From Milan (...To Munich & Beyond)
With no immediate commitments anticipated after the American tour, life in Clash City unfolded at a leisurely pace during the summer of 1984. For the fans, nothing seemed amiss; obviously, until Mick's wicked injunctive blizzard finally lifted, no new album seemed likely to emerge before autumn. Only then would those keyboard-wearing, kilt-waving electroppers learn if the mighty three-chord Clash blizzard had finally put them out of work.
Of course, the Clash needed more than the handful of songs that they'd road-tested so painstakingly in Europe and America. Presumably, that wouldn't be a problem, if Strummer and his merry men stuck to their publicly touted bang-'em-up-knock-'em-out blueprint. That's how the best-loved albums had happened; what other approach made sense? Nobody could argue with the results of The Clash, or London Calling, versus the painfully protacted births of Give 'Em Enough Rope, or Combat Rock.
Behind the scenes, however, Clash City's newest recruits were experiencing a regimen that lent an ironic slant to "The Call-Up"'s central query: "Who gives you work, and why should you do it?" For Vince, Nick and Pete, the summer blurred into an unforgiving 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. rehearsal grind, at "a little dungeon" -- as White describes it -- that he'd found in his north London neighborhood of Finsbury Park. Although Paul came down occasionally, Joe was nowhere to be seen, leaving the new boys to fend for themselves.
The routine tuned truly surreal after the boys received their next assignment: "arranging" yet another crop of Strummer originals, working from tapes of chord structures that lacked lyrics or vocals. "Yeah, seriously, it was very boring -- weeks and weeks of playing those chords!" White recalls. "Joe had written out all the chords, but how can you arrange them, if you don't know what the song is about? I tell you, most of the situation was total madness."
Crazy or not, such piecemeal working methods were supplanting the all-in-this-together vibe being put out in the press. Behind the scenes, however, Joe had seemingly changed his mind -- yet again. "Me and Vince were told, together, we weren't going to be on the new record, by Joe," Nick Sheppard said. "Just like that. It started to get really nasty, pretty uncertain, pretty insecure, basically. Attempts were made to explain [the situation], but they weren't convincing."
On this matter, at least, all avenues lead back to Bernie Rhodes. Running such a closed shop suited his managerial temperament, as Clash associate, The Baron, points out: "He wasn't as respectful of individuals as one would think. Just like any prick boss: 'You can be replaced.' That's the stance Bernie took: 'Fuck you, you're gonna be along, or not? You're gonna divert, you're outta here.'"
"You can forget Joe, you can forget Paul, you can forget everybody," White agrees. "Bernie was the man with the controls, the one dictating. I was in a situation where I had to listen to him."
That isolation seemed especially pronounced in August, when The Baron caught up with the new band for a party at Vince's Finsbury Park flat. "It was an all-nighter, for sure," chuckles the Baron, "and those guys could drink, I tell you, Paul, Nick and Vince. I think we left about five, six in the morning. I had to go back to my place, and crash. They kept goin'. I don't know -- those guys were like iron men." There were two notable no-shows. "They invited Joe, and they were [grumbling] that he never showed up. Bernie never showed up. He was conspicuous by his absence," the Baron recalls. "They were both invited."
Two bursts of activity finally broke the summer's crushing boredom. The first moment came with the announcement of an Italian mini-tour for September 7-11. Instead of promoting new product, however, the Clash would provide the backdrop for an Italian Communist Party celebration of its lately-departed leader, Enrico Berlinguer. Hardly the stuff of pop dreams, but it certainly beat bashing out those same chord patterns week after week, as White recalls: "I remember Kosmo comin' in: 'You're off to Italy,' and we were just [saying], 'Thank God we're goin' away and doin' something, instead of fucking around in a studio all day."
Outwardly, Strummer remained as brash and brassy as ever. At the September 8 Fiesta Del Unita (Unity Festival) show, in Reggio Emilio, Joe playfully chided the promoters for the lack of toilets -- then and now, a common nuisance plaguing outdoor shows -- and why the audience seemed ready to accept it. As always, he answered his own question: "Why? Because they're making all the money!"
Such quips found their way onto the inevitable audience tapes, which captured their share of sloppy and compelling moments. For snapshots of both, look no further than the last night's show at the Palasport (Genova, Italy: September 11) -- where a sputtering, disjointed "Are You Ready For War" collapses of its own weight, amid Joe's frantic shouts for Peter Howard to stop playing the song. However, none of these traits manifest themselves on the next song, "White Man In Hammersmith Palais," which showed the funk and dub elements re-emerging in full force.
Despite those glitches, the preponderance of old favorites -- including an odd, gruffly-shouted, one-off version of Nick's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" vocal cameo -- ensured a warm response from the crowds, even as the backstage mind games raged unabated. By now, the gulf between lead singer and band could no longer be ignored, in White's view: "Oh, yeah, when we were playing Italy, he would turn up at the last minute -- I mean, he had no contact with us. There was no contact with Joe through most of it. He was on his own fuckin' planet."
