Piazza Maggiore is a square in Bologna, Italy. It was created in its present appearance during the 15th century and forms the heart of the city. As a meeting point, a location for markets and, more recently, concerts, the piazza has served generations of Italians. One such concert took place on June 1st, 1980….The Clash played to over 30,000 fans in one of their more memorable and yet out-of-the-ordinary performances.
Last week (December 14th), a tribute benefit show in memory of Joe Strummer was held at the Via della Cooperazione, in Bologna. Johnny Green, the band’s ‘iconic, hell-raising road-manager’ was the host along with band confidante and long-time best friend Robin Banks, to liven the proceedings.
Back in some of the darkest days of the band’s existence, Johnny and I served as the sole road crew as we struggled to keep the band afloat with little money or support from the record company.
By all accounts, it was a fun evening with half-a-dozen tribute bands contributing to the event. Johnny read aloud his own musings on-stage and also included my own account of that show back in 1980 and the night I almost had a heart-attack! Here is my account, as read to the audience by Mr. Green:
“….First let me say that Topper’s lateness had nothing to do with drugs (as has been suggested). The band’s security man (Ray Jordan) who was driving him, simply lost his way (years before GPS or cell phones), so no one had any idea where he was or what had happened to him.
I had sound-checked the drums earlier and all the equipment was tuned, checked, and ready to go. We waited and waited for Topper until finally it became obvious that something had gone seriously wrong. There were numerous incidents out front with local political elements and rival punk gangs stirring up trouble and the crowd had gone beyond being restless. The mood was beginning to turn ugly, not only out front, but in the dressing-room as well. Mick suddenly turned to me and said, “You’ll have to go on Barry and do a few numbers till Topper gets here!”
Now I’d kept a beat for the band (in my own inept fashion) occasionally at sound-check or in rehearsals, if they turned up before Topper. They knew I could do a very ragged first part of ‘Jail Guitar Doors,’ and could probably keep the beat on some of the slower numbers – but live in front of thousands of fans? That was something I had never imagined and was a totally different kettle of fish! I was not a drummer! I’d face angry skinheads on-stage and the terrors of foreign customs officials but hadn’t bargained for that.
My heart skipped a beat and my stomach turned to water….I felt sick and wanted to throw up! “Me?” I exclaimed, “I don’t think I can do it!”
“Yes you can!” everyone in the dressing-room said, “You’ve done it before – it’ll be fine.” Joe was firmly sincere and convincing in his efforts to persuade me. Paul thought it was hilarious. I wasn’t convinced by their bravado and for the next fifteen minutes I tried to prepare myself physically and mentally. How had I not seen this coming? I cursed myself and had a quiet mental breakdown.
Still no word from Topper as Ray Jordan was whipping their hired car back-and-forth across the Bologna countryside, hopelessly lost. Calls from the organizers and show officials came in – they HAD to go on! Finally, just minutes before the final deadline, George Butler from Whirlwind (supporting), came into the dressing-room and offered his services. It was a stark choice between someone who knew the numbers in his sleep, but wasn’t a drummer, or a drummer who didn’t know any of the songs. After some discussion, the band decided on George and he was pressed into service – I thanked the heavens!
The set was hastily rearranged to include ‘Brand New Cadillac’ and ‘Jimmy Jazz’ at the beginning for their simplicity. George went on, staying very low-key and kept a steady beat through the first four or five numbers with me at the side of the riser, trying to give him visual clues to the numbers. It was a dull, if passable performance, with visibly low-energy from the crowd and the band.
Suddenly, Topper appeared at the side of the stage. He dashed onto the stage, grabbed a pair of drumsticks and the band crashed into ‘London Calling.’ The show immediately kicked into high gear with the band feeding off of Topper’s energy and power. The crowd responded in kind – they went mental! Pent up frustrations were finally released for both audience and band alike and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It was one of the most intensely enthralling and ultimately rewarding shows the band ever played and they were truly thankful afterwards to the Bolognese fans for their patience and loyalty.
Afterwards in the dressing room, there were explanations, recriminations and sighs of relief from everyone (not least me). It was the only time during seven years that anything like that happened. Looking back now, I realize I probably could have done part of the show (in my own inept fashion). But it would have been an out-of-time, uninspiring, muted affair, and definitely was a moment I never wanted to re-live again….”
For an excellent review of the gig in 1980 from one of the audience I can recommend this link:
For more info on the Tribute show: