Book Review: The Clash got politics, then art

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David Marx
Campus News

The best book ever written on The Clash has to have been “The Last Gang In Town” (1997) by Marcus Gray; a writer whose all round musical insight, passion for and knowledge of the band, lends just as much to the trajectory of their high-octane, colourful gravitas, as they themselves. That the band’s reputation remains as ideologically intact as it does intangibly idiosyncratic is surely down to Gray’s most qualified of literary missives. So when I heard the author was assembling a book that was to primarily focus on the recording of “London Calling” – unquestionably the band’s finest album – my curiosity was more than merely piqued beyond aberration.
Clocking in at 493 pages, this veritable tomb of Clash induced knowledge is a precision account of a great band recording a great album.  In fact, “Route 19 Revisited – The Clash and London Calling” might be considered something of a precision account of the band as a whole. Along with biographical assimilations on all four members of the band and their on-off-on periapt manager, Bernie Rhodes, there are also references to the political climate of the day, upon which the latter was most forthright and influential (especially regarding the band’s formative years of 1976/77).
In the chapter, “From The World’s End…” Gray states  “The Clash members were not politically minded before they took up with Bernie. London’s underground scene had influenced Mick’s thinking, but he had always considered himself to be ‘of the left’ without getting actively involved […].  Paul’s father had embraced Communism by the early seventies, and made his son deliver leaflets, but it didn’t rub off […].  Joe would later claim that he himself had been politicised by his forceful evictions in the early Seventies.  He did drop out of society at that time, but it was because he didn’t want to work (and possibly because he was clinically depressed following the death of his brother).’’
Suffice to say, Gray covers considerable canvas by way of further delving into the band’s history; a history, which, depending on your viewpoint, injects a wide gaping whole of ambiguity into the proceedings.  For the above being the case, one wonders to what (varying) degree the revolutionary rhetoric within The Clash, was, of pristine and paramount importance.
As the author continues to make clear, “The Clash of London Calling” would not have been permissible without The Clash of their debut album, which in turn, would not have been possible without the aforementioned influence of Bernie Rhodes: ‘’It was Bernie who took and shaped this rough clay into the intensely political and pro-active Clash. His success in communicating his theories to the songwriting members of the band, most importantly chief lyricist Joe Strummer, goes some way to explaining such first-album songs as ‘Remote Control’ and ‘Hate & War.’  The sense of not only living a life with no values, but also a life not valued by society – and with no prospect of change for the better.’’
With such clarity of light shed upon the early stages of The Clash, by the time one reaches the book’s prime chapter “Across The Tracks,” it’s a forgone conclusion that the track by track analysis is going to be something of an informative and consistent marvel; not to mention supremely iconic — which, to all intents and purposes, “London Calling” most definitely is.
Just as one has to (patiently) look far and wide before stumbling upon the organic head charge of said album, so too, does one have to search high and low before coming across another superlative rock’n’roll dissertation such as “Route 19 Revisited.”
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