When the Clash entered the studio for the first time they were determined not to sacrifice their punk principles, and the fates — not to mention a sympathetic engineer and a negligent record company — were on their side...
On 30th August 1976 the Clash's frontman Joe Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon and manager Bernie Rhodes were attending West London's Notting Hill Carnival when all hell broke loose. Amid this annual celebration of Caribbean culture, the police were attacked for apprehending a pickpocket, resulting in the hospitalisation of more than 100 PCs and 60 members of the public, as well as widespread media reports about how black youths were involved in bloody confrontations with white officers. In fact, the rioters also included numerous whites, but their efforts apparently weren't enough for Strummer. After witnessing the debacle that unfolded before his very eyes, he felt inspired to write a song exhorting young white working-class Brits to be as outraged and proactive as their black counterparts in the face of government oppression.
"The only thing we're saying about the blacks is that they've got their problems and they're prepared to deal with them,” the singer-guitarist explained to the NME in response to accusations that his band's explosive first single, 'White Riot', was encouraging a race war. "But white men, they just ain't prepared to deal with them — everything's too cosy. They've got stereos, drugs, hi-fis, cars. The poor blacks and the poor whites are in the same boat.”
Released in the UK on 26th March 1977 the Clash's debut record created immediate headlines and caused concert promoters to request that the punk outfit refrain from performing it after the song provoked audience brawls at some of their shows. Before one gig, Strummer and lead guitarist-composer Mick Jones actually got into a dressing-room fight of their own when the latter didn't want to play the number. The song was never one of his favourites, yet it would come to be regarded as a classic among the band's legion of followers.
This rabid fan base had expanded rapidly since the Clash's live debut, supporting the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield on 4th July 1976 less than a month after Strummer had joined. On 29th August of the same year, the day before the Notting Hill Riot, following extended work in their Camden rehearsal studio and Strummer-Jones writing sessions in the office above, the Clash had then performed their second concert, once again opening for the Sex Pistols — this time in tandem with the Buzzcocks — at Islington's Screen On The Green. It was a seminal event in the annals of the British punk movement, yet it didn't take long for that movement to be undermined by what many diehards perceived as some of its central artists selling out.
A prime example was the Clash signing a £100,000 contract with CBS Records in January 1977, even though the group had still played relatively few gigs, all as a support act for the Pistols, never as the headliner. By then, guitarist Keith Levene had departed the line-up and several men had occupied the drummer's seat: Pablo LaBritain, Terry Chimes and Rob Harper, before Chimes rejoined in time for the group's initial recording sessions that February inside CBS Studio 3 on Whitfield Street in Central London.
"'White Riot' captures the quintessential sound of the Clash and I think I had a lot to do with that,” says Simon Humphrey, who engineered the track as well as the band's self-titled first album. "They were given free rein by the record company and at no point did I question the validity of what they were doing. So many other engineers would have tried to polish that recording, and it isn't polished. It just is what it is — a working-class riot, not a middle-class one — and that's why it's great.”
A native of South-East London, 18-year-old Humphrey landed a job as a tape-op/tea boy at CBS Whitfield Street in 1973 and soon began assisting on a wide variety of sessions. Within two years, he was engineering, and among the eclectic array of artists whom he recorded were guitarist John Williams, jazz singer George Melly, actors Michael Crawford, Peter Ustinov and Vincent Price, poet laureate Ted Hughes, comedian Tommy Cooper, the English Chamber Orchestra and chart acts such as Abba, Argent, Marc Bolan, Bill Haley, Duane Eddy, the Glitter Band, Hot Chocolate, Tina
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