We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, And The Last Stand Of A Band That Mattered
By Mark Andersen and Ralph Heibutzki
Akashic Books, Brooklyn NY, available today, July 3, 400 pages, $18.95
The revolutionary rock band The Clash was a paradox of revolutionary conviction, musical ambition, and commercial drive.
We Are The Clash, by Mark Andersen and Ralph Heibutzki, is a gripping tale of the band’s struggle to reinvent itself as George Orwell’s 1984 loomed. This bold campaign crashed headlong into a wall of internal contradictions and rising right-wing power.
While the world teetered on the brink of the nuclear abyss, British miners waged a life-or-death strike and tens of thousands died from United States guns in Central America, Clash cofounders Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, and Bernard Rhodes waged a desperate last stand after ejecting guitarist Mick Jones and drummer Topper Headon. The Clash shattered just as their controversial final album, Cut the Crap, was emerging.
Andersen and Heibutzki write, “The Clash without its politics is a wretched ghost, for its greatness lay in a willingness to push the envelope on all levels. Its music and its message together made it a band that truly mattered, significant in a way few other musical outfits could hope to rival.
“As such, to ignore the intimate connection of the final version of The Clash to its specific moment would be foolhardy. As forces clashed on battlefields both real and metaphorical, a turning point can be glimpsed. In 1984-85, a conservative counterrevolution that had been slowly building for at least a decade broke through. As esteemed literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes, ‘In 1976, a good many people in the West thought Marxism had a reasonable case to argue. By 1986, many of them no longer considered that it had. What exactly had happened in the meanwhile?’
“While Eagleton jokingly floats parenthood as a possible answer, the matter is at once both more simple and more complex. This query will be as crucial as the question of what happened to The Clash; indeed, the two are quite intertwined.
“From this angle, our tale makes much more sense. Jones once summarized his differences with Strummer, Simonon, and Rhodes by noting, ‘I was going, ‘Let’s dance,’ they were going, ‘No, let’s riot!” but while Jones’s subsequent success with Big Audio Dynamite is undeniable, so is the fact that others felt the moment cried out for something more pointed than inventive beats and the artful use of samples.
“This was a time of frightening military buildup, when tens of thousands were slaughtered with US guns in the name of ‘democracy,’ when the Falklands War tipped a nation-altering election. Markets became God, big business shook off the shackles of regulation, and tax rates of the rich and programs for the poor were both slashed while ‘homelessness’ became a new word in the American lexicon. Meanwhile, US workers joined their British compatriots in feeling the pain, despair, and dislocation behind a single consequential word: ‘deindustrialization.’
“If Sex Pistols had warned of ‘no future’ in 1976 with one million unemployed in the UK, how much more grim was 1984 with over three million jobless? With police turned against their own communities, fighting a life-or-death strike with brutality and Orwellian tactics, as the world teetered on the razor’s edge of nuclear destruction? Punk back on the barricades made immense sense in this context, and the final version of The Clash gains immeasurably from that reality.
“The Clash was ascending the ladder of success as all of this drama unfolded. This breakthrough intensified its inherent tension between message and commerce. Is it victory to be playing huge stadiums but losing any real hope of an intimate or energizing connection to an audience? Is it success to have a hit with a catchy but lyrically vacuous song like ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’? To feel the pressures of fame drawing the band further and further into a bubble of unreality that was the antithesis of the Clash punk-populist stance?”
Andersen and Heibutzki weave together extensive archival research and in-depth original interviews with virtually all of the key players involved to tell a moving story of idealism undone by human frailty amid a climatic turning point for the world.
Heibutzki saw The Clash Mark II on May 10, 1984, at Michigan State University. Since he had not witnessed the classic lineup, the backstage drama of Mick Jones’ departure hardly kept him away. If anything, the pro- and anti-Jones debates that played out in the music press spurred him to buy a ticket for the gig at one of the many midsized college venues that were the band’s theater of battle on their “Out of Control” tour – or “campaign,” in Clash speak – that spring.
“Energized by the razor-sharp, heartfelt performance and potent original songs, Heibutzki touted the new Clash to all who would listen and eagerly awaited an album that had the potential to match the raw, jagged brilliance of their first record. When Creem ran an article questioning the new lineup’s promise, Heibutzki did what any diehard Clash fan would: he called the magazine’s Detroit headquarters and spent forty minutes debating with the author, Bill Holdship.
The way for the promised new record took very long, as weeks turned into months into a year, and no album appeared. When Cut the Crap finally did come out, which was a year and a half after Strummer had vowed to “go into the studio and bang it out,” the results initially left Heibutzki confused and disappointed, as it was so distant from his expectations. Despite that, the excitement, passion, and meaning of the 1984 live shows has stayed with him.
In addition, the distance between Strummer’s words and the record’s reality piqued Heibutzki’s curiosity. Several years later, he would become the first writer to seriously excavate that era with a series of articles based on interviews with most of the key figures. With that, an alternative Clash Mark II history emerged from his first foray into punk rock archaeology.
As Heibutzki kept digging deeper, he found a lot to admire, from the combustive intensity of the new material to the band’s reborn political engagement and brash underdog gestures like its busking tour of northern England and Scotland.
Only The Clash, armed with little more than some acoustic guitars and Pete Howard’s drumsticks, would play for free in any available public space without sitting down for a formal press interview, let alone any new record to promote.
One idea runs through everything: the notion, as Joe Strummer repeatedly declared, that the performer onstage is essentially no different and surely no more important than the people in the audience. This credo lies at the core of punk rock, an ethic that Heibutzki took to heart when he soon began taking up the guitar and performing himself.
Those initial treks to London to ferret out the lost history of The Clash formed an essential backdrop to his ventures into folk-punk music, spoken-word performance, and political activism through his involvement in groups like the Hillsdale County Coalition for Peace and Justice.
Those ideals also motivated Heibutzki’s first book, Unfinished Business: The Life and Times of Danny Gatton, and is a driving force in all the projects that he has pursued since then, based on the immortal dictum reportedly handed down by Rhodes at the outset of The Clash’s existence: “Look about your situation, and sing about what really matters.”
Mark Andersen and Ralph Heibutzki’s New York launch of We Are The Clash will be held on Thursday, July 12th at 7:00 pm at WORD Greenpoint, 126 Franklin Street