We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of a Band that Mattered By Mark Anderson, Ralph Heibutzki, 376 pgs.

Sep 26, 2018

The two most universal things anyone with even a passing interest in punk can say is, “I love the Ramones” and, “I love The Clash.” The anarcho bands that came along and made hay criticizing The Clash for selling out probably loved The Clash. Even Johnny Ramone stated The Clash was the only band he thought lived up to the Ramones, and he was on the other (right wing) end of the ideological and political spectrum from progressive firebrand Joe Strummer and company. Across The Clash’s five studio albums from 1977-1983, and various singles and EP’s, there’s something that appeals to nearly any lover of guitar-driven music. And then there’s the little addendum that the band lasted until 1986 and put out an album, Cut the Crap, that no one talks about. These last overlooked years are the meat of this book.

Things pick up at the US Festival in Summer 1983 and move quickly into what could described as The Clash II, when Mick Jones and Topper Headon were replaced by guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard, and drummer Pete Howard. Authors Andersen and Heibutzki pull a lot of their day-to-day and big picture perspective of the band during this period through interviews with the replacement Clash members and archival materials, while crafting a parallel narrative about the resurgent rise of conservatism in the U.S. and U.K. during this time under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

The authors make an effective case for these newer members as committed to soldiering The Clash forward musically and ideologically in the face of this global ideological rightward shift. But they’re continuously thwarted by things outside their control such as an increasingly erratic Joe Strummer who was prone to disappearing and self-medicating with alcohol and weed to cope with possible depression issues, and the dictatorial return of original Clash manager Bernard Rhodes. While Rhodes did probably have a large hand in the initial formation and conception of the band in the 1970s, after Mick Jones left Rhodes became a Svengali-like figure who began to push The Clash as his personal musical vehicle. Rhodes is portrayed as belittling or dismissing both the new and old member’s ideas, and largely crafting the conceptually interesting but musically weak Cut the Crap LP on his own. Despite these obstacles, the newer members contributed to The Clash for nearly three years, and culminated in a back-to-basics busking tour of England undertaken by the five members with no outside support or planning during a period when The Clash name alone could sell out large venues.

The history of The Clash traditionally ends with the firings of Topper Headon and Mick Jones. We Are The Clash instead stakes its claim on the overlooked last three years and mines a surprisingly robust history for rise of neo-conservatism but waning of The Clash.

–Adrian Salas (Akashic, Akashicbooks.com)