October 21st, 1977: probably the first and last time Trinity could ever be suitably described as “punk”. It’s the day The Clash played the Exam Hall, giving what one reviewer described as a “blistering, almost terrifying performance” and marking the official initiation of Irish audiences to the world of punk.
“The riotous energies of punk changed twentieth-century culture, and wholly for the better”, says Professor Darryl Jones, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, which has organised an all-day symposium this month to commemorate the historic event, 40 years on.
Getting The Clash in and out of the Exam Hall to perform not one but two gigs in a single night was no easy feat, as Ian Wilson, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President at the time, and Paul Tipping, TCDSU Entertainments Officer, can attest to. In fact, punk ran riot through every step. “It was a circus. The college had a complete panic when they realised the scale of it. They did try to stop us putting it on.”
We lost money in it, but that didn’t matter. We were in the business of running the biggest bands we had. We were taking bands that we’d never had before or since
It was the 1970s, when the unrest of the Troubles seeped into most aspects of Irish life – the music scene included. In the wake of the Miami Showband killings in 1975, most international acts gave Ireland a wide berth. Amidst this, it seems all the more surprising that the Ents team managed to bag such a big name as The Clash.
Lest we forget, however, that in 1977, The Clash had not quite earned their status as “the only band that matters”. “London Calling” was merely a twinkle in Joe Strummer’s eye, the band still in relative infancy. Nonetheless, in one short, explosive year they’d managed to cause a mighty stir, nudging The Sex Pistols out of the limelight and ushering in a new wave of political punk across the UK. Of course, with punk making such a name for itself, no respectable venue or hall owner would touch them, hence why Ireland, despite its stormy political climate, must not have seemed such a bad idea to the emerging, devil-may-care punks.
The Clash rocked into Belfast on October 20th, where they were set to play Ulster Hall. But the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) pulled the plug last minute. The cancellation succeeded in amping up the commotion surrounding the boys’ Irish visit, with the subsequent mini riot that ensued making headlines and photos of disgruntled Clash members adorning front pages.
Back in Trinity, this turn of events heightened already fraught tensions. Relations between the college and TCDSU had deteriorated rapidly in the recent months. “We were on a full collision course with the college anyway, particularly at that time”, says Wilson. There were major disputes over the licensing of the Buttery, still a bar at the time, as well as an imminent catering boycott. But this was the 1970s: anti-establishment sentiments were running high all over, and the team of union officers were only too eager to stick it to the college by welcoming an army of spitting, spiky-haired punks on campus.
“We lost money in it, but that didn’t matter. We were in the business of running the biggest bands we had. We were taking bands that we’d never had before or since.”
“Six thirty, Thursday in the Trinity Student Union office and Paul Tipping, the college’s entertainment officer, is shouting and pleading into the phone.” That’s the opening line of a Hot Press feature from October 1977. “Yes, I distinctly remember that phone call with Bernie Rhodes [manager of The Clash]”, says Tipping. “It was touch-and-go whether he’d relent after the Belfast cancellation, but I’d come so far I wasn’t about to give up. In the end, the blarney worked!”.
“The Clash were pretty grumpy. They weren’t in a good mood about the day before. They weren’t too happy about having to play two gigs”, says Wilson. TCDSU didn’t exactly have boundless resources, and Ian and Paul recall picking the band up from Connolly and escorting them to the “dressing room” – the lads’ own apartment in the rickety Rubrics. To be fair, The Clash didn’t complain too much. “He was no primadonna, Joe Strummer”, says Tipping. “Not like The Stranglers”, says Ian, who played a few weeks later. “They went out of their way to be objectionable.”
Still, “[The Clash] were pretty taken aback by what they saw. And when they saw the Exam Hall…” In typical Trinity fashion, the Hist were hosting a well-to-do dinner that very same evening, which, according to Wilson, was a disaster. “You had people in dinner jackets wandering around. Then you had a thousand plus punks.”
“It was an evening of glaring contrasts,”, said Tipping, describing the “motley crowd piling into the ornate Exam Hall” to face a colossal Queen Victoria portrait hanging from the walls.
“Because punk had really just broken out, they all turned up in what they thought looked ‘punk’, so you had people in plastic bin liners. There were safety pins all over the place, in places they should never have been, and chains wrapped around them. It looked ridiculous.”
“It was a circus”, says Wilson. “We weren’t sure what to expect. [The college] hadn’t a clue what was going to happen. So anyway, what we did in the end was close the campus down completely.” Things took something of a dark turn, too, with Tipping called in by the college and told explicitly: if something goes wrong, it’s on your head.
Luckily, the gig unfolded without a hitch… well, that’s if you discount the spitting, or gobbing, as it’s officially termed. Back then, expectorating audiences were common practice at punk gigs. “Myself and my team took the brunt of it, being the human shield for the band”, says Wilson. But Joe Strummer, lead man of the Clash, wasn’t a fan, and Ian recalls him ranting aggressively about it: “It’s not fucking cool to be gobbing, just fucking stop it!” “He was particularly incensed by it”, says Paul. “[It] may have been his innate middle class sensibilities.”
Then there were the sheep’s eyeballs. “When we swept up, somebody had brought in a whole pile of sheep’s eyeballs and thrown them around the place. I don’t know what the hell that was about.”
October 21st, 1977: a night worth remembering, for a multitude of reasons. Forty years later, the symposium will feature Q&As and screenings by original members of The Clash’s touring party and others involved in organising – held in the Exam Hall, of course.
“Punk emphasised the politics of obnoxiousness and ugliness”, says Jones. “It was rebarbative, confrontational, and dangerous, deliberately setting out to alienate large sections of the public. It didn’t care about conventional values. It was music from, for, and about, troubled times. It was fantastic. Trinity College is proud to have played its small part in bringing punk to Ireland, as the venue for concerts by the Clash in October 1977. Forty years later, we’re excited to be revisiting this event – and, we hope, rekindling some of those energies.”