Reviews

We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of a Band That Mattered Mark Andersen and Ralph Heibutzki

We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of a Band That Mattered picks up where most Clash histories end: The US Festival, 1983. Financed by Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, The US Festival was a last grasp towards some confused idea of corporate hippie values. The Clash played with a new drummer, having sacked Topper Headon ostensibly over a heroin addiction. Mick Jones, guitarist, and co-founder, who was about to experience a similar fate in a power struggle with Joe Strummer and their on again-off again manager and co-founder, Bernie Rhodes.

Strummer leaned on his microphone and barked at the crowd, “I suppose you don’t want to hear me go on about this and that and what’s up my ass.” He moved off the mic and took on a new persona, “Try this on for size, ‘Well, Hi everybody. Ain’t it groovy. Ain’t you sick of hearing that for the last 150 years.’”

By 1983 the Clash had “broke” in America with two hits off of the Combat Rock album. One had been, largely, played by Topper Headon and the other was written by Mick Jones. In the wake of their departure, Strummer doubled down on the key contradiction of the Clash. “Get the message out to as many people around the world as possible,” as their roadie, The Baker, puts it in the book. “without having that message watered down to puerile pop nonsense.” This was something the Clash hardly succeeded at during their tenure with concerns of hit records under the pressure of a recording company to whom they owed a large amount of debt.

In a sense, a new Clash was formed in the wake of the Jones/Headon departure. Two new guitar players and a new drummer along with the steadfast bassist, Paul Simonon and Strummer taking the lead singer slot. On bootlegs and a collection of early demos, The Clash Mark II emerges as a very solid band, although more like the best Clash tribute band ever than anything else.

It should be noted that before John Mellor became Joe Strummer, he was nicknamed Woody, after Woody Guthrie. That influence of folk music, not just of the Depression Era America but from around the world had a great influence on Strummer. He placed importance more on the integrity of the song’s message than the talent of the songwriter. This idea becomes very real during the Clash’s last tour where they busked in the streets of England with nothing but a few acoustic guitars and a pair of drumsticks (and a few hidden credit cards). As the novelist Tony White wrote at the time, “There were no ads in the music press… no press releases…no publicity campaigns…or photo ops…neither were there tour t-shirts, posters, or merchandise of any kind.”

Meanwhile, Ian McGregor became the director of the National Coal Board, under Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. As the head of British Steel, McGregor has laid off over half of the steelworkers, from 166,000 down to 71,000 jobs. This was just the kind of efficiency that Thatcher sought. “Steel had been, up to that point, one of the pillars of the British economy since the Industrial Revolution,” the two writers point out, “Still there was one commodity that was even more fundamental: coal.” In due course, McGregor began to cut jobs and close coal mines according to a “death list.”

At a conference for the National Union of Mineworkers, their leader, Arthur Scargill, issued a “call to action”: “We can give in and watch social destruction and repression on a truly horrific scale… or we can fight back.” So it was that the miners went on strike for over two years. A number of mines on the death list never reopened and most of the miners never went back to work.

The back and forth writing takes the reader from the Clash Mark II story to Thatcher, McGregor, and the miners, to Reagan’s policies in America and in a larger sense, the Cold War. The Clash as the centerpiece, with a macroscopic few of global politic, mirrored by the struggles inside the Clash and their management, and the microscopic with Joe Strummer’s own internal struggle.

The writers, Mark Andersen, and Ralph Heibutzki are an interesting pair. They have been “Archiving clippings and puzzling over unanswered questions,” since hearing of the band’s breakup in 1986. Andersen, as the reader may know, is a luminary of the DC scene he co-founded Positive Force during Revolution Summer and later detailed this period in a book: Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. More recently he has co-founded We Are Family DC which, according to their website, “mobilizes a committed corps of volunteers to reach out to isolated inner-city seniors with free services, advocacy, and companionship.” Andersen also interviewed Joe Strummer in 1989 about Clash Mark II and this book is the first time any of that material has been used.

Heibutzki is a musician and writer from Michigan who has written for DISCoveries and Goldmine. The afterword states he was one of the first journalists to interview the three new members of Clash Mark II. This is his second book after The Life and Times of Danny Gatton.

I imagine it’s no mistake that Andersen/Heibutzki wrote this book now, in an era of post-“neo-liberal”/”neo-conservative” politics in America and the disaster of Brexit in England. The shadows of Thatcher, Reagan, and The Cold War are cast all too close to our feet. With that in mind, and this might be beating a dead horse, but our current president and Reagan used the same campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

The Clash may have not been the best example of integrity in the music world with their careerist opportunism but their message of hope and possibility, cribbed from Reggae and Soul music, is all too important, and borrowing Nixon’s re-election slogan, “Now more than ever.”