I fell down a Clash rabbit hole in the Oxfam used book store on Byres road in Glasgow last fall. I came across Pat Gilbert’s Passion is a Fashion, which details “The Real Story of the Clash” over almost 400 pages. A sucker for almost any music documentary or biography, I was eager to dig into the history of the icons of my youth. I’ve been stuck in Clash heavy rotation ever since.
Like many in the genre, Gilbert’s mining through the minutiae of recording contracts and studio sessions may only be for the true aficionado — but his telling of the story of the Clash is eminently readable. Perhaps the most lasting impression is just how young the band was at the time they recorded their greatest work — and how naive they were about the commercial industry that tried to shape them, ultimately contributing to their dissolution and demise.
Like many other bands from the independent side of popular music at that time, the Clash were often pushing against the corporate music machine, usually to their own detriment. Not punk enough for the purists, the Clash are often now reduced to a hit single on 80s compilations for others. An intentionally constructed band of sorts — like the Sex Pistols, Menudo, or the Spice Girls — the Clash evolved into an organic force that eventually imploded under Topper Headon’s drug use, poor financial decisions, major label directives and the misdirected Svengali-ism of their handlers. Along the way, they managed to bend the trajectory of squatter punk into mainstream lionization. Their most compelling legacy was perhaps their open-minded willingness to incorporate other genres into their sound, as evidenced by the post-Clash projects of Jones, Strummer and Simonen. In some ways, yet another in the long line of white acts appropriating elements of Black music –Elvis, the Stones, Them, Beastie Boys, Macklemore; today, the Clash may be accused of cultural appropriation. At the time, though, they shifted the conversation, leading their fans where otherwise they may never have ventured.
Subsequently watching Don Letts’ excellent Westway to the World, I was struck by how young the band was in their height — the interviews show their regret as they look back and realize their lack of perspective in the midst of the turmoil of their most creative years. The film is also a helpful reminder of the visual element of the band — their intentional focus on clothing as an echo of their musical output, their lanky electricity onstage — the early amphetaminized perpetual motion evolving into the later spliffy inclusiveness of their music and presence.
It’s hardly original to write a piece rhapsodizing about the Clash, but in reflecting on them, I’m perhaps less concerned about their place in history and more intrigued by their role in a personal manner. In these days of image overload, where you can thumb through thousands of instagram uploads a day, it’s hard to explain now how limited the visual aspect was for a kid in a small town. In those early MTV days, we’d have to wait till 120 Minutes came on to see a video by an Alternative Band. Even Rock the Casbah, which was on more frequent rotation, was a diamond in the rough, rare amid the hairsprayed glam metal bands and top 40 pop acts. Even now, when watching that video, the gap in Paul Simonen’s teeth still gets me — as does Strummer’s mohawk and not to mention his Doc Marten shuffle in the sand. Reading in Gilbert’s book, we learn that Mick Jones’ hidden face in the video was not by design, but rather the result of a snit that day, leading him to avoid full participation in the video. Funny how a bad mood could be forever immortalized, as yet another instance of Cool for the preteens staying up late to watch MTV without parental supervision.
I can’t even tell you if the Clash songs are any good — they are so ingrained in my own development that I could hardly be an impartial judge. It’s easy to be nostalgic about the songs, through which we define ourselves during our early identity formation. Looking back at the Clash through the lens of the ensuing years, however, it’s clear they set a remarkable precedent and, perhaps more poignantly, left a sense of potential not fully manifested, especially with the early death of Joe Strummer. Gilbert’s Passion is a Fashion and Lett’s Westway to the World are two crucial documents of the Clash. I welcome you to join me down the rabbit hole.