It's just the beat of time, the beat that must go on

Categories: Imported

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I spent Wellstone World Music Day alone on Saturday night, which isn't the best way to enjoy rock&roll. For a while I was writing about the greatest Minnesota music documentary ever. Then, after a couple beers from the City Pages fridge, I decided to write the following essay about the Clash and Guy Stevens. Moments of historical vertigo tend to bring out this kind of thing in your faithful scribe. The election one week from tomorrow will pit my gut internationalism against my gut fears for America. (Thank you Karl Rove and friends for making my vote for Kerry so much easier. And may coming generations of Israelis and Palestinians forgive us all.)

When it came to changing the world, of course, the Clash offered not advice, but a prayer. Which is what rock&roll is, really. "Life is fun," Joe Strummer said in a documentary that shows every day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and "rock&roll exists to deliver this truth." Some call that feeling hip hop. You can call it what you want. But when I woke up this morning to public radio, to the opening strains of Mason Jennings's "The Ballad of Paul and Sheila," it hit me like a house of bricks that all music can become revolution rock once you add the element of hope for other people, and hope for people a hundred years from now.

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Album cover photo by Pennie Smith (her Clash photo book is available here)

When I started the car today, and the Vanilla Tapes version of "Revolution Rock" came on my stereo, something Minneapolis rapper I Self Devine told me a few years ago flooded my memory (here's a quote from the article):

"Turntables weren't intended to be used for scratching. Adidas from Germany, they didn't think little cats were gonna put fat laces through them. Now they're making 'hip hop' clothes."

He glances down at his army fatigues and work boots, both spattered with white paint from a mural he's working on, and smiles. "Everything I wear is hip hop. Hip hop was destined to go through this phase of being excessively fashionable. If people think, 'How can I be hip hop?'--you'll never be hip hop if you're running after it. You just stop. It is you. And then you just walk. You don't even run any more, chasing after a flow. You just walk."

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By the spring of 1979, the Clash were just walking. They hadn't worn their own paint-spattered clothes for years. But after chasing rock&roll for two albums, they were slowing down enough to just be rock&roll. On The Vanilla Tapes, the "lost" set of demos for London Calling, you can hear them getting loose and confident and free.

Fans might find the music strange: The version of "London Calling" could be a different song. Joe Strummer sings a full fifth lower than on the album track (he's in Joy Division range, and with first-draft lyrics, before Mick Jones had him rewrite them), and the guitar chords sound inverted, the reverse-reggae rhythm seeming mournful rather than martial. What strikes me most is the sound. The Clash knew they couldn't make an album at Vanilla Studios, the cheap rehearsal space they found near the Thames inside and a factory-like garage where automobiles were being resprayed (here's a walking tour of the area). But they loved the sound they got, anyway.

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"Joe wanted to do it at Vanilla," writes Johnny Green of London Calling in his book A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day With the Clash. "Let's do it ourselves," he quotes Strummer as saying. "Fuck CBS if they don't like it. Here, it's got rawness. We want the dynamism, the vibrancy."

"Half-assed," my friend Keith Harris calls The Vanilla Tapes. He's at least right about the apalling redundancy of Clash marketing: Fans who bought London Calling four times over already must now spend another $25 for the same music just to get at the Vanilla demos, packaged as the second disc inside a 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition of the album. (The set at least includes an essay by British situationist Tom Vague, and an interesting if artless "making of" DVD directed by Don Letts, itself partly recycled from his wonderful Westway to the World, but with some never-before-seen home-video footage of Guy Stevens in Wessex Studios.) The original double album sold for $8 in 1979, a steal that the band insisted upon, and it seems Epic has been making us pay ever since.

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Paul Simonon in 1979, with Topper Headon on drums

But the music is beautiful, maybe the most beautiful thing I'll hear all month. The Vanilla Tapes offers something you don't get very often: the opportunity to hear a great album for the first time again. And to hear it more purely as music. The effect owes something to the way the songs are reshuffled (sequenced in an equally plausible order, with five cuts you've never heard, including a Mick Jones country original, "Lonesome Me," a Bob Dylan cover, "The Man in Me," and [hey!] a run-through of "Remote Control." Not included: "Train in Vain," "Spanish Bombs," "Wrong 'Em Boyo," and "The Card Cheat"--all set to tape at Wessex).

