Clash symposium marks 40th anniversary of legendary Trinity College gig

There will be (metaphorical) Sten guns in D2 in October when that riotous day is recalled.

When The Clash barnstormed their way into Trinity College on October 21 1977 it probably wasn’t with the intention of 40 years later being the subject of a symposium there but, hey, it’s some line-up!

Running this October 21 from 10am to late, band associates taking part include Robin Banks, Julien Temple, Hot Press’ old mucker Johnny Green and Don Letts who, in addition to hosting excerpts from Westway To The World and taking part in a Q+A, is performing his very first DJ set when the symposium moves off campus to the Grand Social.

Tickets are available from eventbrite.com priced at €25 (symposium only) and €40 (including the DJ set). There should be no question of whether you stay or go…

Organised by a Students Union Ents Soc that included Gerry Ryan, the ’77 show was watched by Hot Press’ Bill Graham who filed this report:

Six thirty, Thursday in the Trinity Student Union office and Paul Tipping, the college’s entertainments officer, is shouting and pleading into the phone. Bernard Rhodes, manager of The Clash is at the other end of the line – and he would appear to be in a rightfully foul and suspicious humour.

Rightfully foul and suspicious because The Clash’s gig at the Ulster Hall in Belfast has been cancelled right under noses. At impossibly short notice, the company insuring the gig got punk-paranoia and pulled the plug on it.

Why, The Clash road crew had even arrived at the Ulster Hall to set up only to immediately be told to repack their gear and move on!

The band have got attuned to cancellations now but normally they’ve had some due notice. But travelling the breadth of the Irish Sea to suddenly discover the gig has been snuffed right under on the spot doesn’t lead to placidity of dispositions on their part.

Desperate attempts to find alternative insurance cover are made. They fail. A shot at moving the whole circus across to Queen’s University doesn’t come off as that college’s student union leaders refuse to take a risk at such short notice.

Welcome to Belfast. The Clash have no other option but be tourists and see the sights.

No wonder then that Paul Tipping is having a hard time persuading Bernard Rhodes that the Trinity date won’t fall flat also. At that exact moment, Rhodes can’t be too enamoured of promoters and he can’t be convinced Tipping won’t pull the trapdoor trick on The Clash a second time.

Tipping keeps assuring him that only an act of god or a nuclear bomb will prevent the gig happening. Rhodes finally relents but not before taking out his insurance policy by getting Tipping to repeat his assurances down the phone to Ian Birch of the MM who’s covering the tour with the band. The inference is obvious. If Trinity fails, Tipping will have to eat his words in every copy of the Melody Maker.

It happened. The Clash came and conquered. And it all occurred without any of the damage to property and to persons the Cassandras were predicting.

The omens pointed to chaos. Besides being the first punk gig by a band from outside Ireland, it was being held in surroundings hardly congenial to the dole-queue dramatics of The Clash.

Trinity may no longer be the ascendancy preserve it once was but its traditions of slightly superior detachment linger on. The grand Georgian design of its front square, the uniformed porters, the gowned professors gliding to Commons are all part of an affluent order that has endured since 1591. It may grant a certain assurance but would that suffice to meet the challenge of a horde of potentially rabid punks?

And while Trinity may pride itself on a tradition of liberal free speech, its ability to deal with the occasion would be further tested by another event, occurring the same night.

Across the square in the Dining Hall, the Historical Society would be holding its opening meeting of the year. Slated for bill were such personages as Conor Cruise O’Brien, Viscount Brookeborough, Mairead Corrigan, Noel Browne, Prof. John A. Murphy and Bernadette McAliskey. If ever there was a sitting target for punk guerillas bent on mayhem and irreverence, that meeting was it.

Connoisseurs of chaos sat back to await a feast.

Trinity’s solution was to set up a double quarantine. From six o’clock the college doors were closed to non-students except those who had tickets for the concert. And every effort was made to isolate the two audiences.

By six-thirty, the major problem was in the hall, not outside as the late arrival of The Clash road-crew was tightening the schedule of the concerts to such an extent that only the arrest of sound checks would be possible.

Down in the student bar, the first punks were floating in. One, who had obviously been over-indulging since early afternoon puked on the floor to be rebuked by the bar-staff who were showing the slightest traces of nerviness about the invasion. They needn’t have worried. It was a lone incident.

