Stay Free: The Story of The Clash
I’ve just listened to this wonderful podcast, Stay Free. Only one day after it’s release I find I have blasted through all three episodes. It’s an infectious listen. Somehow Chuck D. Is the perfect narrator for this riotous diatribe on the ‘Only Band that Matters’.
As a modern musician and frequent concert goer, I can’t imagine the early punk days. Dodging fights is nothing I’m new to but this sounded like war. They speak of beer bottles being thrown on stage in Glasgow. Hell, you can’t even be trusted with a damn water bottle’s cap these days. We’ve been made soft but maybe shit is bad enough in America that we’ll see this tide sway the other way.
What struck me heavily is a moment when a reporter is speaking to Strummer. He asks with all the violence at his shows what he stands for. With no hesitation Strummer says, “Anti-fascist.” The Clash were the original Anitfa under similar circumstances as today.
A Little History:
England was facing massive poverty and riots come 76/77. Punk was born of this anger and the way the British Government failed a generation. Unfortunately, what came along with popularity was Nazis and a far right group called The National Front, trying to latch onto the punk scene.
What’s funny is how The Clash protected themselves in the early days of their popularity. As mentioned in the podcast they would mount two concrete blocks set up on opposite sides of the stage with lines of barbed wire connecting the blocks. The fans would struggle, fight and push up against the barbed wire. They did this as the band tried to kick the shit down themselves. As the concrete structure crumbled Simonon would help the audience tear it down. There was a war occurring on both sides of that fence. There was a crass bunch of youths onstage literally fighting with the crowd to get the songs out. NOW that’s punk.
What endears me to the band most was their sense of social justice. In a day when punk was entirely an effort to say fuck it, The Clash cared. As much as they invented the look and attitude that Nazis were now sporting, they knew music could be a force for change. They wanted to be that force and Strummer was just the frontman to kick open the door. As the podcast states Strummer’s mantra was question everything. When faced with taking a political stance (something the band really tried to avoid in the early days) they simply took to their instruments and arranged a giant festival of Reggae and Punk artists. All in an effort to shed light on the racism black people were suffering under the current regime.
Fairness and Chaos:
This is what The Clash means to me: Fairness and Chaos. All Clash fans were equally Clash fans. You hear the band actively breaking up fights mid-set from the stage. As long as they were creating the chaos, all was good. Other’s chaos was not necessarily welcome. Fairness and chaos.
I hope to update this post as more episodes of Stay Free come out. There’s no way I won’t be listening, at the least. It’s an enthralling tale, mythic like the band was. You may not hear things you did not necessarily know but you’ll have a smile across your face as it’s all explained to you in this very well thought out set of recordings.
I highly recommend you listen to this as well: Stay Free: The Story of The Clash – https://open.spotify.com/episode/2JgBM7vWUEBu6eLDOoiu20?si=zR2CZPQ4TAKVMS_pyFkFLA.
Five Episodes Deep into Stay Free:
4/4/19 – so I’ve worked my way through the five episodes of Stay Free which are posted. The series has remained as fascinating as when I started it.
I actually learned some new stuff that I’m shocked to only uncover now. How did no one ever tell me about the ‘vanilla tapes’?!?! Also, where can I find them? Thank you to Stay Free for bringing them to my attention!
When The Clash received poor reception of their previous album, they essentially blamed their producer and CBS for interfering with their process. For that reason, they went to a nowhere town to seclude themselves for their next LP.
Working in a windowless room, The Clash had a friend procure a four track tape recorder. These recordings would later become London Calling.
The Vanilla Tapes
Through the few snippets heard of the ‘vanilla tapes’ throughout the Stay Free podcast you can really sense the fire in all their bellies. They were in their prime and looking to experiment with their new producer. A reckless and demanding lunatic who threw chairs to get what he wanted was just what The Clash needed at the time.
There’s also a subtle nod to Guns of Brixton. Originally called Paul’s song, the band could never quite get Simonon to step up to the mic. Finally he realized the importance of stepping up and owning the song. He was no longer their dumb bass player who just thonked along. He was a force to be reckoned with, who had learned his instrument on the fly and was looking to branch out. Lucky for all of us he did!
Seven Episodes Deep on Stay Free:
4/12/19: Okay, all, it’s Friday so I think we all know by now new episodes of Stay Free tend to pop up on Thursdays (in the US at least)! I found myself particularly tuned in with the seventh episode, “Pressure.”
Of course, the initial Reagan-bashing is more than welcome. It’s refreshing to hear that the Anti-Gay sentiments that seemed to follow Reagan were being addressed and brought to the forefront by someone in as much prominence as Joe Strummer. Strummer had the mic at the right time and he knew how to use it. This allowed Combat Rock to open with such a bang.
I feel as though within this episode of Stay Free we got to see a unique perspective on the band otherwise not publicized in the States (or perhaps I’m just too young ;?). We see a deep dive into an emotional aspect we were yet to see from The Clash; They were on the Defensive, they were vulnerable. Also, if you couldn’t tell, they weren’t very large fans of needing to justify their work to anyone.
