By Jim Lenahan
Last week was Clash Week on Rockin’ the Suburbs, and like any media-type who eventually tires of research reading, at one point I turned to YouTube for background on the band.
Searching specifically for performance clips, I found what I expected: videos showcasing the Clash’s legendarily intense performance style and super-tight sound. Many a young band today would be wise to study this archival footage, with the understanding that dedication to the craft, including endless practice, got Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon to play together like that.
But what really surprised me clicking around YouTube were the the Clash’s TV appearances. Remember that in the late ’70s and early ’80s (mostly the pre-cable era), the number of programs that booked live music were few. And those that did mostly played it safe, needing to uphold broadcasting “standards” or caving to production compromises that required artists to lip-sync.
So one would think such a network TV landscape would offer no career opportunities for political punkers like the Clash, a band whose debut album was held back for release in the States for two years because the label thought it too offensive for American ears. But not coincidentally, TV at the time was going through a similar revolution as music, with more challenging viewpoints demanding to be seen and heard. Television’s “punk rock” was “late night.”
Shows like “Saturday Night Live” and its poor cousin “Fridays” sought musical guests to match the pointed comedy. And the Clash, it turns out, were well-positioned, not just because they had the requisite attitude, musical chops and “cool factor,” but also because they gave their hearts and souls to their music. They may have dressed like rock stars, but they were so much more than image.
They were pros, always working — they’d show up ready to play and give everything, and that dedication came through the TV cameras the same way it came through on the records and in the venues. Looking back at these clips, it’s clear that had band tensions not led to implosion, the Clash were positioned for explosion. By 1982, they had legitimate U.S. hits, deftly combined pop and rock into a marketable sound without losing their political/social credibility. (The career arc of U2 a few years later illustrates what could have been.)
This is Video Clash:
After the success of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” ABC in 1980 launched a copycat show called “Fridays” (most notable for a cast that included Michael Richards and Larry David, later of “Seinfeld”). I found two YouTube videos of the band performing on “Fridays”; the show apparently served as the band’s American TV debut. Both videos are from the same episode, but they got to play twice as many songs as a musical guest typically gets on “SNL.” All these songs are from the “London Calling” album. And check out Mick’s purple suit and white shoes! Trying to impress the Yanks, I guess:
In October 1982, the Clash graduated to “SNL” (this was during the Eddie Murphy-Joe Piscopo era). Shaggy-haired guest host Ron Howard introduced the band, which launched into “Straight to Hell.” They also played “Should I Stay or Should I Go” on this episode (no available video that I could find).
The Clash also appeared on a late-night talk show, with the pseudo-erudite Tom Snyder, who preceded David Letterman in the post-“Tonight Show” slot on NBC. Snyder’s “Tomorrow Show” was about the only outlet for bands on the talk-show circuit. Back then, Johnny Carson dominated the landscape, and he was no fan of rock music. But Snyder entertained an eclectic mix of guests, including such musicians as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, the Grateful Dead, Kiss, U2 and even punk bands Ramones and Public Image Ltd.
Here’s the Clash playing “The Magnificent Seven” on the show in 1981:
And now, a couple of non-TV bonus videos:
First, the music video for “Tommy Gun,” which may best capture the spirit of the band:
And then this video of “Train in Vain” live (shoutout to friend Brett Motiff for sharing this):