Staged by their record company as a trip to a war zone, for the first date of their autumn 1977 UK tour The Clash flew to Northern Ireland. In an exclusive extract from brand new book Trouble Songs, this is the story of the band’s cancelled gig, rioting a
A cancelled gig, rioting, fights… How the reality of life on Belfast’s mean streets proved to be too hard-hitting for the band’s urban guerilla posturing.
On 20 October 1977, the Clash took the 8.30am flight from London to Aldergrove Airport, County Antrim. The Ulster Hall in Belfast was the first date of their ‘Out Of Control’ tour. By now, the band had been toughened by events. They had taken part in the Anarchy Tour with the Sex Pistols and others in December 1976. The tabloid media had affected outrage and only seven of the 21 scheduled shows had actually taken place. In the following May the Clash headlined their own ‘White Riot’ series of gigs, another turbulent passage. At the Rainbow Theatre in London, fans ripped out 200 seats. There was no tour support in the band’s recording contract. They accrued a loss of £28,000.
The self-titled album sold well, but the Clash bristled about their relationship with CBS Records. The label had put out a single, Remote Control, without their consent. They answered with a 23 September release, Complete Control, with a lyric about the cost of ownership, press infamy, the challenge of revolution and the duty of a band to its audience.
This was the keynote of the new tour. It was about empowerment, about keeping the movement straight. Outwardly, the Clash seemed stern. “The situation is far too serious for enjoyment,” singer Joe Strummer had remarked to Sniffing Glue fanzine.
Meantime, guitarist Mick Jones was troubled by the stage backdrop for the new dates – a reportage photograph of youths from Northern Ireland in mid-riot. It was perhaps questionable to use this in Belfast. “I feel we might be rubbing their faces in it,” said Mick. “It’s great in Bournemouth because everyone is fucking asleep. But in Belfast you don’t need to be reminded.”
Northern Ireland had much to be concerned about. The death toll was currently at 2,062. Recent fatalities included fireman Wesley Orr, killed by an IRA bomb at the Ulster Brewery on 16 November. A Royal Marine, Gareth Wheddon, had died, aged 19, after being injured by a booby trap in Crossmaglen on 9 November. William Smyth was shot in the head on 25 October by the UDA as he returned home from a Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Club in North Belfast.
While the Clash visit would make the cover of the Belfast Telegraph, the lead story next day was a police warning to business owners about the threat of incendiary devices. Civic premises had been targeted from the start of the decade, and since Bloody Friday in 1972 the prime instrument had been the car bomb. Consequently, the city centre was surrounded in 1974 by 17 steel gates, 10-12 feet high. Two years later and the plan was advanced to create a single security zone out of the four security quarters. This was ‘the ring of steel’.
“The most horrible thing was the way the kids were treated. They were pushed around. We ain’t an army, we’re a rock’n’roll band.” Mick Jones
The photographer Pennie Smith said that working with the Clash was like a commando raid staged by the Bash Street Kids. There was drama and posturing, comedy and bathos. Now here they were, headed for a reckoning with the most perilous location in the UK. In the aftermath of the Miami Showband Massacre, few touring acts had bothered with Belfast. So this gig was a test for the band and also an important measure of the movement. The subculture had emerged from New York and London, a fusion of decadent poets, garage bands, seditionary French thinkers, deviant apparel, camp codes, student riots and Babylon burning. Here then was a test: punk’s proof of concept in the city of the dead.
“They’ll think we’re here to entertain the troops,” Joe mused. As the plane descended, a stewardess delivered a message from the Ministry of Agriculture. It was a request for anyone who was travelling with food or livestock to make a declaration.
“That includes me,” said Mick. “I’m a chicken.” The Clash travelled with new drummer Nick ‘Topper’ Headon, manager Bernie Rhodes, Caroline Coon from Sounds and Ian Birch from Melody Maker. CBS had brought along a photographer, Adrian Boot, who had already worked with the band, taking their first record company session by the concrete buttresses of the Westway flyover in London’s Notting Hill.
Adrian had lived for a time in Jamaica, teaching physics in Port Antonio. He became friends with the singer Junior Murvin there and later the MC Mikey Dread Campbell. He was an amateur photographer and came to document Rastafarian culture in a book, Babylon On a Thin Wire. So when he was taking shots of the Clash in Notting Hill and he saw posters and graffiti about Jamaican music, he found a creative backdrop and also a shared interest with the musicians.
“It provided a contact with the band,” he says.
“It enabled me to have a conversation about something that was interesting. Otherwise it would have been difficult. I wasn’t a natural born punk. I was quite scruffy but more inclined to be a hippie. I hadn’t much of a clue what punk was. I had missed out on quite a lot of this by being in Jamaica. Punk was already a force by the time I’d got back.”
Besides her role as the punk diarist in Sounds, Caroline Coon had co-founded the Release organisation in 1967. This was a legal support service for drug-related arrests. She had a particular concern with the police’s stop-andsearch powers.