What overpowers the episode is addiction and Topper’s unfortunate exit from The Clash. Not unnecessary, just more unfortunate. He was and is a brilliant artist who should not be underestimated. His vigor for music, though, was just as voracious as his affinity toward drug use. Before I get into the downtrodden stuff, let’s first discuss the radical situation that became ‘Rock Da Casbah.”
Their Biggest Commercial Hit
By what can only be justified as The Mythical Gods of Rock intervening upon them, the band’s biggest commercial hit came from one man’s boredom. Left alone (probably tweaking) within the studio for hours on end, Topper grew bored. He got to seeing what else he could use that precious-studio time for while he awaited his bandmates and began first with sinking his fingers into the Keys.
He thinks this will just be a one-off title for the band. Maybe something they use, or just toss to the side. He describes moving from drum take, to piano take, to bass take – Still not one of his bandmates yet to show – He even had time to add in some percussive takes. As the band comes in, Topper’s messings around are heard… And they don’t want to change a damn thing. Instead of brushing him off to the side, The Clash said no, mate, that’s brilliant!
Don’t Tell Anybody . . .
This is where I must admit a dark, dark personal secret that I must insist you don’t share with anyone. Deal? Capice? We one the same page here? I am a later in life Clash fan and cited this song as my reason, for many years, as to why I would not give them their fair day in court. As I’ve grown older and obviously more appreciative of The Clash, I freakin’ love “Rock Da Casbah.” However, as an angsty youth I was clearly just not on the same wavelength as them. I think the reviewers of the time, unfortunately, had the same narrow-minded, tunnel-vision focus that I did at 16. They didn’t want to hear the band broadening their horizons. Now they were pining for those garage days that they originally shunned and were now long in The Clash’s rearview.
This idea of not being on the same wavelength as The Clash warrants a Doctoral thesis, in my opinion and is something I think resonates through the episode if you read between the lines a tad. At that time the band could care less about your feelings; You were either picking up what The Clash were putting down, or you weren’t.
What breaks my heart is later on in the episode, when Topper references his first listen of Rock Da Casbah. The poor bastard wasn’t even in the group when he heard his own tune bring the band the most success they were yet to see. He was in a ‘windowless squat in West London’. He saw the video with the band’s original Drummer at the kit, and not himself, the creator.
Terry Chimes was brought back into the fold in a speedy fashion. Now, I’m going to say something which I believe to be universally-accepted but I do not wish to speak for everyone, in that the band lost a spark when they lost Topper. A certain goofball quality exited with him. A panache they would never quite re-acquire. The Clash were getting serious and they were doing it in a style very much befitting a band moving much too fast for sustainability.
Well, those are my thoughts after listening to this episode. What are your feelings on this era of The Clash, their stylistic transitions, their lineup changes? I’d love to hear your comments and I thank you very much, as always, for reading.
The Final Episode:
4/16/19-Happy Thursday all! Below, please find my take on Stay Free: Episode 8: “Straight to Hell West Ten” –
Episode eight is a rather rough one to take in, for obvious reasons. We see the crumble of the band finally occur, not to mention Joe’s untimely death at the age of 50 (obviously, the most heart-wrenching aspect of the entire episode). I believe I was 14 or so when he did in fact pass. I was ambivalent at the time as a dumb kid, but as I write this I think of my own Father, who is now aged 20 years beyond what Strummer got to experience. How did such a towering figure of more than one generation merely sit down, never to stand again? It’s too ‘normal’ for Joe. It doesn’t have that unique flair you’d expect from Strummer, even in death. You’d expect a funeral akin to Hunter S. Thompson. Joe’s remains shot from a 150 tall cannon.
Is it me or is this move all too befitting that a band like The Clash’s final tour would be them freakin’ busking their way through the U.K? This is a rudimentary level the Gang had not seen in nearly a decade. It allowed them to back to their roots, and join their people in their environment once more, rather than hardly seeing a crowd under stadium lighting.
It is such a genuine joy to see that their Members’ each had and have prosperous musical lives beyond The Clash. Joe with the Mescalero’s, Mick with Big Audio Dynamite and beyond, Paul is now back with the Good, the Bad, and the Queen. Good for them! As long as they have fingers I hope they use them.
This podcast was nothing if not a pleasure to stumble upon, from start to finish. I know I mentioned it above, but I cannot recognize this min-series’ brilliance enough. Personally, I’m not a fan of Podcasts. However, this one was done right. They paid careful attention to retaining your attention. There were quick cuts, interviews and audio effects throughout to keep your interest, all beautifully woven into the tapestry that is this Podcast. I hate having people talk at me. This was not that, though. Chuck D. spoke to you, not at you. All in all, I’d give this a MINIMUM of 4.5 / 5 Stars. Be sure to check it out and leave me your opinions in the comments section! And, never forget, keep on rockin’ and rollin’!