By The Pittsburgh Current
Rod Schwartz, the former bassist of locals the 11th Hour and Saturday’s Kids, had retired from playing and sold his equipment when he received a call from a couple of friends. Mike Moran and Daryl Cross had a wild idea: Would Schwartz want to participate in a show, covering one side of the Clash’s landmark London Calling album? “Just five songs. And there were going to be four different bass players doing the show. We’d each take a side,” he says, laughing at the simplicity of the original idea. “Then people started dropping like flies. Before I knew it, I was playing half, then three-quarters. And when I got into it, I was just into all of it.”
The bold concept was staged at the Rex Theater in 2003, a few months after Clash vocalist Joe Strummer died of a heart defect. The event predated a format that has now become something of a standard — covering classic albums in their entirety. It also signaled the start of Guns of Brixton, a collective of local musicians (named for a song from London Calling) who went on to present four shows that revisited the playlists of the short-lived but influential Pittsburgh radio station WXXP-FM, in addition to covers of entire Elvis Costello albums and a salute to David Bowie. Now, on the day marking the 40th anniversary of London Calling’s release in the United Kingdom, it’s time to play the album again.
Schwartz was a freshman at IUP when the album hit the U.S., a month after the UK release. The collision of the band’s punk origins, coupled with reggae/ska influences and pop smarts, left a strong impression. “The horns really stood out to me. You didn’t think of that as being considered punk rock, having those kind of arrangements,” he says. “London Calling is when they really let their guard down, showing what fantastic musicians they were, Topper [Headon, drums] especially. Over the years, probably every song on that album has been my favorite song at some point.”
Like the album, the lineup of Guns of Brixton was a far-flung menagerie of musicians from the Pittsburgh scene. (Full disclosure: I was part of the horn section that night.) Never before had one stage hosted members of both Submachine and the SPUDS, two of the city’s musical institutions from vastly different circles. Rather than merely attempting the songs, guitarists Steve Seel, Steve Morrison and Cross meticulously figured out the musical subtleties, including the horn charts. Drummers Kip Ruefle (of ATS) and Dave Klug recreated the punch of Headon’s performance.
Despite all the preparation, no one knew if the audience would extend beyond friends and family members for the initial show. That mood changed while some of the crew had dinner with Submachine’s Alex Peightal, who lived across the street from the Rex. “We went to the window and there was a line around the door,” he recalls. “We walked in and friends were standing in line and asking us to sneak them in. I was picturing the part of [the Clash’s] ‘Complete Control,’ where they’re sneaking their friends in the back door of the show. I think we realized at that point how many people felt like we did. They needed this catharsis to say goodbye to Joe.”
At this year’s show, the 11th Hour will also reunite to perform songs from Give ’Em Enough Rope, the Clash’s sophomore release. Considering the far-flung group of players that will come together that night, Schwartz sees it as a fitting homage to the band. “We’re not trying to be the Clash. We’re just trying to pay tribute to their music in our own style,” he says.