Friday, March 06, 2020

I Can Hear the Echo of the Days of '79 (and '80)

In my time on this planet (more than a half a century, if you must know), I’ve seen a lot of concerts. From being a teenage music fanatic through working in record stores (where free tickets flowed from the labels) through being a marketing regional at a major record company (going to shows was part of the job) to dating a musician (a situation in which gig-going is mandatory) and slinging drinks for 15 years at one of the east coast’s most legendary rock clubs, I’ve got literally thousands of live shows under my belt. 

By law of averages, most of them were largely forgettable. Sure, a good chunk were worth the price of admission (even if I was fortunate enough to have that price usually be $0.00). And at least a few dozen were exhilarating testaments to the good parts about being alive. But I gotta say, of those thousands of shows, the all-time highlight… was number one. And that one took place forty years ago today (as I post this piece).

On March 6, 1980, I (along with some friends) traveled to the Tower Theater just outside of Philadelphia, PA to see The Clash on the “Sixteen Tons” tour in support of their then-new album, LONDON CALLING.

But let’s back up a bit. Prior to 1979, my relationship with rock and roll took a back seat to my obsession with comic books. In elementary school, I was content with whatever Casey Kasem was counting down on American Top 40 (given the era, a highly mixed, but not altogether unsavory bag). In junior high, I became a card-carrying (literally) member of the KISS army (thanks mostly to their comic book image). But then in 1979, at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, I was introduced to the music that would change my life.

On the bus one crisp autumn morn, I was talking with my friend Kevin Fleck about how I really liked some of this “new wave” stuff I was hearing on the radio, like Blondie’s “One Way or Another” and the Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” Kev’ told me that he had a few records I had to hear, and one day after school, I went over to his house for a little edification. My friend pulled out an LP with a fluorescent orange logo on the cover, removed the vinyl from the sleeve and put it on his turntable, skipping to side two, track two, his favorite song on the album.

Drums, bass, and guitars exploded in my ears, followed by a singer passionately exclaiming in a distinct, guttural British accent, “They offered me the office, offered me the shaaaaaa-OP! They said I’d better take anything they ghaaaaaaa-OT! Do you wanna make tea at the BBC, Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a CAAAAAAHP?”

“Listen to how angry he sounds!” Kevin instructed. And I listened. Oh, how I listened.

The song was “Career Opportunities” off of the self-titled debut album by the Clash, and thus I was ushered into the oft-reviled (back then, anyway) world of punk rock. Granted, by 1979, the movement was waning, and, being a 14 year-old white boy in suburban Pennsylvania, it’s not like I could relate to much of the political content (particularly as it pertained to a downtrodden British working class), but the energy, the fury, the intensity were all ridiculously inspiring. Kevin graciously loaned me that record as well as the even more incendiary NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS, HERE'S THE SEX PISTOLS to take home. I would soon own my own copies of these albums. Gripped with the furor of punk rock purism, I gave all of my KISS albums to my younger brother (a move I would later regret, but that’s another story).

In short order, the Clash became one of my favorite bands, even if (like many) I was somewhat underwhelmed by their second album, GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE (which, thanks to their label’s short sightedness, came out in the States before their first, reworked record).

And so, one Friday in January, 1980, I was hanging out at the Park City Mall in Lancaster PA (as was the custom of the day). Part of my mall routine was doing some record shopping, hitting the numerous outlets and flipping through the racks, seeing if anything jumped out or picking up some new release by a band I’d grown to like.

On this particular day, however, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was picking up LONDON CALLING, which was just released in the US that week (it had come out in the UK the prior December). The only question was, from where? I could get it at Camelot Music or Harmony Hut, the two primary record stores at the mall at that point. But instead, I opted to purchase the new release from the record department at SEARS (yes, Roebuck’s former partner). I still remember picking it off the rack and paying the—what, $7.98? Something like that? (I know it was a double LP for a single platter price, the band fought for that.)— and being anxious to get home and slap it on my Sony HP-318 all-in-one hi-fi!

But first I had to meet my friends. I caught up with some of them at one of our regular mall haunts, The Salad Haus (where I always ordered the roast beef sandwich) and excitedly showed off my purchase. Most of my friends were likewise suburban punks like myself and everyone was (Jimmy) jazzed to hear the band’s third album.

LONDON CALLING felt like an event. It wasn’t just that it was a double LP (unprecedented for a punk band). It wasn’t just the exciting graphics on the cover (Pennie Smith’s iconic black and white photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass at the Palladium in New York contrasted with the bold lettering lifted from Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut LP). I think for me, it was the first time I’d purchased a hotly anticipated record by an unassailably cool band the week it came out. Finally, I was cool. I mean… not really. But I sure felt cool (I’m sure the clerk at SEARS thought so, right?).