The best things here are familiar songs rendered as severe instrumentals: "Hateful" (now the lead-off track), "Paul's Tune" (a rough draft of "The Guns of Brixton"), "The Police Walked in 4 Jazz" (later "Jimmy Jazz"), "Up-Toon (Inst.)" (later "The Right Profile"), "Working and Waiting" (later "For Fucks Sake," then "Clampdown"), and most dramatically "Revolution Rock" (the album closer). I knew the last of these existed, having heard it on the Rude Boy soundtrack, but it deserves the CD treatment. This is garage reggae, with weird lo-fi dub touches and Topper Headon's busy percussion. It ends with an effect I've never heard before: the volume turned up as the music fades so you can hear the tape hiss.

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Hungerford Bridge, Westminster, painting by Paul Simonon

The guitars were startling enough on the final recording at Wessex Studios: The backward solo on "London Calling" and the harmonics on "Lost in the Supermarket" are among my favorite Mick Jones moments. But at Vanilla, without horns or organ or other instruments, the texture is rougher, less triumphant. The Clash sound brash and goofy and vulnerable. The guitars hack away, or squish and echo like the ghost of a wet sponge. The demos make you notice the band's use of space more. (This is the first album where Paul Simonon wrote his own bass lines, and it's a kick to hear him assert himself on "Up-Toon.")

The songs are humbled, too. "Death or Glory" sounds like an old AM radio standard, which is what it should be. The clattering hyrbid of ska and New Orleans and Bo Diddley on "Rudie Can't Fail" is an even looser celebration here, with big-kid impromtu shouts from Simonon yelling "You've been a naughty boy" too close to the mic (and in a fake Jamaican accent). The Clash sound like they're cheering themselves on.

 

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Wessex Studios, at 106A Highbury New Park, part of this walking tour

One thing The Vanilla Tapes makes clear is how much the Clash had the album in their heads before they entered the real studio. You can imagine, hearing the demos, why they felt confident enough to take a gamble on a black-sheep producer, a mod scene legend and a drunk who also happened to be one of the more influential figures of British rock&roll (see below), a person who might have been less ringleader than Clash muse, less provocateur than one-man punk audience. That's the impression, anyway, that you get of Guy Stevens from Marcus Gray's entertaining dismantling of the Clash myth, Last Gang in Town (more recently revised as Return of the Last Gang in Town).

"The band basically took over, and most of the stuff was produced by them and Bill Price," says Jerry Green in the book. "As soon as Guy was out of the way, we got on with the serious work. Before that, it was pretty much playtime and trying it Guy's way."

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Stevens showed up only during the first two weeks of recording, getting drunk until he was sent home, or shown to the tape cupboard, where he'd be encouraged to sleep it off. As Gray tells the story:

On one occasion, he arrived with someone he introduced as his minder, who duly sat around the studio for 18 hours; it subsequently transpired that the man was a taxi driver, and his cab was outside with the meter running. The band had to foot all the bills.

But Stevens brought a madman energy to the room, as well as the easily forgotten wisdom that passion counts for more than perfection. He was right to insist, for instance, on keeping the first take of Vince Taylor and his Playboys's "Brand New Cadillac" (a cover of the first UK rockabilly single) even though it sped up. He inspired "The Right Profile" by lending Strummer Patricia Bosworth's Montgomery Clift biography. Otherwise, writes Gray, Stevens provided "what Mick described... as his almost supernatural ability to act as a purgative":

"All the mess goes into him like Dorian Gray's portrait, or whatever. All the messy sound goes and it becomes him, and what's left on the tape is clarity."

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Bill Price, Joe Strummer, Guy Stevens, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon, Mick Jones, and Maurice Oberstein at Wessex in 1979. Right: Stevens as a young mod in 1961.

Before Stevens overdosed in 1981 (on pills prescribed by his doctor for alcohol dependency), London Calling looked like it might be the beginning of his recovery. The album brought attention to a forgotten and influential career. Born in East Dulwich, London, on April 13, 1943, Guy Stevens had seen Jerry Lee Lewis at age 15, dropped out of high school not long after, and by age 20 had become a Monday-night R&B and soul disc jockey at the Scene, a legendary basement all-ages club in Ham Yard (41 Great Windmill Street, Soho) that became a mod hangout, launching the Animals and the Who. (The latter band scoured Stevens's records for cover choices when they were still calling themselves the High Numbers.) As owner Ronan O'Rahilly told Mark Hagen in Mojo Magazine in 1996 (quoted by Rob Finnis in his liner notes for The UK Sue Label Story: The World of Guy Stevens):

"Everybody would come to hear Guy. The Stones, the Beatles, Eric Clapton [then a member of the Yardbirds]. People would come from all over the country on Monday nights, and from France and Holland too; it was that good."

