Review: Route 19 Revisited

Marcus Gray, Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, Soft Skull Press

If Marcus Gray had never written another word about the Clash after his Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash (1996), he would nonetheless have already proved an important point: it is quite possible to write an excellent band biography without speaking directly to any of the participants. In the 500-odd pages of Last Gang, Gray minutely dissected the band’s history, basing his work on interviews with band confidants and an encyclopedic knowledge of the interview and documentary literature surrounding them.

In his most recent book, Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, Gray continues his productive fascination with band. In taking on London Calling, Gray immerses himself in the most productive era of the band’s history, but also the most challenging that they had faced to that point. Having recently parted ways with their Fagan-like creator Bernie Rhodes and in the wake of the lukewarm critical and popular reception of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the Clash were at a nexus point in their development in early 1979.

This was a crucial time in the 1970s English punk “movement” of which they had been one of the originators. Their career to this point had highlighted many of the contradictions with which punk was riven, not the least of which was the relationship between music and politics. Their fellow originators, the Sex Pistols, had been something of an art project. As conceived of by Malcolm McClaren, the premise of the Pistols was to reconfigure the normally pleasant and engaging form of rock and roll, transforming it into something jarring and unpleasant. That art that was created was a combination of the music being made on stage and the audiences (often quite shocked) reaction.

The Clash were much more of a normal rock band, although of a much rawer and more primal kind than was generally found in late 1970s rock culture, dominated by self indulgent art rock of the likes of Pink Floyd and Yes. The Sex Pistols stripped rock and roll down to its most basic components, to a great extent because this was all they were technically capable of playing. The Clash, by contrast, were much more proficient musicians, and this allowed them to integrate a greater range of the traditional rock culture into their music than the Pistols were ever able to do. Moreover, unlike the Pistols, who imploded spectacularly during their ill-fated US tour in 1978, the Clash were a continuing project, which raised questions for them that had never been raised for the Pistols. The Clash had a more thoughtful relationship to actual politics, and as things progressed, it became clear that it was not immediately obvious how to reconcile their political views with their life in the music business.

The members of the Clash embraced a more or less amorphous leftist politics, fused to the anti-establishment rhetoric of the London punk scene. That said, it was also true that the success condition for the Clash was much the same as it had been for a band like Mott the Hoople: sign a record contract and make a good living from playing music. As became clear to the band members in the course of 1978, pursuing these two imperatives led to contradictions. In Westway to the World, Paul Simonon related a conversation he had with Joe Strummer after the band had signed a record deal with CBS and received a £100,000 advance. “I remember for days after, me and Joe walking up the street and deliberating over the content of the songs. Like, ‘well, we can’t sing about career opportunities anymore, because we’ve now got some cash.'”

And, of course, the contradictions were not only economic. Having put out two records which, apart from a few deviant cuts, conformed closely to narrow punk artistic orthodoxy, the question remained as to what they could do from a standing start, producing all new music for a third release. To the extent that an overarching approach can be attributed to UK punk in the 1970s, it was a sort of determination to move forward by looking backward; to renovate rock music by stripping it down to its essential elements. By the end of the 1970s, this was beginning to change. A new wave of bands had arisen, not bound by the orthodoxy of the earlier punk style, from Joy Division’s dark energy to the stripped down amphetamine funk of the Gang of Four. Something of the band’s mindset in this project can be gleaned from the fact that one title that was kicked around in the early stages was The Last Testament.

The Clash were in a rather different position than the newer bands. They were sort of the flagship of the movement, such as it was, and they were under more scrutiny. When the Clash signed a contract with CBS in January 1977, Mark P., wrote in in Sniffin’ Glue that that was the day the punk died. The record that the Clash produced over the course of the 1979, which has come to occupy the status of a rock masterpiece, was a fascinating artifact of the times. The writing and recording of London Calling is the story of the Clash exploring the music that had shaped them and fighting to fit it into the expectations of their fans and of the public at large.

It is the story of these struggles, and of the triumph that arose from them, that Gray seeks to relate in Route 19 Revisited. Having already written one of the most extensive books ever published about the Clash, the amount of new material present by Gray is quite impressive. He does rehearse many of the important facts and anecdotes that he had used in the earlier book, but this is done mostly for the benefit of people less familiar with the Clash’s history, and provides an excellent backdrop for the main sections of the book. As in the case of Last Gang in Town, one of the great strength’s of Gray’s presentation is his extremely minute analyses of the band’s songs and lyrics. In Route 19 Revisited, Gray devotes a chapter running over 200 pages to painstaking examinations of each individual cut on the album. The results can be a little bit mixed. The twenty pages devoted to “London Calling” are fascinating, treating everything from the cultural origins of the lyric to the chord structure of the tune, are very much apposite. On the other hand, the section devoted to “Death or Glory,” which is only slightly shorter, seems to get a little caught up in excess detail.

The tone and content of Gray’s analysis is consistent with that of his earlier Clash book. One reviewer described Last Gang as “hopelessly rambling and combative,” and there is an extent to which this is a fair cop. Gray’s account is extensive to the point of pedantry.  He relies heavily on reviews and articles in from the British music press which, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt. He is no hagiographer.  He is more than willing to call the band when they say things that or silly, or contradictory. Often in Last Gang, he criticized the band for pretending to be things that they were not, and his criticisms in this light are sometimes a bit obtuse. Clearly, as the son of a foreign office civil servant with a public school education, Joe Strummer was not in the same position with regard to career opportunities as many others further down the social ladder were in Great Britain in the late 1970s. On the other hand, one reason that the Clash’s music found such resonance was that they were singing about a situation that did affect a lot of people. The fact that it was not exactly true for them does not change the fact that they were saying something true. Route 19 contains some of this “debunking,” but generally Gray shows a reasonable degree of sympathy to the band’s position as well-meaning individuals struggling to come to terms with their political and social environment.

Route 19 Revisited is definitely a book for the Clash obsessed among you. Those with a more fleeting interest will probably be overwhelmed by Gray’s determinate to relate every fact that he ever collected about the band in the course of the book. On the other hand, for those with the requisite level of interest this book will provide a lot of enjoyment.

Magadh

One Response to “Review: Route 19 Revisited”

  1. Excellent analysis re the differences between the Clash and the Pistols. The criticism of the Clash for representing something they were not reminds me of the similar criticism of NWA, who with the exception of Eric Wright were not ghetto hard men but kids from pretty good, though by no means affluent, homes who managed to capture the heart of what was happening around them.

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