Last Gang in town - Marcus Gray
trakMARX Awards
Last Gang In Town – Marcus Gray Q&A

“Last Gang In Town: The Story And Myth Of The Clash”, was first published in 1995 by Fourth Estate. A second edition, now going by the name “The Clash: Return Of The Last Gang In Town”, appeared last year courtesy of music publishers of renown & taste, Helter Skelter. Hal Leonard have just published the revised edition in the USA. In the light of the recent & devastating passing of Clash leader, Joe Strummer, trakMARX is proud to welcome aboard “Last Gang..” author, Marcus Gray:

trakMARX – Joe’s death was a crushing blow at a supposedly joyous time of year that took some coming to terms with. How long did it take to sink in for you?

Initial reports about Joe were woolly, so I hoped they were wrong. Even when the news was confirmed, I was still disbelieving, and it only really started to sink in the following day. I thought about Joe, his family and musical associates old and new a lot over the Christmas period. And of course, since then every time I’ve met or spoken on the phone to anyone who knows me, the second thing they’ve said after ‘Happy New Year’ has been, ‘What about Joe, then?’ So it’s stayed with me.

I can’t claim that I knew Mr Strummer, but I have spent 25 years listening to his music and three or four years researching and writing a book about him, so he’s been a big part of my life. One of the best nights I had out last year was catching the Mescaleros in Birmingham. I watched from the side of the hall like the old fart I am until the encore of ‘London’s Burning’ when I thought, ‘Fuck it!’, and pushed my way into the pogoing mass at the front. Not a bad last memory.

Fifty years isn’t anywhere near long enough, but there was a certain poetic symmetry to Joe’s life. He was born overseas, and spent his first years moving around the world as a diplomat’s kid. This gave him an early sense of the power of radio – especially the BBC’s World Service - as a tool for international and cross-cultural communication. Then he spent his teenage years cooped up in a boarding school near Epsom, where radio became the portal to the magic kingdom of Sixties popular music: the Beach Boys, Stones, Who, Hendrix. Radio as a tool for communication remained a big thing for him throughout the Clash, obviously so in songs like ‘Capital Radio’, ‘London Calling’ (its title taken from the World Service’s station ID), ‘Radio Clash’, and in the band’s ultimately thwarted ambition to start their own radio station. Similarly, Joe was always big on promoting cross-cultural influences and a global perspective: ‘White Riot’ and ‘Police And Thieves’ were suggestions that white UK youths should start to show as much passion and commitment to making their voices heard as black Jamaican and Anglo-Jamaican youths; ‘Guns On The Roof’ looked at international warmongering; London Calling added an American perspective to the mix; Sandinista! brought in South and Central American musics and issues; and ‘Straight to Hell’ was, in part, a compassionate response to the plight of the world’s immigrants and refugees.

Post-Clash, this internationalist outlook continued through the Latin American shadings of his soundtrack for Walker, and the globe-trotting lyrics of Earthquake Weather and Rock, Art And The X-Ray Style. The Mescaleros’ most recent album, Global A Go-Go, showcased Joe’s ongoing empathy for the displaced on ‘Shaktar Donetsk’ and his enduring delight in the cultural mix on ‘Bhindi Bhagee’. His faith in the unifying and liberating power of radio and the tuned-in DJ stayed with him right to the end, too: not only did he host a few shows on the World Service, and man the desks at more than a few hops (as I believe the youth of today call them), but on the title track of Global A Go-Go he gave thanks to Marconi and celebrated radio’s contribution to spreading the musics of planet Earth all over planet Earth.

There were other nice touches. Tymon Dogg, the man who first took Joe busking on the London Underground, and who later contributed to Sandinista!, was invited to join the Mescaleros in time to play on Global A Go-Go. Although Joe made a peace of sorts with Mick Jones three years after sacking him from the Clash in 1983, and they contributed to each other’s recordings in 1986, some tensions remained, and they never performed together on stage together again… that is, until a month before Joe’s death, when Mick joined the Mescaleros on stage at a benefit gig for striking firemen.

It’s like all the loose ends were tied up and all the circles were completed; except, that is, for the tantalising possibility of the Clash reuniting to perform at the ceremony heralding the band’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame later this year… but although I wish Joe were still around to attend the celebration, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that the full reunion will now never take place. It would never have lived up to expectations.

trakMARX – The general consensus from a few old schoolers who were present at the wake was that Joe’s death should act as a catalyst to inspire a new wave of recordings by original 1st wave artists. Tribute or self-indulgence?

Neither. At wakes, you have a few drinks to someone’s memory, you reminisce about the good times you and your mutual friends had together, and you get sentimental. Quite naturally, the Class of ’76-’77 would all be feeling intimations of their own mortality: there’s nothing like the death of a contemporary to give you a wake-up call. Whether they can dig deep enough to come up with something of worth is another matter. The first wavers have all been playing together in various permutations since their original bands split, anyway, and usually egos get in the way before they actually produce something… or what they produce turns out to be a real anticlimax. I’d love to be stunned.

trakMARX – Was Joe the last of the great rock & roll heroes?

I don’t think rock’n’roll bands have anything like the same cultural impact now as they did back then, but everything about the music industry and its attendant mythology is still designed to create heroes. That’s one of the themes of my book. There are still quite a few of the old ‘heroes’ around, and there will always be another new one fresh off the production line any minute. If Joe Strummer was a creation, then at least a bit of imagination was used, for once. Mostly his. Was he one of the great rock’n’rollers? Undoubtedly.

trakMARX – You note in the “Forewarning” to the 1st edition of “Last Gang..” that the book was written without access to the band. Why do you think they declined to get involved in what was the only serious attempt at a Clash biography ever undertaken & did it adversely affect the project?

Contrary to what most people seem to think, it’s pretty rare to get approval or even interview access for an in-depth biography of a person (or persons) of international renown unless the project has been initiated or taken over by the subject’s, ahem, people. In the case of music biogs especially, ‘authorised’ usually means it’s effectively the artist’s book, with the artist getting a sizeable split, if not almost all, of the profits, and the writer being little more than a hired hand commissioned to write the book to the artist’s specifications. If the artist has any real stature, their memories and first hand recollections are a potentially valuable commodity, and they seldom give them away unless there’s something in it for them: for example, as I’m sure we all know, they don’t talk to magazines and TV programmes for fun, but for promotional purposes, because those media outlets will reach tens of thousands if not millions of people and help sell more records/tickets. So the fact that I was denied interview access for a biography over which I was going to retain complete control, from which I was going to receive all the profits, and which was unlikely to reach more than a few thousand people, was hardly surprising.

But you always try for access. At the time I began my research, in summer 1992, I sent letters requesting interview access to Columbia-Sony (CBS as was), Mick Jones (c/o BAD), Tricia Ronane (former BAD PR, and Paul Simonon’s wife and manager), and Kosmo Vinyl (who I had been informed by Columbia-Sony was looking after Joe’s post-Clash career). The only answer I got was from Kosmo, who stated that he was now solely responsible for managing the Clash’s affairs, and who declined on the band’s behalf because – he claimed - they were working on an ‘official’ biography of their own. This was about a year after the US release of the Clash On Broadway box set, for which project Kosmo had conducted his own interviews. It’s possible that Kosmo was intending to use his interview material for a longer book project, or was intending some book-type tie-in with the Clash career documentary which was planned around this time but put on hold for years until it eventually emerged many years later as Westway To The World.