Stevens championed black American pop music with the fervor of American student radicals in the U.S. taking up the Civil Rights movement. "The main thing about Guy is that he proselytised about this music he loved," says fellow deejay Jeff Dexter (also quoted by Finnis). "It was the total opposite of the later Northern Soul scene which tended towards secrecy as to the identity of certain records."

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A new reissue of great music on Guy Stevens's label UK Sue

By 1965, Stevens had supervised Pye Records' reissue of the Chess/Checker catalogue, which made Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley massively available in the UK for the first time. He had also been handed control of the UK Sue label by Chris Blackwell, then making his Island fortune on Jamaican pop music. (One of the hotels Blackwell owns today in Jamaica is located at Ian Fleming's old Bond headquarters in Oracabessa Bay, Goldeneye, host of the Goldeneye Film Festival December 8-13.)

Though Sue UK started out as a mirror of the American label with the same name, it became a clearinghouse for Stevens's raw soul and blues obsessions, cherry-picking from such U.S. labels as Modern, V-Tone, Kent, Duke/Peacock, Ace, and Fury over a period of four years. Decades later, in 2004, Ace Records reissued the great Sue Label Story compilations from the '60s in three volumes, each overflowing with memorable tracks and thorough liner notes.

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Bo knows Clash: Diddley opened for the goofy white guys in 1979

Stevens was only getting started. He named Procol Harum after his cat. He told his wife "You look like a whiter shade of pale" in the presence of Keith Reid, who penned the song. He produced the single, then missed out on its success while serving a stint at the Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London on drug-related charges. He created Mott the Hoople, naming the band after the book he read in prison. He programmed a 1968 Island Records compilation I've never seen, Guy Stevens' Testament of Rock and Roll, and that title fits. A few years ago, Clash spokesman Kosmo Vinyl announced that he wished to write the story of Stevens's life, and offered this summary:

Guy Stevens was one of the key figures in the development of British rock music, and yet he is rarely mentioned. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Small Faces, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood (Spencer Davis Group/Traffic), and many, many, others used Guy's knowledge and record collection as a source of material. He headed the hugely influential Sue Record label. He introduced numerous American Soul artists to Europe. Was very instrumental in the early success of Island Records. He was a key figure in the Blues Boom and revival of many a Blues musician's career. Produced the original version of Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade Of Pale." Produced The Clash, Mott The Hoople, Free, and many others. Gave the Rolling Stones the album title "Sticky Fingers." There is more but I'm sure you get the idea.

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Mick Jones (center) with his Mott the Hoople-inspired band the Delinquents in 1974

After Stevens's death on August 29, 1981, the Clash wrote "Midnight to Stevens" in tribute, and eventually included the song in the Clash on Broadway box set. The lyrics relate much of the above, and suggest there's more to tell:

I SEARCHED THROUGH THE DRINKERS
EACH PROPPED OVER HIS GLASS
I RAN THROUGH EACH BAR
UNTIL I FOUND GUY AT LAST
GUY YOU'VE BEEN TO THE DOCTOR
NO I DON'T THINK IT WISE
TOOK ONE OF HIS PILLS
BOILED THE BLOOD IN MY EYES.

WHEN YOU PLAYED THE MASTER MIX
TO THE COMPANY MAN
TOOK THREE MILLION WORLDWIDE
TO MAKE HIM UNDERSTAND
YOU DON'T WORK FOR PEANUTS
BUT THEY'LL PUSH YOU TOO
IT'S THAT COMPANY TRICK
WE'RE ALL JUMPING THROUGH
BET YOU AIN'T HAD NO FOOD NOW
SINCE YOU LAST WENT TO SLEEP
THE WILD SEED THAT WAS SOWED
WILL TAKE FOREVER TO REAP.

WHAT DAYS AND NIGHTS THOUGH
ROCKING OUT OF HAM YARD
OH SKIP THAT FANDANGO
BRING THE BLUES BACK DOWN HARD
THOUGH
CHUCK WOULD NEVER ADMIT IT
AT THE DOOR OF THE JAIL
THERE STOOD
GUY STEVENS
AND HE WAS WAVING THE BAIL.

