Do you remember Miller Miller Miller & Sloane? I doubt it. Miller Miller Miller & Sloane was a band from my high school — the old Music & Art, on the City College campus in Harlem. Three brothers and a bassist named Sloane, they played white funk and rap as early as anyone, in 1979, when the Beasties were still punky thrashers and Girls Against Boys were probably in second grade. C.B. Miller was the rapper and guitarist, his brother Mikey the falsetto crooner and preadolescent love-god, a sort of Michael Jackson of the Upper West Side. Their “Funky Family” single (Meaningful Records, 1980) is terrific, if you can find it. But here’s the point about Miller Miller Miller & Sloane: they were my friends and they once opened for the Clash.
This you’re likelier to remember: in 1981 the Clash played a seven-night stand at Bonds International Casino at Times Square (now the Virgin Megastore, if you’re curious). In one of those acts of passionately awkward idealism which characterized the Clash’s career, they booked opening acts against punk type: rappers Grandmaster Flash and the Treacherous Three, Texan bard Joe Ely, and a forgotten horn-section-and-skinny-tie band called the Nitecaps. And, plucked fresh off the stage of CBGB’s, Miller Miller Miller & Sloane.
The Clash was ahead of its audience, of course. The crowds of white teenage punks booed the rap acts and chased Flash from the stage by pelting him with paper cups, just as Rolling Stones fans were booing opening-act Prince on larger stages at around the same time. In a predictable paradox, on their night in the spotlight my homeboys played their set of Aretha Franklin covers and disco-ey funk to fond acclaim from the crowd — they were white kids in short haircuts, after all. And they came home heroes, high school gods. The energy surrounding that weeklong stand was intense enough that the police shut down a show for overcrowding and the result was a riot — supposedly the first such in Times Square since bobbysoxers stormed barricades in chase of Frank Sinatra in the ’40’s.
Grandma — egad! — had Elvis and Sinatra, mom and dad had Dylan and the Stones, and we had the Clash, thank you very much. For me and my friends they were the dream of a great band, a life-changing band, and we weren’t making it up: The Only Band That Matters shouted their publicity, and their guitars shouted it even louder. The Clash promised to heal every breach with their proletarian rage, to recuperate the nihilism of the Sex Pistols, to drag punk through politics and then squarely into the history of rock and roll. They promised not only never to betray their fans, they promised to remain fans themselves. They meant to change the world, and they might have been the last good band to try. Since their demise we’ve settled for the more personal accomplishments of the Bob Moulds and Michael Stipes of the world — songsters who, no matter how big their audience gets, remain hermetically “alternative”.
Hype? Don’t take my word for it. Look it up, in Mikal Gilmore’s Night Beat, in Greil Marcus’s Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, in Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and now in Johnny Green and Garry Barker’s A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day with the Clash, a sweetly lopsided road-manager’s-eye-view of the proceedings. Green was the band’s gofer, drug-runner and confidant for the more optimistic half of their compressed arc of a career — just through the release of their masterpiece, LONDON CALLING. At the band’s request Green regularly rounded up ticketless fans and put them on the guestlist, as well inviting them for jaunts on the tour bus and upstairs to assist in the band’s trashing of expensive hotel rooms. As for staying fans themselves, a terrific anecdote in A RIOT OF OUR OWN has singer Joe Strummer abandoning backstage safety and climbing a rickety fence for a glimpse of Bob Dylan.
Green’s book, a genial cross between Roddy Doyle’s The Committments and the Led Zepplin expose Hammer of The Gods, confirms what seems astonishing in retrospect: the urgent ideals these lads professed to credulous writers like Bangs and Gilmore weren’t a put-on. Any given night on stage — or day in the recording studio — was devoted to trying to slay the dragons of elitism, racism, and capitalism by means of making kids pogo up and down and push safety pins through their jackets and tongues. Never mind that the stages and studios were paid for by CBS, their villainously controlling record company. The Clash claimed they could thrive on such contradictions, though critical outlets like the Village Voice — which called the three-record set SANDINISTA! a “pink elephant” — grew increasingly skeptical.
As a fifteen year-old at the time, I’ll testify that though we couldn’t quite parse the politics or the contradictions — heck, we could barely make out the lyrics! — we certainly felt the vibrancy of their collision. LONDON CALLING was our BLONDE ON BLONDE, our EXILE ON MAIN STREET, but where those double-LPs brilliantly charted their makers’ final disenchantment with utopian possibilities, the Clash’s claimed that on the ashes of rock dreams past a new castle might be built, one with its doors open to the audience, and to history. You never knew — your buddies might be asked to open their next show. And when they finally got on the radio it felt like a secret message to insiders — “Train In Vain”‘s not being listed on LONDON CALLING’s jacket was our pop conspiracy, our Paul-is-dead.
We followed where the Clash led: their appropriations of reggae and funk got our twiggy asses onto the dancefloor, while their espousal of causes like the nuclear freeze (and SANDINISTA!’s title) made our hippie parents’ moldy politics instantly cool. Even the jacket design of LONDON CALLING, which referenced ’50’s Elvis, forced us to rethink the dead guy in the white jumpsuit. Little purists, we sought out the import version of their first record rather than the diluted American release, and argued whether Sandy Perlman, Blue Oyster Cult’s producer, had ruined GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE. We grappled with the sprawling, willful SANDINISTA! and felt unaccountably betrayed when “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” from the suspect COMBAT ROCK were all over the radio. As college freshmen we (okay, I) even knew a girl from Chicago who renamed herself Brixton after “The Guns Of Brixton” (yes, the same Brixton who subsequently ran off to England and joined The Fall, and yes, I’m namedropping). And then one day, without half noticing, we swept the Clash and their hopeless ideals into a kit bag called foolish youth and moved on to other things — like discovering what had been so important about Elvis, Dylan and the Stones.
Another personal story, ten years later: I’d befriended rock critic Paul Williams, while he was working on his ROCK AND ROLL: THE HUNDRED BEST SINGLES. Though he had a handle on the American punk lineage (Stooges, Richard Hell, Blondie) he was concerned about a blindspot in British punk — could I spin him a few disks? I pulled out the Pistols, Buzzcocks, and Clash, and tried to make a case. Still the dutiful purist, I assumed the Clash should be represented by their first records, those autistically simple assertions of youthful ire. Great singles? I tried “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A”. Paul had never heard it, and he listened close. Afterwards he made a face.
“I guess I’d be a little more convinced by the sentiment,” he said, “if they weren’t working so hard to sound just like the Ramones.”
I moved on, to “Julie’s In The Drug Squad”, “Train In Vain,” and finally, desperate to please, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”
“They’re getting more comfortable,” Paul suggested. He heard a different Clash, a pop band freeing itself from the shackles of epochal responsibility — and I’ve never heard them the same way again. While LONDON CALLING is still the summit, COMBAT ROCK no longer sounds corrupt. Listening now, it’s remarkable how many of the band’s great moments, right from the outset, were covers (“Police and Thieves”, “I Fought The Law”, “Brand New Cadillac”, “Police On My Back”, etc.) or pantomimes, from Joe Strummer’s Jonathan Richman turn on “Right Profile” to Mick Jones channeling Motown on “Train In Vain” and “Hitsville Hits U.K.” The Clash, finally, knew how to play rock and roll, and I do mean play: compared to the lugubrious sincerity of second-wave “punk” (AKA: grunge) they rollick and vamp and strut like, well, the Rolling Stones. The Clash, bless them, remain the band that deftly curbed Punk’s protofascist tendencies, but they had the good sense to wreck a few hotel rooms along the way.
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New York Observer, 2000