In November 1993, by which time I had a contract with Fourth Estate, I asked my editor to fax Kosmo again. In his reply to her, he once again turned down the request for interview access. I still have his fax: ‘I must inform you that I will be unable to help you with your request. As you were aware, the Clash are working on their own “official” book, and they will therefore not be contributing in any way to other efforts. You may recall… we had no objections to Marcus Gray writing a book. The Clash believe that anyone should be able to write a book on any subject they choose. It would therefore be hypocritical of them to object to anyone writing a book about them.’

This didn’t adversely affect the project, but it did help shape it, simply because it required me to take a different approach. I put together my narrative by cross referencing existing music press, TV and radio band interviews with the band members, information from public (and some not-so-public) records, and my own interviews with friends, former bandmates and associates. The discrepancy between the information I uncovered through my own firsthand research and the version(s) of events the Clash had given in interviews over the years gave me the ‘true story-versus-myth’ structure for the book, and encouraged me to write something that was a little more adventurous than a standard ‘this happened and then that happened and aren’t the Clash great’ type hagiography. But the fact that I wasn’t welcomed into their parlour with open arms didn’t - as a couple of reviewers later suggested - send me into a hissy fit and prompt me to take my revenge on the printed page.

Some time in late 1994, a friend of mine bumped into Joe Strummer at one of the London airports, and during a snatched conversation, mentioned that I was writing a book about the Clash. Joe’s reply was, ‘It’s the first I’ve heard about it! He hasn’t been in touch with me.’ From which I could only deduce that Kosmo had been pursuing his own agenda when he told me that it was the band who had turned down my request for access. By this time I’d already crashed two deadlines for delivering the manuscript, and I was really under pressure, so it was too late for me to chase after Joe again. Plus, and no disrespect to him intended, I didn’t want to muddy the waters with yet another revisionist point of view. Funnily enough, though, Joe was on his way to visit former 101ers drummer Richard Dudanski in Spain, and I’d just sent Richard a last minute tidy up list of questions about the 101ers. While Joe was there, he helped Richard with the answers, so in a way, he did contribute, after all.

When the book first came out in September 1995, a few of the reviews suggested that it was very anti-Clash. When the NME asked Tricia Ronane – now acting as ‘unofficial Clash spokesperson’ – why the band had declined to co-operate with the book, she replied: ‘Why should they? They don’t know him. How can he know what the Clash were about? You can’t get that from talking to the people around them at the time. If the band wanted to tell their story, they’d do it themselves.’

Autobiography and biography are two very different disciplines. Memoirs can be interesting and illuminating, but they are just one person’s point of view, and – egos being what they are – tend to be self-serving. Similarly, a biography written by a close friend or associate might offer a few intimate behind-the-scenes moments, but it’s not going to risk offending the subject by being critical of work or behaviour, or by probing the more sensitive areas of the subject’s life.

On the other hand, a writer with a little more distance from his subject, and no vested interest in keeping on the right side of him, can offer up an in-depth, balanced, challenging appraisal of that subject’s life and work; providing, that is, he’s prepared to do some serious research. In my experience, contemporary records, documents and press reports are as good if not better than memory for establishing dates and a true sequence of events; and as sources of new information and insight, friends and associates of the subject often have a much clearer perspective than the subject himself.

Incidentally, I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help noticing a slight change in attitude between Kosmo’s quote and Tricia’s…

trakMARX – Were you a Clash fan as a kid?

Earlier, I described how Joe Strummer and his friends used to listen to the radio at their boarding school out in the sticks. The music they heard meant so much to them because it was reflecting something that was so tantalisingly out of their reach.

I come from Richmond, a small market town in North Yorkshire, miles from a city of any size. The town’s only TV and vacuum cleaner shop also doubled as its sole music outlet, with a couple of wooden boxes of LPs. I relied on the radio, the NME, the few music programmes on TV at that time, and twice-yearly visits to my grandmother’s in Manchester for my soul food. David Bowie first, then Mott, Slade, Quo, Who, Thin Lizzy.

And then, in late autumn 1976, when I had just turned 16 and started sixth year at the local comprehensive school, me and my friends started to pick up a buzz of something new about to happen. Kelman Devlin’s older brother was in a rehearsal band. One week, the band all cut their hair short, and started walking around town in drainpipe jeans. This was a time when everyone – and I mean everyone, even old men – wore flares or A-lines. Then Kelman brought his brother’s Dr Feelgood album into school, slapped it on the coffee bar record player, and started whizzing about the place doing his Wilko Johnson impression. Soon afterwards, he brought in the Eddie and the Hot Rods Marquee EP. Next, my mate Liam Brown bought the Pistols’ EMI Anarchy single and brought it in. One play cleared the coffee bar. So we played it six times in a row before the massed ranks of Fleetwood Mac fans worked up enough courage to reclaim the turntable. Liam just thought the single was a horrible noise and a bit of a laugh. I was hooked. After that it was anything punk for me. Quite a few of the former prog rock crowd among my contemporaries liked the Stranglers, but when it came to an appreciation of the Jam and the Clash, me and my newly adopted brethren Mike Brown and Boo Kinchin were out on our own. I loved that first Clash album. Still do.

trakMARX – Did you catch them live back in the day, if so where & when?

To go to a gig from Richmond, you had to get a bus 12 miles to Darlington and a train another 40 miles to Newcastle. If you were lucky enough to catch a train back to Darlo, and unlucky enough not to have gone with a mate who had anxious parents who owned a car, you had the prospect of a long, long hike or a night sleeping rough on the platform in your sweat-soaked clothes. Before I was 16, I’d only ever seen two bands: Status Quo and Thin Lizzy, and that was because someone at the heavy rock pub in town – the Turf – had hired a couple of mini buses.

The national punk tours coincided with my real gig-going days. From mid 1977 through to mid 1978, I spent a fair few nights on that train platform on the way back from the Stranglers, the Jam, the Buzzcocks, Adverts, TRB, whoever. Never saw the Pistols. With the Clash, I started gigging it a month too late to catch the May 1977 White Riot tour. Couldn’t get tickets for the Newcastle Poly gig on the November 1977 Out Of Control tour. Frustratingly, the band were banned from playing in the city on the July 1978 Out On Parole tour, but Joe and Topper did put in an appearance at Virgin records to apologise. I was in town to see some other band that day, and I’ve still got my signed copy of ‘White Man’.

