The Swarm

February 22, 2013

Joe Strummer, Film Director: The Making – and Meaning – of ‘Hell W10’…

Barry (The Baker) Auguste

February 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the filming of Joe Strummer’s film-directing debut, the short black-and-white movie Hell W10 – a crucial but underexplored event in the history of The Clash. Therefore, we’ve enlisted Barry (The Baker) Auguste to tackle the subject – you might remember his previous article here. As one of the band’s beloved roadies, The Baker served as a key insider from The Clash’s 1976 beginnings until the classic lineup’s demise in 1983; as such, he’s eminently qualified to suss out the real deal behind Strummer’s little-seen cinematic debut like few others – after all, he was there. To that end, The Baker joins up here with Strummer confidante/collaborator Derek Goddard to look back at their time working on the film and, more importantly, consider the prophetic omens it signaled for the iconic, groundbreaking punk group’s legacy.

Some three decades ago this month, the members of The Clash, those of us in their crew, and the band’s closest friends found themselves standing in the freezing cold of Ladbroke Grove, filming a movie entirely directed, conceived, and paid for by Joe Strummer. Hell W10 was a personal project for Joe, which initially plays like a simple, unpretentious home movie. But hidden beneath the surface of its archetypal cops-and-robbers plotline, Joe was cleverly caricaturing the true-life roles of everyone in the band, making the film a prime example of art imitating life. In truth, the “Last Gang in Town” was unknowingly having its last soirée, and that was clear from Hell W10, both in front of and behind the camera.

Derek Goddard drumming with the Soul Vendors at The Tabernacle. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Romero.)

Derek Goddard had played drums with Joe Strummer in his side group the Soul Vendors alongside old pals Richard Dudanski and Mole from Joe’s pre-Clash pub-rock outfit, The 101’ers; he recreated this gang of players from his past to get back to basics at a time when he was totally disillusioned with Clash co-leader Mick Jones’ production excesses on the group’s 1980 triple album Sandinista! and seeking to escape from the scathing reviews it received from the British press. For three years running during the early ’80s, the Soul Vendors played every New Year’s Eve at The Tabernacle in London’s Powis Square, ringing in each year with a set of pounding vintage ska, soul chestnuts, and old 101’ers tunes. In February 1983, having just returned home to the U.K. from a U.S. tour with The Raincoats, Derek got a call from Joe. “Meet me in the Warwick Castle tomorrow,” Joe intoned mysteriously. “I thought it was a gig,” says Derek. “ I’d assumed that I would be going straight into a musical project, having played with Joe previously, including a week of rehearsals and the three live gigs with the Soul Vendors. Then I realized it was for a movie he was making. I was told that the film was going to be played during a live performance – it sounded like an interesting idea, combining sound, visuals, and multi-media. There was no script or plotline, except what was in Joe’s head.” There was actually a fair amount of ambiguity surrounding the final outcome of this filming; Joe played his cards very close to his chest. Looking back now, I think he was valiantly trying to keep the group working as a unit, whilst learning new skills and having a great deal of fun in the bargain.

Derek was cast as the barman at a shebeen, who happens to be a close friend of the hero character, Earl, played by Clash bassist Paul Simonon. Likewise, Mick Jones starred as the villain, Mr. Socrates, with his guitar roadie, Digby Cleaver, naturally cast as one of his mob, playing one of Socrates’ drivers. Joe cast himself as the all-powerful police chief, while Richard Dudanski played one of the gangsters. “Next to Mick, Richard was one person who seemed to be dressed for the part,” Derek notes. Another member of the road crew, Sean Carasov, played one of Earl’s accomplices. Sean’s character in Hell W10 ends up as an unsung victim, which proved a weirdly prophetic vision: Sean later became known as “The Captain,” a visionary A&R man, Internet provocateur, and enemy of Scientology who died of a tragic, mysterious suicide in 2010. That wasn’t the only odd foreshadowing. When Kosmo Vinyl was set as Socrate’s’ double-crossing consigliere, little did we know how right on the nose that choice was. As Kosmo was seemingly to all eyes Mick’s man at the time, it made for an all-too perfect match: just as in the plot, in reality Kosmo had already covertly switched sides long before, skillfully and surreptitiously serving as Joe’s right hand, a situation that would come to a boil not long after Hell W10 was completed.

