Clash Documentary Covers Band's Career Highs, Lows

Director Don Letts lets bandmembers do most of the talking in 'Westway to the World.'

NEW YORK — The Clash may have been a British punk band, but

the new Don Letts documentary about the group concludes that their greatest

moments almost always happened on the streets of New York.

"Westway to the World" — not yet scheduled for U.S. release, but

set to air Oct. 3 on British TV — documents the band's 1976-83

heyday through director Letts' eyes. The filmmaker was a DJ, a friend of

the band, a home-movie maker and a Rastaman-wannabe who later went on to

join Clash guitarist Mick Jones in the rock group Big Audio Dynamite.

"We were turning each other on through our cultures," Letts told a select

group of CMJ badge-holders who attended a preview screening of the film

Friday in New York.

Speaking at a post-viewing question-and-answer session, Letts said he

began taking footage of the Clash at the band's first gig — July 4,

1976 at London's Swan club.

At the time, Letts said, he was the DJ at London's red-hot Roxy club who

spun reggae tracks that punks came to hear every night. In Letts' film,

Clash guitarist Joe Strummer says the Rasta-punk crossover was what defined

the London music scene of the era, implying that Letts and his vinyl

collection were somehow the catalyst.

Instead of picking up a guitar as many of his peers did, Letts picked up

a Super 8 camera. He ended up with vintage Clash performances that he's

spliced together with interview footage to create a 90-minute retrospective.

London was the Clash's home, but New York inspired them, according to

Letts' film. It was on the Big Apple's street corners that Strummer and

Jones experienced the birth of hip-hop, hearing the music on the boom

boxes that blasted WBLS-FM all over the city in the early '80s. When they

remixed "The Magnificent Seven" (RealAudio

excerpt) into a dance-oriented 12-inch single, it was with the

intention of having one of their songs programmed on the station.

In the film, Strummer says this was a great thrill, to hear their music

taken seriously by the urban-dance station they always tuned in on their

visits here.

But in May 1981, New York played host to what the bandmembers say was

the low point of their career: their "week" at Bonds in Times Square.

"It nearly killed us," Strummer said of the debacle. "It just escalated

beyond control."

Seven scheduled shows were so oversold the fire marshal closed them down.

The band had to spread ticketholders over 16 shows to play for them all.

"We even played matinees," Strummer said. Still, the Clash were thrilled

to see themselves on the evening news in the media capital of the world.

Things were different the next year, when New York hosted their Sept. 22

gig, opening for the Who at a sold-out Shea Stadium. At the time, the

Letts-directed video for "Rock the Casbah" (RealAudio

excerpt) was all over MTV, and the song climbed into the top 10

of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

Shea was their crowning moment, Strummer and Jones say in the documentary,

even more than their subsequent performance before 200,000 at the US

Festival, or their rendition of "Straight to Hell" on "Saturday Night

Live."

In the film, Strummer, Jones and bassist Paul Simonon do most of the

talking; drummer Topper Headon's comments occupy only a few minutes of

screen time. Photographer Pennie Smith — one of the few voices other

than the four bandmembers to narrate parts of the story — describes

capturing a slightly blurry image of Simonon smashing the neck of his

bass into the stage of the Palladium. The shot later became the cover

art for the 1979 album London Calling.

Strummer admits the band's 1980 triple album, Sandinista, "would

probably have been better as a double album, or single, or even as an

EP." Nevertheless, he added, "I wouldn't change it even if I could,"

because it precisely documents the sounds the Clash heard outside in

Greenwich Village during the three weeks they spent recording the album

at Electric Ladyland Studio.

After the screening, many in the audience wanted to know why the band

broke up at its peak — a subject Letts' movie never nails down

exactly.

"Part of being a great band is knowing when to stop," Letts said. For

the Clash, "longevity was never the point," he added.

His film does offer some clues. Headon admits to substance abuse. Strummer

more specifically says that heroin is bad for drummers, but good for

saxophone players. Either way, Headon was bottoming out right around the

time Smith took the cover photo for "Combat Rock" on a railway track in

Thailand.

Strummer said he hated the post-"Casbah" limelight and retreated to

France to avoid it. When Strummer and Jones were together, they argued

endlessly, he said. "When he did show up," Strummer says of Jones, "he

was like Liz Taylor in a bad mood."

Letts said Strummer was disengaged; Headon got sacked; Simonon was always

looking in the mirror, and Jones quit. The band's follow-up album without

him tanked, and the Clash evaporated into history.

But now rumors of a reunion are proliferating because of the imminent

release of a live Clash album, From Here to Eternity, which

features tracks recorded at the Shea gig.

"Why do they have to do it again?" Letts responded angrily, when a fan

insisted that Strummer and Jones were the John Lennon and Paul McCartney

of their era and that they could come back to rescue the world from the

proliferation of boy bands.

Letts said he lost all respect for the Sex Pistols when they did their

nostalgia tour, and he'd never want to see the Clash follow that path.