March 1, marks the 30th anniversary of The Clash’s first show on US soil. (Editor’s Note: Input from our readers dates this show earlier in Feb. 0f 1979) As their US product manager at Epic Records, I had the phenomenal opportunity to be at that show in Berkley, California. Although it has been well over 10,000 days and nights since that moment in my life, what I remember most about their performance was the absolute punk energy and angst that they brought to the stage with a rock professionalism that no punk band that I had seen to that point could even remotely muster. I can only compare it to years later, the first time I saw Rage Against The Machine. It was angry intensity, musically and lyrical.
There was a feeling in the venue that night in Berkley that everyone was witnessing history. There was no build and no lull. The show screamed in-your-face passion and a sense that the band was pissed off that they had to come to the US to deliver this musical message. Joe Strummer was galvanizing as he cradled the mike close to his face as it seemed for the entire performance. His anger and righteousness was even and piercing with that slight convulsive twitch that he used to the beat. It was subversive and out of control… but he was so in control.
The Clash had arrived in America. Yes, here, where our youth somehow lived too well to allow punk music to happen beyond a niche. Our rock had already reached a corporate deliver system where radio, retail, and distribution served it just right.
However, this first date of a 10-day introductory tour did not seem to present an act that came here to pledge for entry on the rock marketing bandwagon. They were here as if it was a musical imperative that had to be made. They didn’t play to make friends. They played because they were The Clash.
The irony of my trip to San Francisco was that it was the first time I ever got to ride on the CBS corporate jet. The record company staff was never really given those perks in those days. The company plane was something the network people used. And although the music business had really grown up into a marketing machine through the ‘70’s, the working people at the record labels were still somehow just aging kids working in a big business. On the plane with me were Lisa Kramer, CBS Records International, Mel Phillips, who did radio promotion for International and somehow got permission to use the CBS jet, Bob Fieniegle, head of rock radio promotion at Epic, Bruce Harris from Epic A&R, and Epic’s iconic head of publicity, Susan Blond. We were definitely not the “suits” in the company… or at least we didn’t think we were!
After the show, we all dutifully went backstage as we did for every artist’s show we went to see. It was the rule of the era to always go after the show to confirm to the act that you actually saw it and that the company was committed to their career. We were pleasantly greeted by The Clash’s manager at the time, Caroline Coon. And after brief niceties with Caroline, the four members of the band came out into a common area of the dressing room to meet us. The band was immediately friendly and open to meeting us, and of course, we all gushed our legitimate enthusiasm after seeing their first performance in America.
After a few minutes of this warm introduction, Susan Blond, always the consummate professional with the right move at the right time, called for everyone to pull together for a quick backstage trade shot. Joe, Mick, Paul, and Topper all comfortably moved into position with the handful of us label people. Susan had the photograph completely in position to take the quick shot without it feeling intrusive at all.
…And just as the photographer was about to click the first shot, in unison, the four members of The Clash walked out of frame, leaving us dumb record company people standing there like fools! It was one of the most incredible moments I’ve ever felt in this business. Instantly, and as if they had walked us into our own trap, The Clash had made a statement to the record company.
“We aren’t like any other band you have ever imagined.” This was the U.S. beginning of “The Only Band That Matters.”
This perfect response to us, on top of the show I had just seen total nailed me. I was in! I loved this band! I think we all did, and there wasn’t a person among us who was offended by this in-your-place audacity. Today, I think we all may know of some executive egos who simply couldn’t handle a band doing that to them.
With the photo op vanquished, The Clash immediately resumed their graciousness. After five or ten minutes of further small talk, the band courteously said their farewells and we headed to the airport for the overnight flight home… on the corporate jet. Yep, I guess we were the suits!
I have a number of other great memories about The Clash that I want to write about later, including their next manager Bernie Rhodes, and band sidekick Cosmo Vinyl. However, for now, that one show, that first show at Berkley, exactly 30 years ago today, stands as a seminal moment, the ultimate snapshot in my rearview mirror. But there is no picture… it’s just an indelible image in my mind!
(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)