On the day that Hugh Cornwell gets a two-month jail sentence for drug possession, Harry Casey of KC & The Sunshine Band tells me he collects parrots. ‘I have fifty in my bedroom at home. One, Sparky, can sing all my hits. The parrots are more intelligent than a lot of people I’ve met in the music business.’
I think it’s a travesty of justice − Hugh, not the parrots − and smacks of one of those make-an-example-of sentences, given purely for the sake of publicity, I used to see a lot as a court reporter.
Hugh had tiny amounts on him when randomly stopped in a car he wasn’t even driving, amounts for which anyone else would’ve been fined or even conditionally discharged. It’s anti-punk hogwash. Hugh doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. The Stranglers’ tough stance and despicable reputation is derived almost entirely from Jean-Jacques Burnel; Hugh is more big softie than arch villain but his fierce intelligence helps him adapt to any situation.
I feel so strongly that I write to him in prison and he writes back. His letter is long and intimate − unlike many of his interviews – and he mentions he’d like to talk to me about the whole experience in an extended interview when he gets out. Until then I think it’s time to renew my acquaintance with the Clash, who are growing bigger by the minute…
The James Cagney of punk, Joe Strummer – stone-faced, steel-capped, stacked high − sneers and stares, as usual. He’s holed up in the Clash house, a terraced tenement teardrop twenty-four hours from Tulse Hill. He sticks his gun out of the window. ‘Political power grows from the barrel of a gun,’ he screams. And smiles.
Next to him Mick Humphrey Bogart Jones is looking depressed. Maybe, he thinks, he wasn’t really cut out for this. Casablanca is a million miles away and Claude Rains supreme.
Paul Muni Simenon − or Skaface (don’t call me that) as the Streatham Locarno lotus-eaters dubbed him − sits patiently in a corner. He never did like Mondays anyway.
Edward G. Headon works flat out in the basement supplying the ammo. He smiles. Whatever else may happen, the humdrum will never snare him now.
Outside they put the batteries into the loudspeaker.
Next door Lester bangs on the wall. It’s raining. Naturally.
The guy holding the loudspeaker is wet through.
‘Come out with your hands up.’
‘Come in and get us, Topper -- sorry, copper,’ says Joe. ‘There’s no way we’re gonna appear on Top of the Pops alive. You won’t get us standing there like pricks propping up a load of old shit. How can we bash our guitars with passion when they ain’t even plugged in? How can we sing when the mike is phoney? The show’s like an anaemic rice pudding. Give me Tiswas any day.’
Mick turns to Joe. ‘But we do lose out by not playing on it. I can’t see us ever having a Top Ten single as a result.’
‘Mugs!’ The word leaps from the loudspeaker and reverberates around the street.
‘We’ll never change our attitude,’ screams Mick, changing his attitude. ‘We’ll never prostitute ourselves.’
‘You might as well go and give someone a blow-job for ten bob than appear on Top of the fucking Pops,’ yells Joe.
Lester bangs on the wall again. ‘Hey, you guys, will you shut your fucking noise?’
The loudspeaker guy decides to goad the band. Snipers are positioned on rooftops.
‘Your new album’s crap.’
‘The world is full of assholes,’ screams Joe. ‘No matter what you do or which way you turn, there’s always twenty people ready to slag you off − and they’re always the fucking loudest. Well, they can all go fuck themselves. Imagine if you saw your imitators getting hits and glory with their imitations? Wouldn’t you feel like leaving them to it and moving onto a new pasture? It makes me sick, watching all these blokes in zipped pants piss-arsing around.’
Mick lights a cigarette and talks through the smoke. ‘Maybe we should’ve brought the first album out again for these idiots, blue eyes.’
‘No,’ says Joe. ‘Maybe we should’ve brought out a hammer. A nice hammer. Those people who were expecting something heavy from London Calling probably think we sound like Frank Sinatra. But it’s a damned sight better than most of the other plastic shit like PIL or the Jam. I don’t get any kicks out of listening to that.’
‘Yeah, but that’s you,’ says Mick. ‘I don’t think these bands should be lumbered together just because they don’t move you emotionally.’
‘I’m not lumbering them together. They’re just examples. It’s their style of rock − bam bam bam.’
Joe aside: ‘I certainly feel better these days. I’m more in touch with reality, the reality of all this monkeying about. Before, we were losing a ton of money, packets of it. On our first tour everyone would just jump into the nearest hotel and smash it up then leave. It never occurred to me that they’d send the bills to just us ’cos everyone was smashing it up − all the support acts. No, we got all the bills for it. That brings you down.’