A veil of silence fell once more until the announcement of a two-night stand on December 6-7, 1984, to benefit striking British miners. Here was a chance to soundtrack a life-or-death struggle at one of the Clash's London strongholds -- in this case, the 4,500-capacity Brixton Academy. For much of the year, the National Union of Miners (NUM) had been locked in a brutal, prolonged showdown against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her aggressive monetarist policies. One result had been the numerous pit closings that triggered the strike.
Authorities clamped down with massed arrests, bail restrictions and seizures of the miners' assets -- leaving the benefit concerts as one major way to get around that problem. The strike divided Britain's bands as much as its citizens. While the Culture Clubs and Duran Durans stoutly insisted that such social convulsions were none of their business, a glittering array of names were playing fundraising shows for the miners -- including Aztec Camera, Elvis Costello, New Order and a young, up-and-coming, Clash-influenced troubadour named Billy Bragg, who was arguably channeling The Only Band That Matters more effectively than Strummer and company. "It would have been very odd had the Clash not done them, I think," Nick Sheppard suggests of those affairs, which marked the last major UK gigs.
Perhaps Strummer could make all those "Pop will die, and rebel rock will rule" vows stick, perhaps not. On the first night (December 6), the Clash came out blazing with a stripped-down "One More Time," as Strummer reworked lyrics for the occasion ("Outright, outright dyno-mite/Just a little warning for the miner's strike"). In Nick's and Vince's hands, the Sandinista!-era dub style fell by the wayside. Instead, they kicked off the sonng with an ominous incantation of its E-D chord intro, which built into a clipped, midtempo gallop -- while the tapers struggled to capture it all, jostled back and forth in a screaming, sold-out house.
Never one to miss an opportunity, the Clash showcased a generous helping of new material. Besides the statutory inclusions of "Are You Ready For War," "Dictator," "Thank You, Chief" (also known as "Ammunition," or "Thanks, Chief") and "Three Card Trick," the boys also unveiled "North And South," another bulletin of Britain's growing social divide, and the buzzsaw punk boogie of "Dirty Punk," and "Fingerpoppin'." The second night closed with the one-two punch of "White Riot" and a revamped "This Is England," -- a short-sharp-shock valentine, shorn of its haunting extended bridge, and stripped down to three taut verses, but powerful all the same.
More technical gremlins crept into the second night, to Sheppard's dismay. "I remember having a big run-in with Bernie on my guitar sound. If you listen [to the December 7 tape], most of it is one guitar at the beginning [on 'One More Time']," he said. "Vince walked on, and his guitar didn't work, so he went off, and I was left to cover it. I play a bit of the 'James Bond' theme, as well. I remember looking round when I did that, and Joe being horrified!"
The hometown music press mostly remained unmoved. Led by New Musical Express -- whose own headline read, "Jail Guitar Bores" -- the resulting writeups slammed the Clash on familiar grounds (fatuous rebel posing; sloppy, overloaded guitar sounds; too much self-congratulatory razzle; and so on). Such comments undoubtedly failed to faze the true believers, who'd seen their heroes dish out a vengefully stripped-down brand of rock that -- onstage, at any rate -- sounded more compelling than all the tamped-down New Romantic posing being promoted in the press.
For these enraptured souls, Strummer's second night boast reassured them that the Clash meant business: "We've got a record out, and it's coming out in the new year, and we're gonna be back! We're gonna make a comeback!" Naturally, some fine points got lost in the shuffle, including Joe's doubts of whether he was doing the right thing with the new band, and how much input his longtime manager deserved.
Never lacking in self-confidence, Bernie Rhodes had no such doubts. "He had us all backstage, and said, 'What would you do if you had a million dollars, or a million pounds?" Sheppard recalls. "I looked straight at him -- Bernie, at one point, had quite a big nose, and had [had] it remodeled. So I said, 'I'd have my ears done,' and that shut him up...the idea being, he'd rubbish whatever answer you gave, for whatever reason, I don't know."
To White, the situation had degenerated into a mindless stalemate from which there was no way forward, but no easy way out. "Bernie said, 'White was black,' as far as whatever happened," White scoffs. "Joe agreed, and we all followed suit. I didn't wanna go back to the warehouse!"
Recording Cut The Crap
The piecemeal blueprint picked up steam during the new year. Sessions began in January and February 1985 for what became the Clash's final, troubled album, Cut The Crap -- whose painstaking, piece-by-piece construction in Munich, Germany, could hardly have felt further removed from the group's traditional operating methods.
