Saturday, September 06, 2008

Cut The Crap: The Clash on PBS (MRR # 302)

I suppose it should come as no surprise to me at this point that whatever small element of danger or revolutionary potential that punk ever had is long gone, but every TV commercial or Hollywood soundtrack featuring the incendiary music of the late seventies serves as a fresh reminder that it has more or less become the classic rock for my generation. It was par for the course then when I was flicking through the TV channels the other night and came across a PBS fundraiser centered around the broadcasting of some recently released compilation of Clash performances called "The Clash Live: Revolution Rock." For those readers outside of the USA (or without a TV), PBS is public television, funded by subscriptions and donations from the viewing public (as well as, increasingly, from corporate sponsorship). The channel usually features the kind of programming (documentaries, BBC costume dramas, etc) that let smug middle-class people feel smarter and better than the kind of people who watch American Idol and Survivor. Their pledge drives are usually built around four-hour specials of the protest music of the sixties and shit like that. PBS is all about the sixties–most of their donations probably come from millionaire ex-hippies. At least, they were all about the sixties.
Picture the PBS studio, with its rows of phone banks for accepting donations, decorated for the evening with flashing police lights, camouflage webbing, and blown up Clash album covers. In between songs, the hosts encourage viewers to call in or go online to make donations of anywhere from $75 to $250. Guest 'experts' have been called in to expound on how important the Clash were to rock history: hippie DJ Pierre Robert, and "rock critic" Alan Light (of Spin, Rolling Stone, Vibe, etc). The PBS host comes on to give us the hard sell. "As an intelligent person, you appreciate and enjoy all different kinds of music, and we're happy to bring it to you." In other words, the Clash are just one more group that can fit on the PBS viewer's CD shelf alongside other PBS-approved fare like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Buena Vista Social Club.
The film itself is a mixed bag. Documentary sequences pair a clueless, sensationalist voiceover ("taking their name from the headlines of the day" ... "they changed the musical landscape forever") with the same hoary old recycled Don Letts footage you've seen a hundred times. Cue the banner being unfurled at Bond's in New York, then Joe Strummer with his ridiculous 80s Mohican taking a photograph from the back of a convertible. Repeat ad nauseam. There are some cool performances though: what looks like a promo video from 1976, shot on a soundstage with amateurish lighting. Mick's out of tune, and the band perform intensely for the cameramen and probably a couple of mates. You can imagine Bernie Rhodes behind the scenes, exhorting his boys to give it all they've got; The band performing "Radio Clash" on the Tom Snyder show with a genuine NY graffiti artist getting up on the corrugated iron backdrop.
Don't get me wrong. I like much of the Clash's music and I think that Joe Strummer was a genuine and thoughtful man. But they were the first punk band to really milk the revolutionary posturing and political rhetoric of the early punk scene and turn it into a massive cash-generating industry. I'm not saying they didn't mean it, maaan... Just that whatever they may have "meant" was probably lost on the crowds at Shea Stadium.
I'm sure that the smiling happy TV presenters were or are fans of The Clash, as are probably a lot of PBS viewers, and obviously The Clash don't represent the be-all and end-all of punk rock in any way whatsoever. It's just that the fact that someone at PBS thought that this was a good way to try and raise money is another nail in the coffin for punk as a movement, for punk as something that stands apart from the rest of society. I've spent a large chunk of my advancing years feeling like an outsider, so it's weird when I hear the music that gave me something to believe in used to sell cars, cruises, retirement plans, or PBS subscriptions.
To contradict myself in the first part of this column, I'll go on record here as saying that the new 'reality' TV show following NOFX on their recent world tour is one of the best shows currently on the box. The best part of the program is their manager Kent. He gets totally plastered all the time but still manages to hold it together enough to string together a sketchy tour that takes in places around the world that bands rarely get to. I doubt these guys could make it to the corner liquor store without Kent holding their hands. Well, actually, I think Fat Mike seems to have his shit together, but watching this I can't help thinking that the two guitarists are lucky they ended up getting into a successful band, because it definitely seems like their alternative would be flipping burgers. I mean, they've been playing for over twenty years but in the first episode one of the guitarists has a problem with a pedal and basically just gives up, like he's helpless. I think what warms me to the show is that despite all their success, for the most part they come across as pretty average normal punk guys that any of us might know. They seem to have their hearts in the right place and for the most part appreciate that they are pretty lucky to be in the situation they're in. The show might be more for readers of Punk Rock Confidential than MRR, though. TiVo it yourself and see what you think.
By the time you read this, Chaos In Tejas 2008 will have come and gone. I don't usually do 'fests' but I'm making an exception. Actually I've wanted to try and get to this one for the past few years but other commitments have always gotten in the way. There are always good bands and Austin is one of my favorite places in the US. Mostly I'm looking forward to hanging out with friends I haven't seen in a while, going swimming, and eating some good food. The main musical attractions for me this year are Hard Skin, Leatherface (with Dickie Hammond back on guitar!), the Marked Men, and especially Roky Erickson. Can't wait.

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