One of the great action shots in rock history, ace photographer Bob Gruen took this snap of the Clash at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., at the Feb. 1979 show mentioned below.
If I was backed into a corner for an answer as to what was my favorite concert ever, I’d have to say the Clash at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, 42 years ago tonight, in September of 1979. Opening acts were the Undertones fresh out of Derry, N. Ireland and R&B legends Sam & Dave (both great). The Clash had made their area debut about seven months earlier at the old Harvard Square Theater, a legendary gig ‘round these parts. However, the band’s stand-offish attitude kinda dampened their appeal at that show.
Not so on 9/19/79. By that time their first LP had been finally released in America (re-configured to include a fistful of their classic singles) broadening their fanbase while their collective surly demeanor had been replaced by more of a band-of-the-people image. That become clear three songs into the set during (appropriately enough) “Complete Control.” (My memory has since been aided by a bootleg cassette of the show that I purchased in the 90s). Near the end of the song, Joe Strummer’s ad-libbing to the “C-O-N Control” chant abruptly ends and there is a sudden roar from the crowd (at 9:55 of the above-mentioned recording, seen below). The brutish security guards employed in those days by monopolistic rock promoter Don Law were manhandling fans streaming down the aisles for a closer look. The guards were not used to being challenged, least of all by a relatively scrawny lead singer from England, who had just come ten rows deep (with his Fender in tow) to confront them.
After the commotion, Strummer went back to the stage and went all Popeye Doyle, demanding to know who’s-running-this-operation? When the name Don Law was called out it was a bit of a laugh: the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” was released as a single two months earlier. “Where’s Don Law?” Joe repeatedly bellowed. When the man didn’t show, he declared the area in front a stage open to all and the crowd went nuts. The goonish guards were obliged to stand down.
The Clash were spectacular that night, playing every song as if their lives depended on it, with a passion and ferocity seldom equaled. Guitarist Mick Jones further endeared the band to the fans by allowing, “This is a good crowd for us, don’t think we don’t appreciate it.” Mick got off another good one later, while introducing his song “Stay Free,” saying it was about a couple of friends who were sent to the nick. “That’s the penitentiary to you lot.”
The cassette ran out before the end of the show, but I do remember the first encore, a new reggae number where Strummer came out from the wings swinging a train-signal lantern. This was “Armagideon Time” which would soon be released as a b-side to the title track of the album that would break them in the U.S. From that same month (Dec. 1979) that “London Calling” was released, here’s them doing “Armagideon” at the benefit concerts for Kampuchea. RIP Joe, there will never be another.
Any music genre that was once new and fresh and radical is bound to become established and settled if the quality of the original output was great enough to still be well-loved years, decades or, in the case of classical, even centuries later. So it is now with punk rock. True, there are many younger practitioners of the form and some of them I go and see in my own area. But just as some talented young jazz artist will not make aficionados forget Miles Davis or John Coltrane, so too these ardent newcomers could never outstrip the golden era.
Which brings us to the Skids. No newbies are they: their first single was released in the halcyon days of 1978. But these veteran Scottish punkers have just released the vigorous and entertaining Songs From a Haunted Ballroom, a covers album leaning heavily to late 70s battle cries from the likes of the Clash, Sex Pistols, Ultravox etc. and also a few left-field choices that help tell a larger story. Lead singer Richard Jobson and bassist William Simpson are from the original band and drummer. The Skids’ current line-up is rounded up by the father-son guitar team of Bruce and Jamie Watson. (Bruce the elder was also in Big Country, formed in 1981 by the late Stuart Adamson who was Skids’ original lead guitarist). This duo provided plenty up six-string firepower to the amped-up arrangements heard here.
The Skids front line of today. Left to right, Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson and Richard Jobson.