I don’t remember if I played it that night (I mean, I couldn’t miss THE INCREDIBLE HULK, could I?) or the next morning, but I do remember how I felt when I put the needle down and that opening blast of the title track came roaring out of my speakers. Fucking exhilarated, that’s how.

But “London Calling” wasn’t my favorite song of the album. No, my first favorite track of the 19 spread across those four sides was “Spanish Bombs.” At least at first. Then it was “Hateful.” After that, it became “Clampdown” (which also later served as my friends’ and my unofficial graduation theme). The point being, there was not one bad song on the damn thing; Every single one felt utterly urgent and necessary.

My friends agreed. And when Kevin informed me that the band was coming back to America in the Spring to tour in support of the record, playing the Tower in Philly, he asked if I’d like to go. In a word, Duh. Even though I had to have been at least a little intimidated. I was a fresh (if pimply) faced 15 year-old, and had never been to a concert, let alone one in Philadelphia.

Tickets were $7.50, purchased via Ticketron, at a ticket outlet at one of the anchor stores (I forget which one) at the same mall where I’d just bought the album.  Kevin bought four tickets, including two for our friends Al and Nathan. Then he bought another, separate single ticket. This one was for his father, not so much a Clash fan as a supportive escort for four teenagers going to a punk rock concert on a school night. Kevin’s father wasn’t about to leave us alone in the theater, but he was cool enough to sit far enough away from us that we didn’t LOOK like a bunch of kids whose daddy had to take them to the show.

Thursday, March 6, 1980. After a no-doubt interminable school day, we took the bus to Kevin’s house and his Dad drove us to Philly (stopping for dinner at Burger King along the way, at which Kevin got a premium “Crazy Ball,” a plastic ball unevenly weighted to as to roll in unpredictable directions. This sounds like superfluous trivia. It is not.

When we got to Philly (Upper Darby, to be precise), the first thing I did was buy a tee-shirt from a dealer outside, a black shirt with a reproduction of the LONDON CALLING cover. I thought it was strange that they were selling merch outside the venue, but it was my first concert, what did I know.

It wasn’t until I got inside and saw the enormous wall of merchandise that I realized I’d bought a bootleg shirt. How very punk rock of me, I may have thought (but probably didn’t). Instead, I bought another shirt, a white one with a simple red Clash logo and a black and white image of the band (they are both long gone). I also bought a copy of Issue 1 of THE ARMAGIDEON TIMES, a zine put together by the band and friends (I’ve still got that).

The crowd was a mixed bag, as this was before the more shocking aspects of British punk fashion had taken hold in most of the USA… there were precious few stereotypical punks in the crowd, more long hair and denim on display than mohawks and bondage pants. We made our way to our seats, near the back of the orchestra section (my ticket is for Row T, Seat 104) and settled in, restless even before the three (THREE!) openers took the stage… I will confess that the first two openers, Mikey Dread and Lee Dorsey left us cold (we were hardly alone… it’s well documented that a frustrated Joe Strummer often chided audiences who reacted unfavorably to the black acts who often opened for them). We were more into the third band, a Toronto band called The B-Girls, but the natives were getting restless. Kevin decided to let loose his punk rock aggression by throwing his Burger King Crazy Ball towards the stage. There was no way it was going to make it that far, but he probably thought it would go further than it did… which was directly into the back of the head of the large man seated directly in front of us. As the angry peltee slowly turned around, glowering, Kevin pleaded for his life (I’m barely exaggerating) as Nathan, Al, and I struggled to suppress our laughter.

Ah, youth.

But then… finally… As Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “I6 Tons” played, Joe, Mick, Paul, and Topper took the stage, plugged in, and gave the whole room a not-little “jump of electrical shockers” as the show kicked off with “Clash City Rockers.” What followed was a incredible hour-plus of songs mostly from LONDON CALLING, with a few old tracks thrown in (and one or two that had yet to be recorded). I’ll be honest, though… my memories of the show itself are fuzzy. I remember feeling like my head was gonna explode (in a good way) during "Complete Control." I remember the pandemonium during "I Fought the Law." I remember "London Calling" knocking me through my seat. Mostly, I remember it being fast and raucous and loud. So loud, in fact, that I did something that I now look back on incredulously… when the band took its final encore (I think there were two), I decided that I’d rather go back outside to the lobby and look at some more merch. DUMMY.