Back at the hall though, the situation begins to look dodgy as the hour approaches seven, the appointed starting time for the first concert. The road-crew still haven’t finished building the stage to their satisfaction.

But by now a crowd of three hundred were gathered and if at first they’re good-humouredly rowdy, the stewards at the door can’t but fear that their tolerance will turn sour if they have to wait much longer.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Not a second too late, the crowd finally get in. And the hall is hardly full as the Count Bishops climb on stage.

They aren’t too happy with the situation themselves. They arrived well on time to set up but due to the unpunctuality of The Clash road-crew, their set has been slashed to half an hour. And as a non-punk band, they fear the audience won’t accept them!

No sweat. Their Chiswick connection gives them the little credibility they need and their good-time r’n’b is a perfect warm-up.

No seats in the hall. The crowd is packed up to the low stage. Eyeball to eyeball, The Bishops launch into ‘We Need You’.

The first band's hardly playing and the gobbing begins.

Dave Tice, The Bishops’ singer, grins and bears it. He’s the main target for the saliva that rains on the stage. The Bishops know they don’t have the status to protest. They keep playing and smiling and by the time they finish the band have done themselves some favours.

The sound can’t be called anything more than rudimentary, losing itself in the high ceiling of the exam hall. The Bishops boast a clinical rhythm section that takes care of the basics and the old-fashioned r’n’b pulse is enough to move the punter.

Dave Tice is a matey cheerleader who doesn’t lose control with smooth ’n’ sandpaper vocals. The more I hear them, the more I like them. And The Bishops’ good-time music brings out all the right positive responses in a situation that might just have turned nasty.

Up in the balcony, I meet an unexpected guest, Lt. Col. John Mainwairing Walsh, the college’s agent, decked out in full dinner-jacketed attire. I explain to him that The Bishops aren’t punks, he’ll have to come back later to see The Clash. All bonhomie, but Walsh is here to see the hall isn’t destroyed. College buildings are his responsibility.

Downstairs in the dressing-room, The Clash have arrived just as The Bishops took the stage. But they take their time about playing and as the minutes between the sets tick on, the audience begins to get restive.

They’re an amalgam of many different types. Besides the curious non-punks, they break down between the plastics and the genuine article.

A few students have obviously come attired for a fancy-dress ball and it’s easy to see that the women are less secure in their fashions. They dress as they think they should but the clothes are very much a mix and match of Ivy Market cast-offs and the remains from grandmother’s trunk in the attic, topped off by liberal applications of eye-shadow.

The real fans are the guys at the front of the stage. Not that they necessarily have all the right and proper threads. Many are bedenimed and likely to be seen at Status Quo concerts. But once The Clash hit the stage, clothes-sense doesn’t matter. From then on, it’s all a blur in my memory.

All the old laws about the primitiveness of the music can be repeated but tonight they’re irrelevant. If one is standing at the back of the hall, detached from the maelstrom at the front, the whole event must seem madness. But tonight that’s the wrong approach. Detachment, analysis, all the non-participating attitudes are out of order.

Tonight, rock’n’roll re-emerges in its most primal form. The most potent and inexplicable base of rock is when it’s a rite of teen initiation. And the most fundamental purpose of rock is that ritual. Back down the hall, the sound is doubly distorted both by the cavernous echo of the hall and the massed bodies suffocating it at the front. And standing there, one can hardly see the band. It’s another emotional world away from the voodoo spells being cast at the front.

There’s no barrier between the stage and the band and The Clash don’t reach the first chorus of their first song before half-a-dozen punks have clambered on stage to pogo. Road crew and student security dash to the front to form a human barrier between the factions.

I get conscripted myself and sit between the band and the fans, so there’s no opportunity for note-taking. It’s that crazy that all the demarcations of role have to be forgotten.

I don’t feel any fear though. This audience isn’t going to sour. It may be a hectic bumpy ride but these fans up front aren’t in any vicious mood. If I just sit there, stay numb and passive and don’t panic from an excess of adrenalin, I’ll survive the battering.

I’m sitting beneath Mick Jones. Five feet down the stage, Strummer is bawling into the mike and beneath him the bouncers are having a harder time. Once or twice, a fight almost starts so Joe decides to handle matters himself and we all walk off. Now without protection, the band are naked prey.

I get an opportunity to study them…_Strummer is the gang leader working up a white heat of intensity. I never saw Van Morrison in his early days with Them but if past reports be true Strummer is a similar sullen power-pack.

Where he draws his reserves of energy from I don’t understand. Stamping, shouting, head reeling from side to side, his presence simultaneously draws in the fans and repels them.

Mick Jones, well he’s been compared to Keith Richards – but if so, he’s a delicate porcelain china doll version. So small and thin, it’s a complete contrast from the hulk-like guitar heroes of the old wave. Bassist Paul Simenon just touches six foot, but alongside both Strummer and Jones, he’s a giant.

The band career on. A few punks jump on stage but the road crew smartly throw them off. Strummer breaks the string of his guitar but it doesn’t lessen the power as Jones takes to both rhythm and lead.

No, the main complaint is the gobbing. The Clash hate it. Strummer furiously harangues the guilty to fuck off and stop it. The gobbers don’t know any better, don’t understand why their heroes are so angry and spit on regardless. Wave after wave falls on their faces and the clothes. Hardly have they seemed to have begun and The Clash power into the closing ‘Garageland’, sprint back for a two-number encore and it’s over.

They’re exhausted, the audience is exhausted, I’m exhausted. What hit me? What happened? I still can hardly begin to calculate it. In the middle of that storm, you don’t think – just respond with raw nerves and emotions. Maybe I can detach myself for the second set.

* * *

IN the intermission, a set of railings is brought up to protect the stage and as The Bishops wheel out to play, first impressions are of a tamer audience. At least they don’t gob till about the third number.

This time, Dave Tice has decided to meet spit with spit. He gobs back at his assailants but he doesn’t lose the smile on his face while he’s at it. He walks the tightrope well and for the second time, The Bishops prove themselves the perfect warm-up band for the night.

Back shoot The Clash and it’s as furious as before. Some bands may applaud themselves for their stamina in playing two-and-a-half-hour long sets but The Clash concentrate more energy into three-quarters-of-an-hour. (Bah! – Ed.) Now they have to do it again. Praises to them, there’s no lessening of conviction and commitment second time around.

The quality of their songs can’t be denied. The Jones-Strummer team learnt the first and last secret of rock’n’roll early. They wrote superb simple choruses and the rush of the preceding verses only serves to build the energy till that dam is released. You can have all the tutored technique going but if a musician doesn’t understand the simple lessons of dynamics, it’s for naught.

Tension release, need it be repeated. And because The Clash don’t have the licks to squander, they’re forced to rely on the basics and play with total effective economy.

And all I know is that their songs remain in my mind long after Friday night, the surest test of a band’s ability.

By now Strummer is fit to explode with the gobbing. "What’s the matter with you? Old-fashioned are you?" he snarls and changes the title of ‘Police And Thieves’ to ‘Police And Spitters’.

The band have been baited once too often but the bonus is for the audience as The Clash play with an even angrier aggression, if that’s at all possible. Strummer kicks the stage, slams the microphone to the ground. For a second it almost looks as if he’s going to walk off in flaming disgust.

As Mick Jones plays the long solo, Strummer almost crawls to Nicky Headon’s drum-kit. The man is completely knackered and Jones, still playing, walks over to see how he feels. None of this is any pose.

Like a fighter on the ropes, he picks himself up for the last round. The gamest of bantam-weights, he’s back punching with almost redoubled energy as they ricochet into ‘48 Hours’.

‘Complete Control’ and Joe finally loses his cool with some guy who has been gobbing all night. Joe has warned him once, warned him twice, if not more and he suddenly leans over the barrier to clout him.

He can’t reach him. The barrier and the crowd make him an impossible target but if Joe had time and room to move, that gentleman would be a pulp of saliva himself.

‘Garageland’ bawls Joe and The Clash are almost done with. ‘What’s My Name’ and ‘White Riot’ are their encores and then the whole crazed ritual is done with.

For the real punks, the gig has been a triumph. Memories will be made of this and for them the night will take on the lineaments of a legend. The Clash walked the plank but the music formed a magic magnetic circle to protect them. And in ten years’ time, all the punks present will talk about it like rockers who saw Gene Vincent.