“As a youth in the 60s, I was engaged in politics in my art and also in direct political action on the street. We confronted an ever-more militaristic police force whose tactics, we believed, were honed on the streets of Belfast. The police in the UK first got shields after the riot in Ladbroke Grove that was the foundation of the White Riot song. But the police then got tooled up with the same manufacturer who was making tools for Northern Ireland. Before that, they didn’t have shields.
“As naive as we were about the politics of Northern Ireland we were very close. It affected us. We were being warned that if we go into Oxford Street on this Sunday, you could be bombed. And many people were. Not as many as people as in Northern Ireland, obviously, but it was very real for us. Real for the Clash to their own eyes.”
The Ulster Hall gig was promoted by the Northern Ireland Polytechnic Students’ Union (NIPSU), based at Jordanstown on the north shore of Belfast Lough. They transported the band from the airport to the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street – famously the most bombed stopover in the western world – and explained that the sound check was going to be delayed. As a courtesy, the NIPSU minibus was at their service and so was the driver, Peter Aiken, Vice President of Clubs and Societies.
At this stage, the band was unaware of a logistical problem. The promoters, headed by Austin Smith from the Polytechnic, did not have a letter of liability cover from an insurance company. This had been expected from Medical Professional Insurance Limited and all had seemed
fine three weeks ahead of the event. But the cover was not confirmed on the day of the gig. It had actually been withdrawn. Austin had offered a premium of up to £500, but this was turned down. Given that the Ulster Hall was the property of Belfast City Council, there would be no gig without a cover note.
“As the gig approached,” Peter says, “there was a problem with insurance. Because the music was quite revolutionary, given the context of Belfast and the unrest and the troubles, the insurance company felt that there could be elements that could possibly hijack this, and then there could be endless problems. It was as a result of that, and I remember the discussions internally, without letting the Clash management know anything about this, [that we thought] ‘What are we going to do? What can we do?’ This was a few days before. ‘Let’s see what we can do in trying to organise alternative insurance for it.’”
This delay allowed the band more time in the city, and the photo session was the next priority.
As Adrian recalls: “I wasn’t expecting to take photographs of the Clash in the street, I was expecting simply to cover the event, to do backstage shots and some live photography. That’s what I was commissioned to do. That’s what it was meant to be. Just a photo session, of the kind that I had done many similar photos sessions before in the street with bands. Except the street here, of course, was Belfast in 1977.
“I saw an opportunity. ‘Can I do a photo session?’ They agreed. There was a bit of reservation about where we went. The record company guy suggested that we just wander around the Europa and find a few rooms or a white wall to shoot against. But I thought, ‘Well look, this is an amazing city…’ Amazing in the sense that it was almost like a war zone. A perfect backdrop for pictures of the Clash. Luckily, the band wanted to go out, so that overrode anything that the record company said.”
As it was a winter day, the light was poor. Adrian was using a Leica M4 camera, small, quiet and unobtrusive, favoured by documentary photographers. Peter Aiken took them on a tour of North and West Belfast. They stopped near the Crumlin Road Gaol, their backs to the Carlisle Memorial Church. They encountered an army patrol and Adrian got a series of memorable shots.
“For me, visually, they were really good. The Clash certainly didn’t look ordinary. And they didn’t have to pose – they just wandered around and I could just shoot. Their dress sense was good, their attitude was good. So it was a very easy thing to do. They were very photogenic. I was looking for authenticity, if you like. I was looking for the right background. So wherever there was barbed wire or graffiti or something like that, I would try to get the band in the shot, juxtaposed with whatever else was in the background. I was conscious of that.’
In 1976, the band had used their art school backgrounds to accessorise old clothing with slogans and paint splatters, referencing the likes of Jackson Pollock. The Sex Pistols were at an advantage in that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren created their fierce couture. The Clash began using two seamstresses, Alex and Christina, but were also styled by Sebastian Conran and his emergent Upstarts brand. The NME writer Nick Kent dismissed the result as ‘pop star army fatigues’. On the afternoon of October 20, this look caused some alarm during a brief visit to Downtown Radio in Newtownards, just outside Belfast, when Joe and Mick were mistaken at reception for paramilitaries. Now, here they were, in their zippered combat pants on the Crumlin Road, having small talk with Keith, a moustachioed squaddie from the Midlands.
“Joe did mention in the van that he was very worried being photographed next to soldiers,” says Adrian, “although it was actually him that walked over to the soldiers and had a chat with one of them.”
