By Joel Selvin
|Joe Strummer of the Clash: A message for Sting|
Far away from those rocky shores, that scepter'd isle the Clash calls home, in the relative obscurity of San Francisco, the prelates of punk faced the most potentially ticklish performance in the band's career with relative ease.
If the group bombed, who would know back home?
Outside of the cynical scrutiny of the British press and fad-conscious, trendy English music scene - where the Clash may already be somewhat old hat - the group could comfortably get away with the introduction of what amounts to a whole new band, in front of a nearly sold-out San Francisco Civic Auditorium Saturday, full of California teens primed for the concert by harmless radio hits like "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay Should I Go," rather than the leftist revolutionary rhetoric of "Guns of Brixton" or "White Riot."
These recently acquired fans would seem the least likely to be overly sensitive about the absence of guitarist Mick Jones, whose tough swagger and thinly veiled insolence lent so much character to the band. In his place, bandleader Joe Strummer introduced two semi-professional young British guitarists, Nick Sheppard and Vince White. Neither proved exceptional at the Civic.
Far from it, in fact. Even keeping their guitars in tune proved a problem for these green additions to the world's most famous punk rock band. Nor did they show any particular skill in their brief, awkward attempts at vocals.
But the question of technical excellence matters more with other bands than with the Clash, who are the rock world's equivalent of political propagandists who spray-paint leftist slogans on walls in Berkeley.
With the rest of the band dressed in black, Strummer looked especially resplendent in his bright red sport coat and white trousers. tie certainly did his part, rolling around on the stage, thrashing upside down on his back, his kicking legs the only part of his body visible above the surging mass in front of the stage.
The program mixed familiar Clash pieces with new songs headed for the band's next album (to be recorded following the current tour). All the inevitable cornerstones of Clash concerts were present and accounted for - "London Calling," "Police and Thieves," "I Fought the Law," "White Riot" and "Rock the Casbah" in a mysteriously perfunctory rendition - but a great deal of the show was anchored on material the audience never heard before, such as "We Are the Clash," "Sex Mad War" and others which, in the great Clash tradition, were barely decipherable in live performance.
With the two new guitarists fumbling to keep up, the band never struck any rhythmic gold until late in the concert, ironically, during a bass and drums break in "Police and Thieves" when Strummer had sent one of the guitarists offstage, presumably to tune his instrument. Between drummer Pete Howard and bassist Paul Simonon, the two musicians worked up a chugging, bumping interchange that rumbled agreeably through the hall.
In introducing the number, Strummer delivered one of his trademark tirades on culture and the folk process in popular music. "This is punk meets reggae," he explained, "not white reggae. We add some of our own culture to it, so this is no ripoff. I'm talking to you Sting," he shouted, referring to the vocalist-songwriter for the Police, whose work has sometimes been accused of misappropriating Jamaican rhythmic ideas.
What's a Clash Concert without a few polemics? It helps lend a little of the delicious flavor of an anti-war rally to the proceedings and underlines the band's commitment to political struggle and rock-scene infighting. "We do have a culture," Strummer informed the crowd, "and I'm quite sure it's not Van Halen."
Actually, the band's first commitment is to rock and roll and all that it encompasses -- passion, guts, loud guitars, angry songs, anti-social attitudes and, perhaps most of all, spectacle. Helping to provide, a bit of spectacle at the Civic was Malcolm McLaren, the redoubtable manager of the defunct Sex Pistols who can always be counted on in such matters.
McLaren, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a trenchcoat, briefly preceded the Clash by supplying
calls to a tape of his punk rock meets-square dance disco hit, "Buffalo Gals," while a handful of local break dancers flipped, twirled and threw their bodies around onstage, like fish out of water.
Opening the show was Los Lobos, a dream garage band of four Mexican-Americans from East Los Angeles who play like 1965 in San Bernardino. Between this lesson in Chicano rock history, McLaren's demonstrations of contemporary street life and Strummer's own lectures on art, politics and culture, the audience could at least go home feeling educated, if not entertained.
Article contribution by Steve Mereu
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