Marcus Gray

Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash

(Henry Holt)

By J.R. Jones

The last time the original Clash played Chicago–at the Aragon on August 12, 1982, to be exact–I couldn’t tell whether I was at a rock ‘n’ roll show or basic training. Berets, army boots, and camouflage pants were big that summer, and the Clash had played no small part in this paramilitary fashion craze, decked out in the flashy togs an English journalist had dubbed Pop Star Army Fatigues. The band’s new album, Combat Rock, was rife with images of war (the working title had been Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg) and had yielded the Clash’s biggest U.S. hit, “Rock the Casbah.” The song was a comment on Iranian fundamentalists having banned pop music, but the video, in heavy rotation on MTV, suggested something far less specific–it cut shots of the band performing in front of a Texas oil well with comical vignettes of a feuding Arab and Israeli. The video pushed “Rock the Casbah” to number eight on the pop chart and widened the band’s audience to include a multitude of burr-headed kids who either failed to note or willfully ignored the Clash’s left-wing politics. Eight years later, when the U.S. began sending in troops to punish Saddam Hussein, Marcus Gray reports in Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash, “The first record played on the allied forces radio network was ‘Rock the Casbah.'”

Irony, if even slightly off target, can leave an artist’s work wide open to misinterpretation and misappropriation, and the Clash had its collective tongue planted only halfway in cheek when it came to military imagery. Its politics were always a little ambiguous, meant more to create a sense of urgency than to achieve any clearly defined goal. While numerous fan biographies have chronicled the Clash’s glory, Gray tries to explode the myth propagated by adoring rock journalists that Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon were working-class yobs who became a sort of musical red brigade but failed to save rock from international capitalism. His book is deeply flawed: stonewalled by the musicians and their management, Gray quotes an interminable series of former cronies and hangers-on to document the Clash’s origins, and he records the band’s career largely by synthesizing and critiquing other published accounts. The end result is too long by half, yet still seems speculative and incomplete. But it did force me to reappraise the legacy of a band that, while well intentioned, happily exploited the glamour of armed combat. As the Clash would later discover, images recaptured by the enemy can be lethal.

The band initially received its radical politics from manager Bernie Rhodes, a rival of Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren who assembled the Clash as a usurper to the punk throne. (Rhodes’s first attempt at band assembly, London SS, included guitarist Mick Jones but never got off the ground; a Jew, he later disavowed the fascist overtones of the name, though the original stage concept did include Nazi armbands and barbed wire.) Clash front man Joe Strummer, the son of a white-collar worker in the British Foreign Office, had been educated at the City of London Freemen’s School; branded by his middle-class upbringing, he became an especially eager convert to Rhodes’s political agenda. According to Gray bassist Paul Simonon was chosen more for his street credibility than his talent–a skinhead and soccer hooligan before enrolling in art school, he loved war movies and decorated his flat with guns, holsters, and shooting-gallery targets. At first Rhodes dressed his proteges in paint-splattered boiler suits, but this Jackson Pollock concept was superseded by the first wave of Pop Star Army Fatigues: bright clothes with zippered pockets, stenciled slogans, and army-star insignia.

No one familiar with the Clash’s songs would ever seriously accuse its members of fascism, racism, or militarism. As early as their first album they were experimenting with reggae, and after punk’s initial blast their music became an international stew that included dub, funk, gospel, and R & B. At its best the Clash stood for freedom, individuality, and–most important in contrast to the Pistols–humanity. It was “righteous,” as Lester Bangs pointed out, “working to enlighten others as to their own possibilities rather than merely sprawling in the muck yodeling about what a drag everything is.” But the Clash was all too willing to swallow its own PR, and play at guerrilla warfare. On its second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Strummer indulged his fearful fascination with terrorism in songs like “Guns on the Roof” (“Take any place and call it a courthouse / This is a place where no judge can stand”) and “Tommy Gun” (“You can be a hero in an age of none…I’m cutting out your picture from page one”). This soldier of fortune motif was highlighted onstage by a backdrop of a bomber plane. In a July 1978 interview with Melody Maker, Strummer said, “The bad thing is that [terrorists] go around murdering bodyguards and innocent people. But you’ve got to hand it to them for laying their lives on the line for the rest of the human race.”

