Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"If you don't know what's happening, just ask the person next to you": The Clash's Live at Shea Stadium

There are times when I actually forget how much The Clash means to me. They were the first band to show me that music could be intelligent and political, but that it could also be worth rocking out to, too. I finally managed to buy a copy of Live at Shea Stadium, albeit two months after its release, and it caused all those feelings bound up in The Clash to come flooding back to me, nearly making me cry. I suddenly felt younger and more idealistic again; I felt that I could fight with The Clash resonating in the pit of my stomach again. Their gig opening for The Who at Shea Stadium in 1982 is often regarded as their peak before their dissolution (though small cracks were beginning to show with the replacement of Topper Headon with Terry Chimes). There's no doubt that this performance sees The Clash at the top of their game, but I often think that it also signified an irreconcilable paradox for the band, especially Joe Strummer. For a band who wanted to remain accessible to every person, this kind of blown-out success was difficult to navigate. Resplendent in the military attire to inspire a thousand bands, The Clash truly became the people's army, but this army was hardly a rebellious secret anymore. It's the classic case of needing fame to get a message across, but once fame is achieved and you're preaching it from hundreds of metres away from the very people you want to feel close to, the message can no longer be the same as it once was. A testament to The Clash's strong principles, the band still allowed fans backstage at Shea Stadium to talk to them despite the presence of famous fans like Andy Warhol and David Bowie.

This live recording is also evidence of why The Clash worked so well - their set isn't pretentious or obscure, but nor is it lightweight. They chose songs from across their five albums, but rather than just playing their well-known successes in America, they also played songs like Career Opportunities and English Civil War. The gig kicks off with a storming rendition of London Calling before Mick Jones takes the mic for Police On My Back and Paul Simonon takes it for The Guns of Brixton - these three opening songs come to represent the band in microcosm, displaying the variety of talent and strong individuals within The Clash and how they worked together to create something so incredible. Then in typical fashion, Joe Strummer tells the crowd, "If you don't know what's going on, just ask the person next to you," before launching into Tommy Gun. What comes next is a fantastic self-contained section of the show: Armagideon Time bracketed by The Magnificent Seven. It is the closest to noodling that The Clash ever does, but it isn't pompous or boring - it burns with the same energy that the rest of the gig does, and it is possibly my favourite part of the whole album. Not to mention their self-awareness in the lyrics of The Magnificent Seven of how long it goes on, which Strummer riffs off of during this performance.

Then they play Rock the Casbah, but in a refreshingly different way. Amidst the howls from Strummer, Mick Jones blows through Train in Vain, smoothly trading off with Strummer again for the punk classic Career Opportunities. This is followed by more from London Calling: Spanish Bombs and Clampdown, the latter with Strummer snarling and spitting at his best, threatening to "tear up the sound system." After telling the audience to bring their granddaddies out to sing English Civil War, they create a blistering performance that takes the traditional American Civil War song into 20th century relevance and makes a profound connection on American soil. The crowd then screams in recognition for the opening bars of Should I Stay Or Should I Go, which seems to run at hyperspeed. The set crashes to its finale with I Fought the Law - I defy any band to be able to close a show so effectively and so brilliantly with a cover song. It demonstrates how totally The Clash came to own the songs they covered. At one point earlier in the gig, Strummer tells the crowd to dance because it will be easier to avoid the rain that way, but I dare you not to dance through the entire record.

If you don't already have this album, you should. If only to hear Joe Strummer's interjections and banter with the audience or Mick Jones's unbelievable guitar work or Paul Simonon's distinctive bass rhythms. It is the document of a band screaming their way to the finish, desperately trying to leap that security gap without destroying themselves in the process.

Rock the Casbah - The Clash (Live at Shea Stadium)

I Fought the Law - The Clash (Live at Shea Stadium)