To put it deceptively sedately, the performance was uneven. The concert should have started halfway through, with “White Man at Hammersmith Palais.” Before that, plagued by faulty monitors and disconcerted by the orchestra pit (clearly a feature invented by a nervous security guard, right?), the Clash were only going through the motions. The trouble was, those motions were so cold, so unintentionally hostile and so disappointing, they raised doubts the rest of the concert, including an illuminatingly affectionate “Stay Free” and an ecstatic “Complete Control,” couldn’t entirely erase.
It’s not like I was expecting peace, love and understanding – not from the guys that wrote “Hate and War” and covered “Police and Thieves.” The Clash’s songs certainly tolerate violence (though it’s hard to be sure just listening if it’s “tommy gun” or “domino,” “drugstabbin’” or “dogwalkin’ time”); the language of artillery is common in descriptions of their playing, so who’s going to be surprised that on stage they wimply extend then metaphor? Right from the start the band comes on scrappy. Lead singer/lyricist Joe Strummer and lead guitarist/composer Mick Jones snarl at each other between songs, while bass player Paul Simonon’s looks and attitude are as compatible as stromtrooper boots on a Hummel figure. Covered by drummer Nicky Headon’s steady barrage, Strummer, Jones, and Simonon make for a target at the front of the stage, instruments slung across their chests like M-16s. Attack successful, Strummer hangs on the mike stand as if it were the flagpole at Iwo Jima. One song finished and another raid begins – same objective, same results. But where’s the victory when the Clash assault the stage and ignore the audience? Their energy should exhilarate, their images provoke, but their anger’s so impersonal that what is left is alienation, despair and a bleak, endless act of aggression; for without an enemy, let alone an ally, there’s no hope either for revenge or reconciliation.
I believe the Clash would rather be fighters than pop idols. According to “Cheapskates” and “All the Young Punks,” their future is still bleak – success may be a better way, but not the answer. I don’t expect them to have answers, but they didn’t sing these, their most revealing songs, in concert. So maybe we should be satisfied by acts of provocation, irreconcilable contradictions. They could never have satisfied all expectations, and challenges keep us on our toes. Or maybe we should blame the Clash’s distance on the monitors and remember the good times – like the start of “Police and Thieves,” when they turned up the reverb and hunted the audience with spotlights. But it’s hard to settle for entertainment, no matter how pertinently staged, when they’d promised something more. And in case you think this talk of causes is critic’s babble, last week I met a woman who spoke of “making a commitment to new wave.” I’m unwilling to accept the emotional fascism of unquestioning fandom, but I’ve dreamed the dream of rock revolution, shared the illusion of collective action in a crowded concert hall. I would have like to share the dream again, but the Clash’s unfocused anger left us each alone.