Went to university – like all good middle class boys – in October 1978. Hull wasn’t exactly packed with hot rockin’ venues, so I still had to rely on buses and trains. I remember there was a bus jaunt organised to one of the Clash’s Sort It Out gigs, but I’d already arranged to go home and see my girlfriend that weekend. Sorry, Michelle - wherever you are - but boy, does that seem like a bad call in retrospect… Especially as the Clash didn’t tour again until January 1980, which is when – yes, finally – I did get to see them. Definitely at Bridlington Spa on 30 January 1980, because I’ve still got the ticket. Also, if memory serves, in Leeds. After that, my next chance was after I moved to London in early 1982. I saw them at least twice, although I’m fairly sure it was three times, at what was then the Fair Deal in Brixton, taking my visiting 16 year old brother along on one occasion to what was his first ever gig. After that, I wouldn’t go and see them without Mick, so that was it for me. So: between three and five times. Not much of a score, especially when I managed to see the Jam around 15 times between 1977 and 1980. How many holes have I just put in my credibility?

trakMARX – “Last Gang..” went some considerable way to dispelling the “Myth” of The Clash to those who were there at the time. Did you have any idea how many hearts your words would break?

I’m tempted to quote Bill the Butcher in The Gangs Of New York: I didn’t give a tuppenny fuck. This was biography, an attempt at establishing a true history. This was also punk rock. Who’d have thunk that the most iconoclastic of musical forms would turn into something for middle aged men to get all misty eyed and romantic about? As someone once said, ‘phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust’. And, by the way, Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

To explain why the Clash said what they said and did what they did, I felt I had to recapture the vibe on the roller coaster they were riding at the time. Try to imagine the pressure: hassles with CBS, the police, bouncers, venue managers, their own almost insanely provocative manager, various members’ ego problems and drug addictions, compounded by the censure of their peers – punk bands and fans alike – for supposedly selling out to everything from CBS to the USA to the Rolling Stones.

Also, because the Clash are thought of so fondly now, what a lot of people choose to forget is that they were only lionised in the UK music press for the first couple of years of their existence. After that, they got an at best mixed response until 1980, and after that they got a rougher and rougher time until, by 1984, the New Clash were objects of utter derision. There are two things to remember. Thing one: with a combined circulation of well over half a million copies per week, the music press was just about the only mass platform open to the Clash in this country – they refused to play big gigs, there was no MTV equivalent back then, they refused to play TOTP or let TOTP show their videos, and they received very little radio play, partly because (thanks largely to the TOTP situation) they seldom made the upper reaches of the singles charts – so the fact that the music press was dissing them naturally influenced the attitudes of the greater punk constituency to some degree. (The Clash topped the music press readers’ polls until 1978; after that, it was always the Jam.) Thing two: Mick and Joe had grown up under the spell of the music press; it was Genesis to Revelation for them. They took what it said seriously, as a true reflection of the mood of their followers. As it turned out, the Clash’s core audience was a lot more loyal than either the music press or the band supposed, but for seven years from late 1978 onwards, the perhaps over-sensitive Clash felt – and talked as though they felt – like pariahs who couldn’t put a foot right in their homeland.

So, yeah, I know they had a few laughs with Johnny Green, the Baker, Kris Needs and Uncle Robin Banks and all, and I know they struck a few cool poses for Bob Gruen and Pennie Smith… but that doesn’t tell you why they lost Terry Chimes and sacked Keith Levene in 1976, dumped Sebastian Conran and Micky Foote in early 1978, why they toyed with replacing Mick Jones with Steve Jones in the middle of that year, and sacked Bernie Rhodes at the end of it, why they concentrated on America from 1979, why Joe attacked an audience member in 1980, why they rehired Bernie Rhodes in 1981, why they sacked Topper Headon in 1982, why they ousted Mick Jones in 1983, why they split up altogether in 1986, and why, from 1987 onwards, they tried to pretend the last three years of that timeline never happened. My book does tell you, but you’ll have to leave your preconceptions right next to your shoes when you enter at page one.

What surprised me was the two or three reviewers of the original 1995 edition who couldn’t get past their blind adoration for and/or personal friendships with the band long enough to give the book a fair shake. Some irony: after years of trashing the Clash, the music press were now appointing themselves the Clash’s protectors. It was like: negative things said about Clash by third parties are reported in Clash book; some of Clash’s contradictions are examined and some of their fibs exposed in Clash book; therefore author of Clash book doesn’t like Clash; therefore Clash book must be a bad book and author must be a bad person. According to Mojo and the now sadly defunct Vox, I was the Blank Generation’s answer to Albert Goldman.

For sure, the first edition had a lot of faults – for instance, the last third was rushed in the writing, and poorly thought out as a consequence – but I think I’ve sorted out most of them for the substantially re-researched and re-written second edition. I even put a bit more fun and frolics in. Life’s too short – we know that now - and whaddya know, I appear to have come over all middle aged, misty eyed and romantic myself. ‘Hear those sleigh bells ringing, a ring ding dingaling, thingy thingy thingy…’

trakMARX – Bernie Rhodes was pivotal to the early development of the band. How do you view his involvement?

Warily. Raised by wolves and whores in the East End of London, Bernie invented the printing press during a short break from manning the barricades at the Paris Riots of ’68. Shortly afterwards, that snake Malcolm McLaren expelled him from the Garden of Eden. Bernie rested for a while on the back seat of his Renault. I think this was sometime after supper on the sixth day. Then he formed the Clash from his own ribs as something for the people to look at while he, Bernie, wrote, produced, played, sang and designed the first Clash album. A loving and generous man, he would cheerfully give his beloved charges every last penny he earned at the drop of a jaw. But he’s too modest to tell you any of that.

For real: Bernie built the Clash around Mick Jones because Mick Jones was willing, and because Mick understood music. He brought in Keith Levene because Keith had attitude and knew how to play guitar. He persuaded Mick to bring in Paul Simonon because Paul looked great and had style. He and Keith went after Joe Strummer because Joe was a charismatic, energetic frontman. Bernie brought in Terry Chimes because they needed a drummer. It was a bonus that Mick could write catchy tunes and Joe could write basic tunes and pretty good lyrics, but it was Bernie whose understanding of youth culture helped make the Clash more than just another art school rock’n’roll band. It was Bernie whose brainwashing sessions gave the Clash much of their identity, who persuaded them to write about issues, and whose Class of ’68 rhetoric inspired the subject and imagery of many of the band’s early lyrics. There was always a little Bernie about the Clash, even for the two years (‘79-‘80) when he was ousted from his management role. That said, Bernie got lucky with the people he chose. The Clash wouldn’t have worked without Joe or without Mick or without Paul.

The story of the Clash has many threads to it, but one of the main ones is the band’s twisty-turny relationship with their manager. A complicated man. I would trust Bernie with your life. But not with my wallet.

trakMARX – “Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS” – Mark P. Much wheeled out comment from one of the scene’s original prime movers, but still as strangely prophetic now as it ever was. Does this theory hold any water with you?

I interviewed Mark for the book, and I understand what he was trying to say about the potential in punk bands pursuing a relationship with the independent labels: the establishment of an alternative music industry. But maybe that’s a little naive: most of the supposedly independent ventures got co-opted or compromised in some way sooner or later.