The haphazard production team, also comprised of close Clash associates. Mark Salter (brother of Gaby Salter, Joe’s then-girlfriend and mother of his children), served as the cameraman along with Nick Enfield and Alex Chetwynd, helping on lights and equipment. Marc also played Joe’s police sidekick, during which times another friend, Julian Hunt, became cameraman. Gaby also served in the role of continuity supervisor: I remember Joe bought her a Polaroid camera, and she would constantly take pictures of all the scenes. Being one of the Clash’s regular crew, and on retainer, I naturally volunteered my services. Apart from appearing briefly in one early scene set in the shebeen, I spent the next few weeks transporting lights and props to locations in and around Ladbroke Grove in the “Baker-mobile,” setting up scenes, and even engineering a special effect – my first and only – involving an eyeball on a spike.

“I went down to where they were shooting, and the first thing I saw was Paul banging Digby’s head against an old Jag!,” Derek remembers. “I have to say, we had a lot of laughs behind the scenes. Instead of using props, Joe used real drinks, so every time we did a take, everyone got more drunk! The girls couldn’t stop giggling, and we’d run out of film to keep doing takes. It was a shambles sometimes, and Joe would get short-tempered – which made us laugh all the more. The funniest scene for me, though, was when the gangsters come out of the pub and I drive my bike into the bollocks of the top don. We had to do it again and again, with each take more hilarious than the last. He pulls a gun out on me and I go all Bugs Bunny.”

I too remember those times where we could not stop laughing, like when we covered a stripped-down Ray Jordan – the band’s security chief – with oil and had him smash a television with a sledgehammer. Meanwhile, the fight scenes usually got out of hand. One of the best scenes was the fight scene with Digby, set at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road; it was one of the last scenes to be shot, and turned into a mad boozing party (in fact, we were running out of alcohol every hour). At times, Digby found it unexpectedly hard to take Joe’s direction. “Joe wanted everything over-acted, just like an old black-and-white movie – really obvious,” he told me.

“The surprising thing was to get thrust into a part in a movie,” Derek notes. “I had never done any acting before except in school, but I knew the film was going to be like an old Buster Keaton silent film, so I pretty much went along with it, and acted according to the way I thought people did in those days.” The production wasn’t all fun and games, however, as Derek recalls. “As we were finishing up, I had begun to wonder what it was all about,” he says. “Towards the end of the shoot, I thought that would be the best time to talk to Joe about playing music, or at least go into the studio and go over some numbers. Joe’s reaction was, 'Music? I hate music!’ I know Joe was sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but there was something in him that seemed immersed in what he was doing with that film.”

Following the filming, Joe, Marc, Gaby, and I spent many weeks in a small editing studio just off Shepherd’s Bush Green. As Gaby said to me, “We lived and breathed that film for a few months, and it was a very happy, creative moment in time.” There, we learned how to splice film, intercut frames, and fade to black; it was a fascinating learning experience (and one in which Joe obviously had a keen interest in for the future). Alas, I had to stop work on the movie when The Clash received an offer to play the US festival in California. I was tasked with finding a new drummer as soon as possible, as Topper Headon had been fired the year before. The band’s original drummer, Terry Chimes, took over for the rest of 1982; I had been Terry’s drum tech in 1976 (when he was known as “Tory Crimes”) and I found myself in that position yet again upon his return. (After Terry left for the last time, I had to find and audition Pete Howard, who served as The Clash’s drummer from April 1983 until the group’s ultimate demise in 1985.)

Derek and Paul examine the weapons at the shebeen

After Hell W10 was finished, Joe denounced the movie, claiming it was “shit.” However, not much of what Joe did was for nothing. For me, the endearing quality of the film remains the poignant, atmospheric bleakness of the street settings – the roving camera montages moving around the streets of Ladbroke Grove, eerily reminiscent of the scenes of decay and poverty in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (an enormous influence on Joe). The amateur, handheld style of the movie conveys an overwhelming, brooding sense of the times in Thatcher’s Britain; still, Joe’s playfulness spills cleverly right through the celluloid, without resorting to outright comedy set-ups.

