Never Felt So Much Alive

MARCUS GRAY: ROUTE 19 REVISITED: THE CLASH AND LONDON CALLING (SOFT SKULL PRESS)

Ten years and 11 months passed between the Beatles’ famed final concert on the roof of the Apple Records building and the release of the Clash’s double album London Calling, the titular opening track of which found Joe Strummer rasping “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.”It’s a fool’s game to compare a band to the Beatles; on iconic standing alone no one else will measure up. But the Clash invited the comparison—even asked for it. The pronouncement couldn’t have been more punk: a rebel spin on the commandment against worshiping false idols while at the same time claiming the top of the heap. There’s only one reason to kill a king, and that’s to take his crown.

Photo by Stephen Joyce.

The king of rock ’n’ roll himself died two years and four months before London Calling’s release, and, appropriately, the record’s jacket featured a typographical design lifted directly off one of Elvis Presley’s records. Affixed to the outside of the album, at least in the States, was a sticker proclaiming the Clash “the Only Band that Matters.” That bit of sloganeering was more likely the work of Epic Records than the band itself, but nevertheless battle lines were being drawn.

And with said lines drawn, it’s fair game to follow them a bit further. Like John Lennon, Strummer adopted the stance of a working-class hero, a rhythm guitarist associated with reinventing popular music, but a rock ’n’ roller at heart who died before he got old. Lennon had a more musically proficient melodicist at his side in Paul McCartney, and Strummer had the same in Mick Jones. And if the Beatles were so big that it made besting them impossible, the Clash are one of a handful of bands on that second rung of lasting influence. For what the Clash, and in no small part Strummer (along with band manager Bernie Rhodes) did was take the explosive energy of 1976 punk and add an agenda. The anger was already there, but they gave it direction and then got it on the radio. For better or worse, if the Clash hadn’t made the Top 40, Green Day wouldn’t be on Broadway today.

London Calling is the band’s midpoint pinnacle, their tertiary and antepenultimate offering as a working unit, and their lasting contribution to rock ’n’ roll. It is also the subject of Marcus Gray’s Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling. There’s no shortage of histories of Strummer, Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon, and this isn’t even Gray’s first: He also penned The Clash: The Return of the Last Gang in Town (first published in 1995, with 2001 and 2004 revisions). But in Route 19, Gray is trying his hand at a recent trend in rock iconification by doing not the band bio but the record bio—the field of albumology spearheaded in no small part by Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. Gray takes a sweeping 528 pages to tell the story—dedicating 175 pages to getting there and another 120 to ramping down again—which makes it an excellent first read on the band but an exhaustive (for better and worse) supplement.

Despite his obvious devotion to the band, Gray doesn’t pull punches and is willing to use such phrases as “creatively bankrupt for a year.” And while his persistence makes it easy to imagine him dominating bar conversations, he still keeps the text moving quickly. Side-trips like his efforts to uncover the truth about the relationship between Simonon and temporary manager Caroline Coon or to discover when exactly Strummer read a biography of Montgomery Clift are thankfully kept quick and breezy.

The side-trips make for a variety of brief history lessons (from British radio to Bo Diddley and songs that instruct the listener to “stand by” someone), but there are two characters in the book who get rare and well-deserved turns in the spotlight. Topper Headon—who wasn’t an original band member, and whose drug use towards the end clouded his contributions—was a talented jobbing drummer. He was the one who could fill out the group’s aspirations for reggae, dance hall, shuffle, or whatever musical form they decided to take on. He wasn’t a songwriter, but he was able to craft the songs into whatever Strummer and Jones wanted them to be, and Gray gives him his due.

But Gray also performs a service to rock history in his portrayal of producer Guy Stevens, who at first glance would seem to have represented everything punk was against. The volatile industry man had worked with ’70s dinosaurs Free and Spooky Tooth, and was instrumental in the creation of Procol Harum and Mott the Hoople. It was likely that last association that appealed to Strummer and Jones, who had won the right to name their producer in their record contract. Stevens spent most of the recordings drunk or absent, but the band credits his manic behavior—throwing chairs, yelling at the band while they played, and generally upping the energy level—as being responsible for the energy on the basic tracks. The band retained his credit as producer even though he didn’t see the album through. It turned out to be Stevens’s last production job. He died in 1981 at age 38; Strummer and Jones later wrote the song “Midnight to Stevens” (which showed up on the Clash on Broadway box set) in his memory.

Sadly, the Clash faded away rather than going out in a burst of flames: Headon was fired for drug use, egos ate away at Jones and Strummer’s relationship, and, after a new lineup of the band, with Strummer as the sole original member, the Clash just disappeared. In a similar manner, Gray’s book kind of just peters out. After seeing the reader through the two albums that followed London Calling, Gray spends time spinning his wheels about placement on critics’ polls, covers and tribute albums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and other populist strategies for propping up the past. Unlike the band, London Calling had a great closing tune and final chapter: Jones’s last-minute inclusion, “Train in Vain,” was tacked on to side four too late for its name to even make it to the cover or label, but it went on to be the band’s first big hit. Despite a lackluster finale, the 250 pages Gray devotes to the album itself make for quite a book.

 

Contributor

Kurt Gottschalk

KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.

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