It’s important to remember that the Clash did not set the precedent for signing to a major label. The Pistols ‘sold out to the man’ way before the Clash, in October 1976. So by that reckoning, punk died before most of us Hicksville kids even had a clear idea what it was.

What is true is that the nature of the Clash’s contract with CBS sowed many of the seeds of their own destruction. The story of the Clash has many threads to it, but one of the main ones is their plummeting express lift of a relationship with their record company. A complicated saga. I would trust CBS with your artistic freedom. But not even with Bernie Rhodes’ wallet.

trakMARX – “The Clash died the day Keith Levene left” – Jean Encoule. Slightly more obscure quote, I’ll grant you, but equally contentious?

No. Just daft. Shooting up speed in the Roxy toilets was not a major contribution to either the Clash or punk. Keith was a great guitarist, but he quickly lost interest in the band. He found his niche later, in the more musically experimental framework of PiL, a band formed by a bunch of former greatcoat-wearing Yes and Krautrock fans. That’s some guitar sound he developed, but try as I might, I can’t imagine it working with or for the Clash. He was a square peg, and when he was fired from the Clash he didn’t even leave a round hole. They found it easier to write, rehearse and arrange without him.

trakMARX – Was Keith ripped off with regard to writing credits on “The Clash”?

This is a recurring one, so let me try to put it to bed.

Mick had ‘Protex Blue’ and ‘Deny’ before the band was formed (Chrissie Hynde remembers helping him with the coda to the latter song in his bedroom at Wilmcote House, the high rise where he lived). Mick also had the tune and original lyric for ‘Bored With You’ before the Clash was formed. Joe misheard the chorus and then revised the lyric a couple of times over the next nine months or so before he came up with the version recorded on the album as ‘I’m So Bored With The USA’.

Keith was sacked from the band in early September 1976 because he wasn’t interested in working on a new song Joe’s had come up with called ‘White Riot’. ‘Career Opportunities’, ‘Remote Control’, ‘Cheat’, ‘Hate And War’ and ‘Garageland’ were all written after Keith left. ‘Police and Thieves’ was written by Lee Perry and Junior Murvin.

While Keith was with the band: Mick came up with ‘Janie Jones’, tune and lyrics, on the bus to Rehearsals one morning. Joe wrote ‘London’s Burning’, lyric and basic tune, in his Orsett Terrace squat after visiting Mick at Wilmcote House. Mick tweaked the tune and came up with a line for the lyric. Joe was always a bit hazy about the writing of ‘48 Hours’, but thought that he and Mick knocked it out in half an hour upstairs at Rehearsals before the band’s second gig. Keith might have had a hand in shaping it, but it couldn’t have been a very big hand.

In his recent lengthy Uncut feature on the making of the first album, the only thing Sean Egan managed to find out about the writing and making of the first album that wasn’t already in my book was that Keith originated the chorus riff and three word chorus to ‘What’s My Name’ actually onstage at the Black Swan in Sheffield during the soundcheck for the Clash’s first ever gig. Joe recognised that the fragment had potential and, in what he described as a ‘five minute job’, came up with the riff and words for the verses. Thereafter, Mick got hold of it and arranged it, but although it was credited to Strummer/Jones/Levine (sic) on the album, it should probably have been credited to Levene/Strummer. It was shameful that it was credited to Strummer/Jones on From Here To Eternity. What’s his name?, indeed.

That’s every track on the album accounted for. As a bonus: ‘1977’, the B-side to the single ‘White Riot’, had a tune ripped off from the Kinks’ ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ by Mick and a lyric by Joe.

In Sean Egan’s piece, Joe described Keith’s claims to have co-written most of the songs on the first album as the ‘demented outpouring of an over-excited mind’. What is possibly true – and a little kinder - is that Keith has forgotten which songs the band played when he was with them. He could have been more involved in the composition of some of the numbers that were dropped from the band’s set around the time he left: ‘How Can I Understand The Flies’, ‘Work’, ‘I Don’t Want Your Money’, ‘Deadly Serious’ (aka ‘Going to The Disco’, the tune for which was later reworked for ‘Capital Radio’), ‘Listen’ (the instrumental that was resurrected for the NME freebie Capital Radio EP), and ‘You Know What I Think About You’ (aka ‘I Know What You Do’, the riff for which was later reworked as ‘Clash City Rockers’, but which – like ‘Deadly Serious’ – really borrowed more than a little from the Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’).

The band’s other early songs which failed to make the first album were mostly Mick’s routine teen romance compositions which he’d brought with him from the London SS: ‘Mark Me Absent’, ‘She’s Sitting At My Party’, ‘1-2 Crush On You’ (which was released in late 1978 as the B-side to ‘Tommy Gun’) and ‘Ooh, Baby, Ooh, (It’s Not Over)’ (with a tune ripped off Booker T and the MG’s ‘Time Is Tight’, the original of which the Clash recorded in 1978, around the same time they recorded Mick’s song). ‘Ooh, Baby, Ooh’ was subsequently re-recorded with a new lyric by Joe Strummer as ‘Gates Of The West’, and released in that guise on the Cost Of Living EP in 1979. ‘Jail Guitar Doors’, meanwhile, was originally written by Joe with the help of the 101ers when he was still in that band; the Clash ran through it a couple of times at their first rehearsals, but then Joe decided he wanted a clean break from his past. In late 1977, Mick rewrote the lyrics to the verses and sang the version which was released early in 1978 on the B-side of ‘Clash City Rockers’, also somewhat naughtily credited to just Strummer/Jones.

trakMARX – Keith & Terry Chimes’ departure signalled the end of the Clash as a punk band & birth of the “greatest rock & roll band in the history of the world”? This was given credence by comments made by Joe alluding to the importance of Topper’s input in “Westway To The World”. Did The Clash leave Punk behind at this stage?

It depends on your definition of punk, really. If you look at the original four UK punk bands – the Pistols, the Damned, the Clash and the Buzzcocks – you can see that the movement encompassed a fairly wide range of musical styles right from the off; by spring 1977, it was a very broad church indeed, from the Adverts to Alternative TV, from Chelsea to X Ray Spex, from Wire to Generation X. Musically, the Clash started to rebel against the straightjacket of 3 chord, no solo, football chants shortly after releasing their debut album. This was at Mick’s instigation, but the new musical freedom was certainly enabled by Topper’s versatility. He’d previously played in bands performing trad jazz, heavy blues, prog rock, hard rock and soul. He could play guitar and piano, and, although no challenge to Mick as an arranger (probably because Mick wouldn’t let him be), he could be relied upon to come up with that little extra touch that moved a song up a class or two.

All the same, though, the Clash didn’t completely turn their back on punk as a musical genre until the end of 1978 (and the rump of the Clash even tried to revisit it – disastrously – in ‘84-‘85). A few lapses aside, the band members remained punks in attitude, behaviour, motivation and spirit throughout their career. It was their roots in punk that made them so special as a rock band, even when they were perhaps at their most traditionally rock’n’roll, around the time of London Calling.

trakMARX – Paul Simonon was once quoted as saying: “The Clash were a brilliant band until Sandy Pearlman fucked up our music”. Do you think Mick & Joe’s Jamaican writing trip prior to “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” drove a wedge between them & Paul?