The original Sids were a dtermined and edgy outfit that worked their way down to London from Dunfermline and scored a UK #10 single with the anthemic classic “Into the Valley” in 1979. They would stay together and put out four albums until splitting up in 1982. Since their 2007 re-forming they have been more centered on their Scottish origin. The “Haunted Ballroom” of the title refers to the Kinema Ballroom which recently closed before re-opening as a global fusion restaurant. Generally, tribute albums can be a hit-and-miss affair and it’s likely that some listeners will be underwhelmed by the energetic but pro-forma versions of the Sex Pistols’ “Submission,” the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore Eyes”, the Stooges oft-covered “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or the Clash’s “Complete Control.” (In the latter, Jobson shouts out Joe Strummer’s iconic ad lib “You’re my guitar hero” twice–maybe once for each of the Watsons).
In the liner notes, Jobson relates the personal significance of the selections, usually being a song from a band he saw at the ballroom in the heady days of the “No Future” punk uprising, or songs that were popular DJ selections on dance-club nights. The Kinema looms large in Richard’s largely personal mythology and not just for the revolutionizing groups he saw there and inspired his own music-making. He makes several mentions of Scotland’s numerous gangs who would occasionally crash the Kinema, giving an added edge to several cuts. Haunted Ballroom kicks off strong with Ultravox’s “Young Savage” and it’s telling tag line “Anything goes where nobody knows your name.” It also informs the Skids’ turbo-charged take on Mott the Hooples’ “Violence” and Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out of Me.” Jobson would later form The Armoury Show with that group’s talented journeyman guitarist, the late John McGeoch.
One of the more intriguing covers here is “Rock On” where the band take David Essex’ frothy 1973 glam hit and gives it an ominous edge with a spoken-word section where Jobson recalls how gangs like the fearsome AV Toi (“the most mental gang in all of Scotland”) would use the chorus of “Rock On” as a cue to cause mayhem on the dance floor. Also having novel appeal on the song list is Garland Jeffrey’s lost gem “35mm Dreams” (the Skids’ did it as an encore back then) and Ace Frehley’s discofied “New York Groove.”
The guys end the album with re-makes of “Into the Valley” and another great early single, “The Saints Are Coming,” before concluding with their cheeky holiday song “Christmas in Fife.” The two makeovers only improve by way of modern production values, so I’m going to go with the august ’79 original where you can read the hard-to-decipher lyrics and see the band in the full flower of their rough-hewn youth. We all have some special nightspot that is now gone (for me it was The Rat in Boston) but Jobson suggests the importance of the Kinema for him goes beyond nostalgia. For him, “it’s the place that made me what I am.” And listening to an album like “Songs From a Haunted Ballroom” can help keep alive the psychic rebellion of the punk rock soul.
Few rock and roll Christmas stories are as heartwarming as the Sex Pistols’ tale of how they spent December 25th, 1977. You may well ask, huh? But look at the situation facing the England’s most notorious punk band at the end of that epochal year. Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee was celebrated that summer, with the one notable exception of the band’s blistering protest song, which took its title from the royal anthem. The Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” lambasted a “fascist regime” and an outdated monarchy that lorded over a population that needed a serious wake-up call. They had connected with a significant portion of the nation’s youth and the single is widely believed to have denied the #1 spot in the UK by industry chart-rigging at the very height of the festivities in June. Johnny Rotten and the crew had also spent the better part of a year earning their reputation as cultural enemy #1 in the eyes of Britain’s establishment.
The year wound down with a planned Sex Pistols tour, but local authorities saw to it that 27 gigs were cancelled, leaving the group in a bus that had a destination sign accurately reading “Nowhere.” That’s where we are at the start of Julien Temple’s thoroughly engaging 2013 documentary look-back. The one-hour film actually kicks off with an extended montage of hokey holiday B-roll of British holiday miscellany that shades into the darker side of that particular season: the country’s economic woes and desultory labor strikes.
Huddersfield from the hill.