GUY YOU'VE FINISHED THE BOOZE
AND YOU RUN OUT OF SPEED
BUT THE WILD SIDE OF LIFE
IS THE ONE THAT WE NEED.

(Chuck Berry and Guy Stevens crossed paths many times, but I don't know what incident the "jail"/"bail" rhyme refers to. As the articles linked in the lyrics suggest, Stevens was at Chess studios in Chicago in 1964, when Berry recorded "Promised Land" (with Willie Dixon on bass and Ellis Leake on piano). Stevens was also president of the Chuck Berry Appreciation Society, and brought Berry to the UK for his first tour. They were friends, but you'd have to ask Berry about that.)

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My own first encounter with Stevens's good taste came in 1989, by way of my second ska CD, which I picked up somewhere between the first De La Soul record and the first Fugazi disc. Club Ska '67 was another Stevens compilation from the late '60s put out on Island Records. Turns out he obsessed over Jamaican R&B as much as the American kind, and this collection is still the perfect introduction to Jamaican music pre-Treasure Isle, with its ska crash-and-booms and proto-rocksteady crooning. Desmond Dekker's "007 (Shanty Town)" is the timeless ode to cool, referencing James Bond (who had come to Jamaica in Dr. No) and Ocean's Eleven to glamorize the island's fearless hoodlums. Delroy Wilson's "Dancing Mood" is one of the greatest songs of all time, a melancholic melody about nothing other than letting the earth move below your feet in time to the music.

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Johnny Spencer record art on the Rulers' "Wrong Emboyo"

The most entrancing song was "Copasetic," by a group I'd never heard of before, the Rulers. An unusual ska vocal group with an electric keyboard in place of horns, they were around for a little under a year circa 1966-1967, and produced a series of cool songs about rude boys, then the sensational outlaw figure of Jamaican pop music, and the subject of both "Shanty Town" and "Copasetic." Hypnotic in the way rock steady and reggae would become, the Rulers were arguably the first modern Jamaican group, the precursor to dub. But I've been unable to glean more about them than the fact that they recorded in the studios of Karl 'J. J.' Johnson. In any case, Copasetic Mail Order bears the name of the tune today (and I see on their site that the Blue Beat label is back in business again).

Next to the Rulers, the Clash were a blustery embarassment. But the Jamaicans had the disadvantage of moral as well as musical purity. The Clash sounded like bums, which only added an edge of redemption when they faithfully covered the Rulers' "Wrong Emboyo" on London Calling, right down to its false "Stagger Lee" intro. The tune was another obscure rude boy single favored by skinheads, so no one much noticed when the Clash renamed it "Wrong 'Em Boyo" and credited it to one C. Alphanso.

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Did Guy Stevens introduce the Clash to the Rulers? You'd have to ask the Clash. In any case, you can hear the original "Wrong Emboyo" on a new album from Trojan of songs covered by the only cover band that really mattered: Revolution Rock: A Clash of Rock, Soul & R 'n' B, co-compiled by Paul Simonon himself. Other tracks include Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee," Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac," and (of course) Danny Ray's "Revolution Rock."

 

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Photo by Bob Gruen of Strummer in 1981

As you might guess from all this rambling, the lyrics on London Calling were only half the story. Maybe less than half. Much as I love Greil Marcus's tribute to the album as a deeply-felt channeling of "history left unmade," Sandinista! was the more personal record. ("The Street Parade" could almost be Joe Strummer's epitaph for himself. "The Crooked Beat," meanwhile, feels closer in spirit to Paul Simonon's paintings than "The Guns of Brixton," which doesn't exactly strike me as being drawn from experience.) Any thoughts on London Calling about where the musicians themselves might fit into the history collapsing around them are subsumed in first-person fiction, third-person philosophy, and second-person gangsta shit.

The exception is "Lost in the Supermarket," written by Strummer, who convinced Jones to sing it. The sound here is like Public Image Ltd., but warm: a disco lullaby for stoners in mental high-rises everywhere. (I love Mick's description, in The Armagideon Times fanzine that's reprinted in the Legacy edition, of the song as "an ode to a few friends who have not been met - yet.")

