A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in a local magazine shop on 23rd street flipping through GQ’s special “Style Guy” issue. I had wandered into the store in search of some publication from Mexico, but I soon lost sight of that upon spotting the all Glenn O’Brien issue of GQ, because let’s face it, if you can’t enjoy O’Brien’s writing, you should probably get your head checked. Thumbing through the pages I soon stopped on a full page shot of O’Brien’s decades old Schott Perfecto. While there’s something appealing about any worn in and worn out leather jacket, O’Brien’s left an instant impression on me for it’s one all-important addition. Right there in the very center of his jacket was a crown, a signature that was not his own, but belonged to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Considering how concerned everyone is these days with finding deadstock items, and keeping their clothes pristine (a belief that I am admittedly quite guilty of), the idea of defacing a piece of clothing, and thereby turning it into a piece of art was obviously intriguing to me. As I’ve headed down the rabbit hole of seventies and eighties New York, reading stories of O’Brien, Basquiat, and the city in general, I’ve come to understand that crown as an echo of a bygone era.
Including The Clash in this week is a bit of an understatement. If I really had to think about it, The Clash are probably the one band that I’ve listened to the most throughout my life. As of late though, The Clash has kind of taken on a new meaning for me, as the deeper I dig into the band’s catalog, the more I seem to be inspired by them.
The Clash are often unfairly lumped together with other bands that popped up during the early days of punk, yet there’s always been something about The Clash that set them apart. While other late seventies punk groups were lauded for their raw aggression and simplicity The Clash took another route. They were just as loud and ferocious, yet they were also polished and thoughtful. To understand what differentiated The Clash from the rest of the scene, we have to take a look at another legendary band from the time, The Sex Pistols. The Pistols had Malcolm McLaren, The Clash had Bernie Rhodes.
Rhodes was an associate of Mclaren’s at the infamous SEX shop and had watched him create the Sex Pistols-taking a few misled kids and molding them into the controversial poster children of an angry era, inspiring Rhodes to try his hand at creating a band of his own. Pulling from the vast pool of musicians in the London underground scene, Rhodes assembled Mick Jones, Joe Stummer, Paul Simonon, and Terry Chimes (Chimes would leave a year later, being replaced by permanent member Topper Headon.) While Rhodes only spent a year as The Clash’s manager (he was fired after negotiating the band’s embarrassingly poor CBS contract,) he left a lasting impact on the band as a whole. After watching how McLaren branded The Sex Pistols, Rhodes conceptualized The Clash as a band about issues. From their songs to their outfits, The Clash presented themselves as a band of educated rebels.
Yet, once Rhodes left, this aesthetic was taken to another level. Early albums such as Give ‘Em Enough Rope and London Calling were filled with emotionally charged songs and depth that was hard to find in music during the late seventies. It was London Calling in particular, an album that covered racial issues, war, unemployment, and a general feeling of unease that echoed the sentiments of so many misguided youth, not only at the time but for decades to come. The album became a massive success and carried The Clash across the world on tour. Live the band’s appearance echoed their albums, sporting military surplus, chambray shirts, white denim, colored leather jackets, and hand-painted tees.
Right from the start The Clash were always a band that was about the complete package, it wasn’t just their songs, or their look, or their energy that made them so well-known, it was everything together. They were revolutionary both in the content of their music and in who they were, a band that was personally so strong that it was tough to label them as just another part of the UK punk scene. In their later career with albums such as Sandinsta! and Combat Rock, they delved deeper into other genres, taking influence from third world countries. This can be heard in the reggae, dub, and calypso tracks on their records and it can be clearly seen in the tiger camo, colored button-ups, prints, and generally more avant garde garb that they adopted during this time.
Unfortunately as the band branched out other styles, they became plagued with inner turmoil and ultimately broke up, releasing their final album only eight years after their debut. The legacy of The Clash does not only lie in their music it can be found in everything the band touched, from their concert videos, to their portraits, to their home movies The Clash still reign as one of the most powerful and influential bands ever formed.
Starting out on this week, I hadn’t really thought about how all these bands that I’ve been drawn to lately are related. Most are loosely connected, sounding somewhat similar to each other or falling in the same relative genre, yet, with The Specials and today’s artist, Elvis Costello, the connection is direct. Just two years after Costello released his debut album, My Aim is True, he had his hand in producing the debut album for another burgeoning British band. That band was The Specials. While The Specials were a breakbeat ska band, Costello was more of straight forward pub rock artist, but they both shared the same mentality of the English underground music scene.
Costello, (who was born Declan Patrick MacManus) began his career by hustling his way through the local London music scene at night and working menial jobs during the day to make ends meet. Inspired by his father, who was a musician himself, and early rock bands, Costello adopted a strongly pop sound guided by his distinct voice and prowess as a storyteller. In 1976 Costello signed to Stiff Records, a newfound label that was scooping up British New Wave artists, and began working on his first album. At the behest of his label he adopted a stage moniker, taking Elvis from Presley and Costello from his own father’s stage name. The album, which consisted of songs that Costello had written late at night after coming home from his data-entry job, was slow to take off, forcing Costello to keep his day job during the release, but three weeks later it all clicked and Costello gained overnight success.
My Aim is True became one of the greatest rock albums of not only the mid-seventies, but of all time, propelling Costello into the world music spotlight. Yet it wasn’t just the album itself that helped Costello’s rise, it was his overall image. The now famous cover of My Aim is True shows him wearing a colored sportcoat, his signature Buddy Holly glasses, and a well worn Jazzmaster, setting the stage for Costello’s career. His two next albums, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces captured this same aesthetic, harkening back to those early days of rock and roll when showmanship and personality were equally as important as how you sounded.
In the eighties, Costello began to show just how expansive his musical background is, branching out into soul, country western, harder rock, punk, new wave, and jazz. While this didn’t always spell success for Costello, it did show his diversity as an artist, something that was reflected in his presence, donning polka dot shirts, patterned jackets, and porkpie hats. His exploration into other genres continued into the nineties as Costello dug deeper into jazz and classical, growing a beard and producing vast orchestrated pieces. Coupled with with darker outfits and a long beard, this became Costello’s most severe period. Yet, by the late nineties Costello had swung back to his roots, returning to the straightforward pop songs of his past.
As the turn of the century rolled around, Costello settled into his current stage, flowing through various genres with each respective album. Now clean shaven, and a bit more toned down, Costello still throws in those patterned sportcoats, low-top brimmed hats, darker dress shirts. As a man that has always been renowned for his ability to tell stories through his music no matter how it may be classified, Costello consistently keeps that solid, well-put together base adding in various touches here and there to echo his emotions during that period. And of course, no matter what, he’ll always have his thick Buddy Holly glasses.