We know the drill now. Listen to music in the medium for which it was recorded (that lovely, warm vinyl). Listen to the tracks in the order the artists intended, and with the attention they deserved in our youth and still do.
On top of that, do this on the very best equipment, over a few drinks, and discuss the album with the very best minds. But as our guest speaker Chris Salewicz explained to a packed basement in Soho House’s Chiswick branch, this wasn’t any old LP spinning on the finely-balanced Linn deck.
I think we should look on them as satirists, rather than activists
At high50’s latest vinyl listening club, the celebrated author said, we would be in the presence of what Robert Christgau – America’s ‘dean of rock critics’ – called “the greatest rock’n’roll album ever manufactured anywhere, partly because its innocence is of a piece: it never stops snarling, it’s always threatening to blow up in your face.”
We’d been put in the mood by some Seventies dub, and by atmospheric photos of the early punk scene displayed on easels. But before Simon Byles from sound specialists Infidelity could light the fuse and lower the needle, a scene-setter from Chris was required.
As an NME journalist, Chris had watched The Clash grow up, become close to them, and in time written up the life of the band’s front man in Redemption Song: the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer.
On the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s death in 2012, he updated and re-released the book, from which he now read a couple of extracts, covering the transition from garage band to CBS-signed talent, doing all the voices (!) and chuckling to recall the outrage that the Clash’s professionalism had caused among their then-peers.
Playing The Clash on hi-end equipment
Without more ado, we launched into side one, 18 and a half minutes of sonic – and in hindsight, surprisingly musical – fury. The Infidelity system delivered all the clarity and nuance that only 25 grand’s worth of hi-fi kit can.
But hardly had ‘London’s Burning’ screeched to a halt than we brought on our surprise guest, the photographer Sheila Rock – those were her images on the easels – to say a few words about snapping Strummer and co.
It was an adventure that launched her into a career of fashion shoots and reportage, portraiture and ‘art’ photography: “I’d been talking to Lenny Kaye [Patti Smith’s musical collaborator] in New York, and he said I should come and check out this new band at the ICA with him. Well, it was the Clash…”
Despite the aggressive poses struck by the boys, Sheila asked the band’s manager, the notorious Bernie Rhodes, if she could take some pictures. He, needing some publicity shots, agreed (and you can see some in the slideshow above). And thus began the series we saw tonight, recently collected with scores of other photos from the era and milieu in Sheila’s limited-edition book, Punk+.
It was time for a swift drink – oh go on then, two – before we were back in the darkened room for the album’s second side, all fired up, remembering Jim Callaghan’s Britain, and finding our feet moving to the music even while sitting down.
“Can we dance?” asked one of our guests, which was very polite of her. But in a more punky spirit, she didn’t wait for our shrugs, simply leaping into the bar area, and working out her calf-high Doc Martens like she was down the Roxy in ’77.
‘A great flowering of talent’
All too soon, though, as at gigs of yore, the music was over and the lights up. It was time for a discussion about what the album meant at the time of its release, about the “great flowering of talent” that Sheila witnessed, about the complexities of Joe Strummer’s character, the nature of ‘authenticity’ in this context and the roots of the Clash.
“What you have to understand,” said Chris, “is that the Clash were an art school band.” Part of the great British tradition, then? “Absolutely. They knew where they were going. They had a highly developed concept that took in everything from their look to their sound. The splashed paint on their flying-suits – that was Paul Simonon’s reference to Jackson Pollock.”
And art, not politics, was what they were about, he added; expression not opinion. “I think we should look on them as satirists, rather than activists. But they were saying things about society that needed to be said.”
And humourists, too: “‘Vacuum cleaner sucks up budgie’ [from ‘The Magnificent Seven’] must be the funniest line in rock’n’roll.”
It was a line we couldn’t top. So we repaired once more to the bar. While Chris and Sheila dedicated and signed their books, aficionados quizzed them about their experiences, and musos compared the merits of the New York Dolls and Television with those of the Sex Pistols and ATV, your correspondent slipped away, well pleased.
A good time, you ask? We had a riot of our own.
The Clash: The Clash
I’m So Bored with the USA
Hate & War
What’s My Name?
Police and Thieves
Turntable: Linn LP12 with Keel sub-chassis and Radikal power supply
Tonearm: Linn Ekos SE
Phono cartridge: Dynavector DV20XL
Phono stage: Clearaudio Basic+
Amplifier: Naim Super Nait with Naim HiCap power supply
Speakers: B&W 803Diamond
Supplied by Infidelity, 9 High Street, Hampton Wick, KT1 4DA. Visit the Infidelity website