I don’t know that quote, but I’m prepared to believe Paul felt that way about Pearlman. To get the sequence, though: the Stranglers, the Jam and the Damned had all recorded their second albums six months after their first, and released them around November 1977. They might have been substandard efforts, but it meant the Clash were under pressure from the music press and their fans to catch up. Mick and Joe had come up with half a dozen tracks over the summer of 1977 – some of them refashioned from earlier, unused songs – but they had nowhere near enough for a second album. That’s why Bernie stumped up (not quite) enough money for Mick and Joe to go off to Jamaica on a writing trip at the end of the year.

Paul had always loved reggae, and through his recently revived interest in the film and soundtrack album of The Harder They Come, had been largely responsible for turning the rest of the band onto the music and the rude boy culture of the early reggae period, circa ‘68-‘71. (Don Letts, the Roxy DJ, had been another big influence on the Clash’s tastes, but was more interested in more contemporary mid-to-late Seventies reggae: DJ, dub and rockers.) Still barely competent on bass, though, and not capable of writing or arranging, Paul’s presence on the Jamaica trip was surplus to requirements. He was understandably unhappy about this. As a small consolation prize, Caroline Coon took him off on an educational visit to Moscow.

Meanwhile, too scared to leave their hotel in Kingston, Mick and Joe got down to it and wrote nearly an album’s worth of new songs. When they got back to London, they wanted to get straight to work, and were less than pleased that Paul wasn’t standing to the right of the drum kit waiting for them. Topper was in place, though, and rough demos were recorded at Rehearsals with Mick doubling up on guitar and bass. When Paul finally did return from Russia, he wasn’t allowed to join in, but was instead sent upstairs with a demo tape, his bass, a practice amp, and Johnny Green to batter out a rough beat on his knees so that Paul could learn by rote the bass parts Mick had written for him - in Johnny’s words - ‘like a special needs kid’.

After a couple of demo sessions in proper studios, the band were ready to record their second album for real. CBS’s American labels Epic and Columbia had refused to release The Clash in the States because it was too rough. (It went on to sell over 100,000 on import there before Epic relented and issued a modified version in 1979.) Sandy Pearlman was foisted upon the Clash because CBS believed he could get them a sound acceptable to AOR radio in the States, and therefore to Epic or Columbia. CBS felt that, as he had previously recorded the Dictators, Pearlman’s punk credentials would be acceptable to the band.

That was hardly the case, but the Clash went along with it. In late spring, Pearlman took them into Island’s Basing Street studio, which was expensive, if – by Pearlman’s standards – rudimentary, and made them do retakes until they got the backing tracks note perfect. Only Topper was proficient enough to get it right every time, and – not being a natural musician – Paul was more prone to screwing up than anyone else. That made for a lot of takes, and bad tempers all round. Mick replaced some of Paul’s bass parts after he’d gone home, not for the last time in the band’s history. The Clash ran out of time, and Pearlman insisted Mick and Joe fly over to America to finish the album that autumn in better equipped and even more expensive studios in San Francisco and New York. It took another couple of months, and once again, Paul was not taken along for the ride.

So, yes, 1978 wasn’t much of a year for Paul. He was made to feel pretty small. And yes, Pearlman did make the band play the songs until they were stale. And he did get Mick and various session musicians to overdub parts until the songs buckled under their weight and the album as a whole sounded like so much bombastic heavy rock. So the producer can be blamed in part for the music having lost its way, though Mick might have made a stronger stand for the integrity of his compositions if he hadn’t been devoting so much time to growing his hair and hoovering his mirror.

Blame for the lyrics has to be pointed elsewhere. Bernie had lost interest in the band (other than as moneyraisers) some time before Joe sat down to write, and Joe later admitted that left to his own devices he wasn’t too sure what he should write about. So his inspiration came from newspapers (‘Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad’, ‘Tommy Gun’, ‘Guns On The Roof’) or pub conversations about the state of the nation and the punk movement (‘English Civil War’, ‘Last Gang In Town’). Other than that, all he had to offer were self-mythologising songs about the Clash (‘Cheapskates’, ‘All The Young Punks’). Mick Jones chipped in with a little more self-mythologising (‘Stay Free’), and Joe rounded it all off with a not very punk ditty about drug paranoia (‘Drug Stabbing Time’). Only ‘Safe European Home’ was truly great: a tower of a song, unafraid to own up to the naked terror experienced by displaced white boys Mick and Joe in the heavy, heavy atmosphere of downtown Kingston, Jamaica, or to examine the implications of this culture shock for the fantasy of punk-reggae unity.

If the Clash had been rushed back into CBS 3 with a more sympathetic producer during January 1978, they would almost certainly have delivered a better album: the As and Bs of what became the inter-album singles grouped together with the best of the Jamaican songs might just have combined to offer a worthy follow up to The Clash.

trakMARX – Watching “Rude Boy” today it’s clear to see that Mick Jones had reached his goal as a rock star by the time The Clash recorded “Give Em Enough Rope” – was this the start of the internal battles for control that blighted The Clash’s career?

Johnny Green told me he suspected the directors of Rude Boy deliberately cast Mick in an unflattering light because he behaved so brattishly towards them – and everyone else – during filming. The band used to call Mick Poodle around this time, partly a comment on his curly locks, partly because he was such a prima donna. The potential for personality clashes goes right back to day one, though. The Clash hadn’t exactly formed in a natural way, and Bernie Rhodes’ team talks had always been calculated to provoke maximum internal tension. By 1978, with Bernie withdrawing from the picture (as well as keeping his face out of the frame in Rude Boy), the band members’ very different personalities were starting to emerge. They liked different styles of music, different clothes, and – at this stage - different drugs.

Within the band itself, the main power struggle was between Mick and Joe. Joe had always been the leader of the 101ers, and after meekly accepting a more subservient role during the first few months of the Clash, he had started to assert himself again at the beginning of 1977. Having been sidelined in three different versions of the London SS, Mick was loath to let it happen to him again, especially as the Clash had been built around him in the first place. Even by mid 1978, Mick was still the band’s main tunesmith, occasional lyricist and vocalist, sole musical arranger and sometime producer. Joe wrote most of the lyrics, knocked out the occasional basic tune, did most of the singing, and gave good interview. You can maybe see why Mick was still holding on to the idea that the Clash was his band. When Mick forced manager Bernie out at the end of 1978, his position looked even stronger. In 1979, though, Joe would start to mount a serious challenge to Mick’s dominance.

trakMARX – The “White Riot Tour” Clash rocked an entirely different image to “Out On Parole” era image – more evidence of the shift from Punk to R&R?

