[14 April 2008]
The Clash Live: Revolution Rock, an 83-minute collection of previously released and unreleased footage, is a fiery document of one of the greatest live bands of the late 20th century, a visual feast of gritted teeth, sopping hair, and snarled lips. The Clash was a riot of movement onstage: hips twisting like a knife thrust, legs sprung akimbo in a sort of guerrilla calisthenics pose. Joe Strummer, in particular, looked like he was playing for his life every single time he took the stage, his body convulsing in double-time to a rabid Paul Revere pulse.
Flanking Strummer on either side, Mick Jones played a deranged version of the hungry rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, a catalog of classic rock riffs at the mercy of his choppy rhythmic vocabulary; and Paul Simonon, tall and effortlessly cool, held his bass down around his knees like he had the throat of authority itself in his tensed-up hands. In absolute contrast to the flailing “look at me” theatrics of the group’s front line, drummer Topper Headon maintained the stretched-taut beat—often, as we see in this collection, hidden behind sunglasses and only occasionally (as in the 1980 clip of “Clampdown”) breaking stride for polyrhythmic indulgence.
There’s no denying that the Clash was, in part, a calculated construct of art and rock, and one could argue that its stage presence was merely a histrionic bearing to serve agendas that transcended its music. The band’s fashion, a blend of Teddy Boy luster and military costume, was an integral part of that construct—after blowing the limiting confines of the punk aesthetic, its appearance served as a declaration of one foot in the history of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion and the other in a forward-looking political consciousness.
Still, as Revolution Rock plainly documents in its sort-of-chronological sequencing, as the Clash’s musical sensibilities quickly matured during its brief lifetime (the band’s core lineup lasted barely five years), its purpose on stage evolved from a combustible ideological revolt to a bastion of the well-oiled rock ‘n’ roll machine. Early video clips of songs like “What’s My Name” and “White Riot” (both from 1977) are tempests of wild energy and reckless power; the musical touchstones of the studio versions are rendered irrelevant in the live setting, while Strummer’s theatrical spasms and mastication of the words are implied statements on performance in themselves.
In contrast, big-venue performances of later songs like “Train in Vain” (1980) and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (1982) are much more level-headed and operatively conservative. Even in the 1979 clip of “I Fought the Law”, Strummer’s eyes are more desperate than loathing. This is a result, admittedly, of the band’s shift away from punk technique, but also a reflection of its less assaulting compromise with more mainstream arena audiences.
With the exception of a promo video for “Tommy Gun”, which the band lip-syncs with sweaty, visceral panache, all of the songs on Revolution Rock are taken from live performances. Three come from appearances on US television: “The Guns of Brixton” is taken from the band’s performance on ABC Fridays, and “This Is Radio Clash” and “The Magnificent Seven” are from Tom Snyder’s NBC Tomorrow Show.
One of the DVD’s two bonus interview clips—I wish there were more—comes from that Tomorrow Show appearance, and consists of the band merrily reducing the out-of-touch Synder to a bumbling fool. And yet, one wonders if a great opportunity to produce a more definitive document of live Clash performances was missed here: the film’s runtime, under 90-minutes, feels strangely neutered. Surely the producers could have cobbled together at least another 90=minutes of video, especially when you consider that a lot of the footage here won’t be revelatory to the average Clash fan.
Which brings me to another small gripe: Revolution Rock, produced by longtime Clash associate Don Letts, is being billed as a “documentary” with heaps of previously unreleased footage. While many of the clips are being made commercially available for the first time here, the DVD’s strongest performances are those that have been available elsewhere: “I Fought the Law”, “London’s Burning”, and “Safe European Home” all come from the 1980 Rude Boy film, while more still were actually first seen in Letts’s 1999 documentary, Westway to the World, as well as the Last Testament short film and video clips that accompanied the 2004 deluxe reissue of London Calling.
In order to assert itself as a “documentary”, Revolution Rock attempts to connect the stream of live clips with a paltry narration track that touches on the major plot points in the Clash’s career (thankfully, you can watch the DVD without the narration). It’s a failed and flawed narrative, the product of an unnecessary urge to contextualize a visual collection of performances that is capable of telling its own story—a story that, while it sings of uncompromised rock ‘n’ roll, is hardly complete.