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Reviewed by R. David Smola
aw,” “imperfect,” “political,” “passionate,” “balls-out,” and “adventurous” are just a few adjectives to describe the Clash. They were the only punk band that mattered, and nothing is a better document then “Revolution Rock,”a blistering, unflinching look at their live performances, warts and all. They played fast and their sound wasn’t always mixed right, but that didn’t matter; they played as if their lives depended on it, and the energy, emotion, and effort are caught perfectly in this collection of live clips culled between 1977-1983, when they were at their artistic peak. This is a DVD full of live cuts, not a documentary about the band, although there are little snippets of narration between songs that give the music context. (For some insight into the band and its central driving force, check out Michael Fortes’ review of The Future is Unwritten: Joe Strummer.)
Live is an exhilarating 82-minute rocket trip through the band’s catalog, documented by live performances from a variety of settings, including London, Manchester, New York, the Tom Snyder “Tomorrow” show, the short-lived ABC “Saturday Night Live” clone “Fridays,”and the much-ballyhooed US Festival in California. This gives you the range of vibes, from the sweaty punk club scene to the overblown concert festival. Regardless of venue, the Clash played with every ounce of their core. Their approach and execution is ferocious; they were a comet eventually destined to implode.
When mentioning the Clash, the first thing people think of is Joe Strummer, followed by Mick Jones -- the political activist complemented by the adventurous musician. What doesn’t get mentioned enough is what an absolutely fantastic drummer Topper Headon was. During these furiously paced live performances, he is the anchor. Along with bassist Paul Simonon, he formed a perfect foundation for the other two guitarists to launch from. Regardless of what was going on, Headon’s timekeeping was impeccable, and he was always offering something interesting in his playing. Listen and watch how effortlessly he lays down the beat for “This is a Radio Clash,” turning a war protest song into a danceable groove.
The swagger, moxie, and cool in the presentation of “London Calling” and “The Clampdown” is in stark contrast to the urgent and chaotic performances of “What’s My Name” and “Capital Radio One.” The latter two are dripping with body heat from an overcrowded club, and you can almost smell the sweat and stale beer. Strummer’s voice is a mess, but he’s still able to yelp out the vocals with passion and purpose. Compare those small club performances to the sold out Shea Stadium set (when they opened up for the Who on one of their farewell tours), particularly “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Career Opportunities,” and you can tell the Clash didn’t give a damn about the size of the arena. Whether they were playing for 6 or 60,000, they were going to leave it on the stage.
Two short bonus features are included on the release: an interview with Tom Snyder in which Joe Strummer desperately wants to hug a teddy bear, and an interview from “Live at 5,” a New York-based interview program from the famous WNBC studios. These are short and fairly amusing; you get to watch “squares” like Snyder and Sue Simmons interview the entire band (Snyder) and Strummer and Simonon (Five). Strummer appears bemused by it all, and his thick accent is a little difficult for the hosts to understand. You can tell he thinks it’s funny that he’s being interviewed at all.
This is a great document of the band’s live work. The journey from small club to stadium and festival is a fabulous contrast, and a testament to the fact that the band really didn’t change their approach. They were the only punk band that mattered, and tons that came afterwards have them to thank for opening the door.