiff of organised efficiency - punk professionalism.
Minutes before the Clash were due on stage, I was running up and down the steps at the back of the plank-and-scaffolding platform - the price paid to allow people at the back of the crowd to see the bands is having a very high stage. I was worried that Strummer might forget where he was and dive into the audience. A security man came up to me and said there was a woman looking for me.
"Ain't I lucky?"
"She says she's got your children with her." And there, peeping through the barbed-wire-topped fence at the far side of the stage, was my ex-wife, who lived near the park with my two daughters. I organized with the security men to get them through, and settled them safely in the wings, where I wouldn't normally let anybody stand. There's a five-second glimpse of them in Rude Boy, as the Clash come on stage. I felt quite proud that my kids had come to see Daddy at work. A guy in a silk tour jacket - a Tom Robinson roadie - said, "Who let those kids up here?'
I said, "I did. So what? Fuck off."
Those Tom Robinson boys wanted to call all the shots. They couldn't handle our more maverick approach.
Master of ceremonies Barry Myers, who we knew as a DJ at Dingwalls, introduced the Clash. They ran on stage, fast as always, no twiddling with amps, straight into the first song. As always, I watched their faces closely, looking for any signals that they needed something. I saw their looks of delight freeze into fixed grins at the sudden realization of the size of the crowd, filling the park as far as the eye could see, heaving and bobbing to the music. The Clash's set was remarkable, but as I watched I became more and more aware that the Tom Robinson team were looking at their watches, shaking their heads, as cold as ice. Then, suddenly, the music stopped. Joe, Mick, Paul, all looked round at me. I didn't know what had happened. I was afraid. I knew nothing about electrics. I would have to go on stage in front of a crowd of 80,000 and try to fix ... whatever it was that was wrong. I saw the Scottish TRB road manager standing threateningly over the plug board. I knew immediately what had happened. I ran on stage to Strummer saying, "They've pulled the plug," then back to the road manager. I shaped to hit him, then dived under him and replaced the plug. I grabbed Steve English, Johnny Rotten's mate and minder, and asked him to guard the plugs. No one would dare move him. Jimmy Pursey came on stage, dressed like a reject from Billy Smart's circus, to join the Clash in singing "White Riot". The crowd roared once more. Pursey's band, Sham 69, were notorious for their skinhead following. The audience saw his appearance on stage at this gig as nailing his colours to the mast. I heard Jack Hazan, filming for Mingay just behind my shoulder, mutter, "Unbelievable. The hair's standing up on my neck."
Dave Mingay had grown mischievous. As I cleared our gear from the stage, he said to Ray Gange, whose part in Rude Boy was to be filmed as a Clash fan: "You don't want to hear the Tom Robinson band. I bet the crowd don't either. Why don't you ask them?"
So Ray ran on stage and started geeing up the audience. "We want more Clash ..." Tom Robinson's road manager said, "Get this idiot off." And he was bundled away.
There was a slight sour taste in our mouths, but it soon disappeared in the jubilation backstage. We had done our set as arranged, and it wasn't our fault it had overrun. But the enormity of the event was such that a little egotism couldn't spoil it. Driving home with the band, everyone was delighted, excited and chattering. It was one thing to sell out a gig in a 1,500 capacity hall, another to play before a crowd of 80,000, all going crazy. It began to sink in that the Clash were big. And Bernie's only input into the show had been quibbling about the backdrop.
! Extracted from 'A Riot of Our Own', published by Indigo in paperback, at pounds 8.99, on 27 Aug JOE STRUMMER
Guitarist, vocalist and co-songwriter with Mick Jones. Born John Mellor, Strummer was a boarding-school boy who left early to form the 101ers before the Clash took off in 1976. Now 44 - he is three years older than the other band members - Strummer lives in Hampshire and still makes music.
Guitarist, vocalist and co-songwriter. Jones had grown up in Brixton and formed the London SS before joining forces with Strummer. Left the Clash in 1983 and went on to form Big Audio Dynamite, now called Big Audio. He lives in London.
Also from Brixton, the stylish, handsome Simonon can take much of the credit for the Clash's look. The group's bassist, he had met Mick Jones at art college and played with him in the London SS. Now a painter, living in London.
Drummer. Headon was also a member of the London SS. Wrote one of the Clash's biggest hits, 'Rock the Casbah', in 1982, the same year as he quit. Jailed for 15 months on drugs charges in 1987 and now living in London recovering from a road accident.
'Bernie' is Bernie Rhodes, the group's manager. 'The Baker' is their driver, and 'Crocker' their minder.
JOE STRUMMER ON THE AUTHOR
PICTURE a rain-lashed night on the banks of the Thames. Jutting out from Battersea Park some hundred feet into the river is a pier where the Queen alights should there be some function in the park. At the end of this jetty the Clash have set their stage gear up - three mikes, three monitors, three amps and a drum kit.
The video for London Calling has been recorded by director Don Letts. The band have completed their run-throughs and left for various destinations. Enter, from stage left so to speak, a tall, studious-looking man, wearing glasses suitable for a librarian in Macclesfield.
The man is clearly not happy. But he does not scream or shout. Instead he has a look of grim determination about him. He strides to centre stage and grabs hold of the nearest speaker cabinet. With all his strength he lifts it above his head and casts it deep into the dark, flowing river. The lights twinkle from the Embankment and the Houses of Parliament. He does not look. He is too busy throwing mikes, amps and drums into the River Thames.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is my friend, and your narrator: Johnny Green. From Strummer's foreword to 'Riot Of Our Own''It's what we're saying and how we do it that counts': Joe Strummer (left) provided the politics, Paul Simonon the style
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