Music

What Was So Great about the Clash, Anyway?

David Shorr

So how does someone go from anti-nuke activist to serious foreign policy maven, student protester to midlife bourgeoisie, and feel the same way about "The Only Band That Matters"?

We all know that the Clash (1976-1983) wear the halo of eternal coolness. History has been very kind to them. What is the big deal, anyway? For me, the question is personal. Abiding loyalty as a Clash fan has been a constant through much of my own history. From youth to middle age, the songs have held me in their thrall. Which raises the issue of how this music has held such strong resonance through all the changes in my life: How does someone go from anti-nuke activist to serious foreign policy maven, student protester to midlife bourgeoisie, and feel the same way about this band?

To echo a phrase made famous by middle-aged men, my wife doesn't understand me. Actually, that's not true; my wife understands me all too well, but not this part. In fact, one thing that made me to want to explain this emotional attachment was the vaguely patient it's-nice-to-have-a-hobby look my wife gives me whenever I talk about the Clash. It didn't make any sense to her, for instance, that I mourned Joe Strummer's death in December 2002 when I didn't know him personally.

For a start, the political issue that started me on my professional path was also the subject of a Clash single. In 1980, I was 19 and had barely given a thought to world affairs, war and peace, or politics of any kind; the post-Vietnam period was peacetime, after all. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter instituted a new requirement for our age cohort to register with the Selective Service System, just in case the United States needed to reinstate the draft. For many of us, getting ready for a military draft seemed like a pretty hair-trigger reaction; we were against it.

In short order, I morphed from an apolitical college physics major into a protesting, protest-organizing campus activist. Going to Washington used to mean the tenth grade class trip, but then I'm marching down Pennsylvania Avenue with thousands of other opponents of draft registration. And around the same time, my musical heroes released a single with the message, "It's up to you not to heed the call-up."

While it represented a very nice moment of moral support, I can't say the shared draft registration fight was the cornerstone of my loyalty to the Clash. Over the years, my pacifist, civilly disobedient passions gave way to a pragmatic advocacy for winnable policy battles and politics as the art of the possible. And just as my advocacy today as a professional is no less passionate (though less radical), the songs of the Clash likewise resonate just deeply as they always did.

"The Call Up" was pretty much an outlier in terms of the political content of Clash songs. Really, it's to their credit that they didn't regularly pontificate on particular issues. The main danger when musicians stake political positions isn't the risk of alienating listeners, but of dulling their own art. Joe Strummer said it very directly: The songs have to be good.

Nor is the point to remain aloof from society's ills, which the Clash certainly did not. Actually, from the group's earliest days, manager and mentor Bernie Rhodes told the Clash that the honesty and integrity in their music would stem from its relevance. They should sing about their own lives, surroundings, and the times they lived in. The decadence and glamour of mid-1970s rock -- the Rolling Stones were a negative point of reference -- had little if anything to do with the real lives of young people. A key marketing tag line for the Clash was "The Only Band That Matters," and to be a band that mattered, they needed to confirm for their generational peers that their hopes, dreams, and frustrations mattered. "Back in the garage with my bullshit detector . . ."

As they started to build their career, the vicissitudes of the music business became fodder itself. In a way, they were echoing the great Bob Marley. If you read Tim White's Marley biography Catch a Fire, he annotates many of Marley's lyrics as coded references to dirty dealers in Kingston musical circles. For their part, the Clash fought legendary battles with CBS/Columbia to keep the prices of their albums affordable, literally at great cost to themselves.

In the summer of 1982, I was an intern for one of the main organizers of the huge nuclear freeze rally in Central Park. What a perfect venue for them! Somehow, I got in touch with a manager of their American tours. We got our wires crossed in the conversation; he misunderstood what I meant by "disarmament" and talked about recently being at a gun show in Texas. Either way, I was clueless about the financial reality that flying the Clash in for the rally was a completely impractical proposal.

The band's difficult economics even prevented a full-scale U.S. tour to support Sandinista! in 1981. Instead they booked themselves at a new New York venue -- Bond International Casino, right on Times Square -- for a week. When tickets went on sale, I was at college a couple hundred miles away. Since the Bond residency was the only chance to see the band, fans would have to catch them in New York. In the days before Ticketmaster and online brokers, there was a computer-linked ticket sales system called Ticketron, and the manager of my local Midland Records, where I was a regular, ran off tickets from his Ticketron machine for three shows. I was very pleased with myself when I read Joe Strummer quoted in an interview that "the mountain has to come to Mohammed." I had suggested the old proverb as a name for the "tour" in my entry in a local radio station's send-in-your-questions-for-the-band contest.

The combination of cresting popularity, PR savvy, and a run-in with the fire marshals caused a frenzy of mythic proportions. They were the princes of the city. A week’s worth of shows at Bond's turned into two, once it became clear that the venue had sold twice its legal capacity. The Clash took one for the fans and made up for the club owner’s mistake by adding shows. The band’s star-crossed economics kicked in yet again. Same gate receipts for twice the number of performances, you do the math. Even so, it was a triumph. NYPD had to deploy crowd control and close off traffic to deal with the crowds -- and this was during the day, in between shows! Imagine how it felt for four Brits weaned on American pop culture. The Clash on Broadway!

For the shows themselves, I was probably too overexcited and overstimulated for the performances to really register. My clearest memories are actually about the warm-up acts. For one of the shows I saw, it was the Slits, with the now-departed Ari Up, and for another, it was proto-rapper Grandmaster Flash with the Treacherous Three. The rappers were greeted with terrible heckling. The Clash were successfully crossing over to get a lot of airplay for their own rap "The Magnificent Seven" (a tick-tock piece about a New York City work day) on the local black station, WBLS. Yet their mostly white fans clearly weren’t very open to rap music themselves. It was the unattractive side of "Welcome to America".

Since the schedule included family-friendly weekend matinees, one of my pairs of tickets was for me and my 12-year-old brother, which makes him a rare member of his generation to have seen the Clash play. The warm-up for that show was a kiddie band, the Brattles, who dressed just like the Clash.

It was only after 25 years of obsessed fanhood that I ran across the perfect explanation of the band's compelling appeal. I belatedly found Lester Bangs' superb essay (reprinted in Antonino D’Ambrosio's collection Let Fury Have the Hour) with this crystalline passage:

There is a mood around the Clash, call it whatever you want, that is positive in a way I have never sensed around almost any other band . . . Something unpretentiously moral, and something both self-affirming and life-affirming.

The fact that the Clash were positive -- stood for something rather than nothing -- was just the surface of the matter. In fact, positivity was an explicit part of the band’s carefully crafted myth. (Every great group has one, and band biographer Marcus Gray explains the Clash's in his Last Gang in Town.) The idea was to draw a sharp contrast with the sneering cynicism of the Sex Pistols. It was also heartfelt. Whenever and however they could, they tried to be personally available to the fans.

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