The Clash are now known as the Only Band That Matters, one of the most commercially successful punk groups of all-time, something they accomplished without “selling out.” But their first album initially wasn’t released in the United States because it wouldn’t “bring profit into [Epic Records].” That’s according to Epic’s A&R representative Bruce Harris in his candid response to a letter “filled with righteous punk-rock indignation” sent to him by documentarian Paul Dougherty in 1977, the year The Clash’s self-titled debut was released.
Dougherty uploaded the letter on his website last year, but it’s only recently gone noticed.
November 29, 1977
Now that you’ve explained to me how the net works, let me tell you a little about how the mummy crumbles.
Unfortunately, A&R decisions are not based entirely on taste and musical preference. Hard to believe as you may find this, I personally am an avid Clash fan. My responsibility is not, however, to release records I like but rather records which I feel will bring profit into this company. (You may dismiss this kind of view as immoral or whatever but I would consider myself immoral to accept payment from CBS and not fulfill that obligation to the best of my ability. It would be easy for me to sit here and say I like the Clash, I like the Vibrators, I like the Adverts, I like Blondie, but that’s no accomplishment. Your presumption that releasing a Clash record would change the complexion of the American music marketplace, FM radio, press, etc. is a false one. From my experience in the music business, it seems clear to me that the Clash’s album would fail miserably from that point of view.
Also, it is important to note that the Clash’s album for all its quality (which is evident in the overwhelming lyrics, the blistering music and the feverish performance) is not at all matched by the level of production which is an enormous drawback. The band’s live performance is many times better than what is on this record and one has to question the artistic integrity of creating an inferior sounding album. It’s not a valid artistic judgement to say that the production is deliberately shoddy because this is new wave and new wave music doesn’t follow the same rules as other music, etc. This is a genuine copout. The Sex Pistols album, for instance, is produced properly and as a result sounds really strong and captures the band’s power. I believe the Clash can make better records than their first album and those are the records we should choose to bring to the American marketplace.
I have a very deep interest in making punk rock happen in the U.S. but I believe that only the finest quality product (like the Sex Pistols album) can achieve that end.
The failing does not lie with record companies. Your comments about radio are certainly right but if you take the thought one step further, I think you will see that it’s radio that’s blocking the progress here not record manufacturers. Sire Records is releasing a number of new wave albums, none of which have gotten much airplay or sold any records as a result. Personally I expect that this is partially due to the low quality of much of this product.
It goes on from there, and you should read the whole thing, but the general point is that this big-money rep loves The Clash, but he thinks their first album could’ve been better and isn’t representative of their full potential. So, he’d rather wait until they put out something worthy of their talents than something half-baked and have them fail in America.
Harris is both right and wrong. Right: The Clash outdid themselves with London Calling, a popular answer for the best album of the 1970s. Wrong: The Clash is a great album, with some of their finest, most vibrant songs, like “Remote Control” and “Career Opportunities.” It was never going to sell well — punk rarely did until Green Day came along, and they were much more conveniently pop than The Clash ever was — except, oops, it did. From Rolling Stone:
Considered too crude by Epic Records, The Clash was never released in its original form in the U.S. Instead, a compilation LP that included ten of the album’s cuts plus seven songs from later British singles and EPs was issued in 1979. (Nonetheless, the English version of The Clash is one of the biggest-selling imports ever.) (Via)
The American version lost “Deny,” “Cheat,” “Protex Blues,” and “48 Hours,” but gained, among others, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” one of The Clash’s best early songs. Everything obviously turned fine for The Clash, but it’s depressing to think how many great bands we were deprived because of radio “blocking the progress.”
No wonder Joe Strummer supported “pirate satellite.”
(Via Punk Before Punk)