By Mark Anderson and Ralph Heibutzki. 374 pg.
I’m ambivalent about The Clash. They have some good songs, and I feel like they’re a band I should be crazy about, but their sloganeering leaves me empty. Plus, it’s 2018 and I still can’t get through Sandinista!
We Are The Clash chronicles the band’s final chapters: longtime drummer Topper Headon gets kicked out for substance abuse problems in 1983 right before The Clash play Steve Wozniak’s US Festival for a cool half million dollars (exactly half of what Van Halen makes the next day). The show is the last one for Mick Jones, who is summarily booted after the show and replaced with two new guitarists, ostensibly so Strummer, who’s not much of a player, can be an unencumbered frontman. Jones’s ousting coincides with longtime manager Bernie Rhodes becoming an even more McLaren-esque presence, calling the shots in the studio as the now five-piece Clash 2.0 struggles to deliver a follow up to Combat Rock, the group’s most commercially successful record. To that end, Rhodes tyrannically dictates the band’s songwriting, and enlists a bunch of ringers to play on Cut the Crap, the hot mess of an album producer Michael Fanye infused with bloopy canned beats. (I went back and listened to the record for the first time in more than ten years. It’s still awful.)
Despite the presence of two authors on the cover, I’m assuming it’s Anderson who writes mostly about The Clash because of his previous work, the excellent DC-centric Dance of Days. There’s little objectivity in his delivery, as he describes, in sometimes purple prose, the new songs and performances the revamped band runs through. On the flip side of the coin, I assume it’s mostly Heibutzki who writes about the socioeconomics of the times: Margaret Thatcher, still stinging from a series of defeats at the hands of the Labour party years earlier, goes all-out in her offensive on British coal miners, who strike in protest. On this side of the pond, Reagan is elected and nearly goads the Soviet Union into war.
I might be wrong about the roles I’ve assigned the dual authors. Regardless, the biggest failing of the book is the tenuous relation of the aforementioned socioeconomics to the story of the band: often, the political stories seem to run parallel to The Clash, with no real connection. Granted, this makes the occasional intersections powerful: the realization that The Clash, champions of the people, don’t play a benefit for the miners until very late in their struggle was a shocking one. Still, a ton of time is spent on these topics, especially on the miners’ strike—more connection would have helped the book feel cohesive.
But somehow that lack of cohesion kinda worked. It’s Joe Strummer who’s at the core of this book, trying like hell to write new songs, realizing he’s cut off a limb by booting Mick Jones, and living with the pressure of being the titular figurehead of a group whose power has waned drastically. There’s a palpable feeling of dread and foreboding throughout We Are The Clash as the band prepares to deliver the crap (sorry) which will fall into the CBS Records punchbowl. Give it up for the authors: they make me feel bad for Strummer as he disappears to Granada. And the book’s great triumph is its depiction of The Clash’s busking tour: the five go on the road with no money and play their songs acoustic around England for seventeen days. This sounds like the corny last resort of a band trying too hard—and the authors’ comparing Strummer to Jesus adds to this—but I got online and listened to some of the audience tapes of the busking, and they kinda rule. In fact, a lot of the live stuff of the era is pretty good.
So for all my ambivalence about the band, all my skepticism about their motives and perceived poses, We Are The Clash made me re-immerse myself in the group’s work, and made me reconsider them. Joe Strummer is depicted as deeply flawed, sincere, and, most of all, deeply human. It’s that humanity—and the enthusiasm of the authors—which courses through the book, and made me consider and reconsider the band, despite my own skepticism. Which is something. –Michael T. Fournier (Akashic, akashicbooks.com)