That fall the Clash fired Rhodes, citing financial mismanagement, and the Pop Star Army Fatigues were closeted in favor of a Hollywood gangster look. With London Calling (1979) the band backed away from political harangues in hopes of finding a broader audience. But the next year’s three-LP melting pot Sandinista! took on superpower imperialism and marked the beginning of Strummer’s retroactive interest in the Vietnam war. The cover sent a mixed message, its bright red title undercut by its photo of Mick Jones wearing a U.S. Army helmet. And while the evils of the military were a prominent theme, Strummer’s lyrics were more sardonic than anything on the band’s earlier recordings. “The Call Up,” a single from the album, urged young men not to enlist in the military, twisting the chant, “Hup–two–three–four–I–love–the Marine–Corps!” “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” imagined the final confrontation of the cold war as a bleeping, whizzing pinball game, and “Charlie Don’t Surf,” inspired by Robert Duvall’s crazed colonel in Apocalypse Now, promised, “Charlie’s gonna be a napalm star.”

Apocalypse Now, with its terse narration written by Michael Herr, led Strummer to Herr’s brilliant Vietnam book Dispatches, but the Clash’s understanding of the war generally went no deeper than Hollywood’s. The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver both informed Combat Rock; so did The Road Warrior, according to Gray’s reporting. By that time Strummer had brought Rhodes back into the fold, and the band inaugurated a second wave of paramilitary chic, this time more directly inspired by U.S. battle fatigues. “We were all dressed in black combat gear,” a roadie for the band’s U.S. tour told New Musical Express, “and everybody got out of the way when we came through; everybody.” As Gray points out, Strummer shaved his head in a Mohawk, just like Travis Bickle, the Vietnam vet who becomes a self-styled vigilante in Taxi Driver, and Combat Rock’s “Red Angel Dragnet” quoted Bickle: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

Taxi Driver itself is a classic example of ironic art being widely misread. Bickle, a pathetic, frustrated stalker, initiates a bloodbath to free a teenage prostitute from her pimp, yet in the film’s coda he’s lionized by the press. Obviously John Hinckley missed the point when he shot President Reagan to impress Jodie Foster (who played the prostitute); unfortunately so did the Clash when it equated Bickle with the beret-clad subway guardians of “Red Angel Dragnet.” By the time Taxi Driver reached its 20th anniversary last year, Travis Bickle was entrenched in the popular lexicon not as a shattered soul bringing home the senseless violence of Vietnam but as a symbol of urban self-empowerment (“You talkin’ to me?”). Similarly, on Combat Rock the Clash’s guerrilla image had grown so superficial and distorted that it was ripe for misinterpretation. “Rock the Casbah” and its apolitical follow-up, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” made the Clash a favorite of frat rats across the land.

During the Vietnam war the brass were notoriously hostile toward rock; Hendrix and the Doors were considered as much of a threat to discipline as the dope being passed around by the grunts. But in 1980–the year Sandinista! became the first Clash album to sell better in the U.S. than the UK–Major General Maxwell “Mad Max” Thurman took over the Army Recruiting Command. The 48-year-old decided to put himself through a crash course in advertising, and market testing of teenagers revealed that the best buttons to push were excitement, adventure, challenge, and self-fulfillment. According to James Kitfield’s book Prodigal Soldiers, when executives at the New York agency N.W. Ayer showed Thurman a rough cut of a new recruiting commercial, Thurman interrupted the screening. “Hold it!” he said. “There’s no song! Where’s the music?” A New York jingle writer named Jake Holmes was dispatched to write a theme based on Thurman’s new slogan. The next week Thurman was shown the scored commercial, with its driving new tune, “Be All You Can Be.” When the lights came up, Thurman was in tears.

“Be All You Can Be” debuted at the Super Bowl in 1981 and saturated the airwaves thereafter. Though some commercials for the other military branches had used rock, “Be All You Can Be” made it a staple. The jingle communicated excitement and connoted personal autonomy–the same values the Clash had always espoused. When Young & Rubicam took over the much-coveted army account in 1987, it came up with a series of commercials that would show “that you’ll be in the company of a great bunch of guys, you’ll have a chance to think on your own, to operate on your own,” as Y&R vice president Bill Green told the Washington Post in 1992. The commercials also employed the kinetic visual energy that their target market took for granted. “We’re talking to the MTV generation,” said Green of one spot. “It’s sort of a video.”

By that time “Mad Max” Thurman had moved on. In 1989 President Bush called him out of retirement to command Operation Just Cause, the United States’ invasion of Panama. When Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy, Thurman’s troops blasted rock music at the compound in hopes of dislodging him. The army disc jockey played “Jailhouse Rock,” “I Fought the Law,” “Nowhere to Run,” and from Combat Rock, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” If you listened closely, you could hear the sound of the Clash shooting itself in the foot.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book cover.