Evidence of something else, which I touched on briefly above. Joe, whose first record purchase had been a Chuck Berry EP, and whose first effort at busking had been a ukulele version of ‘Johnny B Goode’, had previously fronted good time R&B pub band the 101ers. So now he was greasing his hair back in a quiff and wearing brothel creepers and a flecked drape jacket. Paul had been a teenage skinhead with a love of early reggae. So now here he was with a suedehead haircut and either braces’n’boots or a Johnson & Johnson powder blue mod suit. Mick had been a fan of the Faces, Stones and Mott, and had been in several live and rehearsal bands based on the template of the New York Dolls: now he was growing his hair back out into a Keith Richards shag and wearing blouson shirts, waistcoats, Kensington Market scarves, silk smoking jackets and high-heeled boots. Hilariously, Topper – who had never been a punk – still persevered with the basic punk uniform he had been forced to adopt when he joined the band… except, that is, when the others let him wear his beloved yellow catsuit as somewhat more fetchingly modelled by his hero Bruce Lee in The Game Of Death.

Whenever the Clash were pulling apart, they started to dress differently; whenever they were dressing as a gang, they were working as a unit. It maybe sounds like a superficial analysis, but if you check through the photo books, you’ll see that the band members variously used clothes as expressions of unity or dissent. In mid 1978, they were pulling apart. By the start of 1979, they all had their hair slicked back and were dressing as monochrome Fifties rockers, heralding a year of determined pulling together and great works.

trakMARX – Strummer was often accused of political naivety – in retrospect, wasn’t the wearing of Brigade Rosse t-shirts & sticking up for the Baader Meinhoff Gang just irresponsible posturing (echoed much later in comments alluding to feelin a swell of pride when hearing about English footie fans rioting)?

Yes. He later admitted this, too. Funnily enough, though, Joe’s adoption of terrorist chic in 1978 represented something of a natural progression. The rhetoric that had first fired the Clash in 1976 came from the American and Paris underground movements of 1968; as time went on, and words were ignored, the likes of the Weathermen in the US, the Brigate Rosse and RAF in Europe, and even the Angry Bridgade in the UK, started to go in for more direct action. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, as the old saw has it.

trakMARX – Musically, The Clash were at their peak between the 45s, “Complete Control”, “Clash City Rockers” & “White Man” – do you feel these sessions best captured the zeitgeist?

You’re throwing me out slightly here with the order of your questions. These songs were all written pretty much together in summer 1977, and released over the next year as singles to bridge the overly-long gap between The Clash and Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Kudos to Mick Jones, who was largely responsible for the music and the arrangements of these complicated little mini-operas, and who wrote ‘Complete Control’ - still many people’s favourite Clash song - entirely on his own. Because the tunes are so strong and the message of middle single ‘Clash City Rockers’ is so upbeat and positive, it can obscure the fact that the lyrics of the other songs and their B-sides ‘City Of The Dead’ and ‘The Prisoner’ are so down. Big depression for Joe Strummer at this time: very, ‘What’s it all about?’ Punk had burst out of the London clubs and gone national, but nobody seemed very sure what to do with it. A lot of ‘the kids’ were behaving as the tabloid press reports had taught them to behave: gobbing, throwing glasses, being mindlessly aggressive. It was hard to believe that it was going to go anywhere positive. So, yes, these songs did accurately reflect the zeitgeist as of summer 1977.

trakMARX – The “comedy” interlude towards the end of the re-recorded (“Cost Of Living” EP) version of “Capital Radio” was weirdly prophetic when we all thought they were taking the piss. Was the die cast by this stage?

Well, they were taking the piss. Or rather, having a wry joke at their own expense: the premise was that radio was playing John Travolta and Olivia Newton John and the UK public were buying it in significant numbers, so if the Clash ever wanted to get radio play and top the charts, they’d have to similarly overhaul their sound. Ho, ho. In their various ways, all the songs on The Cost Of Living – like the packaging – are comments on the constant battle between integrity and commercialism, holding out and giving in. It had been the Clash’s big struggle for nearly three years, and would continue to be so until they split.

If, though, you mean that by playing a cod funk outro to the remade ‘Capital Radio’ they were dissing a musical form that they would then hypocritically return to and exploit with ‘The Magnificent 7’ etc, then, no, I don’t buy that at all. Nor do I think that it was a bad thing that the Clash went on to experiment with different musical styles rather than just staying still and repeating themselves. If you really wanted a hundred versions of ‘White Riot’, you could buy Sham 69, Chelsea, 999, the UK Subs et al; if you wanted a hundred variations on the template suggested by ‘Police And Thieves’, ‘Clash City Rockers’ and ‘White Man’, you could buy the Ruts, the Police, UB40, the Beat et al.

Like I said earlier, punk cannot really be defined musically, only in terms of attitude. As it turned out, hip hop would become the most potent street level music genre of the late Eighties, Nineties and Noughties, and the Clash were one of the very first white guitar bands to recognise it.

trakMARX – “London Calling” is often cited by many commentators as being The Clash’s finest hour. How do you feel the LP holds up with the benefit of hindsight?

A mixed bag – which, to greater and lesser extents, all double albums are - but overall, pretty damn good. At the time, it was doing something that very few bands at the time – rock or punk or whatever they called themselves – had considered doing or were capable of doing: using examples of forms and styles drawn from the whole history of popular music as foundations for an episodic lyrical celebration-cum-exploration of the here and now. The Beatles and the Stones had both done it before, but that had been a decade or more earlier. For the Clash, it wasn’t regressive, retro, or whatever: it was brave and forward-looking. These days we take culture- and country-hopping and the sampling and cross-pollinating of musics for granted. Full marks to the Clash for not giving in to the begrudgers, and not letting dunderheads like Garry Bushell of Sounds force them back into the narrow confines of ramalama punk. And all such considerations aside, the album boasts some pretty good tunes. You can hum it, whistle it, and probably dance to it even when you’re sober, though I can’t say I’ve tried the last of these. It stands up, even when you can’t.

trakMARX – “London Calling” signalled the birth of The Rolling Clash – why do you think the Yankee Dollar became so important to The Clash?

The Clash And America. Three factors. One: they – especially Mick and Joe - loved the USA; they’d grown up in thrall to it. Mick’s mother had been infatuated with Elvis as a girl, had tried to stow away to the States at 19, and had moved over there without Mick when her marriage to his father broke up. She had continued to send him comics, music mags and communiqués ever since. So naturally, the country held a lot of emotional resonances for Mick. Similarly left to his own devices at boarding school, Joe had built a rich fantasy world around what he had heard on disc, read in books, and seen on the small and silver screens about cowboys, bluesmen, Oakies, folkies and rock’n’rollers. ‘I’m So Bored With The USA’ was a comment on American Imperialism: but it was never really heartfelt. The Clash didn’t have a problem with Coca Cola or Kojak, they just didn’t like the idea of being seen as second best (a defensive attitude typical of the London punk scene, which knew - though it tried to deny it - that the New York punk scene had come first and set the standard). The song was so much UK punk method acting.

