The Clash in Belfast
Caroline Coon, Sounds, 29 October 1977
AT FIRST the band were reluctant to have their photo taken anywhere near the soldiers. “They’ll think we’re here to entertain the troops,” said Strummer. They all felt that they didn’t know enough about the political situation. They learned fast.
Paul Simonon said: “Punk Rock is the Salvation of Northern Ireland. With the attitudes of parents and the Authorities as they are sectarianism will never end. But kids of both religions come together to hear rock ‘n’ roll.”
BELFAST is one long nervously obsessive security check. You can’t cross a road, drive down the street, walk into a shop or hotel without passing through an elaborate system of flashing lights, concrete and steel barricades, high barbed wire fences or road blocks. At each of these frequent security check points, the hands of men and women in police or army uniform feel over your body and pry into your personal possessions.
Jesus (in whose name the fighting continues) Christ! The eroding invasion of privacy liquefies your guts in seconds. You’re just about to scream and question the necessity of the process when again the words “bomb scare” pass from mouth to mouth. Army trucks roll by; soldiers run and crouch ready with their sinister rifles loaded. Your palms begin sweating. There’s no dynamite hidden in your handbag. But suspicion and fear prevail. On what side are the people next to you? Do you look Catholic or Protestant? And anyway, extremists on either side are frequently apologizing for killing the wrong person. Danger stranger? You better believe it.
“Where are you playing tonight”, a suited gentleman asks the Clash at the airport.
The Ulster Hall.
“Well, that’s in a nice part of town. You won’t get knee-capped there.”
Gulp. Ha Ha Ha. An Irish joke already.
“You see”, the local BBC reporter explains later in the bar of the Europa Hotel, “when there have been people dying at your feet for eight years, you’ve got to laugh.”
Everyone relaxes a little. For all the tension in the air, coming to Belfast is a positive gesture of optimism. Within minutes of arriving in town, the Clash are surrounded by fans. Heavy punks. Safety pins through their cheeks. Dog collars. Bondage straps. The lot. They are feverishly excited. Everyone’s smiling and laughing. The Clash are examined as if they are visitors bringing a magic interlude from another planet. The atmosphere is unbelievable.
“We’ve come to play for all the kids here”, says Paul Simonon. “For everybody – who ever or what ever they are.”
George, nineteen, a Protestant laboratory worker tells him: “It’s so great that you’re here. We’ve been waiting for this for weeks. Nobody ever comes here. It’s marvelous getting to go to something like this. We’re all going to love it.”
Will there be Protestants and Catholics at the gig?
“Oh yes. We all mix and we get on together. Everybody’s bored with the fighting. Only a minority are fighting. It’s music we want to hear – not religion.”
THE CLASH are in the right place. Definitely. It’s the first night of their second UK tour and they are psyched-up to give an all time great performance. Never have they been so certain before a gig of the extent to which they are wanted.
Joe has a brand new Telecaster. Paul is wearing Patti Smith’s fifteen-year-old High School T-shirt. They are all on full alert and ready.
Then the news breaks. The gig is OFF. It can’t be. Panic. Two hours before the show is due to start! There must be somewhere else to play. Confusion. The Northern Ireland Polytechnic entertainment committee, the promoters, can’t get insurance. The original company, Medical And Professional Insurance Limited, withdrew their cover at the last minute. In a letter, they refused to insure punk music.
Already, hundreds of fans are outside the Ulster Hall – just a stone’s throw from the hotel. They know where the Clash are staying and the Europa is besieged. “We want the Clash. We want the Clash,” they roar from behind the wire bomb guards. Police materialize out of the darkness. Inside, Paul and Nicky Headon realize the situation is explosive.
Simonon: “We’ve got to go out and talk to them. To explain.”
They both speed through the security check and into the mob.
“Please keep calm”, they implore. “We’re trying to find an alternative venue. Pass the word to keep calm. If there’s trouble tonight, we’ll never be able to play here.”
Minutes later word filters through that fans outside the Ulster Hall refused to disperse. Bottles were thrown. Some kids lay in the road in front of police Land Rovers. Two have been rushed to hospital.
Again Paul and Nicky, joined by Joe, decide to face the angry fans themselves.
Outside the Ulster Hall they are mobbed. “Common Joe, PLAY!” “Don’t sell out, Paul.”
“We WANNA play”, the Clash yell back. And their presence and pleas to “Keep cool” reassures the fans and the angry scene turns into a mammoth, good-humored autograph session and talk-in.
“Whether you’re a Protestant or Catholic here, you get it if you’re a punk”, says Maggie. On her way across town, she and her friend were stopped by soldiers. “Go Home”, they were told. They climbed over the security barricades to get to the gig.
BACK at base, manager Bernard Rhodes is trying to salvage the situation. The social secretary of Queens University offers a hall. The gig is on again. The word spreads. Punks outside the Europa and the Ulster Hall converge on the University. The band arrives to a resounding cheer. They push through the crowd into the hall.
But the place is like a morgue. Kids rush up to the band. They are crying. “The bastards have called off the gig again,” they say.
In a back room, two University Officials are deliberating, negatively. Deputations from the band, the promoters, the press and the fans beg them to change their minds. The phrase “acceptable levels of violence” hangs in the air.
Two huge, uniformed Police Inspectors enter. The crowd outside is calm, they say. If the University Officials say ‘no’ they can easily, sir, be dispersed.
What do they think will happen if the University allows the gig to go ahead, I ask them?
“Every window in the place will be smashed” is the instant reply.*
The band is stunned. Accusations of a publicity stunt make them feel sick. Mick Jones is refusing to leave the dressing room until he is allowed to play. Slowly the fact that there’s nothing anybody can do to save the gig sinks in. Go home everybody.
The Clash are silent, inwardly seething, outwardly setting an example of responsible cool.
Paul Simonon is the last to leave the dressing room. He rips a leaflet from the student’s notice board. It reads: THE WORLD IS A BASTARD PLACE.
*The next evening the Clash played two shows at Trinity College, Dublin. The sets included their new numbers ‘Complete Control’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Clash City Rockers’, ‘City Of The Dead’, ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘Jail Guitar Doors’. Over a thousand fans packed the place. There was no violence and no damage.
© Caroline Coon, 1977
Citation (Harvard format) The Clash/1977/Caroline Coon/Sounds/The Clash in Belfast/19/04/2014 17:40:32/http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/the-clash-in-belfast