They can go home euphoric. Cleaning up after, Paul Tipping and his student crew are amazed by the lack of damage. They took a huge risk, almost made a few mistakes from inexperience but they’ve been rewarded with a minor miracle. They’ve had their own initiation and after this one, they should be able to handle future challenges.

The Clash retire to the dressing-room exhausted. Strummer is the greatest sufferer and he crawls back to the hotel to sleep. The others run the barrage of a student interviewer whose opinionated naivete they handle with a bantering patience. He’s lucky he isn’t’ thrown out.

But that communications gap has its own meaning. The interviewer is speaking with ideas received from second-hand press cuttings, sees punk as a monolith. Mick Jones is close to scornful. Yet perhaps due to their inability to play Britain for the last six months, The Clash may be unaware of the changes that have occurred.

Precisely because they haven’t been able to play, a movement of second-hand Sunday paper punks has grown up. The subtleties, the distinctions, the shifts in fashion that Mick Jones takes as first nature aren’t known to them. I don’t think Dublin will be the only audience to gob at them and the further they get out of London, the more they’ll find the communications gap it symbolises.

The Clash desperately don’t want to lose touch, don’t want to be locked inside the music business goldfish bowl, but they’re going to have to realise that Ireland and the British provinces just can’t see things the same way as London.

Afterwards, Mick says that gobbing is a distraction, that what he’s doing is much more important. He’s absolutely correct. Gobbing is stupid and no fun for him. But just understand the whys and wherefores of it, Mick, otherwise you’ll find yourself building the first bricks in a barrier between yourself and your audience.

Show and sermon over. With Joe tucked up in bed for a well-earned kip, the band go searching for some nosh in Capt. America’s. Mick is hardly in the land of the living but Paul Simenon and Nicky Headon manage to find some energy, bantering at Bernard Rhodes, who’s the Aunt Sally for their games.

The three of them refuel on milkshakes and the table is soon littered with a dozen empty glasses. Mick Jones broods quietly to himself, but he wakes up when some photographer comes over and tosses off a tactless and ill-timed remark.

It’s one of those jocular you’re-not-real-punks-ha-ha lines and Mick fumes about people in the business who make their living out of the band and don’t show respect. Sensitive, but at his state of exhaustion, anyone would have a short fuse.

And both Jones and Strummer have (as do all the band and their associates), a very simple and direct code of honour and loyalty. The pressures on them may make it occasionally shade towards humourlessness, but it’s their very necessary armour against hangers-on and the increasing number of people who’ll now try to exploit them.

That said, he eases up and talks with admiration of the people who tried to see them in Belfast. My own and solely my own suspicion is that their self-same code of honour will make it incumbent on them to play Belfast at the first opportunity.

* * *

BACK in the hotel, Mick quietly retires to bed while Nicky, Paul and Bernard Rhodes remain on for a last nightcap drink. Bernard takes the conversation away from the usual après-gig chat, asking me where he can find a bookshop, then questioning me about Irish art colleges.

Two o’clock in the morning and by this time, the talk so often turns to fatuous remarks about chicks and booze. So it’s Bernard talking not the band but it’s still indicative of the band. The Clash don’t want to run to fat and even if they are occasionally brusque, that’s better in the long run than the often insincere pleasantries.

And strangely I get this protective feeling about The Clash! I know it’s both stupid and unnecessary since they’re well capable of coping. Perhaps it’s part of the disorientation of meeting a younger band, so far distant from the worldly musos of the old wave. Again I just don’t want The Clash to lose out or fall into the mistakes their elder brothers of the biz made. The Clash have laid themselves on the line in a way that’s been too long absent. I hope their aim is true.

The next afternoon, they’re shooting pop-guns in the lounge of the Royal Hibernian. One embarrassed roadie hopes I won’t mention that they’re staying in that plush Dawson Street establishment. Should they care? When a band works at their pace, they shouldn’t be coy of compensating creature comforts. As long as the spirit’s right, as long as they act themselves, which they do. The time to get worried is when they start trashing hotel rooms.

Nothing was destroyed; much was delivered. The Clash want to return. Next time, Trinity may not be big enough. Will the Stadium and the insurance companies play censor or take the chance Trinity took?

Friday must not become a once-off memory.

 

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