Then again, many different people made Sandinista!, as Nick Sheppard points out. However, until he got called into the Clash's Lucky Eight studio on Christmas Eve 1984, Nick had no idea if he'd have anything to do with the proceedings.
After all, Joe had floated the scenario of recording with Pete, keyboardist Mickey Gallagher and bassist Norman Watt-Roy -- ironically, two of the many people who'd helped create Sandinista! -- but the concept didn't get far. "No other guitarist was mentioned, although they had to use someone," Sheppard said. "I remember hearing it -- they'd been rehearsing with Pete, Norman and Mickey, and it sounded like a pub rock band, and that obviously wasn't what Bernie wanted. Obviously, Bernie was trying to decide what record he was going to make."
Gallagher apparently didn't survive the war of attrition, either. Previous accounts have suggested that Gallagher graced the finished product, but according to filmmaker Daniel Garcia -- who began working on a documentary about the post-Jones Clash period in 2009 -- everything changed when the keyboardist caught Rhodes messing around with some settings on his instrument. A furious argument ensued, and Gallagher stormed out. The Clash would have to make do without its resident "fifth Beatle."
Paul only played on a couple of numbers, his absence chalked up to lack of interest, or assurances that the definitive recordings would occur later, leaving Watt-Roy -- a core member of Ian Dury & The Blockheads -- to fill in those particular four-stringed blanks.
Given all these factors, Nick reckons that his presence finally became more desirable after Rhodes felt the original game plan being strained to the limit. By then, he had other concerns. "I was taken into the rehearsal rooms and played the demos a couple of weeks before they went into the studio," Sheppard said. "I joined them [in Munich] after they'd done the drum programming, and some rhythm guitar. Norman went on the same flight -- a very weird way of making a record, in my opinion."
Yet the Rhodesian game plan proceeded as outlined, apparently with his singer's unilateral backing, while Sheppard found himself relegated to a lesser role of fleshing out arrangements, doing rough mixes and completing assorted minor production tasks.
The first weeks were largely devoted to programming drums, with assistance from Michael Fayne, later of Roachford. However, despite an avid courtship by Rhodes -- or, more likely, because of it -- "the lucky bastard got out of that [situation] before Bernie had anything legal with him," Howard said.
Once in Munich, Sheppard found himself learning songs that hadn't been played live before ("Cool Under Heat," "Life Is Wild," "Movers And Shakers," "Play To Win"). Still other numbers, like "We Are The Clash," were being revisited in radically different guises, while a handful ("Glue Zombie"; "In The Pouring, Pouring Rain"; "Thank You, Chief") would languish unreleased.
Unsurprisingly, Nick quickly grew disillusioned with the whole business; "by the time I actually heard them [the newer songs], I didn't really have a critical faculty in my body left," he sighs. Asked to elaborate, Nick responds: "It was more a question of, 'Right, let's try to work out what to do with these.' I didn't consider whether they were good or not -- it wouldn't have made an ounce of difference, anyway, because no one would have listened.'"
(Ironically, the notorious massed backing vocals that so markedly defined the finished product -- and cited as its most contrived production touch -- provided one of the few pleasurable diversions, according to Nick. That moment occurred in London, where additional post-production work proceeded at several studios -- how many, he's not quite sure. "We got a great big crowd down to a studio in West London, and shouted the backing vocals, out. A funny night," he recalls. "I think it was about 30 friends, acquaintances, fans, and people like that.")
Pete and Vince were eventually allowed to join the sessions, but only after driving across Europe in subzero temperatures. "The radiator froze, everything froze, the van was totally freezing, and we arrived there in six feet of snow," White said. Unfortunately, "most of the album had been recorded," he adds, with a bemused laugh. "I'm serious! Maybe that was one of Bernie's punishments, or something."
Like Nick, Vince had done his share of preparing for the recording sessions. "I worked very hard on the guitar playing that I did," he recalls. "I remember staying up all night, one night, with Joe, in his place. We spent all night, till the dawn. We had these little demos, rough tracks with some singin' on them."
As best as Vince remembers, the notorious backing vocals and synthesizers weren't in place yet. "It was mainly just guitar and drums -- well, we're talking about a drumbeat off a machine! I remember, Pete went in and played some fills around the drum machine. The whole thing was orchestrated by Bernie," he said.
Days stretched into weeks, as the sessions dragged on without a clear resolution. Most of the sessions involved just three people -- Bernie, Joe and Nick, who had begun wondering where all this hard work might lead. "I think Vince's playing is great, actually, what you can hear of it," Nick asserts. "We had 48 tracks, and it was like 48 tracks of punk rock guitar. I was trying very hard to arrange things, I did rough mixes, and got very involved. Gradually, it was like a war of attrition -- you just kind of gave up. I was [saying], 'I did my bit,' and I wasn't asked back."
Clash Book Dispatches
From Milan (...To Munich & Beyond)