Two: for reasons I outlined some way above, by late 1978, the Clash felt shunned by the wider UK public, and abandoned by the UK music press and the former punk constituency. Maybe America might be more appreciative of ‘something new’ (to quote ‘Gates Of The West’)… but then, America didn’t even seem to be much interested in its own musical heritage. An idea developed – possibly quite a self serving one - that America, which had given birth to rock’n’roll, should be made to embrace the true spirit of rock’n’roll in the shape of the Clash and their chosen support acts like long-neglected early rocker Bo Diddley. It became something of a mission for the band, which they dubbed The Quest. It’s important to remember that, although London Calling borrowed from some aspects of American music, it was not the type of American music that was getting played on the radio in America at that time: that was disco and AOR. Sonically, Give ‘Em Enough Rope had been a sell-out (though the lyrics were generally far too contentious and sweary); London Calling was anything but.

Three: they were in massive debt to CBS, and the only way they could get out from under and regain some control over their career was to break bigger markets and earn more money. Their inability to sell out convincingly in order to achieve this is actually quite funny: every time they went for the big bucks, their principles or punk attitude would get in the way. America would have opened its heart and wallet to the Clash a lot sooner than 1982 if the Clash hadn’t been so intent on telling America what was fucking wrong with it and to fucking shut up and listen or to fuck off out of it.

trakMARX – The new groups are not concerned (by new, I mean modern groups – sorry, couldn’t resist it) with breaking The States these days. One of the biggest UK bands of the last decade (Oasis) spectacularly failed to crack the USA. Are Pennie Smith’s images in “Before & After” the last document of their kind?

It’s not that they are not concerned with breaking the States, it’s that they can’t break the States, and so pretend not to be concerned. I mean, come on: we’re talking about the difference between being a local hero and reasonably well off, and being a global superstar and not only rich beyond your wildest dreams but a player who gets to call the shots rather than be pushed around by your record company or, for that matter, government. Someone from the UK will break America again sooner or later, so, no, Pennie’s book probably won’t be the last UK artist’s American travelogue-cum-photo-journal. But in other ways, Pennie’s book is untouchable: a perfect marriage of photographic instinct, outrageous shape-throwing, and ribtickling captions.

trakMARX – Sandinista would have made a great single LP. Discuss.

The individual tracks are too long and groove oriented for a single album: it wasn’t built to be a short sharp shock. With a bit of remixing, it would have made a better double (which, come to think of it, would probably fit onto a single CD now; the old terminology doesn’t work with the modern formats). It would have been slightly more of a mixed bag than even London Calling, I grant you. Sandinista! is great in places, but because there’s a little too much filler and crap, the good tracks have never been given the attention they deserve. It was a very, very brave venture: musically, lyrically and sizewise.

trakMARX – Did The Clash predict the US’s role as the police force of the world as early as 1980?

I think ‘predict’ might be the wrong word. America had already been sticking its nose into the business of its near neighbours in Central and South America for a couple of hundred years. You only have to see Walker – based on a true story – to realise that. And since the Second World War, and the emergence of the USSR as a superpower, the States had been sticking their nose into everyone else’s business all around the world, both covertly and overtly. Much like Britain used to before the Suez crisis finally brought it home to us (except, it would seem for Tony Blair) that we were all over as a world player.

It suited the UK music press to portray the Clash’s relationship with America as wide eyed and fawning, when nothing was further from the truth. When they first toured the country in 1979, they made a conscious effort to talk to members of various political activist, dissident and underground groups as they could in order to learn something about the reality behind the American Dream. One of the people they befriended was Mo Armstrong, a former Vietnam veteran who supplied them with literature about the Sandinistas and the situation in Nicaragua which – at the time - was not being reported widely in the American press. For the Clash to call their album Sandinista! in order to draw attention to this touching little saga of covert American Imperialism overthrown showed considerable bottle.

Truth was, though, that the song which provided the album’s title, ‘Washington Bullets’ was – despite its title – not solely an attack on American interference and warmongering. Like ‘Guns On The Roof’ before it, it pointed the finger at everyone involved: the USSR in Afghanistan, China in Tibet, and Britain everywhere a mercenary could earn a few hundred quid. Unfortunately, also like ‘Guns On The Roof’ before it, it wasn’t one of the Clash’s better songs.

trakMARX – The decline of The Clash had as much to do with “the looks or the lifestyle” as it did the inter band “politics” – where do you think things started going wrong?

Well, like I said earlier, there’s a case for saying that it started to go wrong right at the beginning. Like any other collective creative endeavour, the Clash only worked as long as its members were prepared to overlook their differences, find some common ground, and pull together against potentially destructive outside forces: the manager, the record company, the UK music press, whoever. Having sacked Bernie at the end of 1978, the band managed to do this throughout 1979, even getting one over on CBS by tricking them into releasing London Calling as a double album. The rot started to set in again around spring 1980, when CBS got their own back by refusing to release ‘Bankrobber’. The band bunkered down in the studio for most of the rest of the year, ran up massive bills while putting together Sandinista!, and then insisted that CBS release it as a budget priced triple album. To do so, the Clash had to waive their UK royalties, which left them even more skint than they had been a year before.

The lifestyle: it had improved, but you shouldn’t imagine that the Clash were living like lords. Paul was the only homeowner, and his place was a tiny – if you want to see just how tiny, look on the back sleeve of Cut The Crap – two room basement flat off Ladbroke Grove. Topper had a rented flat in Fulham. Mick was still sharing an admittedly flash but nonetheless rented pad with Tony James off Portobello Road. At the end of 1980, Joe and his girlfriend Gaby applied for a mortgage, and were turned down. So Joe was still squatting. Mick wasn’t behaving quite as badly as in 1978, but he was still a little arrogant and high-handed in the studio. By now, it was Topper who had the drug problem.

Although Mick had enjoyed the studio experience, Joe didn’t like to hang about in there for too long, and both Paul and Topper had been bored out of their minds. In fact, Paul had been severely underused, so 1980 had been another creative black hole for him. And, of course, Topper had become a junkie. By the end of 1980, Joe wanted Bernie back, and threatened to leave the band unless he got his way. When he used this ultimatum to force Bernie on Mick against his will, he did irreparable damage to his relationship with the guitarist. Thereafter, Bernie, Joe and Paul – who pretty much always went along with Joe – represented the conceptual power axis within the Clash camp, with Mick forming an alliance with the only other all-round musical talent in the band, Topper, in order to counter with a writing, arrangement and production power axis.

There were, funnily enough, genuine musical differences. Mick wanted to make hip hop-influenced dance music, Joe and Paul wanted to go a bit more retro-exotic with a punky rockabilly Texmex reggae sort of vibe. Mick became fiercely protective of his dominant role in the studio. Bernie and Joe undermined this by rejecting his mix of the double album Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, taking it off him, and – with the help of Glyn Johns – chopping the songs down, remixing and re-recording parts until they came up with the single album Combat Rock. Then, at Bernie’s suggestion, Joe did his runner, refusing to return to the band until Topper had been sacked for his addiction. The main purpose of this action was to leave Mick isolated. He withdrew, and went into a prolonged sulk.