It was then that the “Christmas miracle” mentioned in that montage’s ironic narration happens. The Pistols, disillusioned and all but destined to spend December 25th tooling around the rainy motorways in their Nowhere coach, got a call from the firemen’s union in the hardscrabble West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield. The firemen, who were stuck on wages of 170 pounds a week, had been on the picket line for nine weeks. They asked the band if they would be interested in doing a charity gig for the worker’s children on Christmas Day. Would they?
Here’s the complete film. Enjoy!
“Christmas With the Sex Pistols” (aka “Never Mind the Baubles”) is an object lesson in the random acts of kindness that can make our world a little better when tolerance and understanding win the day. The band’s anarchic outrageousness may have been necessary to shake up the country’s moribund state of mind, a process that would go on to reenergize Britain’s culture for the better. But it came at a price, esp. at the hands of the country’s tabloid press, led by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his ilk. “Anything we did was transferred into a lie,” John Lydon (then Johnny Rotten) says in the film’s contemporary band interviews. “They just wanted to smear us,” he continues, “but you can’t beat the truth.” And the truth of that Christmas afternoon was that the Sex Pistols were accepted as (and presented themselves as) nothing more than good-natured benefactors, throwing an unpretentious Yuletide party for the kids (most of them grade-schoolers) with gifts and band memorabilia for all, a luncheon and a huge cake (more of that later).
Temple smartly compliments this angle by having the three surviving Pistols from this line-up (Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook) relate their own childhood recollections of the Yuletide. The relatively stable home environments of Lydon and Cook contrast sharply with the backstory of Jones, whose sour holiday memories and it’s “fucking ‘orrible” TV specials are related to his abusive “shit family” (refer to his memoir Lonely Boy for details), only partially relieved by escaping to the house of his childhood friend, Cook. Of course, John Simon Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious) is not here to tell his tale but Lydon recalls that Sid, keen on coming across as a punk tough guy, needed a “serious talking to” before the party. He reminded Sid that that kind of posturing wouldn’t work with children. Jez Scott, who was about 15 and is the only kid there interviewed here as an adult, remembers that “Sid was brilliant.” He had ended up with two Sex Pistols soccer-style scarves and Mr. Vicious politely asked Jez if he could have one as the memorabilia were not meant for band members.
Sid and kids, with girlfriend Nancy Spungen, his partner in doom, looking on.
Jez also remembered that the Pistols delivered their usual furious set, even including their anti-abortion tirade “Bodies.” But the children, being “natural anarchists,” loved them and enthusiastically started a cake fight with the ample leftovers of the featured dessert. Johnny Rotten, as the lead singer, was apt to lean over the front of the bandstand or wander into the audience. So he soon had his head covered in frosting, much to his own delight. “It had all gotten a little too serious” by then, he recalls of the atmosphere surrounding the group. Both band members and a couple of greying guys who walked nine miles to see the night show, talk of the fleeting days of “punk unity” and the good vibes that permeated this gig. Near the end of this piece, Temple treats the true-blue Pistols fan to a chunk of great footage from the evening “adult” show. These performance clips are of particular interest as it was the band’s last UK show in their original run. Their chaotic U.S. tour soon followed and ended with the group’s bitter break-up a mere three weeks later.
That story could (and has) filled many a magazine article and book chapter. What Temple’s shrewdly charming film does is sprinkle a little holiday magic on the band’s inglorious ending. There were many factors that contributed to that; the group’s youthful inexperience, the tabloid nonsense and an older generation’s stark intolerance, not to mention the cynical machinations of the Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. It’s a loving holiday card sent to the town of Huddersfield and a fine record of a notable moment of grace for a beleaguered rock legend in the making. With all the hype scraped away, it’s simply a tale of people doing a good deed where needed, when only a lump of coal was expected.
If you like my music documentary posts, feel free to click on the book cover above right to check out a 30-page excerpt of my Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinemtaic Journey and/or join my Facebook group simply called Rock Docs. Thanks, Rick Ouellette