‘The Clash on the Clash’ Is a Smorgasbord of Contradictions

I figured, in the case of the Clash, there were no new tales to tell. Sean Egan's The Clash on The Clash, however, offers a compelling counter-argument.

In September 1983, completely against character, Clash founder and guitarist Mick Jones showed up for rehearsal on time, only to be sacked by Joe Strummer, with a nod of assent from Paul Simonon. The drama and hilarity that preceded this end-of-an-era incident is well-documented: see Pat Gilbert’s Passion Is a Fashion (2004), Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer (2006), the exhaustive work of Marcus Gray, two dozen titles by Clash-de-campers and fanatics alike, and no fewer than two oral histories.

I figured, in the case of The Clash, there were no new tales to tell. Sean Egan’s The Clash on The Clash, however, offers a compelling counter-argument. Clash devotees and guttersnipes of all stripes will enjoy this fine curation of Clash articles, as well as Egan’s own interviews with Strummer, Jones, Topper Headon, and original members Keith Levene and Terry Chimes.

The Clash on The Clash opens with selections from Egan’s 2000 interview with Strummer, and his 2007 interview with Jones and Tony James, bandmates from London SS (1975-76) and Carbon/Silicon (2002-2013). The Strummer interview is split between the beginning and the end of the collection, and lends a sense of chronology to the affair. In all of his interviews, it’s clear Egan’s done his homework. In “Joe Strummer: Before”, our protagonist’s at ease talking about life before The Clash and learning guitar while in his 20s, contrasting “Eric Clapton and all that wiggly-wiggly-woo” to his own inclination “to treat the guitar as if it’s one string. I can hit it, but that’s kind of it.”

Jones and James reflect, in turn, upon the pains of being punk at heart in 1974: “In those days, you couldn’t even go and buy a pair of sunglasses or a leather jacket … let alone find musicians who liked that same kind of music.” Here Jones adds a new twist to the Clash story, claiming Bernie Rhodes lobbied to drop the name London SS for “Schoolgirl’s Undies”, and to make Chrissie Hynde the cross-dressing lead singer. (Google that moniker at your own peril.)

The other writers here include the finest England had to offer (Caroline Coon, Tony Parsons, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray), and some witty Yanks, too (Lester Bangs, Susan Whitall, Lenny Kaye). Seven pieces cover the excitement from 1976 through 1978, and confirm why the marketing folks at Epic Records deemed The Clash “the only English band that matters”. (Cheap Trick, also on Epic, were “the only American band that matters”.) It’s great to see the context for band members’ legendary quips, including “Like trousers, like brain!” (Strummer) and “I don’t like [the 101ers] … but we think you’re great!” (Jones to Strummer). It’s also sweet to review the earnestness of writers like Kris Needs, who had good company in his Clash-induced reverie: “I can’t think about [The Clash LP] for more than a minute without feeling like I’m going to explode (let alone write about it!).”

For many UK scribes, that affection expired with the November 1978 release of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, with many wondering either why The Clash recorded a rock record, or what happened to being “bored with the U.S.A.” Mercifully, selections by Kent, Murray, and Mick Farren steer clear of this trap. In Paul Rambali’s “Clash Credibility Rule!” (NME, October 1980), in his conversation with Jones, the two reflect critically upon the myth of the band — a.k.a. “The Clash book of Rebel Poses”. This “book” clearly weighed upon the band and select journalists alike.

It’s possible, I figure, that less sympathetic “journos” missed Strummer’s declarative plea to the readers of Rolling Stone in 1978:

“We’ve got loads of contradictions for you … we’re trying to do something new; we’re trying to be the greatest group in the world, and that also means the biggest. At the same time, we’re trying to be radical — I mean, we never want to be really respectable — and maybe the two can’t coexist, but we’ll try.”

Critic Robert Christgau — whose work on The Clash might have also been included here — explained it to me this way a few years back:

“If anybody wanted to talk to me about The Clash’s being poseurs and that they didn’t mean it, and that they weren’t, well, [Marxist theorist Louis] Althusser [laughs], I just think that’s so asinine that it’s beneath contempt. These are rock’n’roll performers, not political science professors.”

Egan seems underwhelmed by this distinction. In the book’s introduction, he surveys the band’s idealistic promises before turning to “all the covenants about refusal to compromise and art-over-commerce made implicit by their confrontational image and defiant songwords.” Egan reprises this theme in the editor comments that accompany each chapter: “The band that had once professed themselves so bored with the U.S.A. seemed to spending a lot of time there … songs they wrote about other countries such as ‘The Call Up’ and ‘Washington Bullets’ had an air of irrelevance [for] UK council-estate youth.”

Two points may be useful as corrective measures. First, The Clash were rightful heirs to the Situationist International. Second, after 1980, The Clash needed England less than England needed The Clash.

Still, if this article were a review of Sandinista!, I wouldn’t waste many keystrokes on throwaway tracks such as “One More Dub” or “Mensforth Hill.” The Clash on The Clash offers readers a smart sample of some of the finest writing about one of the greatest rock bands ever. If The Clash couldn’t resolve the contradictory nexus of art, commerce, and politics, it wasn’t for lack of effort. Few bands with even a hint of their popularity made an effort more nobel.

Randal Doane is the author of Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash (PM Press, 2014).

RATING 9 / 10