The Clash at Trinity: an education in punk
40 years ago this weekend, one of Britain's most influential bands descended on Dublin in what became one of the country's most iconic gigs, writes Ed Power
The news broke just as the queue had started to form outside the exam hall of Trinity College Dublin on the evening of October 21, 1977. Half a world away, a plane carrying American classic rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd had crashed during landing, claiming the lives of several band members and backing crew. This seemed a grisly metaphor for the upheavals then gripping rock and roll, with the old dinosaurs of the genre being, or so it felt, violently deposed for the up-and-comers from punk.
Punk was about anger and spitting and annoying your parents. It was in search of just such a catharsis that several hundred pasty-faced teenage and twenty-something Dubliners had descended on Trinity - a crucible of Anglo-Irish identity that would that night be reforged as year zero for Irish music. The Clash were about to play Ireland for the first time and for those who were there, nothing would be the same ever again.
"It was the gathering of a tribe," remembers 2FM presenter Dave Fanning who, though he didn't actually enjoy the gig terribly, acknowledges it as an important moment for Irish music.
"It [punk] was a defiant call against the hopelessness of the country we were living in. That may sound pretentious but it was the truth."
In an age when The Jonas Brothers and Kodaline are what pass for rock stars, it is difficult to appreciate just how subversive a force punk was regarded as. In the UK, bands such as The Clash and the Sex Pistols were hounded by the tabloids as a threat to public order.
The moral panic quickly spread across the Irish Sea. Twenty four hours before The Clash played Dublin, their gig at Belfast's Ulster Hall had been cancelled when the insurers of the venue came down with cold feet at the last moment. Punk wasn't merely a genre of music. In the public imagination, at least, it was a force of destruction and threat to the established order.
Even by the make-shift standards of Irish music in 1977, The Clash at Trinity was, moreover, a far-fetched proposition. They performed in the exam hall under a painting of the Queen while there are apocryphal stories of college staff standing at the back with sound monitoring equipment to ensure the group did not break a agreed decibel limit.
Watching from the baloney, meanwhile, was one Lieutenant Colonel John Mainwairing Walsh. He was the senior member of the institution's governing board and, outfitted in formal dinner jacket (complete with bow tie), was on hand to make sure the hall wasn't ripped apart by the roiling masses below.
The Dublin rock scene was at the time small and tightly-knit and most of the most significant faces were at Trinity that night. Pressed up near the front was young Paul Hewson - later to become better known as Bono (right) - with the rest of the his future U2 bandmates.
Bono would subsequently describe the concert as a formative music experience - one that, he told The Guardian, had "changed everything".
So hugely did The Clash in Dublin loom for him that he even wrote a song about it, 'This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now', which featured on U2's 2014 Songs Of Innocence ("On a double decker bus/Into College Square/If you won't let us in your world/Your world just isn't there").
The Clash delivered two 35 minute sets, at 7pm and 9.30pm for a fee of £1,500. Surprisingly, it was they who had sought out the promoters. With a public outcry in the UK over punk, many venues in Britain had blacklisted the band, and with lots of expensive equipment already booked, they were desperate for somewhere to play.
"The first show was… well, I'll have to use some f-words here… the first show was frantic, frenetic, febrile, feral and frightening,"Paul Tipping, Trinity College's Ents Officer at the time, told RTE radio this week. "I was there right through the whole thing… it showed how a release of energy…and really good craftsmanship in terms of songwriting and lyrics…where it can lead.
"Over the course of my time in music, I've promoted quite a few showbands - not least for the Trinity Ball and the Fresher's Ball," he added. "I have great respect for them… but something else was needed I think and this was it."
"The gig was significant in that it was the first gig in Ireland by an established overseas punk act," reads one eye-witness account from the Brand New Retro nostalgia website.
"Irish venues had banned punk groups for fear of violence, whilst overseas acts were reluctant to come to Ireland because of the Northern Ireland situation.
The feral quality of the performance may have had something to do with the fact that singer Joe Strummer had to endure a fusillade of spitting from the crowd. Punk audiences loved to gob at their heroes - but Strummer, the privately educated son of a British diplomat, was aghast at this behaviour.
"A few punks jump on stage, but the raid-crew smartly throw them off," wrote Bill Graham in his Hot Press review of the show.
"The main complaint is the sobbing. The Clash hate it. Strummer furiously harangues the guilty to f*** off and stop it. The gobbers don't know any better, don't understand why their heroes are so angry and spit on regardless."
"The gigs in Dublin could be confrontational," recalls Elvera Butler, who brought bands such as Dr Feelgood to Ireland and set up iconic Irish punk label Reekus Records. "When I toured UK punk bands such as The Cure, or Johnny Rotten with his brother's band the 4 Be 2s, I liked to do the Dublin gig in a more controlled environment such as Trinity on a Friday and then I'd have them in Cork for my Saturday gig.
"There could be a threatening air at the Dublin gigs... the security at student gigs in Dublin were just members of the rugby club or whatever, who didn't know how to handle things."
The myth of The Clash shows quickly came to overshadow the reality, says Dave Fanning, who remains thumpingly unimpressed at what he saw that night. He was a huge Clash fan and lists their concert at Dun Laoghaire's Top Hat several years on as his favourite ever.
But at Trinners it just didn't click for him. By his recollection, it was the wrong band in the wrong venue.
"I thought it was s*** even though I like the album… it was s*** because of the venue. It was just adrenaline, DIY noise.
"There was nothing to it. I wasn't going as a purist… I just remember the gig being completely unsuitable. It was awful. But you weren't allowed to not like it. So everyone said they loved it."
The Clash at Trinity College will be the subject of a symposium at Trinity tomorrow and Sunday. Details at tcd.ie.