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Read Epic's Rejection of The Clash's 'Inferior Sounding' Debut Album

Topper Headon, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon of The Clash in New York in 1978.
 Michael Putland/Getty Images

Why was The Clash's 1977 debut album not released in the United States until two years later? Put bluntly by Epic Records A&R man Bruce Harris, the album's production quality was more in line with an "amateur act" and would "fail miserably" if released. "The band’s live performance is many times better than what is on this record," Harris told punk fan Paul Dougherty in a newly unearthed letter (via Dangerous Minds), "and one has to question the artistic integrity of creating an inferior sounding album."

Harris comes off as a genuine booster of punk in the letter, referencing his favorite groups (The Vibrators, the Adverts, Blondie), and stresses that he has 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."

Indeed, Harris wanted the fan to know he thought Joe Strummer and company had immense quality -- "which is evident in the overwhelming lyrics, the blistering music and the feverish performance" -- but that the band's raw talent "is not at all matched by the level of production which is an enormous drawback."

The letter was written in late 1977 in response to Dougherty's frustration that the album, which had already debuted in the U.K. via Epic's parent company CBS, hadn't found distribution in the U.S. A modified version of the album would eventually be released in the States in 1979... by Harris' own Epic Records.

Here's a screenshot of the letter and read it below.

November 29, 1977

Dear Paul:

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.

Best regards,
Bruce Harris

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