In reminiscing about the making of Hell W10, I suggested to Derek that art sometimes imitates life – that what was being portrayed in the movie was directly related to events in The Clash’s existence. Derek laughed at the thought. “If art imitates life, it’s interesting that there was no one alive at the end of the film,” he said. “There’s a big shoot-out gang fight where everyone bites the dust in a muddy field. After that scene, I asked Joe to sort out my dry-cleaning bill, and he did! When everyone found out about that, they all submitted their dry-cleaning bills, too!”

To me, however, the movie holds much deeper meanings – and very observable Freudian undertones, as everything that’s captured on camera is to Joe’s specific design. It’s noticeable that the female characters in Hell W10 have no real agency, or play any meaningful part in the narrative; they’re merely portrayed as throwaway characters, devoid of any intelligence or significance. Whether this was Joe unwittingly imprinting his own male-centric state of mind onto the movie or not is unclear, but the entire piece plays like an episode of The Sweeney, with women consigned to serving as mere plot devices. The racially charged comments in the movie’s captions are also entirely consistent with Joe’s ’70s street-vernacular style – he was constantly referencing “wops,” “nips,” and “Greeks” in his lyrics. This all provided a further glimpse, perhaps unintentionally, into Joe’s anachronistic worldview and confrontational nature.

Derek behind the bar and The Baker waiting to snag a bottle, with Paul Simonon’s then-girlfriend Pearl Harbour standing at the shebeen

Digging down to the subliminal messages contained within the film, there are also clear indications of what was really happening consciously and subconsciously back then with The Clash. Joe was cleverly caricaturing the true-life roles of everyone in the band – in short, in Hell W10 he gives us a premonition of the events to come.

Joe’s character – decidedly not a protagonist – wasn’t an accident. His police chief obviously has mixed emotions in the movie – upholding the law, but colluding with the enemy at the same time: he’s eager to collaborate with the bad guy, and yet willing at a moment’s notice to turn him in. He doesn’t seem to know which way to jump. Synchronicity does not occur in a vacuum.

Mick and Paul, meanwhile, played the main protagonists – with Mick’s role as the baddie and Paul’s role as the hero correctly portraying the tensions of the period. At the time, Mick was seen as the villain in all things by most of those around, and certainly in Joe and Paul’s eyes. Unfortunately, the real villain in the true-life drama, the band’s then-manager Bernie Rhodes, does not appear in the movie. Instead, Kosmo Vinyl played Mr. Socrates’ consigliere: it was a role he very much fashioned for himself within the band. Kosmo proved presciently typecast considering his role in the group’s real-life drama that unfolded later that year, as one of the motivating forces ousting Mick from The Clash.

At the end of the film, Mr. Socrates and his empire are wiped out; by September of 1983, that would also be the case in real life. Mick was terminated from the band: that moment would prove “the most unkindest cut of all,” knowing they had all plotted the scene in advance. Friends and acquaintances were forced to choose sides, and it would be years before many of those same individuals felt comfortable enough to associate socially or professionally. Seen in this light, it’s easy to view the film merely as an externalization of Joe’s subconscious inner perspective; in reality, he was giving us all the clues as to what was going down via a classic, cozy British whodunit. Band, crew, and friends performed the various roles of suspects, villains, and heroes; all the audience had to do was join the dots.

Bernie Rhodes is noticeable in his absence from Hell W10: he’d in fact dismissed the whole project as trite nonsense. After Mick was sacked, Bernie made a power grab for leadership and the production of the band’s music in his absence; eventually Joe and Kosmo came to realize they’d been fooled yet again by Bernie’s manipulation of the situation. But away from Bernie’s overbearing influence, making the movie was a last chance for the band and their friends to indulge in one final episode of boyish fun before everything fell apart.

It proved a chapter of the story, however, that couldn’t be revisited until fairly recently. “The original film was all destroyed when Delane Lee in Wardour Street closed down,” Gaby explains. “We had moved, so we never received the letter asking if we wanted to make other storage arrangements. The film as it is today was made from a working editing copy that mysteriously fell into someone’s hands and turned up on a list of Clash film material submitted by a production company that wanted to make a Clash compilation video some years later.”

Indeed, the film reels were lost for years (supposedly), and eventually “just turned up” (a miracle) at a market stall in 2002 – right in time for inclusion on a Clash DVD box set, and coincidentally just months before Joe’s death. Viewing Hell W10 anew, with so many years in between and allowing for a bit of perspective, makes for a most curious, elegiac lament indeed.

Click Here