It's very rare and probably even more inappropriate, but the first thing that came to mind after I heard that Epic was putting out a new Clash record was: "Who do they think they are? Tupac?" Just like the late Mr. Shakur and his deceased, bullet-riddled rival, Biggie Smalls, the Clash seem to keep releasing a new album every few years, despite the fact they've been "dead" for more than a decade (literally, at least in the case of Joe Strummer, conspiracy theories aside). In 1994, we got Super Black Market Clash, a fantastic collection of rarities spanning the group's career. 1999 saw the emergence of From Here to Eternity: Live, which was a powerful reminder of just how untouchable the Clash were on stage. Nearly ten years later, we're served another reminder with Live at Shea Stadium.
Recorded on the second of their two-night stand opening for the Who in October of 1982, Live at Shea catches the Clash ostensibly at their best, but secretly in turmoil. Topper Headon, the stellar fellow behind the kit on albums like Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling and Combat Rock, had just been booted from the group for his addiction to smack. He was replaced with Terry Chimes, the band's original drummer, as heard on their self-titled debut. The entire band was busy struggling with their newly acquired stardom, and it wouldn't be long 'til Strummer forced Mick Jones to quit under the pretense that Jones was a sellout wannabe pop-star pansy. Add to this the pressure of playing to about 72,000 rabid, rain-drenched New Yorkers when they started out playing tiny clubs in England, and you'd think no group would be able to put on an even half-decent performance. But if you think for a minute that the Clash wouldn't bring it, you're a fucking idiot.
Like From Here to Eternity, the set list for Live at Shea covers every album the group had released. The Clash really were one fucking amazing live band, able to reproduce the same sounds they'd recorded on their albums, but so often deviating into extended jams, alternate progressions and, most importantly, some unbelievably charismatic ad-libbing by Strummer.
After a patently British introduction by band henchman Kosmo Vinyl, Strummer takes the mic, says "Welcome to the Casbah Club," and the first haunting quarter-notes of "London Calling" stab the night air. The first thing modern listeners will notice is the pristine quality of the production, especially Paul Simonon's thudding bass.
London Calling is revisited with performances of "The Guns of Brixton" (featuring Simonon's half-retarded vocals), "Train in Vain," "Spanish Bombs" and "Clampdown." Unfortunately, the relatively simple "Clampdown" comes off as a bit jumbled, and Strummer sounds nothing less than exhausted. "Spanish Bombs" also suffers slightly, with Strummer and Jones unable to reconcile their harmonies.
Heavy on hits, the group breaks out "Rock the Casbah" nine tracks in. For anyone wondering what their biggest hit would sound like without all the ludicrous `80s sound effects, synths and laser noises, you'll be pleased to know it manifests itself as a straight-ahead rocker, and is one of the night's best numbers.
Sandinista! saw the band experiment with a variety of strange and ill-advised sounds. Shea Stadium saw them experiment with the set list, breaking into the mellow "Armagideon Time" halfway through a groovy rendition of "The Magnificent Seven," and then going back into the original number after a prolonged jam and a Strummer advisement to "Extinguish all reefers."
The Clash shine on "Police on My Back," a great cut from Sandinista!, "The Guns of Brixton," "English Civil War" and "Career Opportunities." The crowd finally goes apeshit after the opening chords of "Should I Stay or Should I Go," a massively popular song for some reason, and the band responds kindly, rounding out the night with energy and some garbled Spanish before closing with the always-killer "I Fought the Law."
Again, one of the best parts of any Clash show is Strummer's goofy, impassioned ad libs. Shea saw no shortage of them. On "Clampdown," Strummer professes a desire to "practice chemistry" on "72,000 guinea pigs in Shea Stadium." He also recommends some exercise after "Police on My Back," saying "You'll find if you move you won't get rained upon...Yeah, ask your neighbor what that's about."
All in all, you can't fuck with the Clash. Even though the set list might be a bit heavy on hits for diehard fans, this was a night that witnessed the band catch up with their endless ambition, though the folks in attendance might have been somewhat undeserving of seeing such a performance. From Here to Eternity had the luxury of picking and choosing from a plethora of shows, making it superior as an album. But as a timepiece, as an aural snapshot of the apex of one of history's greatest bands, Live at Shea gets the job done. It's just a shame the band fell under the gun just months later, just like 'Pac and Biggie after they found their niches. Unfortunately, it was the Clash who turned the pistol on themselves.