40 Years Ago: The Clash Finally Play First U.S. Show
The Clash were about two and a half years into their career before they played a gig on U.S. soil. The band’s first American show wasn’t at a grimy punk club – they were already too popular in the States, and besides, Give ’Em Enough Rope had already shown the quartet was moving beyond the rudimentary constraints of punk.
On Feb. 7, 1979, the Clash played their first U.S. gig at the Berkeley Community Theatre in Berkeley, Calif. The 3,500-capacity venue on the campus of Berkeley High School had a rock pedigree, with past gigs by Bob Dylan, the Who and Jimi Hendrix.
But Joe Strummer was still dismayed that his band’s American debut would be in a college town. “We shouldn’t have played here,” the frontman told Time magazine backstage. “It’s a university town. They’re boring snobs.”
It wasn’t how Strummer pictured this would go. But then, not much in recent months had gone that way for the Clash. The band had been forced by CBS Records to use Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman on their sophomore LP, Give ’Em Enough Rope, an album that – for its glossier, more radio-friendly sound – hadn’t broken the Clash in the U.S. the way the record company had hoped. Meanwhile, the band was in debt to CBS, it had just fired manager Bernie Rhodes and Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones were in the midst of a bout of writer’s block.
Things started to get better after the Clash picked a new manager, Caroline Coon. Sure, she was bassist Paul Simonon’s girlfriend, but she also listened to what the band members actually wanted to do.
Do a tour in America? With the Clash in debt, CBS didn’t want to fund an overseas trek, but Coon was able to get the band’s Stateside label, Epic, to pony up the cash. (This was somewhat remarkable, given that Epic had refused to release the Clash’s raw debut album in 1977.) When Simonon and Strummer wanted rock ’n’ roll pioneer Bo Diddley to open the band’s U.S. tour, Coon found the singer-guitarist in Australia and agreed to pay him upfront.
The guys in the Clash met their tourmate in Vancouver, where the string of dates began on Jan. 31, before heading down to the States. Diddley was somewhat bewildered by his role in what the Clash termed the Pearl Harbor ’79 Tour (and didn’t particularly enjoy the volume at which the band played). Strummer was in shock the rock icon agreed to the job.
“In the flesh, he was more awe-inspiring than we could possibly imagine,” Strummer recalled, according to Q. “He dressed like he was ready to fight. He always had his huge sheriff’s hat on and a giant belt buckle, and you were unmistakably in the presence of someone who gave no quarter.”
But Diddley and the group soon warmed up to one another, which helped since they all traveled on the same tour bus, which had been leased from another American music icon: Dolly Parton. Even though Strummer and friends didn’t enjoy sleeping on the bus too much, they took to the on-board TV and videocassette machine, which allowed them (or at least drummer Topper Headon) to watch Star Wars over and over.
It was on the band’s way from Canada to Northern California that it heard some awful news. Sid Vicious, former Sex Pistol and a member of the same London punk scene that had birthed the Clash, had died in New York, on the other side of the country the group was so eager to explore.
“I wake up and as I’m searching for some breakfast, Ace Penna, our U.S. tour manager, tells me ‘Hey, didja know Sid is dead?’” Strummer wrote in the tour diary he penned for NME. “I grab him by the throat. ‘What do you mean?’ I snarl. Then, as it sinks in, I don’t want no breakfast. Our first morning in America.”
It might have been the Clash’s first morning touring America, but it wasn’t their first trip to the country. The previous year, the band had spent a little time while recording portions of Give ’Em Enough Rope in San Francisco. But that had given the band but a taste of the U.S. and the members were excited to see more.
However, humorless fans in the Clash’s Berkeley audience might not have realized how happy they were to be in America. As a poke in the ribs, the band began its set with “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” It would become a tradition throughout the winter tour.
“We started the show with ‘I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.’ because we wanted to find out if they had a sense of humor in America,” Strummer said, via Q. “And the answer was that they were double into that number. They loved it, because we were saying we were sick of the cheap rubbish on TV, all the substandard cultural imports that came out of America. The kids were as bored as we were with all that rubbish.”
Watch the Clash Perform 'I'm So Bored With the U.S.A.'
The rest of the set featured a mix of songs from the Clash’s first album (which had yet to be officially released in the States, though tens of thousands of import copies had been purchased by American fans), second album and recent singles – including “Clash City Rockers,” “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” and their ferocious cover of “I Fought the Law.” All three songs would end up on the U.S. version of The Clash. “White Riot” served as a frenetic encore.
“The first show was a blast,” photographer Bob Gruen recalled in Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer. “The place was full of happy, dancing people. The Clash was more than your average good-time band. You not only had a good time but you also thought about issues that bothered people. Things were serious and there was a lot to be angry about, but there was also a lot to have fun about. The force of the music made it sound like a battlefield, a clash. The lights were always flashing, like explosions.”
Newspaper and music magazine reviews of the show were largely positive. Some acknowledged that the U.S. audiences were more subdued than British punk fans and the Clash appreciated that no one tried to spit on them as they performed. Even though Strummer would acknowledge that the university crowd loved the Clash’s first U.S. show (they were “tapping their biology textbooks in time with the tunes” he snarked in his diary), he hadn’t come to America to connect solely with the student population.
And so, in defiance of promoter Bill Graham, the Clash hastily organized a second show in the San Francisco area for the next evening. This one would take place at Geary Temple (which had once been Graham’s old Fillmore West), cost half as much as the first show and benefit a youth organization and the homeless. The band’s second concert in America was a charity benefit – a fact the Clash wore proudly.
“The show is really great, the hall is really great, the audience is really great,” Strummer wrote, “but we gotta leave straight after the set to drive the 400 miles to Los Angeles.”
Having only toured Britain and Europe, the guys in the Clash were surprised at how spread out the cities in the U.S. could be. Four hundred miles was nothing. After leaving L.A. to drive across the Southwest, the band became shocked by the expanse of empty space. America was more normal, more boring, than Strummer had expected, but it was still the place that had given them so much of the music he loved.
“When you’ve been into American music as long as I have, to go there is a trip,” Strummer said in the 2000 Clash documentary Westway to the World. “To ride across the country, even better, on a bus is another trip. Fantastic. I got endless amounts of inspiration from it.”
The Clash’s primary songwriters – Strummer and Jones – were creatively rejuvenated not just by experiencing America for themselves but also by the reception they received from fans during the nine-date tour that took them from Vancouver to California, Cleveland to Washington D.C., New York and Toronto.
Later the band would write, record and release London Calling, its magnum opus that featured more than a little American influence with its R&B and rockabilly sounds. They also returned to North America for a second, more extensive tour. And more inspiration.