“When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Had we but known: it was the stuff of legend – every nerve-wrenching night of angry passion; every frenzied, riotous stage invasion; every sweat-dripping, gob-covered drum beat and guitar riff – each fragment no less important then the other, as night after night, the essential ingredients wove strand upon strand to form the intricate fable that has become the legacy of The Clash, and their seven year convulsion of raw intensity and outrageous audaciousness. The victors get to rewrite history, which in this case has been the authors and journalists.
Had anyone else but known: there was no script, no master plan – it was sheer bluster and guts at each turn. Every gig was a street-fight, every tour was a war, and we played the hand we were dealt at every show, like a tightrope walker with a death-wish, unwilling and incapable of looking down. It all amounted to the most chaotic roller-coaster ride of mayhem and intensity imaginable. The Clash’s journey from English highstreet clubs to American sports stadiums was a visceral story of adrenaline-fueled bravado – rare in their sensitivity, rash in their violence, but ultimately dazzling in the reactive chemistry with which they seared the music landscape.
For my part, I took the whole seven-year mission, and when it was over, I never sought another gig, or looked back over my shoulder (until now, maybe.) And there were so many others who also travelled portions of that voyage with them…..unsung heroes and shameless villains alike. Some were just hired hands, others – fully committed – had their lives changed irrevocably, but all were touched by that special quality and character of the band and the extraordinary events that inevitably erupted around them. If you worked for them in any capacity, you inexorably became swept up in the tide of fervor and adulation that surrounded and reflected off them. For better or worse, you became part of the insanity of those times, and therefore tainted by mere association.
Nothing was ever orderly or mundane within ‘Clashworld’ and the most innocent everyday events could turn into a nightmare, unbidden. The truth was; there were no everyday events in the history of the Clash. And for those of us on the crew, touring was no less a daily descent into hell – a ‘Kafkaesque’ rush of reality-distorting highs and lows, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. We flipped the switch between combat-stance and neutral several times each day – adrenaline on/adrenaline off! There were no weekdays or weekends, no bank holidays or Easters, and for both crew and band existing in our insulated time-capsule, the calendar became irrelevant, seasons sliding past unnoticed, marked only by changing temperatures.
Each day would start out innocently enough, staggering bleary-eyed from the crewbus onto yet another cold empty stage, in some nameless city. Several hours would be spent repairing the damage from the previous night’s carnage – drum skins would be changed, jack-plugs re-soldered, amplifier valves replaced, broken flightcase wheels repaired. Cleaning the dried gob off everything was a constant ritual and unless removed daily would accumulate like green alien goo. Daily music store runs were a necessity too – like hit-and-run missions we snagged parts, supplies and especially gaffa tape (it was the currency of the day) – if we hit lucky, we bought the store’s entire stock.
As the backline was setup, tuned, and taped, the anticipation of the approaching night ahead rose. We only had a short time to get it right because once the band bounded into the hall, with all manner of ‘friends’, journalists, and photographers in tow, all hell broke loose! If the day’s interviews and photo sessions had gone well; if the hall had good, dry acoustics; and if the electric supply was well grounded, we had a chance of a decent sound check. If not, feedback likely rang-out unchecked, buzzing leads would annoy and frustrate everyone, and already inflamed tempers inevitably led to blowups. If the mood was good, there was ample time for wind-ups between the band and crew at sound-check and most turned into impromptu rehearsal sessions – more often than not, we literally had to drag the band offstage
With the sound-check over, we had a chance to ease-down, straighten out problems, and tape and tighten everything. The support bands would sound-check, then the doors would open and the hall would fill up. The enthusiasm and excitement of the audience gradually built, eventually becoming a palpable, livin, breathing entity. Once the band returned and began their pre-gig rituals, the adrenaline would ramp-up to defcon-4. Like warrior tribesmen from ancient history, each band member had their own talismanic customs. Mick liked to talk (unusual), Joe was quiet (unusual), Paul tried to relax. The task of preparing Topper for the show fell to me and it resembled prepping a boxer for a fight – tape, band-aids, gloves, wristbands, ice-spray, glucose tablets, and neck massages to loosen him up. If any of the crew or band needed external stimulus to get them through it, that was the time they took them.
After triple checking everything onstage, I would send the all-ready signal out, the lights went down, and the crowd would roar. Those were the minutes we would hunker down in the dark, like troops in the trenches, butterflies in the stomach, waiting to go over the top.
Once the band strode out onto the stage, another jolt of adrenaline heightened the senses and awareness. The gigs themselves were a total blur of color, sweat, light, and sound; it was chaos most times, turned up white hot with noise to match. Time sped-up like a street-fight, and we reacted to each second instinctively. A string would break; a skin would split; a mike-stand would fall; there was no time to consider, you just leapt and responded. Coded nods were given; messages sent out – panic, exhilaration, brilliance and fuck-ups, for both band and crew. We lived right behind our eyes, performing as one and desperately trying to cover each other’s backs. Joe loved the fuck-ups and would purposely collide with equipment, knocking things over. The three of them would run back and forth throughout the show, purposely tangling the guitar leads as badly as possible and delighting in watching us scrambling to untangle the growing ball of spaghetti. Stage invasions, fights on and off stage, unconscious fans, bottles, cans, and gob all rained down on us. Looking back, it was uncontrolled mayhem on a dangerous scale.
And then after the last glorious encore, it was suddenly over. . Pressure released, the adrenaline drained away, and reality seeped back into consciousness. You might suddenly realize you were drenched in sweat (or gob), or you’d been cut by flying broken glass. No time to rest though, only time to get a second wind, tear down, and put it all away. Every night, with ears ringing, we packed up the gear amidst the thrown beer cans, crunching through the smashed glass and debris of another battlefield. By the time the truck doors closed, the band left, and the last few fans drifted away, the hall would become quiet and empty. It’s hard to describe how utterly surreal it was to stride the empty stage, where just hours before such passion, emotion and frightening intensity had played out. The dreams and lifelong memories that had been created were now just ghostly echoes in a lifeless arena.
If we were in town for the night, there was time to re-live the highlights of the day with the band back at the hotel and much riotous behavior would inevitably take place. Mostly though, we climbed back on the crew bus and hit the road hard, fuelled by Heinekens and high spirits (despite our tiredness), only to wake-up in a new town the next morning and do it all over again.
By the second tour, I had thankfully become numbed to the rigors and trauma that the lifestyle inflicted. Both band and crew became battle-hardened along the way and even today we all bear the physical and mental wounds of that improbable fiction – Paul’s hip, Topper’s back, and of course, Joe’s mortality – no one escaped without injury of some sort.
The music stopped long ago and after the intervening 33 years, just haphazard scenes and random images remain in my memory – the individual minutiae of each gig is now the property of not only the journalists and photographers who chronicled the events, but more importantly, of the fans who were there each night, who made such memories possible, and who remember it incident-by-incident. Every one of them also had a part to play in the journey.
Of course, there were another two thirds of the journey which were spent rehearsing, recording, and playing football – but that’s a story for another day….