The show ended and we climbed back into Kevin’s dad’s car (I don’t remember precisely what he thought of the show, but I do know that Kev’ said he was not the biggest fan of punk rock). We got home late and the next day, of course, all wore our spankin’ new Clash shirts to school, to much ridicule from the clueless heads and jocks who dominated Hempfield High (Yes, my school was named Hempfield High, I’m not joking). I didn’t care. To me, their ridicule was a badge of honor. I’d just gone to my first concert, and it was to see The Only Band That Matter(ed).

That was the only time I saw The Clash. I had tickets to see them open for The Who (again in Philadelphia, this time at the enormous JFK Stadium) in September of 1982, but I didn’t go because my then-girlfriend’s mother wouldn’t let her go, so I stayed behind out of a misguided sense of romantic solidarity (again, IDIOT ME).

Ah, well. Such is life. Ups and downs. Triumphs and defeats. Good decisions and bad. These days, my life is pretty small. It takes a lot to get me to a concert (like when X comes to town or The New York Philharmonic plays the score to PSYCHO live). As such, I spend a lot of time—probably too much—looking back. But I’ve always been nostalgic (even when I was too young for it, really), a bittersweet state of mind that many find risibly wasteful.

I dunno. Sure, I don’t love being a quinquagenarian. There are aches and pains and regrets and my hair’s a lot thinner than it was in 1980. But I wouldn’t trade the experiences I had for youth. I wouldn’t trade record shopping at the mall and then blasting that vinyl on my stereo for streaming music that I don’t own from records whose covers I can’t see by faceless bands through a crappy sounding Bluetooth speaker. Also, get off of my lawn.

High School "punker," 1981
I love the fact that I got to be a Clash fan while the Clash was still a band. I love that The Clash was my first concert (and yes, I enjoy when that question comes up in a social setting). I love that I can watch documentaries about the band and video collections of everything they did. I love that I can now check out bootlegs from that tour and remember it a little better. I love that I can now read entire books about the band, the making of that specific record, and a detailed chronology of their existence. I love that I can hear the rehearsal takes and watch video of them in the studio with the volatile Guy Stevens making this piece of art. I can do all of that stuff with the knowledge that, for one small sliver of it, I was there.

The one thing that truly sucks is that Joe Strummer is no longer with us. We need voices like his now more than ever. If you think about it, the title track of LONDON CALLING fits 2020 as much as it did 1979… “The ice age is coming / the sun’s zooming in / meltdown expected / the wheat is growing thin / engines stop runnin’ / but I have no fear / cuz’ London is drowning and I live by the river…” The “zombies of death” Joe Strummer was talking about in “London Calling” were heroin addicts, but the lyric could just as easily be describing the smart-phone staring masses oblivious to the world around them, concerned only with their own reflections in the black mirror. (And, different song, but not even the most cynical punk could imagine the “evil President√©” we’ve got today.) These are truly terrifying times, and for me, there’s no contemporary punk rock catharsis that fits the bill like this 40 year-old slab of righteous fury.

The $7.50 ticket stub that was torn four decades ago tonight hangs framed in my bedroom over my desk. As I write this, of course, I’m listening to LONDON CALLING for the thousandth or so time and it still sounds as great as it ever did. Right now, if I had to pick a favorite song off the album, it’d probably be “Lost in the Supermarket.” Or maybe “Death or Glory.” Hmmm, wait, no, maybe it’s “I’m Not Down.” Wait, no, I'm going back to "Clampdown." Ah, I can't pick just one!!

The larger point is, LONDON CALLING remains more than just my hands-down favorite rock album. I will forego my usual aversion to objective superlatives and make the claim that it is also the best rock album of all time. Name another record that melds so many styles and genres in such an organic way (each band member bringing a distinct musical influence into the mix), that defied expectations, that took punk rock to another level while maintaining the spirit of the movement. Name another record that’s a perfect microcosm of its time and yet still sounds utterly timeless. Name another double LP with nary a clunker in the bunch.

Nope, not THE WHITE ALBUM. No, not BLONDE ON BLONDE. Sorry, no, not that other one you’re thinking right now either. You’re wrong.

Okay, fine, for you something may be “better.” It’s all subjective. But for me, this was it. Yeah, I guess I peaked early, but whatever. Forty years ago today, I let fury have the hour, and it was glorious.

Eternal thanks to the Flecks, Sr. (RIP) and Jr... And be careful with those Crazy Balls, Kev. 

NOTE: Parts of this piece are from the STILL unpublished book, COLLECTOR’S EDITION, coming someday before I die, I swear!