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The Clash by David Quantick [Book Review]

Jul. 25, 2003 5:52 am


I must admit I was initially taken aback when I saw the size of this book – compact, yet very nicely presented, and consisting of a mere 131 pages (136 if you count the index). How can one person analyze The Only Band That Matters in such an abbreviated space? After all, "The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town," Marcus Gray’s authoritative tome, is a whopping 426-page encyclopedia on the band with excruciatingly small type, no less! Well, David Quantick’s "The Clash" may be short, but it packs a big punch and is highly informative.

Part of the Kill Your Idols series, "The Clash" is divided into three sections: “The Story,” “The Music,” and “The Legacy.” “The Story” section, as it’s name implies, explains the band, how the members got together, contains brief biographies of “the essential Clash” – Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon, involvement of manager Bernie Rhodes, recording, the sacking of Jones, and the second installment of the Clash, which only featured two of the original members (Strummer and Simonon). At only forty-one pages, this history is quite concise and includes all the basics you really need to know. The aforementioned bios are about a page each, although poor Paul Simonon is allotted a measly paragraph. Anyway, the band’s major milestones are noted, as well as many of the events that have culminated in the Clash Myth, a legend of epic proportions, which with time and nostalgia has only grown larger. For example, Quantick talks about the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, which Strummer and Simonon attended that inspired Strummer to pen the fiery “White Riot;” how some of the band members were arrested for shooting at pigeons (which unbeknownst to these punks were actually a neighbor’s racing pigeons) while on their rehearsal roof, presumably an influence for “Guns on the Roof;” and their unheard of sixteen shows-in-a-row stint in New York in 1981 because the original small amount of shows were oversold. In any case, this section isn’t nearly as detailed as Gray’s unsurpassed and deeply revealing account. It’s not even until around page 110 in that book that the Clash is finally formed! But, once again, it cannot be stressed enough that Quantick’s work is an accurate, albeit abridged, version for those readers who want the facts about the band and the career, not an in-depth look at the (sometimes trifling) events leading up to its formation.

What "The Clash" is great for is its comprehensive critique of the band’s catalogue. Quantick really dissects their work brilliantly, therefore proving he has immense knowledge of the band and the music. He starts by analyzing their five LPs, plus the US version of "The Clash," replete with each album’s rank in the charts, producers, year of release, and just a great overall commentary on the records as a whole, as well as breaking them down song-by-song. And Quantick, the cheeky, often humorous and sarcastic writer he is, isn’t afraid to share his brutally honest opinions, either when stating how exceptional a certain song or record is: “London Calling" just stands there and says proudly, ‘I am a great album,’” and that it “is such a perfect blend of the best of their work, it could have been subtitled ‘Everything You Wanted To Know About The Clash But Were Too Scared To Ask,’” or when the band is at a low point: “Musically, "Combat Rock" is a couple of superb tracks resting in a thick grim gravy of dullness.” About their often vilified sophomore LP, he boldly says, “They should have put out ‘Safe European Home’ with ‘Stay Free’ on the B-side and then burned the master tapes of 'Give ‘Em Enough Rope.'” Ouch!

The extremely thorough discography also includes a look at the Clash’s vast array of singles, as Quantick describes them with great detail, giving us the behind-the-scenes stories like how “Complete Control,” their third 7”, was an incendiary response to their second single, “Remote Control,” being released by CBS. They didn’t want this song released because it was a track off their s/t debut album. And this was only the beginning of their troubles with CBS and Epic in America, which are related in this book. Quantick also comments on the numerous compilations and (sub-par) tributes that have come out over the years as well as material from the individuals, such as records from Strummer’s pre-Clash band the 101’ers, Jones’ outfit after the Clash – Big Audio Dynamite, Simonon’s one failed album, drummer Topper Headon’s forays into the studio, and Strummer’s work on movie soundtracks and most recently with the Mescaleros, to name a few.

During the final part of the book, Quantick looks at the Clash’s enduring legacy, and it is immense, from influencing innumerable bands, being the first full-on rock band to have a decidedly political edge, and that they just brought so many different musical genres into their sound – punk, rockabilly, reggae, rap, dub, rock ‘n’ roll…the list goes on and on. But what the author feels is their greatest influence, is thought. Just look at their lyrics on any record. This was an extremely politically and socially aware band. But, at the same time, he shows us how they were a band of contradictions as well. They sang “I’m So Bored with the USA,” when they actually were in love with all things Americana and would have their greatest success across the Atlantic. Also, they stood as the people’s band with a serious agenda: “The Clash were taken on face value as honest, committed radicals who wanted to change the world,” and that you could trust, but they lied about their backgrounds and reinvented their pasts. Moreover, in punks’ eyes they committed blasphemy when they signed with CBS for a great sum of money – 100,000 pounds – for punk was about NOT selling out and a movement for the lower classes. However, none of this matters now, for the Clash changed rock ‘n’ roll and the band’s influence reaches much further than the musical world, and that’s a feat not too many bands can claim.

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