Peter Aiken drove them to the Shankill Road and the Falls Road. There was also an opportunity at Springfield Barracks, in front of a confidential phone number on a large sign outside. They stopped outside the Henry Taggart Police and Army Base at the intersection between the Protestant Springmartin and Catholic
Ballymurphy estates. This was a brutal fortification with corrugated iron, link fencing, chains and cement. The towering defences were there for good reason. This had been one of the scenes of the so-called Ballymurphy Massacre in August 1971, when 11 civilians died. In May 1972, the Battle of Springmartin had taken place here, a crossfire of aggression from the Official and Provisional IRA, the British Army and the UVF West Belfast Brigade. It was the most intensive battle of its time, with 400 strike marks on the Springmartin flats alone. Seven people were killed in two days of violence, four of them teenagers.
The Clash entourage arrived here in the blue college bus with the NIPSU logo on the side. Immediately, the military came out and wanted to know why people were standing outside the fort. At which point, Peter introduced himself. In addition to his college role, he was a part-time member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He had his security service warrant card.
“I very specifically remember some of the army guys coming out – ‘You can’t park here, you can’t stop there’, and again it was a warrant card and,
‘That’s okay’. So the photographs were allowed.
But otherwise you wouldn’t have got some of those photographs. There were a lot of locals who came out to see what was going on. “What’s this and what are all the photographs?” Because Adrian was very much there and he was positioning people and doing his bit. I remember being able to turn around and say, “Look, these guys are alright and I’m vouching for them”.’
The final images of the afternoon pictured the band on Donegall Place in the City Centre, entering the ring of steel, each taking a body search as they came through the security cordon. Adrian was first through and so he documented the others being frisked before standing at the top of the avenue. Behind them, an Ulsterbus headed out of the city while a heavily armoured Saracen vehicle steered forward into Donegal Place. Civilian transport and the tonnage of the British Army.
“You can look back at the pictures now,” says Adrian, “and think, ‘Oh, great, it worked out well’. But at the time, no one expected much more than just a quiet photo session – ‘Let’s use the time usefully’. So the fact that the pictures turned out the way they did, it was more to do with Belfast at the time than the Clash. I could have wandered around the streets without the band and shot pictures and it would still be quite dramatic. It was a dramatic backdrop.”
Aweek earlier, the Sex Pistols had released their fourth single, Holidays In The Sun. It was a manic account of shifting economics and tourist gluttony. The narrator wants an alternative to the usual Mediterranean beach package. He’s thinking about the Berlin Wall and a divided city. He wants history. He wants to visit ‘the new Belsen’. A visit to a concentration camp will give the visitor some bragging rights. Johnny Rotten is decades ahead of the concept of Dark Tourism. And while there is no obvious judgement passed in the body of the song, the vocalist squalls a critical line in the record’s opening bars: ‘a cheap holiday in other people’s misery’.
It is perhaps the most moral line in the punk story. In each journey, in each encounter and in every transaction, there is a personal responsibility. The Clash members were not untouched by this guideline during their Belfast visit.
“I just felt like a dick,” said Mick Jones. “The best time was when all the kids were in the photos with us. That was the only time it was human and real. The kids thought we were dicks. We asked some, ‘Do you want to be in the photograph?’ and they said, ‘Bollocks’ on the Ballymurphy Estate. I thought the group stuck out like a sore thumb.”
None of this had registered with the fans at the Ulster Hall. Many had arrived early and were enjoying the pre-gig ceremony as they queued along Bedford Street. The Ulster Hall had been designed for the working class of this industrial town – a place to enjoy the arts cheaply. It had opened in 1862 with Handel’s Messiah, and had hosted Charles Dickens. Paul Robeson had enjoyed his visit in 1936, remarking: “I’ve been made to feel you people understand me, the warmth of your welcome has gone to my heart.”
Led Zeppelin would not return after the premiere of Stairway To Heaven in 1971. Rory Gallagher kept playing blues there to the faithful. The venue had no previous experience with punk rock and the attendant subculture.
Maureen Lawrence was a punk enthusiast, and the advertised Clash gig was important: “That gig did give us the sense of normality. The anticipation was unbelievable. Up until then, we went to the local punk gigs with Rudi. The Outcasts were the local band that we followed all around East Belfast and beyond. But the fact that, all of a sudden, the best band ever was going to come to Belfast, it was affirmation that we were now part of the scene. Up until then, we just thought we had our own little thing going on. Maybe about 50 of the core group of people went to the gigs. We didn’t know there was anybody else there.
“To go along, turn the corner, and see all these people who we didn’t knew
“The Clash were coming to Belfast. I couldn’t believe that it was going to happen. And it didn’t.” Fanzine editor Gavin Martin
“The kids thought we were dicks. We asked some: ‘Do you want to be in the photograph?’ and they said: ‘Bollocks.’”Mick JonesNothing to declare: a full frisk wasn’t uncommonin Belfast in ’77.
The Clash leave Queen’s University Student’s Union after the gig there wasn’t allowed to go ahead.“The punks informed us they were the only integrated people in the whole country. Let the child teach the man!”Joe Strummer
Mean streets: the Clash ona photo shoot in Belfast.
Not without good reason, it was a nervous time during the Belfast photo shoot.