(published December 14, 2012)
Assistant Dean of Studies Randal Doane spoke at the Feve last week, reading selections from his new book, Stealing All Transmissions. The work has been described as a “love story” about how one of the best punk rock bands of all time, The Clash, “fell in love with America,” and vice versa — how America came to love punk rock music.
Doane uses The Clash as an example of how punk rock grew in America. He argues that above all, the main difference between how rock music was covered in Britain versus how it was covered here in the States was rooted in American DJs and music journalists taking a longer amount of time to cover the movement. This, in effect, gave the American public more time to grow with punk rock bands, more time to experience their frustration with the current state of pop music and pointless politics that veered away from the original roots of rock music — politically, ideologically and sexually frustrated youth.
Doane begins Stealing All Transmissions with a scene from The Clash’s performance at the Palladium in New York City in September 1979, when photographer Pennie Smith captured the iconic image of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his bass onstage; this image, reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s debut album cover, was later used as the album image for The Clash’s most celebrated album, London Calling, released later that year.
The narration then turns to how Doane was first introduced to The Clash, as well as other similar politically oriented punk bands with frequent ska and reggae-inspired syncopation and heavy basslines that drive every song. He describes this transformation as branching away from mainstream American rock bands like Styx and Cheap Trick into these English, punk, post-punk and new wave groups as a reflection of his own growing frustration and way of rebellion.
In 1979, the American rock scene was in shambles. Sid Vicious, bassist extraordinaire from the Sex Pistols, had recently overdosed, as had The Who’s drummer Keith Moon. Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was doomed to die the next year. These other bands had initially become very popular in the U.K., but due to less coverage of these harder rock bands by American music journalists and DJs, they went unnoticed for longer. Doane argues that this allowed the American punk scene to grow. Punk had not become mainstream, so it could develop underground before surfacing into modern culture.
When The Clash came to America, the punk scene had not evolved to the point it was at in London at the time. Punk was still in its early development stages, so when The Clash came to America, essentially as a new type of British invasion, the American music industry was just becoming more familiar with punk as its own genre. The Clash was enthralled with America because, as anti-American imperialist as they claimed to be (see its three-disc-long album Sandinista!, specifically the track “Washington Bullets”), the band loved the gritty roots of rock that still existed in New York but had long-since been made mainstream in the U.K. (“phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” singer Joe Strummer snarls in the song “London Calling”).
The ideas of “mainstream” versus “underground” in music are already very polarized ideas, separating two distinct cultures of musical consumers — a distinction between “us and them,” conformists and nonconformists. Doane points out that The Clash, as well as other notable hard rock groups at this time, were growing weary of the “popular” direction of rock music and grew attracted to places and cultures where they could mold and be a part of a movement in protest to this without the fear of quickly becoming mainstream-ized. The Clash was a very politically conscious group, writing songs like “Spanish Bombs,” “English Civil War,” “Something About England” and covering “I Fought The Law,” all focused on pivotal moments in history; the only two love songs that come to mind are “1-2 Crush On You” (which is about lust, not love) and “Train In Vain (Stand By Me)” (see every romantic comedy using an angsty song ever).
The Clash, in this regard, was already ideologically separate from many other bands at the time, and this different theme, as well as its frequent mélange of reggae beats and angry bass, helped create a new direction for punk music, reviving the rock genre and paving the way for other related genres like post-punk and new wave. Stealing All Transmissions captures this from a uniquely empirical perspective about the music industry and how music is received by the public, driven by enthusiasm for the spirit of punk rock music itself.