|The Gang's All Here|
Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash
book review by Greg Wahl
"Roots Radicals: Punk and the Imagery of Nostalgia"
Punk has always been full of shit. Not to say that punk music and culture can't be great, because this is precisely why it has produced some of the most vibrant Western culture of the late twentieth century. Take the Clash, for example--their sprawling pseudo-rebel and "trash reggae" career set about to change the way the average Western consumer thinks about culture and music.
For the eight or so years of their career, the band arrogantly pounded countless ramifications of punk into our consciousness, from a broadened and heightened attention to the construction of race to the assertion of style as subversive politics. Only kids who really thought they could change the world with haircuts and guitars could have gotten away with it.
As the realization has settled in over the last decade that punk's influence has remained very much un-dead, scholars and journalists have embarked upon a relentless campaign to historicize the importance of the short-lived movement. The most notable of these efforts--Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard UP, 1989), Jon Savage's England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond (St. Martin's, 1992), and Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove, 1996), span a combined 1,522 pages. Please Kill Me is the shortest at 407. Although living up to the historical breadth and thoroughness their ambitious titles suggest, these books spend a great deal of time celebrating the spirit of punk, even as they attempt a level-headed assessment of what "really" happened.
Now Marcus Gray enters the encyclopedia contest with an account of punk just as long and even more vehemently historical, The Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of The Clash. But where Marcus, Savage, and McNeil and McCain at times favor the myth surrounding the movement, Gray kicks it apart like a drum kit at the end of a drunken gig. The author's concern in this unauthorized (and therefore, he asserts, more balanced) history is a debunking of what he refers to throughout as The Clash Myth. As resources, Gray has put to use seemingly every possible interview, review, account, and historical trace left by the members of the Clash, not just from their time in the band, but from birth. It is heartening, I suppose, to see tedious civic records such as voting registers put to use on something other than a traditionally "historical" subject. However, the copious facts in the volume may lead even the most obsessed punk or Clash fan to wonder whether it's really important that Mick's grandmother changed residence on this or that date, or whether it was beer or wine producer Guy Stevens poured into the grand piano during the recording of London Calling. Similarly, some may feel that the gleeful power of a Clash song is affected not one whit by the knowledge that it was written on a particular bus on a certain date. More broadly, it doesn't give music consumers much credit to assume that, unless told, we won't be suspicious of the common and uncomplicated rock'n'roll claim that a band's members are tough kids fresh from the streets.
In order to debunk this and other myths, the influence and inspiration behind virtually every piece of music ever produced by the band is discussed in Last Gang and cross-checked with Clash-camp PR; such objectivity is no way to get at or around the brilliantly spontaneous feel of many a Strummer/Jones composition. In light of this methodology, it may not be the churlish protection of their Myth that the former members of the band imply in refusing to work much with Gray on the project (he recounts the cold shoulders in detail), but their boredom at the prospect of thinking about the everyday minutia of their lives together twenty years ago.
One has to admit, though, that this obsessive-compulsive narrative reconstruction of the "all the stuff and more" punk story is very much a part of latter-day punk fandom. It's tiring, sure, but to a punk fan, so is Greil Marcus's intellectual and philosophical journey from the Sex Pistols to the whole of the twentieth-century avant-garde. If one knows the Clash's muddy and varied life and work at all, one undoubtedly has questions about particular lyrics or events; they will almost certainly be answered here, possibly from several different angles and perspectives. Thumbing through Last Gang's index while listening to a Clash album can be a remarkably enlightening experience, and if you're willing to slog through all the stuff no one cares about, as much or more of the book will prove entertaining, insightful, and genuinely fresh. For example, it is not probable that very many people know so much about the circumstances, beyond Jones's and Strummer's "creative differences," of the most debated event in Clash history, the band's demise.
In its obsession with getting the story straight, Last Gang is reminiscent of the fierce guardedness of more serious punk 'zines. This rigor would perhaps be nearly as enlightening as it is impressive (because of its reliance on style as meaning, punk is wildly vulnerable to misinterpretation of its politics and ethics) were it not for another 'zine-like quality: Gray's reckless and random tendency to pass judgment on everything and everyone. As a reader and a fan, I don't care if he thinks my favorite Clash song, "Junkie Slip," is a "complete waste of space," I just want a good, and yes, accurate story about it.
Luckily, there's plenty of good stories in The Last Gang in Town, enough to keep the rest of the book from sapping the fun out of many people's favorite band ever. Maybe, too, only Marcus Gray's kind of brash excess can do justice to the Clash, the other British rock'n'roll band full of shit enough to have called itself the greatest in the world. And, what the hell, since we're in the spirit of punk, the one that really was.
Greg Wahl is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland College Park. His record collection attempts to reconstruct those of his friends' big brothers.
Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash by Marcus Gray, A Henry Holt publication, $25.00, hardcover.