Allen Ginsberg & The Clash Perform the Punk Poem “Capitol Air,” Live Onstage in Times Square (1981)

The Clash had been called sell­outs ever since they signed with CBS and made their 1977 debut, so the charge was pret­ty stale when cer­tain crit­ics lobbed it at their turn to dis­co-fla­vored new wave and “are­na rock” in 1982’s pop­u­lar Com­bat Rock. As All­mu­sic writes of the record, “if this album is, as it has often been claimed, the Clash’s sell­out effort, it’s a very strange way to sell out.” Com­bat Rock’s hits—“Rock the Cas­bah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”—are catchy and anthemic, respec­tive­ly, but this hard­ly breaks new styl­is­tic ground, though the sounds are clean­er and the influ­ences more dif­fuse. But the true stand­outs for my mon­ey—“Straight to Hell” and “Ghet­to Defen­dant”—per­fect the strain of reg­gae-punk The Clash had made their career-long exper­i­ment.

The lat­ter track, a midtem­po dub take on the pathos of hero­in addic­tion and under­class angst, fea­tures a cameo spo­ken-word vocal from Allen Gins­berg, who co-wrote the song with Joe Strum­mer. Far from sim­ply lend­ing the song Beat cred—as Bur­roughs would for a string of artists, to vary­ing degrees of artis­tic success—the Gins­berg appear­ance feels pos­i­tive­ly essen­tial, such that the poet joined the band on stage dur­ing the New York leg of their tour in sup­port of the album.

But before “Ghet­to Defen­dant,” there was “Capi­tol Air,” a com­po­si­tion of Ginsberg’s own that he per­formed impromp­tu with the band in New York in 1981. As Gins­berg tells it, he joined the band back­stage dur­ing one of their 17 shows at Bonds Club in Times Square dur­ing the San­din­ista tour. Strum­mer invit­ed the poet onstage to riff on Cen­tral Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and Gins­berg instead taught the band his very own punk song, which after 5 min­utes of rehearsal, they took to the stage and played.

Just above, hear that one­time live per­for­mance of “Capi­tol Air,” one of those anti-author­i­tar­i­an rants Gins­berg turned into an art form all its own—ripping cap­i­tal­ists, com­mu­nists, bureau­crats, and the police state—as the band backs him up with a chug­ging three-chord jam. Gins­berg wrote the song, accord­ing to the Allen Gins­berg Project, in 1980, after return­ing from Yugoslavia and “real­iz­ing that police bureau­cra­cies in Amer­i­ca and in East­ern Europe were the same, mir­ror images of each oth­er final­ly,” a feel­ing cap­tured in the lines “No Hope Com­mu­nism, No Hope Cap­i­tal­ism, Yeah. Every­body is lying on both sides.” Many of these same themes worked their way into “Ghet­to Defen­dant,” writ­ten and record­ed six months lat­er.

Here you can hear the Com­bat Rock album ver­sion of “Ghet­to Defen­dant.” (The track appeared in longer form on the record’s first, unre­leased, incar­na­tion, Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg). Ginsberg’s con­tri­bu­tions to the track, which he intones as “the voice of God,” match his free-asso­cia­tive dark humor against Strummer’s nar­ra­tive con­crete­ness. Off the wall hip­ster lines like “Hooked on necrop­o­lis,” “Do the worm on the acrop­o­lis” and “Slam­dance the cos­mopo­lis” become ellip­ti­cal ref­er­ences to Arthur Rim­baud, Sal­vado­ri­an death squads, and Afghanistan before Gins­berg launch­es into the Bud­dhist heart sutra over Strummer’s final cho­rus. The effect is com­ic, hyp­not­ic, and dis­ori­ent­ing, rem­i­nis­cent of the sam­ple-based elec­tron­ic col­lages groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Throb­bing Gris­tle con­struct­ed around the same time. It’s such a per­fect sym­bio­sis that the song los­es much of its impact with­out Ginsberg’s nut­ty offer­ings, I think, though you can judge for your­self in the live, Gins­berg-less ver­sion below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Live Footage Doc­u­ments The Clash From Their Raw Debut to the Career-Defin­ing Lon­don Call­ing

The First Record­ing of Allen Gins­berg Read­ing “Howl” (1956)

William S. Bur­roughs “Sings” R.E.M. and The Doors, Backed by the Orig­i­nal Bands

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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