November 1978, 10 young men stuck in a concrete block on the outskirts of a midlands city. Trent Polytechnic seemed far removed from the dreaming spires. Many of my new companions departed for the big city every day to do proper things like engineering and accountancy. The only people still on the ‘arts’ part of the campus were me and my new best friend Al who only had to walk a few hundred yards to get our education.
Throwing a group of people together from different backgrounds was quite interesting, there were the twin focus points of football and music. I hadn’t a clue about the former obviously but this was compensated for by a liberal taste in the latter, I even forged a link with Chris from Manchester who had no interest in music beyond Five Penny Piece a folk group from the northwest who sang comedy type songs, and so Chris would let me join in on guitar as he sung a song about Jim (who was a “bloody great worm” apparently). Another of our group I was able to get along with was Tonto from Shrewsbury. He was nicknamed Tonto because he got lost on his first day apparently, such were the bonding experiences of young men. Tonto was a classic instance of how punk had permeated the mainstream. With the rest of the ‘Shrewsbury crowd’ Tonto had been a huge Slade fan. As Noddy’s crowd went into decline the Shrewsbury crowd had discovered the energy of Punk. Its rebellion had no appeal, Tonto was set to be a quantity surveyor and already knew what car he intended to be driving in five years time. The arty farty Pistols held no appeal but Tonto liked the lad’s music of the Jam best of all but in second place were bands like Buzzcocks and the Clash.
The Clash were in the process of releasing their second LP ‘Give em Enough Rope’. Although I loved the first album I was in no great hurry to hear more. There were reasons for this, the band were making great singles and in many respects they were best listened to in 3 minute bursts. The was also the strange choice of producer, Sandy Pearlman was best known for his work with the dreaded Blue Oyster Cult, for those of us looking for a ‘sell out’ there was plenty to keep us busy. The Clash remained the most ideologically puzzling band refusing to appear on Top of the Pops (just like Led Zeppelin) but happy to sign to CBS and now were recording with a proper producer. Another reason, of course, was there was just lots of great music from the likes of Costello, or XTC, or the Rezillos or loads of other bands and artists who might, at any point, come up with something that was really really good.
None of this bothered Tonto, he liked the Clash and bought the LP as soon as it hit the shops. And so, I became familiar with ‘Give em enough Rope’ almost through osmosis as he would play it on repeat most of the time he was in the building.
Perhaps for this reason I have never really engaged with the second Clash LP, if you like the Clash you’ll love this record. ‘Safe European Home’ could easily find it’s way into any Clash top 10, ‘Tommy Gun’ the single sticks in the mind because the drums sound, well, like a machine gun, ‘English Civil War’ has the comforting ‘when Johnny comes marching home’ tune while ‘Stay Free’ is a kind of English buddy song that Bruce Springsteen probably admires.
Al liked the Clash as well, with three out of 10 on board we hit on the idea of actually going to a Clash gig.
It seems strange today but 40 years ago a gig could be a real walk on the wild side. There was no CCTV, little regulation of anything and virtually no health and safety. You could be badly beaten up by anyone who fancied it, it could be the punks who didn’t like you for not being a punk or the skins who didn’t like anyone much or the city louts who thought anyone going to a gig was fair game. Worst of all were the bouncers who seemed licenced to beat anyone to a pulp and throw them out on the streets. At this point a had long hair and flares, I wasn’t sure that a gig in the midlands was a safe place for me (unless it was a Steve Hillage gig)
My companions were either more confident or more stupid and persuaded me to buy a ticket for the Clash ‘Sort it Out’ tour in Derby. I suspect than no one else from our block wanted to come but also, I suspect Tonto had recruited at led one of the Shrewsbury crowd to come along, I am pretty sure there were not more than 5 of us as Tonto drove us in his Vauxhall Viva and no one had to travel in the boot.
As anticipated King’s Hall Derby was largely populated by young men with shortish hair and narrowish trousers, by and large no one was well dressed, there may have been a few obvious punks but they were few and far between.
The first band I caught were the Innocents. I have seen it reported online that a band called Neon were bottom of the bill but having dredged up an interview with their lead singer he doesn’t mention it as a career highlight so I suspect he was not there. Anyway, the Innocents were a classic example of the ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ mentality of the time. Having scraped around the squat scene and being on nodding terms with the movers and shakers on the London scene the Innocents were well place to form a band and go on tour with the Clash. From the back of the hall I was pretty impressed with their guitarist who had obviously put in some work in an earlier life before playing with Wayne County and the Electric Chairs. The rest of the band were female which from where I stood had little impact on anything, they sounded a bit like X Ray Spex, pretty tight but not fully developed.
In contrast the Slits who were next on had a very female quality about them. They were introduced to a hail of spit like I have never seen before or since. One member of the band addressed this by saying she would be more impressed if the young men doing this could ejaculate as effectively. The gobbing dies down a bit but there must be a limit as to how long anyone can jump up and down and spit without running out of fluids anyway. The Slits were part way between their Peel sessions and their first LP, they now had a male drummer budgie who was a steadying influence but the band were excitingly ramshackle.
The Slits were barely tolerated by the Shrewsbury crowd, this was just too arty for Slade fans. Things went wild for the Clash. To my shame I actually can’t remember much about their performance but I remember it was just like I imagined a Clash gig to be like. They had some great songs, they played pretty well and at some point, they had a go at the people who insisted on spitting.
For a long time, the Clash were the only really big band that I had seen. Even at this point they were a big live draw and over time they have increased in stature by splitting up and never getting back together again. I’ve seen bigger artists since, I’ve even seen Bryan Adams for Rods sake but it has always been in a comfortable venue with seats or open air at a festival, no one spits anymore, we all clap politely. I did see someone who looked more of a hippie than me at the Clash gig right at the end, he was about 5 foot tall and wearing a greatcoat, he didn’t look like anyone had beaten him up.
I’ve always hoarded my Clash experience, I have always hoped that like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club, or the Velvet Underground’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable it would give me immense kudos. One day I will sit in my rocking chair surrounded by young hipsters and some wide-eyed seeker of the truth will ask me what it was like and I will reply
“yeah, they weren’t bad, I think”