CD Review by John Pietaro
LIVE AT SHEA STADIUM, THE CLASH
From my seat in the upper reaches of Shea Stadium, I never felt a drop of rain. The small cadre of friends I was with on October 13, 1982 couldn’t afford to buy the good seats either, so we’d plunked down $16. each to sit up in the nosebleeds, just under the stadium’s partial overhang. Perhaps too high up to feel the heat that radiated off the stage, but our proletarian view at least kept us dry. However, the primary class-consciousness of that autumn evening in Queens was really not in the stands at all. You see, most all of us had come out to witness “the Who’s last concert”, as they were then billing that finale, but we didn’t realize that there was a louder death-knell to be heard that night. The opening set by David Johansson, founder of the New York Dolls, offered some insight into the new sounds, the new generation. But by the time the Clash commandeered the stage, ‘classic rock’ devotees began to wonder. Ironically, the evening’s headliners had already spent years amidst a decidedly corporate rock scene, belying their rebel roots. Never could the Who have imagined that their opening act would steal the mantle from them, from the generation that gave birth to rock as we knew it. Never could we in the audience—cheap seat and box seats alike—have imagined that the Clash were already on their way to a slow, painful dissolve. But well beyond the parameters of Shea Stadium, the Clash really was the only band that mattered.
The Clash was born of the Punk movement’s initial British uprising, itself a response to the sounds of rebellion in New York’s East Village. Deeply influenced by the urgency and radical politics of Punk, singer/songwriter/guitarist Joe Strummer broke up his successful club band and found new comrades among guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and (ultimately) drummer Topper Headon. The Clash was surely not just another Punk band, another refaced Sex Pistols –who’d already become the fallen poster children of the movement across the Atlantic. Whereas the Pistols spouted out venomous anger like a Gatling gun on overdrive, the Clash sang about revolutionary ideas and incorporated reggae, dub and other world sounds into a fabric of the day’s proletarian songbook. The songs of Strummer/Jones spoke openly and harshly about racial and class divides in the UK, economic destitution in British cities, the fall of aristocracy and the power of the people. The Clash headlined shows like ‘Rock Against Racism’ and partnered with Leftist organizations. Theirs was a particular type of radicalism in which the songs not only offered agitation but inspiration, answers and activism. Strummer was particularly devout in his sympathies, wearing the symbol of various communist factions at concerts and speaking openly about his philosophies.
By the time of the concert at Shea, the Clash had already come to great critical acclaim with the release of London Calling, perhaps their greatest work, and Sandinista!, a tome of songs that spoke directly to the raging conflict in Nicaragua that had been devised by those champions of global capital, Reagan and Thatcher. While Ronald Reagan could tell Americans straight-faced that the ultra-right Contras were “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” in their battle against the elected Sandinista government, the Clash reminded us that this was a real-time example of Cold War imperialism. They pulled no punches. While never losing the spirit of Punk Rock, the band was sure to incorporate the sounds of the streets into their music, including Hip-Hop, intricate drum machine inspired patterns (played by live drummer Headon) and dance-oriented studio technology, all sitting comfortably alongside their brand of roots rock, reggae, R&B and Strummer’s own blood-curdling vocals. Combat Rock, the album released next, offered more protest sentiment albeit within a stripped-down collection which produced several hit records.
By October of 1982, the Clash was falling victim to Punk’s most visceral irony: how can a movement designed to break the structure of corporate rock survive once it becomes a part of the industry? The effects of celebrity had already taken the gifted drummer Headon from the band that year, and Strummer, Jones and Simonon would all comment later that once the classic line-up was altered, the band began to unravel. But for the hindsight of history, one would never know. If Strummer was suffering from a crisis of conscience, it never slowed down his performance at Shea Stadium; likewise for the rest of the group including replacement drummer Terry Chimes who played with precision and ferocity. From the opening staccato of “London Calling”, which opened up the set, through powerful versions of “Police on My Back”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “Rock the Casbah”, “Train in Vain”, even the cult fave Spanish Civil War tale “Spanish Bombs”, the Clash exploded with headliner might. Here was a band born of rebellion performing for a screaming rain-soaked crowd in the heyday of the excessive and greedy 1980s. Shea Stadium’s bleachers trembled that night---trembled with the sound of the mantle being torn out of the hands of the 1960s.
Punk wouldn’t live much longer, but oh did it sound eternal from where I sat those 26 years ago.
John Pietaro is a labor organizer and cultural worker from New York – www.flamesofdiscontent.org
PUBLISHED IN ‘POLITCAL AFFAIRS’ MAGAZINE ONLINE, JUNE 2008