“Three songs … no flash”. This is the imperative for live concert photographers nowadays. You get the pass, you get access to the pit, you usually shoot photos for the first three songs (auxiliary lights are strictly forbidden) and you just leave; you have taken about a hundred of pics in a very short time. The choice of the right pic and the selection of the best images become essential.
In the 70s it was different. You could follow the artists on the stage, through an incredible crowd, with no reserved areas, and sometimes this lasts for the entire concert, or even for the whole tour. You only had few camera rolls and you really had to pay attention to when and what to shoot: the moment became even more important, your senses really vigilant and the attention always very high. The selection was even more decisive.
The photographer Pennie Smith, based in London, had just finished her first work for the New Musical Express, following Led Zeppelin on tour. Obviously her works were quite good, because the prestigious magazine gave her another important task: she had to follow and take pictures of the Clash, during their American tour.
During the tour with the English band, the evening of December 21st 1979 at New York’s Palladium, on the South side of the 14th street, will become very important.
We are at the end of the 70s. Punk had already exhaled its last breaths, burning everything it had met under his iconoclastic fury. An astonishing and unparalleled fire in the history of music, which, evidently, had something self-destructive; just a beat of wings in the time, but with an impetus and a strength capable of changing forever the universe of music and culture.
What remained had to be, inevitably, something different, innovative and definitely superior.
The Clash survived. A band characterized by a great taste and class, able to renew Rock by restoring various genres such as Rockabilly, Ska, Pop, Reggae, Jazz, Rock ‘n’ Roll. And residues of Punk, of course, though presented in newer and more different forms. All this with extreme coherence and, above all, without losing credibility.
That’s the humus where the young photographer moves from. The great survivors of a short and decisive cultural movement in front of an audience, the American one, that was never very generous in showing admiration and enthusiasm towards the Clash.
But that night of December 21st, at the Palladium, for a series of unknown and strange reasons, was different. You couldn’t breathe the usual atmosphere and the participation of the public was softer: something strange was in the air.
On the stage, the bass player Paul Simonon can perceive that atmosphere and he realizes that things are not as they have always been. They are not playing as they should. There is something strange: in a moment, a single immortal moment, all the “hic et nunc” rhetoric of Punk ‘s “No future” appears, epiphanic as never before and never after. In a few seconds it happens what “Mother History” had decided, and the destructive flame of Punk burns overwhelmingly. Paul takes out all his frustration, he grabs the shaft of his bass with the intent to disintegrate it on the stage, in a gesture which is rebellion and destruction at the same time, all under the watchful and, fortunately, attentive eye of Pennie Smith.
The photographer manages to capture that moment in three shots, which will be added to the myriad of pics taken during that American tour of 1979. Here we are back to the importance of the selection.
Later in fact, when choosing the image for the artwork and London Calling’s cover, having to choose from hundreds of snapshots produced, Joe Strummer saw it and suddenly stopped everything, saying: “That one!”.
The die is cast. One of the images that best represents the spirit of rock rebellion is handed over to history. Punk doesn’t exist anymore, it’ s gone, finished, dead. At least in its original form. It remains there, in the background, but it has turned into something else, thanks to the Clash.
That’s when the transition from iconoclasm to iconography happens. On the image, they added the inscription “London Calling” in green and pink, with the characters taken back from the cover of Elvis Presley (1956), the debut of the King, who died just two years earlier, in 1977.
The picture is in black and white, clearly out of focus – what a horror, what a barbarity. It would be unacceptable today, wouldn’t it? However, even Robert Capa’s photos about Normandy invasion were out of focus, so… – but you can see in it the artistic echoes of distant times, which have nothing to do with Punk, and contribute to make London Calling something different and more complex. A historical image.
The importance of the gesture considered as a creative movement and an artistic dance of American Abstract Expressionism (Pollock and De Kooning above all) live again in this cover, which shows also the America that the English band loved and hated at the same time; those States whose origins are so clearly honored by the cover of London Calling through the tribute to Elvis and the roots of the purest Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Pennie Smith herself said that the band chose her because her photos expressed through images what the Clash expressed in music. On this perspective, the image of Paul Simonon, captured immediately before the destructive act, presents even Michelangelo’s remarks: as well as David (1501 ca.), hero and symbol in defense of the republic of Florence, is depicted just before throwing the stone against the giant Goliath, here Paul Simonon becomes a symbol for a new Rock n ‘Roll, and the Clash with him, defending it.
The tension and frustration of the two heroes described in the act that precedes chaos, rebellion, the strenuous defense of an ideal.
Far from artistic ambitions – sometimes a bit redundant – so important for many post-punk bands, the Clash are fully explained in this historical cover. They cannot stand it, they rise up, they fight, and they will always stand up to defend what they believe in.
The Clash stood strongly against the post-nuclear nightmare (“A nuclear error” in the lyrics refers to the incident of March 28th 1979 in Pennsylvania, when a failure at the core cooling circuit of the Three Miles Island nuclear power plant caused a loss and the release of radioactive gas), stating clearly “But I have no fear / ‘Cos London is growing and I live by the river”. They will be there. Always. They will watch the river of Punk in full, while it reaches other banks, probably more complete and aware.
They will always be there, and there will always be the cover of London Calling, so full of artistic, psychological and social meanings. From vinyl to CDs, from posters to t-shirts, the eternal survival of this image allowed Punk to pass from its destructive iconoclasm to a more classical iconography. The image that becomes imaginary.
In incredible stories, as in the great history of music, nothing happens by chance. Pennie Smith was the right person at the right time, with the camera in her hands, drawing the essence of those very few, historical moments. All art lovers, and not only Rock fans, are in debt to her.