Narratives 'Clash' in New Bio

While Interesting, the different media of "The Clash" ultimately tell different tales

When I think of The Clash, I think of songs with titles like “Death or Glory,” “Revolution Rock,” and “I’m So Bored with the USA.” I think of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar on the cover of “London Calling.” They’re a hardrocking punk band. It was an odd choice, then, to make this band’s autobiography, “The Clash,” a big pink book. But maybe it’s appropriate. The Clash, after all, were a band that refused to bow to anyone’s expectations about how they should look, act, or sound, and yet much of their legend has been colored by words written by others. Perhaps the pink cover is the band’s way of saying, “This is what really happened.”

“The Clash” contains the band’s own words about their history, from their 1976 formation to their 1984 de facto dissolution, from dodging spit and beer bottles to winning worldwide acclaim and dealing with the drug addictions and personality clashes that caused their break-up. One part photo album and one part interview transcript, “The Clash” brings the reader a vibrant and engaging history of one of punk rock’s most influential and inspiring bands.

Bob Dylan once said, “Most people who write about music, they have no idea what it feels like to play it.” In telling the band’s story in its members’ own words, “The Clash” has inherent advantages over a band biography written by a third party. Joe Strummer and his bandmates are giving their recollections of events in one take—with the same spontaneity that characterized their approach to recording. Consequently, “The Clash” has a sort of directness and intimacy that makes for a compelling read. Frontman Joe Strummer has a natural charisma and penchant for the anthemic that stands out even on the printed page. On his participation in the Notting Hill Riot, Strummer observes, “It’s one thing to say, ‘Burn the cars and burn the ghetto,’ but you try setting a car alight.” Guitarist Mick Jones remarks about music, “Your sound is a reflection of your personality, you’ll always sound like you, no matter who you are. When I play you’re hearing my whole life.” No one could ever say it better.

“The Clash” abounds with memories that are charming, unique, and personal. It is fascinating to observe what the band members remember from their glory days, whether it be the particulars of a quotidian event, meeting James Dean’s barber in New York, or stealing a microphone from the English National Opera. Simonon recalls early criticism of the band: “I remember the stage twinkling because of all the glass from the bottles that had been thrown at us.”

Still, constructing a band biography out of interviews has its pitfalls. Whereas a biography written as a singular narrative has a well thought out pace and flow, interviews have no such inherent rhythm. Regrettably, the interviews in “The Clash,” organized chronologically, do not have very much continuity. One moment the band will be discussing the heroin addiction and subsequent firing of drummer Nick “Topper” Headon and the next they will be discussing the release of one of their singles. Trying to put together a cohesive history of The Clash is rendered difficult.

All the photos don’t help, either. “The Clash” is a scrapbook. The editors compiled photos, collages, set-lists, newspaper clippings, and posters that give the reader a better sense of the world that The Clash arose from. The visual element of “The Clash” gives the band’s story a fullness and color that is hard to convey solely in words.

Each photo creates a narrative of its own. One particularly beautiful photo shows the band refusing to be confined by the turmoil and decay of its environment: there are dilapidated railroad buildings in the background and cloudy skies above, but the Clash will not be dismayed. They stand in the foreground, smiling, smirking, and staring down the camera. Another photo captures the band’s hostility toward authority: the album artwork features crosshairs fixed on a Confederate general commanding his men to charge.

But there are just too many narratives. The visual element of “The Clash” demands a lot of attention and ultimately exacerbates the work’s fundamental flaw—its lack of coherence.

“The Clash” accomplishes what its title implies—providing a look at The Clash from the band members’ perspective. But by relying so heavily on interviews and visuals, the book fails to provide a cohesive history of the band. There is a Clash song called “Death or Glory” which warns young idealists against the risk of becoming boring and irrelevant. From reading the reflections of band on their past, it is clear that, in The Clash’s case, “death or glory” did not become “just another story.” Sadly, “The Clash” isn’t always clear about how that story goes.