For me April is a month of anniversaries and memorable dates, some of which I have written about as the month has progressed. Today is a day for reflecting on The Clash, one of the great bands, and on meeting two of their three front men, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. (I haven’t met the bassist Paul Simonon, or drummer Topper Headon. I hope he’s well.)
38 years ago today, on 30 April 1978, I was one of tens of thousands of people who marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney for a concert organized by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. We sang as we marched: “The National Front is a Nazi Front / Smash the National Front”. I still have the poster from the event, listing the bands that played at Victoria Park, including X-Ray Spex, Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse and The Clash. The Clash were joined by Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, which surprised us. The performance features in “Rude Boy”, the movie about the band.
Gurinder Chada, the writer-director of “Bend it like Beckham”, was there too, I learnt from her appearance on “Desert Island Discs” last year. She chose “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” as one of her 8 discs. I thought that was her choice but had to confirm it by visiting the indispensible “Desert Island Discs” archive, and unsurprisingly got distracted checking who else had chosen The Clash: 12 other guests including Harry Enfield, Ben Elton and Andy McNab (I have heard all of those archive episodes this year), Boris Johnson (can’t face that right now) and, intriguingly, Shirley (“Superwoman”) Conran, who chose “Career Opportunities”. On the show, broadcast in 1977, she explains her choice: “It’s going to remind me of civilization and what I’m missing, and it reminds me of my sons as well”. I have always been inclined to like Shirley Conran (and Stephen King , as I mentioned in yesterday’s piece) because we share a birthday, and I shall now cherish her associating “Career Opportunities” with civilization and what she would miss on the hypothetical desert island.
Earlier in April 1978 I had seen the first Farewell Concert by The Damned, at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, and later in the year I saw the Clash again, at the Lyceum. The atmosphere at the two gigs couldn’t have been more different: sedate at the former and bristling at the latter. We ended up in the balcony at the Lyceum, just couldn’t face the crush on the floor downstairs. It felt like the kind of gig where you’d get beaten up.
Many years later I met Joe Strummer at the Cannes Film Festival, which I attended most years in the mid- to late-1980s. He had worked on Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” and there was a big crowd of people associated with the movie hanging out at (and in the street between) the two bars that most of the British and Irish crowd gravitated to, Le Petit Carlton and Le Petit Majestic. I had seen a late screening of “Down by Law” and been blown away by it, and was having a late-night drink with some newly-made friends, film-makers and Film Festival people from Ireland. One of the younger Irish film-makers spotted Joe and said, “Jesus, that’s Joe Strummer. I’d love to meet him, he’s my hero.” I suggested that he go and say hello but he was too nervous, so offered to introduce him. I was drunk enough to make the introductions (having never met any of The Clash before), to thank him for the music, and leave them to it.
At the start of this century I saw some low-key solo performances by Joe Strummer, at events associated with the Poetry Olympics. He would appear on bills with people like John Cooper Clarke and John Hegley, playing old Clash songs on an acoustic guitar. He performed “White Riot” (changing the title to “Riot Riot”) and “London’s Burning”. At one event in October 2000, at the LA2 / Mean Fiddler (the smaller venue associated with the Astoria on Charing Cross Road) he was onstage with Keith Allen and (as I remember it) Keith’s daughter Lily. I wasn’t drunk this time and had plucked up the courage to chat to Joe at the start of the evening, having turned up long before anyone appeared onstage. I gave him a CD of some songs that I had recorded with a short-lived band the previous year. He asked the same thing that John Cooper Clarke had asked the previous month (when I’d given him a CD at the 100 Club): “When are you playing?” We weren’t. It would be years before any of us would perform those songs again, and sadly that was many years after Joe Strummer’s death in 2002.
But on that evening in October 2000, while watching Joe’s performance, I noticed Mick Jones standing to my left. It wasn’t clear at that point whether he and Joe were reconciled after the demise of The Clash. Afterwards, standing near Joe at the bar, we said hello again; he even remembered my name. I asked if he knew that Mick Jones was there and he said, “Yes, we’re just having a drink, he’ll be back in a minute, I’ll introduce you.” He did, and showed Mick the CD that I’d given him. Mick asked if he could have a copy but Joe had got my last one, with my home number scrawled across the artwork for good measure. I was standing at a small, half-filled venue in London, talking to 50% of The Clash. It’s one of my happiest musical memories. If you’re in the Crown tonight, have a drink on me. But go easy, step light…ly. Stay free.