The Crooked Beat: The Clash in New York City

It’s wet and cold and miserable in New York City, with spring still struggling to gain a foothold. Somehow, it will be summer soon, even if it doesn’t really feel like it yet. Summer in the city, the air is thick and hot, settling on the skin like a lysergide blanket, trapping every speck of dust and grime. Gnats fly in for a sniff and stick there as though caught in a spider’s web. Walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke, and it stays with you on every inch of skin it touches. Even without the scorching sunlight underground, it’s somehow worse on subway platforms, heavy and dark with the air standing still against the body, the only respite a blast of deceptively cool wind announcing a train about to hurtle past. It’s like standing inside someone’s mouth.

This is where I feel the Clash the most. In the rhythms of wheels on tracks, the pounding of one’s own heartbeat as it tries to sift through a million stimuli a second in the city streets. They’re in the storefronts with radios still unable to pick up much more than tinny broadcasts transmitted from Mars. They’re in the feet hitting the pavement, the sirens that jerk and spasm, and the bloodcurdling screams punctuated by more silence than one could ever believe possible. This is the Clash. At least to me, it is.

The Clash dubbed their official documentary Westway to the World in celebration of their journey from concrete to coliseum, but the title was only half right, as “The World to the Westway” could easily describe the band’s ease in appropriating alien musical styles.

While their eponymous debut has been hailed as an atom bomb of amphetamine-fueled punk, a cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” halfway through its second side served as more of a manifesto than even “White Riot” or “Garageland”.

Though not released until after sophomore album Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the US version of the debut upped the ante with the inclusion of the “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” single which fused Jamaican flavors with the tale of Joe Strummer’s disappointment at the show biz professionalism seen at a reggae show he’d recently attended, as well as other feelings on a wide range of topics affecting then-contemporary Britain. For what basically amounts to a cranky pre-blog entry, it’s pretty damned thrilling.

If Give ‘Em Enough Rope’s anthemic ambitions didn’t exactly represent a step forward for the Clash, their third album, London Calling, proved the band was more than a punk one-trick pony. A sprawling masterpiece that hit upon numerous styles with dignity and respect, London Calling was so forward thinking it was then and has since been hailed in the press as one of the greatest albums of the ‘80s despite actually dropping in December 1979.

London Calling provided the first palpable link between New York City and the Clash, though I certainly didn’t know it at the time. The album’s cover shot of Paul Simonon laying waste to his bass guitar was photographed by Pennie Smith at the Palladium on 21 September 1979. I would turn ten less than two weeks later, and would shortly thereafter find my way to the Clash.

Turning their backs on the perceived punk ethos of less is more, the Clash’s late-1980 album Sandinista! was a bloated three-record set that saw the band tackling everything from gospel to soul, reggae and dub to art-rock collages. “The Magnificent Seven” and its subsequent “This Is Radio Clash” single saw the group’s love of hip-hop come to the fore. Some considered Sandinista! — much of which was recorded in Manhattan — an embarrassment of excess, though I see it as an embarrassment of riches. In conversation with the New York Press, Charlatans singer Tim Burgess likened the experience of listening to his favorite Clash album with strolling through a London carnival, each new radio he passed delivering some exotic delight.

Combat Rock was the last gasp for the Clash in their classic lineup, a commercial success that coupled radio hits with oddball spasms like the Simonon-sung “Red Angel Dragnet” and “Ghetto Defendant”, featuring spoken passages by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Maybe the Clash were sell-outs or opportunists, which is basically what Sniffin’ Glue editor Mark Perry famously said when the band signed to CBS in 1977. Perhaps the greatest means by which any instigator can enact change is by funneling their fury through the airwaves. That’s certainly how the band reached me, a dumb city kid open to music of all cultures.

It began with “The Magnificent Seven”, its bass line (reportedly not played by Simonon) running up and down my spine. I was already hooked on early hip-hop and was an admittedly late convert to the joys of punk. The miraculous and effortless sound the Clash wrangled from these two seemingly disparate genres I already adored instantly hooked me.

Their personalities were perfect. Strummer was at the very least complex, some fascinating combination of confidence man and freedom fighter in a body wrapped so tight before each show it exploded in a cataclysm of glory and truth. Mick Jones was the band’s rock star, looking and often behaving like the love-child of Keith Richards and Patti Smith, and providing the group with its most furious riffs. Simonon was cool as hell, and it was through his own Brixton-based childhood that reggae became such a part of what made the Clash so different from their contemporaries. Topper Headon wasn’t just one of punk’s great drummers, but was a dynamo proficient in finding his own rhythm in every single style the rest of the band threw at him.

New York was never the Clash’s official headquarters, but in many ways the pair were more intertwined than bands with an allegedly rightful claim to the city. It’s there in their sonic composition, whether in crunching riffs or insistent rhythms. It’s there in the grit and grime of Strummer’s lyrics, and a voice that wavers between primal howl and weary solitude. It’s in the rags to riches excess of Jones, the melting-pot soul of Simonon’s bass and the street beats of Headon. It took them from the Palladium to Bond’s, from Electric Lady Studios to Shea Stadium.

London was in their bones, and Kingston their blood. But New York was their town, and it always would be.