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Otherwise, the album reads like a blog ahead of its time, with local and international references directing you to art and mythology that the band cares about. "The doctor who's born for a purpose" is Dr. Alimantado, whose Born For a Purpose compilation was re-released in 2004 on Greensleeves. "Love and hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands" is little more than a recommendation to see Night of the Hunter, the cinema's greatest allegory of innocence and evil (and an object of similar tribute in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing). The real heart of the song is the coda, which basically says it's better to raise hell than burn out or fade away.

Various meanings on London Calling are still unraveling for me: Only now, after a hundred listens, do I grasp that the goofball "Lover's Rock" (the Clash's attempt to cover The Tao of Love and Sex) is basically saying to men: "Go down on your woman." (It actually sounds better in the demo version, by the way, with its child-like blasts of "Dylan" harmonica.)

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Only now do I detect the regret and sadness in "Spanish Bombs," the only song I miss among the demos, which now sounds like a jaunty farewell to Strummer's former fascination (and not quite romance) with left-wing terrorism. Where "Tommy Gun" teetered between satire and tribute, and Strummer's Red Brigades and ETA shirts were a bald provocation, "Spanish Bombs" is a drunken blur of excitement, nostalgia, fear, and dissillusionment, all sung with so much force (and cool) that it passes for militant:

Back home the buses went up in flashes, the Irish tomb was drenched in blood/Spanish bombs shatter the hotels, my senorita's rose was nipped in the bud.

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Strummer's old girlfriend, Palmolive of the Slits, was from Andalucia. But a new girlfriend suggested the title, hearing news of Basques bombings on the radio. And his senorita here is nothing other than the revolutionary spirit itself. (Or maybe that of the martyred poet Federico García Lorca.) What a terrible descent it's been, from the international rally of Homage to Catalonia to the pathatic and murderous impotence of bombings like the one that shook Madrid this year. In The Armagideon Times, Strummer says, "This song was written in seat 18B of a Brannif Airlines DC-10. The Spanish is Clash Spannish and it means - 'I love you and goodbye! I want you but - oh my aching heart!' Induced by those grapes of wrath."

Strummer can't say goodbye for good, just as he could never entirely let go of the Clash. He ends on a more upbeat note... in Latin America! The worst was yet to come, of course, "in the psycho shadow of the right white hand." (Who were in part a product of James Bond's real-life counterparts, by the way, who also cleared the path for the IMF's corrosive influence.) But the Strummer of London Calling is in the sky rather than on the ground.

I used to love the album for its three minor-key songs: the convincing terror of the title track (Strummer's soundtrack for Edith Grove on the eve of Thatcher, my soundtrack for Reagan's 1984 reelection); the chicken-wire-strangling-the-"All we owe/we owe her"-soldiers-of-the-Wicked-Witch-of-the-West in "The Guns of Brixton"; the sputtering helplessness before cool womankind on "Brand New Cadillac," with the double-agent guitar line.

Now I love the minor songs as well as the minor keys, especially "Revolution Rock," the one I have on constant rotation from The Vanilla Tapes. As Greil Marcus put it:

"Revolution rock"--that was what the Clash started with, and "revolution" was more than a joke then, so long ago, three or four years ago. Here, a joke is all it is: Strummer sounds as if he's waited all his life to sing something so dumb.

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John "Woody" Mellor (Joe Strummer) in Newport in 1973

Today, the only revolutionary force transforming London is global capital. The address where Vanilla Studios was located (36 Causton Street, off Vauxhall Bridge Road in Pimlico) is now home to the London Diocesan House ("he who fucks nuns"). The old chapel housing Wessex Studios (106A Highbury New Park) is being converted into luxury apartments. The song "London Calling" itself now advertises Jaguar (and soundtracks James Bond jetting into London). The tune also provided a medium of tribute in 2003 for Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Dave Grohl, and Elvis Costello at the Grammy Awards, honoring Strummer, who died  too young (and, unlike his friends Guy Stevens and Lester Bangs, of natural causes).

Strummer has ascended to the top of the dial, in other words. And after all this, won't you give him a smile?

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Joe Strummer memorial in Tompkins Square Park, New York City.

COMPLETE CLASH LINKS

CRUCIAL JAMAICAN MUSIC LINKS

Discuss this article HERE or HERE.

Read Sasha Frere-Jones's review in the New Yorker.

R.I.P. John Peel.


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