White riot

Years after their dissolution, the Clash rage anew on film, on record, and in books.

WHEN JOE STRUMMER brought his latest band, the Mescaleros, to Seattle in early November, he was careful to warn the hardcore types in the audience before launching into any “mushy” songs from his new record, Rock, Art, and the X-Ray Style. The former Clash frontman needn’t have worried, since the crowd was so thrilled to hear his renditions of “White Riot” and “Straight to Hell” that their enthusiasm carried through even the gentlest of his new songs. “On the road to rock ‘n’ roll,” one of the lyrics goes, “there’s a lot of wreckage in the ravine.” Strummer seems determined to avoid that ditch. Sporting a full head of black hair and only a few extra pounds, he performed with energy and humor, defying the received wisdom about rock ‘n’ roll being a kid’s game.

The man on stage had come a long way from his days in London’s punk-rock Class of ’76. Chucking his successful pub-rock band, the 101ers, after a glimpse at the Sex Pistols, the 24-year-old Strummer (born John Mellor) traded in blue jeans for black leather and reinvented himself as a laconic, streetwise poet. In a film segment shot after the Clash’s live debut in front of assorted London media and other “tastemakers,” he responds flippantly to a question about his moral views. “I wouldn’t steal money off a friend,” he says with a hint of a sneer. “But I’d steal his girlfriend.”

In this footage, you can see Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones working very hard at constructing the Clash Image: “the thinking man’s yobs,” as an NME cover famously characterized them. Aside from the band’s brilliant visual presentation and groundbreaking sound—punk fury that later found common ground with Jamaican and Latin music, rockabilly, R&B, and the then-emergent rap scene—each member had a distinct persona. Spice Girls-like, these images interlocked into a well-rounded whole: Guitarist Mick Jones was the beatbox rocker; bass player Paul Simonon was the stylish, handsome one; drummer Topper Headon was the puckish soul veteran; and Strummer was the social reformer and leader of the pack.

The reality, of course, was more complex, as British journalist Marcus Gray showed in his fascinating 1995 book, Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash. A longtime fan, Gray still managed to puncture the mystique built by manager Bernie Rhodes and developed by the band members themselves. Strummer and Jones had solidly middle-class childhoods, and the whole lot of them—Headon and Jones especially—were far less PC than their public personas would suggest. Once the Clash reached arena-scale success, however, it tried to maintain its long-standing policy of “value for money” when pricing records and concert tickets. It also hired some amazing tour support, bringing Grandmaster Flash and Mikey Dread to a broader audience, and Lee Dorsey and Bo Diddley to a new generation.

If the Clash’s politics were sometimes naive or ill-informed, the band at least caused a generation of music fans to look beyond their immediate surroundings. They opened people’s eyes less through their political stances than through their music itself, a sonic message of tolerance that loomed larger than a stadium full of rebel iconography.

EVERY COUPLE OF years since its official breakup in 1984, the Clash has blipped and bleeped on the pop-culture radar. First Jones hit the charts with his disco-rock-hip-hop hybrid Big Audio Dynamite. Then Strummer started appearing in movies (Mystery Train, Straight to Hell). Simonon had a moment with a band named after a Perez Prado record. In 1991, CBS released the three-CD box set The Clash on Broadway. Later in the ’90s, Rancid and a zillion other bands resurrected the Clash’s fusion of punk and ska. And Strummer scored the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank, which also featured two Clash songs in its soundtrack.

In 1999, though, the Clash has been more audible than at any time in the past 15 years. In November, Epic released the first official live Clash album, From Here to Eternity, a rousing, masterful collection produced by Strummer, Jones, and Simonon. The three omitted their biggest US hit (and least representative single) “Rock the Casbah,” but people still had plenty of opportunities to hear it, thanks to remakes by Will Smith and disco duo Solar Twins. The Clash’s label even unleashed a shockingly bad tribute album, Burning London. What else? Longtime fan Martin Scorsese included two early Clash songs—”Janie Jones” and “I’m So Bored With the USA”—in the soundtrack to his film Bringing Out the Dead. Johnny Green, the band’s road manager through early 1980, published A Riot of Our Own, a rollicking, anecdotal memoir (revelations: Simonon, he of the brooding on-stage manner, was actually the group’s practical joker; Jones dyed his hair black not only to imitate his idol, Keith Richards, but also to hide the fact that he was going bald).

Best of all, Strummer, Jones, Headon, and Simonon finally came clean about the past. An old friend, DJ Don Letts, coaxed them before the cameras for his 90-minute documentary The Clash: Westway to the World, shown on the BBC earlier this year (plans are under way for a US video release). It’s impossible not to feel the weight of the Clash legacy when Strummer, discussing the band’s breakup, gets a catch in his throat. Much to their credit, the four musicians have never re-formed to hear the ringing of the nostalgia cash register. Here’s hoping they continue to grow old gracefully and leave us with our memories, mythic or not.