Thursday, November 20, 2008

REVIEW: The Clash - Live at Shea Stadium

Contentious beast, the live album. The standard argument is that a recording of a gig is a poor substitute for the experience of actually being there, while many question the fidelity and authenticity of 'live' recordings: even something like Live and Dangerous, which is widely regarded as one of the best live albums of all time, is said to be only '75% live' (according to some sources, the only 'live' aspects of it are the drums and the crowd). All too often, these kind of records are subjected to the kind of overdubbing and re-recording that renders the whole exercise of releasing a live album completely pointless. I've always been a firm believer that a few out-of-tune vocals and bum notes is a small price to pay for capturing the authentic, warts-and-all energy of a live gig, but most bands (producers?) seem to be more concerned about airbrushing out the kinks: the result doesn't sound like any gig i've ever been to.

The Clash are exactly the kind of band whose live energy you'd hope to capture on record, as integral a part of their reputation as it was - just watch this clip:

1999's From Here to Eternity (8), a compilation of recordings from separate gigs that covered pretty much all the musical phases of the Clash from their debut to Combat Rock (7.5), did an admirable enough job (although surprise surprise, certain tracks were instrumentally overdubbed). That served as the only official live Clash release up until this year's Live at Shea Stadium. Taken from the second night they played at New York's Shea Stadium (Oct. 13th 1982) during an American tour supporting The Who, it's a gig that's long been bootlegged, and the circumstances around the tour are well documented. To cut a long story short, Topper Headon - the drummer who had pretty much penned their biggest hit, 'Rock the Casbah' - had been turfed out of the band due to his continuing heroin addiction, while tensions continued to simmer between Joe Strummer - uncomfortable with the idea of playing large arenas and moving further away from their punk roots - and Mick Jones, who was becoming increasingly alienated from the rest of the group (in part due to internal power struggles involving manager Bernie Rhodes). Within a year Jones would be out of the group and the Clash would be more or less finished. Despite all this, the gig in question was regarded as a triumph, with many present testifying that the Clash well and truly upstaged the headliners.

With all this context in mind, it's all the more surprising that listening to Live at Shea Stadium is such a curiously bland experience: it's neither the sound of a band disintegrating in acrimony nor the sound of a band triumphantly seizing their opportunity to convert the masses; instead it just sounds like a band going about their business with maximum competency but minimum danger: 'going through the motions' might be harsh, but it's hard to know whether the strangely passionless sound of the Clash on this record was a symptom or a cause of the band's discomfort at the new environment they found themselves in.

There are a few undoubted highlights: a storming rendition of 'Police On My Back' and a swinging 'Train in Vain' both translate particularly well (is it a coincidence that they're both sung by Mick Jones, the band member with the most enthusiasm for the arena tour?), while the way they segue from the proto-hip hop 'Magnificent 7' into 'Armagideon Time' is a fairly compelling showcase of the band's stylistic breadth. For the most part, however, you're left frustrated and wondering how classics like 'Spanish Bombs', 'Clampdown' and 'Rock the Casbah' can sound so utterly bloodless : sure, it's tight and focused and all those other words that critics use to describe records that they're never going to listen to once they've filed their review, but there's nothing here as exciting as the early performances included on From Here to Eternity, nothing as spine-tingling as that haunting version of 'Straight to Hell' ('sing in tune, you bastards!'). In short, this record comprehensively fails to capture the essence of the Clash : they weren't a band who played to the bleachers; they were a band who eliminated the barrier between performers and audience, consistently innovating and evolving, and, well, once these things started to be compromised you feel the end was nigh.

Of course, it's hard to know whether the limitations of this record are down to the way the gig was recorded and produced or whether it's to do with the performance itself (i'm certainly not going to argue with people who were actually present at Shea Stadium). Let's just hazard a guess and say it's a bit of both. If you're waiting for the definitive Clash live document, be warned: this ain't it.


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