This article originally appeared in the February 27, 1979 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
A year-and-a-half ago, when they still called it punk, the Sex Pistols and the Clash were the Rolling Stones and Beatles of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll rearmament, according to Robert Christgau in the Village Voice. The point of his parallel was not that “God Save the Queen” was bound to replace “Jumping Jack Flash” in the rock segment of every lounge act’s repertoire, but, rather, that punk was enough of a musical revolution to have spawned two in some sense antithetical groups – that instead of a trendsetter and a host of imitators, you had widespread ferment, nutritious chaos.
Most of us in Boston didn’t see the Sex Pistols and we’re not going to now. While they were touring and falling apart, the Clash were making more singles, a second album, learning about overdubs and the kind of expectations that stars are asked to live up to – even at home. The furor over Bloomingdale’s safety-pin-and-slash designer models has died down now; most everybody’s gotten to calling punk “new wave,” and disco has become the popular genre-once-reviled to defend. But when the Clash came to the Harvard Square Theatre last week on their first American tour, a year-and-a-half-old bill fell due. They were the vanguard just now arriving of a movement that had already come and gone, or been absorbed.
The audience’s attitudes weren’t the only ones that had been changing. The Clash’s first album (not released in the US) seemed a punk manifesto. Implicit in the live recording, the sometimes tediously aggressive sound, was an affirmation of spontaneity over all technique, a call for any action over non-response. On Give ‘Em Enough Rope (Epic) the lyrics are more personal, the music more complex, the mood more thoughtful. The Clash speak no longer as faceless representatives of a class, generation or attitude, but as individuals, emerging personalities. In other words, the two albums raise very different expectations, and live, the Clash were being asked to satisfy them all.
But I didn’t figure any of this out before the concert. The Clash made my favorite single of ’78 (“Complete Control”) and I wanted to see their faces when they played. That’s what I told my friends. But I think I was also hoping to be convinced that art can lead society as well as follow it. Things started auspiciously with a tape of “There’s a Riot Going On” and the lowering of a patchwork backdrop of flags of all nations bearing the legend “unprovoked retaliation.” Showtime and the Clash wandered onstage in the half-light., plugged in their instruments, seemed to argue. The tape stopped, there was a moment more of discussion, then the lights came up and the players converged on “Bored With the USA.” Their entrance may have been anti-spectacular, defying the conventions that call for a blackout and a blaze of glory, but their outfits were surely chosen with a showman’s eye for effect. Shirts with an identical, vaguely military cut, matching the clear colors and uncomplicated devices of flags behind them – limpid red, Dacron blue, all-weather black. The Clash were making a statement both obvious and ambiguous, irritating and intriguing, easier absorbed than explained. Like their performance.