I Saw A Film!
It’s hard to overstate how important The Clash were to myself and my friends. We worshiped Joe Strummer, watched Rude Boy over and over and, of course, lived on the left-leaning lyrical music. By 1982 we knew the best of what we loved about The Clash was likely behind them, Combat Rock signaled a commercial angle to their integrity that was tough to stomach, but we soldiered on, and saw them in the Providence Civic Center and happily loved it despite “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”.
We knew by the end that Mick Jones had been problematic for Paul and Joe, and that the band had to cycle through their drummer history when heavy drug use claimed Topper. But we were wholly naive about the struggles and actual pressures the band underwent, persevering despite these unnatural dams to their creativity and Joe’s Johnny Ramone level work ethic. This documentary reveals that overwhelmingly common truth that our favorite artist collaborations are so often so tenuously alive that just about any moment could bring the event that upends the fragile links. Funnily enough our own garage band, dependent on Joy Division and The Fall as well as The Clash for our motifs struggled with exactly the same interpersonal dynamics (I always assumed these struggles were death, not creative juice), we just never actually got paid or managed to have a real release that wasn’t a homemade tape.
I don’t know why it always strikes me as a surprise, but the aspects of The Clash that seemed to be to be the most problematic, their variety of interests musically (of course, we were Strummer (Rockabilly and roots music) much more than we were Jones, whose interests were much more aimed at the burgeoning hip hop and dance scene), were actually considered their strong suit–the very elements that set them apart from the stock-in-trade punks of the era. It makes sense, but while London Calling was possibly my first moment being actually impressed with the reach of a punk band (I didn’t have a ton to compare it to yet, most of my favorites would all erupt in 79-80) it was a fantastic departure from what I’d been listening to, Some Girls, Presence, Hemispheres, Tormato, and other prog and heavy rock outfits whose sounds were not our basic guitars and drums (garage-as-studio) unadulterated energy. You could sound like The Clash on a given day, punk rock was reachable for everyman, and it was imagined as a participation “sport”.
I didn’t know much about Bernie Rhodes, had not realized he’d be competing with Malcolm McLaren, did not realize that The Clash was his “Sex Pistols”, did not know the name “Sex Pistols” had been Rhodes’s idea! Any artist is a collaboration, no matter how you slice it, people feed and house and share wine with artists, people provide commentary and ideas, and there are stories even of Captain Beefheart’s lyrics coming from a third party! Much of this stuff would be hearsay, we didn’t have a lot of connection to the intricacies of the art world, especially the London or Manchester scenes we were so in thrall with. But, when you realize that these guys were so young, were so naive and were simply devoted and driven to being the best rock band they could be, too much slips by that exists in a kind of evident way, but doesn’t touch the fan on the other side of the sea.
The Clash would fall apart, and everyone wants to know why, but the truth is the why is in how did they stay together and do what they did for as long as they did? And so it would be how I watched this documentary to find out where the love was, and how disparate fellows with a general overlap of devotion and hope and desire created four or five amazing albums that spoke to people thousands of miles from their origins, they changed the pop rock landscape, and while nothing has really replaced them, bands may sound like them, but the content is not there, their impact was definite. I did not love Big Audio Dynamite in part because I blamed Mick for the demise of the band, but like so many relationships it probably had run its course. Strummer’s Mescaleros was brilliant, and his endless love of basic guitar rock, and in breaking down barriers between himself and the audience, made him a kind of folk-rock hero. He really was that guy, despite the people in the know saying he came from privileged background and spent his life hiding it. Much like another well known rock band featuring some posh accents hidden for the camera back in the sixties (ahem, Rolling Stones).
I’d ignored the last official “Clash” product, as it was just Strummer and Paul (as my best buddy Joey Murphy would say “I was sick of it by then”) with new guitarists and newish drummer who worked their asses off to make The Clash the best thing they could, because they loved it, but in the end it was a doomed projected, and we hear from those guys, and feel their disappointment. Shockingly once Strummer walked away from it Rhodes thought he would find another singer! The Clash became a brand, not a band, and while that didn’t fly, the very idea of it feels like exactly the opposite of anything fundamentally Clash.
If you’re a fan of The Clash you’ll likely find yourself with a tear in your eye, and anyone else is unlikely to be watching this film anyway! It’s 3.99 on Prime. And thanks to my old “big brother” Brian for introducing me to one of the seriously beautiful things of my life. Now I’ll go throw on London Calling.