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
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
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
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
"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
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.