The Clash: Electric Ballroom/Lyceum London
Chris Bohn, Melody Maker, 1979

CLASH GIGS these days aren't backs against the wall experience they used to be. political tensions and confrontations they once represented are now just so much fuel for a purer rock 'n' roll fire which makes them, with Pretenders best British Saturday-night band of moment. Passionate escapism  no more and no less.

Having correctly gambled that generation for which they'd been elected spokesmen were as sick of war as they were, they deftly dropped campaigning in favour of a broader, less restrictive platform, which they desperately needed to break out of creative cul-de-sac in which they found themselves. switch from politico-rockers to entertainers was easier to make than they expected. Given that they'd improved musically, they suddenly became capable of drawing on rock 'n' roll traditions which punk professed to despise, and which they used to good effect on their last album, London Calling.

That album's eclecticism was reflected in weekend's billing: a Texan cowboy (Joe Ely), a Jamaican toaster (Mikey Dread) and alternating openers of forgettable London bands, only one of note being Nips at Lyceum on Sunday, whom I arrived too late to see. Clash audiences are a lot more tolerant these days, and that they didn't try to bottle supports off like they once did Suicide demonstrates how much faith they had in Clash's choice.

Joe Ely theoretically had toughest job, being both relatively unknown and a country singer, no less. But, apart from initial barrage of gob, he rightly had no problems. sight of someone throwing his head back singing rapturously with a great smile across his face was totally irresistible.

He had a great hard rocking band, driving joyously forward through hard-travelling, hard-drinking stories which never lapsed into self-pity. dumber songs went down a treat, like 'Roadhog' or rambling tale of 'Suckin' On A Big Bottle Of Gin', which had no end of false endings and a good twist.

When Mikey Dread's sets were divided either side of Ely's on Friday he sounded okay to me, toasting over a loud, demented backing track, but lumped together on Saturday to save time he went on too long and thus stretched an impatient crowd to breaking point, eventually leaving with a righteous speech about audience's narrow minds. His problem was further compounded by it being difficult to hear what he was saying.

Both joined Clash for two well-rehearsed encores they played all three nights  on Friday second one not even being called for by a hall already half-empty, most of audience defeated by heat which prompted Joe to call for a break continually through set. It wasn't a very good night.

But they'd worked it out and were going to play it anyway, which was somehow indicative of Clash's present stance, of being professional and leaving nothing to chance.

The Clash don't surprise us anymore and they're no longer at forefront of what's happening  a position they're probably relieved to have lost. They've been superceded on one side by more extreme punk bands and on other by more adventurous music of their peers, like Wire. This leaves them hovering somewhere around center, forging a new mainstream down which rockabilly fans, old punks and trad rockers can safely swim together. In some ways reminiscent of Band, they've revitalized their music with a skilful assimilation of old traditions, meaning they can now play Vince Taylor's 'Brand New Cadillac' or great Doug Sahm-type reggae of 'Wrong 'em Boyo' alongside something once as potent as 'White Man In Hammersmith Palais' without glaring cultural gaps showing.

Their killer punch is, as always, passion glosses over errors, like allowing Jones his embarrassing stoned Michael Crawford speeches between songs, which finally led to him being escorted off on Saturday nigh before he could start another. But his skinny skanking did look good and he played some great guitar, too  stingingly sweet on 'Spanish Bombs' and more aggressive for 'Clampdown' ("This is angry one," he said) which is their last surviving political rocker, effectiveness of their older ones killed by an affectionate familiarity.

'Armagideon Time' also cut through, with Mikey Dread joining on choruses, as did their forthcoming single 'Daddy Was A Bankrobber' which had a swinging menace in subdued reggae rhythm.

I watched Clash on three nights but they only inspired me to participate in one, and Clash reduced solely to Saturday night people, to a good night out, is something I still find difficult to take. After all, I don't want to spend all week with Friday on my mind.

© Chris Bohn, 1979