The Clash’s self-titled 1977 debut is a raw, feverish classic, and it took a while to come out in the U.S. Epic Records had the rights to release the album in America, but the label initially passed on the album, though it did eventually release the album, with a retooled tracklist, over here. Dangerous Minds has just uncovered a letter that shows why. A fan had written the late Epic A&R exec Bruce Harris a letter asking why the album wasn’t getting an American release, and Harris responded. To hear him tell it, he really believed in making punk rock happen in America, but he didn’t think the Clash would have a chance if their first American release was an album as nervy and lo-fi as that one. Here’s the complete text of his reply:
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. On the other hand, like any new movement, punk will take time. Maybe its the Talking Heads second album that will happen, and maybe the Dead Boys will get a little better at what they are doing.
I believe the Clash are better than anyone in the field except the Sex Pistols and I have been very involved in guiding the production of their second album. I don’t want them to sound like Fleetwood Mac—I want them to sound like the Clash that they are and not an amateur act.
Your interest is marvelous and though we disagree, I really was glad to hear your voice rise up from the street telling me where to go. Hopefully, the Clash’s next album will be more right for us and we will be releasing it here. Meanwhile, you will be happy to know that it appears that Columbia Records will release the Vibrators album next year, our Blue Sky label will be releasing David Johansen’s solo album and Epic will release an album by a new group from England called Masterswitch. Inorder for the new wave to become a permanent one, it has to get rolling right.
Pretty fascinating! And ultimately wrongheaded! You can see a scan of the letter at Dangerous Minds.