In a television programme broadcast in the past fortnight the leader of the Labour Party said: ‘This country is walking an economic high wire and if someone jerks the rope we are in serious trouble.’
The man who made that comment was not Jeremy Corbyn but James Callaghan who was being interviewed on Panorama when serving as Prime Minister at the end of 1976. The clip was included in the documentary ‘The Clash – New Years Day 77’ which included previously unseen footage of the group as they prepared for a landmark performance at the Roxy Club on January 1st 1977. The rehearsals and live show are interspersed with clips of television news and from current affairs programmes as 1976 draws to a close. From a distance of 41 years, Britain and in particular London looks a dilapidated, run down place – at regular intervals in the capital there are desolate patches of waste ground that look to have been used in most episodes of The Sweeney, while even the tourist attraction that today is Covent Garden Market has been derelict for three years. Unemployment, as well as prices are rising, cuts in public spending are starting to bite, racial tension is rife, inner cities resemble a wasteland and in a poll conducted by the BBC, 76% of those asked thought Britain faced serious economic hardship.
For a generation of disaffected, working class youth the future looked distinctly bleak – but for those wanting to have their disillusionment articulated things had begun to stir. It has been said that for many teenagers the 1970s did not begin until December 1976 when the Sex Pistols swore at Bill Grundy during an infamous television interview. While their outlandish behaviour (for the time) caused widespread outrage in the living rooms of the nation, followed by apoplectic front pages the next day, the Sex Pistols were at the vanguard of a burgeoning movement of young rock groups (soon to be labelled punk rock bands), who were categorically rejecting the excesses and self-indulgence of mainstream 70s rock – and in contrast were writing brief, fiery and often highly political songs that gave a lost generation an overdue helping of empathy and purpose. No band emphasised a new direction had been taken more than The Clash – angry, disgusted, witty and ferocious, they did not so much take the baton from bands they admired such as The Kinks, The Who and Mott The Hoople (for the most part they were blessed with impeccable taste) but ripped it from them to blaze a trail so intense nobody else could possibly follow. They were brash, anti-Fascist, dynamic and at The Roxy on New Years Day 1977 tore up the tiny stage with a roaring set that compromised mainly of songs that would feature on their sensational debut album later in the year – the documentary stating: ‘Into the audience they tossed out like firecrackers one key song after another.’
From the very first day it would be the year of The Clash – between January and March they recorded the greatest debut album in rock history and in April drummer Topper Headon joined Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to complete the definitive line-up of the band. They galvanised a growing following with songs that railed against poverty, injustice and dead end lives and when the album was released the publicity mantra claimed they were ‘the only band that matters’ – and never has a claim been more justified.
Woven among grainy black and while footage of Strummer, Jones and Simonon being interviewed for the first time on camera, where they look like self-conscious teenagers waiting for a party to start, are vivid images, often in colour, that create a social commentary of 1976 – none more so than the violent scenes filmed at the Notting Hill carnival of that year (Strummer, who along with Simonon had witnessed the violence first hand, wrote the lyrics to ‘White Riot’ in the immediate aftermath). At the end of the long sweltering summer, tensions between the Police and the predominantly West Indian communities in a couple of rundown West London neighbourhoods escalate into running street battles. Reflecting on the incidents, filmmaker, DJ and Clash confidant Don Letts, whose West Indian background was instrumental in providing the group with their reggae influence, states:
‘Times were tough and not just for the black communities – a lot of my white mates had good reason to feel angry. Something had to change. The song ‘Two Sevens Clash’ by Culture was predicting chaos for the Caribbean, but what actually happened was chaos in the UK. I felt more of a sea change then than at the Millennium.’
At The Roxy, which in truth was little more than a dingy Covent Garden basement, The Clash rip through ‘Hate and War,’ ‘London’s Burning,’ ‘Janie Jones’ and ‘White Riot,’ – while into their performance of ‘Career Opportunities’ is neatly segued an interview with Leader of the Opposition Margaret Thatcher. When asked what effects the economic cuts proposed by the Conservatives would have on rising unemployment figures should they be elected at the next General Election, she refuses to state a figure, only denying when prompted by the interviewer they would be nothing like the 100,000 he was suggesting. By the end of 1980, her first full year as Prime Minister, unemployment in Great Britain had risen by over 800,000 – career opportunities indeed.
In front of an audience that includes members of The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sex Pistol Paul Cook, who would all make their mark that year (Adam Ant and future Pogue Shane MacGowan can also be seen in the crowd but it would take them a little longer) The Clash close their set with ‘1977’ their own take on the clash of two sevens. It is a powerful, aggressive piece (it does not appear on the debut album which further underlines the strength of the LP) that cries out a warning – no less in the refrain of ‘No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones.’ Over celebratory scenes in the cramped dressing room afterward the words of Mark Perry, editor of the recently launched the Punk fanzine ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ can be heard: ‘Only time will tell, say over say the next four years, if The Clash can keep playing gigs that blow your mind and writing songs that are really honest. If they can the music will stay fresh.’
As we fast approach forty four years after the fact, finding a clichéd lyric or laboured note recorded by The Clash before their 1983 demise, remains nigh-on impossible.
NEIL SAMBROOK is the author of MONTY’S DOUBLE – an outstanding new thriller now available as an Amazon Kindle Book.