Around this time, thanks largely to the success of ‘Rock The Casbah – Joe’s lyric, but pretty much everything else by Topper (writing, arranging and playing the instruments) – the Clash finally took off in the US. Through gritted teeth, the band hung on until the end of the year in order to promote the album and make some money. Terry Chimes, who’d been brought back in to replace Topper left again at the end of 1982 because he couldn’t see how the band could work together any more. After some time off, they drafted in a new drummer so they could play the Us festival in late May 1983 for 500,000 dollars. Afterwards, they tried to work on new material, but as they weren’t even talking, it didn’t get very far. Mick was sacked in September. Bernie, Joe and Paul then set about planning the New Clash… By late 1984, when they started work on what became Cut The Crap, Paul had been sidelined, Joe was a shadow of his former self, and Bernie was literally doing what he had always claimed to have done on band’s debut album: writing, producing, arranging…

trakMARX – In “Westway To The World” Mick & Joe come across as full of humility, especially with regard to the treatment handed out to Topper. Is that guilt you can just about make out behind the rose tinted spectacles (was there a parallel in “The Filth & The Fury” when Rotten shed a tear or two for Sid)?

They both felt some guilt, yes. Joe more deservedly so than Mick. It was Joe who forced the issue of Topper’s sacking, although Bernie manipulated him into doing it as part of his own power move. Mick was made to go along with it, and Topper knew this. When Mick was putting together BAD in 1983, he offered Topper the drum seat on the condition that he clean up at Mick’s expense. His failure to do so was the real reason why he didn’t get that gig. Later on, Mick and Joe co-financed at least one more expensive detox and rehab for Topper. When they negotiated the deal for From Here To Eternity, they made sure he got enough from the advance to buy himself a house in Dover. All in all, then, they did alright by him over the years.

Topper would have had to have been squeezed out of the Clash sooner or later. He couldn’t or wouldn’t get clean. He was so fucked up he couldn’t function as a drummer, and so dozy he got busted every time he turned around.

As for Rotten’s quote: he contradicts himself every time he opens his mouth, about Sid, about everyone and everything. Does anybody really listen to him anymore?

trakMARX – I’ll never forget the day I gave up on The Clash: It was at Leicester, a Mick-less Clash were going through the motions. Paul looked embarrassed & bored, Joe had a Mohawk & the others simply failed to register. I screamed abuse in the general direction of the stage & left in anger after 3 or 4 songs. Where were you the day the Myth died?

You must have been dreaming. The New Clash never happened, did it? Haven’t you read the tracklists and sleeve notes on the compilation albums and box set? Haven’t you seen Westway to The World? The Clash split up when Mick Jones left, and because it all ended so neatly, the Myth is still alive and well today.

When Mick got sacked, I was working in a branch of Our Price in High Street Kensington – which, back then, was a hideous police state of a record chain – and my workmates and I all agreed that the idea of a Clash without Mick Jones was unthinkable. A few days later, he came into the shop. Typically, it was on my day off, but another member of staff went up to him, put his hand on his shoulder, and said what we all thought: ‘It won’t be the Clash without you, Mick.’ Mick teared up a bit, nodded, and said, ‘I know.’ I refused to go and see the New Clash, that figment of either their or my imagination (it’s all so confusing), but I did go and see the first line up of BAD several times.

trakMARX – Were The Clash Punks?

Well, if they weren’t, nobody was. They didn’t kiss ass, and they didn’t take shit. They weren’t scared to have a go creatively, and they stood up for what they believed in. Principals, incidentally, that I have always tried to live my own life by. When I’m not on my knees giving £5 blow jobs round the back of New Street station.

trakMARX – How would you sum up the true worth of The Clash in socio-political terms?

It would probably take a whole book to do that. Funnily enough, I can recommend one…

trakMARX – How would you sum up the intrinsic value of The Clash as a rock & roll band?

Er, they rocked. Will that do?

trakMARX – How has “Last Gang..” performed for Marcus Gray?

I sometimes think I’ve performed for it. The book has always been as much of a curse as it has been a blessing. I never thought it would make me a fortune; I did it for love and glory. Hah. As expected, it made me relatively little money. It did give me an opportunity to push on to the next level as a writer, though. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing and boring to go into here, I blew it big time, and put myself severely into debt and (not unrelatedly) into a deep depression. I climbed out of the well of misery after about two years, and I’m about halfway back up the side of the money pit now.

I don’t want to shirk the underlying ‘show me the money’ drift of your question. The truth is, I don’t know. Let’s dig my old royalty statements out of the drawer, shall we?. OK, here we are: the UK, US and French editions of the original version of the book, together with the UK and US versions of the rewrite have so far made me a grand total of approximately £24,000, less 15% to agents and, of course, a few bob to income tax. That’s not too bad for a year’s work, is it? Unfortunately, it took me three and a half years full time to write the first version, and another six months part time to write the second. You do the maths; I’ve gone strangely numb.

What Last Gang really did for me was keep me humble.

trakMARX – You must have been very pleased to strike a deal with Helter Skelter for the 2nd edition. How did that come about?

I was supposed to cut the narrative down for a second Fourth Estate edition back in 1996, but I was too fucked up to do it, so they abandoned publication. I got the rights back a year or so later. I’d chatted with Sean Body at Helter Skelter a few times over the phone about this and that, so in early 1998 I approached him with the idea of putting out a revised edition of the book – right then, when I really needed the money – and he said he would… then stalled for months, before changing his mind. When I left London for Birmingham in March 1999, I took some freebie copies of the US edition of the original book into the Helter Skelter shop, and Sean gave me a good price for them, bought a copy of the Big Issue off me, etc, etc. A couple of months later, I asked him if he felt a bit more positive about doing a revised UK edition now. He was up for it. I was supposed to trim the book down for a spring 2000 release. I completely rewrote it instead, and delivered the still too-fat book to a slightly tight-lipped Sean in time for a June 2001 publication. He turned out to be a really good editor. Hal Leonard picked up the rights for US publication in December 2002.

trakMARX – Previous subjects for you have included REM, as well as The Clash. What is Marcus Gray up to next, & when do we get a chance to read it?

My first book, published in 1985, was a little known tome called London’s Rock Landmarks. Or was that by Johnny Black? He can never remember. I started the REM book in 1988. Then the Clash book in 1992. Then in 1996 a project that got away from me, and which I can’t even mention in case it tips me over the edge again. Then in 1999 a project I abandoned about halfway through because I didn’t have any backing for it. (It’s a really good idea, though, and I may go back to it if I can raise some interest this year.) Then in late 2001 a biography of a famous rock god which I got offered lots of money for, but ultimately walked away from in spring 2002 because the smallprint of the contract was too vicious. For the last year or so I’ve been working on an all inclusive overview of the punk scene: you know, the book that big heavy £35 Punk book should have been but so patently wasn’t. I don’t want to tell you any more, because I’m secretive, paranoid and delusional.

Links – try searching for Marcus Gray on the Internet, and the first 100 or so links are for an erotic artist who appears to have stolen my identity. This also keeps me humble.

E-mail –

Jean Encoule – – Jan 2003

contact - the needle & the damage done