Mick aside: ‘I used to be optimistic. Not anymore. Maybe it’s because they wouldn’t give me a mortgage. I’m just a misery guts these days. I guess it happened ever since I started getting involved in the Clash.’
In the flashing blue moonlight, Loudspeaker Man calls: ‘You can’t stay in there for ever.’ There’s no reply from the house. ‘You’re just a bunch of publicity-seeking losers.’
‘The press love us,’ says Joe. ‘They’re orgasmic about the Clash. That’s because we’re not dummies. Like with Lester Bangs -- he ended up driving round in our van or six days. He must’ve revelled in it. But I thought all that stuff he wrote was rubbish. You must be able to say it better than that.’ Lester stops banging.
Family priest, Spencer Tracy, tells Loudspeaker Man he’s going in. He dances in and out of the puddles that lead like a daisy chain to the Clash house. The band watch him enter.
‘This is no place for you,’ says Joe, as Father Tracy walks in.
‘Bejasus, we all became too complacent too fast.’
‘I’ve never been complacent,’ says Joe. ‘I’d be scared if we had a mammoth hit. Is there anyone in the whole world who can write a good song after selling a million? You can’t say John Lennon. You can’t say Bob Dylan. The proof is, as soon as they make it they don’t seem to be able to write decent songs anymore.’
Father Tracy fondles his rosary. ‘But, boys, don’t you think you write better songs if you suffer?’
‘If you suffer and write bad songs you’re suffering even more,’ replies Mick, philosophically.
‘Yes, my sons,’ says Father Tracy. ‘But a lot of people have lost faith in you. The band are now doing everything they once vilified − like touring America.’
‘Look, Father, we’ve got to take care of business,’ says Joe. ‘Instead of sitting in this shithole not selling records, we might as well go to that bigger shithole over there and not sell any. We haven’t been to anywhere like Japan yet but we’re certainly gonna try to get there this year. I hear it’s a bit creepy over there.’
‘It’s only creepy,’ insists Paul, ‘because they’re all down there and we’re all up here.’
‘But what about the things you said? People believed in you,’ says Father Tracy.
‘That was business,’ says Joe. ‘I don’t care about business. I piss on it from a great height. I’m only interested in the music. If that’s going great that’s all that matters. It’s depressing when you lose a lot of dough or when something goes wrong. But it doesn’t really affect me as much as the music. If that’s cool it dictates all the rest. You’ve got to realise that I love music. I’m obsessed with it. Surely you don’t think I wander round worrying about the economy all the time. Look, if I had a weekend off I’d spend it twanging a guitar, not going to Karl Marx’s grave to make a brass rubbing.
‘People took us the wrong way. When I sang "Sten Guns In Knightsbridge", it was about them shooting us. But people started saying, "Yeah, the Clash have got the Sten guns." We haven’t got any Sten guns, the army have. I tried to make that point clear in interviews afterwards but it was no good. They still kept saying, "If you ever keep that promise to go to Knightsbridge with Sten guns we’ll be with you." And then everyone thought we used to wear army fatigues. They weren’t. They were Clash trousers.’
‘Yeah,’ says Paul. ‘We designed them with so many pockets so you could hide your dope easily. And they were better than the bondage trousers ’cos you could run in them and hop over walls. With bondage ones you kept tripping over the chains.’
‘But the songs on London Calling,’ says Father Tracy, ‘they’re not as emotive as before.’
‘We’re just expanding our subject matter,’ replies Joe. ‘We don’t want to repeat ourselves − that’s the most heinous crime you can commit. I mean, do we have to be like the Ramones and release seven albums of the same stuff? If people want that all the time they can get it from the Ruts or the UK Subs. There’s plenty of groups playing good head-banging music. London Calling is a musical shark attack. The saxes on it are great. It’s best not to tart the songs up too much. I mean, I wouldn’t put horns on everything. But one day I’d like to have a horn section on stage, not standing at one end all night just blowing but like when they have a funeral in New Orleans and walk in a long line. I’d like them always walking, maybe out into the audience.
‘I’m getting nervous now . . . Here’s looking at you, kid,’ he says to Father Tracy.
‘But I’m supposed to say that,’ says Mick.
‘Well, there’s no way you’re gonna get me to say "you dirty rat".’
‘You fucking dirty rat,’ says Mick.
Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013
Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives