Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reader's Diary #607- Kris Needs: Joe Strummer and the legend of The Clash

I enjoy rock books, but I head into them with some trepidation. Besides the usual "what's the agenda behind this?" question I have with all biographies, I also fear knowing too much. Why do I want to learn more about those bands I love, when I risk learning something awful about the artists, something that'll taint their songs whenever I hear them? Is there something gained by knowing the man behind Sex Machine? The woman behind Celebrity Skin? For what it's worth, I still listen to the Beatles, even though I think Paul McCartney is an idiot.

Kris Needs' Joe Strummer and the legend of The Clash hasn't changed my opinion of the band much. But it has shed some light on the progression of their sound and it's neat to listen to their songs again with some insight as to what the Clash was about at that particular moment. Having gotten into the Clash (and punk music) long after the band ceased to exist, their back catalogue had been a bit of a swirl to me. Compare "London Burning," for instance, with "This is Radio Clash." One's pure punk angst, the other... has a disco beat? Needs makes a great case in illustrating the difference between punk music and punk attitude. While the Clash dabbled in and helped popularize the first, they were more about the latter. They liked reggae, so they threw it in. They liked hip hop. They threw it in. Country? Why not? If they could bitch about society in the process, that was just gravy. These are the reasons I like the Clash.

However. In many other ways, the Clash was just like so many other rock bands that came before and after. Torn apart by drugs, artistic differences, egos, and bad management? Didn't that happen to... EVERY OTHER BAND? The only thing keeping Joe Strummer and the legend of The Clash from slipping completely into rock and roll cliché, is the omission of gratuitous sex. But that hardly makes it more interesting. If you were not a fan of the Clash before, you'll likely find the book quite dull.

However, I am a fan and loved visiting a scene that I was too young to be aware of at the time. The constant name dropping of other bands and musicians might drive some readers up the wall, but as a music trivia nut, I loved it. Everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and X-Ray Spex to the Foo Fighters and Chemical Brothers gets a nod. Though, as the Jam or Bob Geldof might attest, they may not be flattering nods. (Ouch!)

Kris Needs was getting his start in rock journalism at the time of the Clash's meteoric rise and became quite close to the band. In terms of this book, that was both a blessing and a curse. There were a few too many insider jokes (a bit about wildebeests was hammered ad nauseum) and it often smacked of the "You don't know, man. You weren't there!" type nostalgia. But of course, there's a lot of behind the scenes stuff he was privy to, that other biographers weren't going to get after the fact.

It was also a wise decision for Needs to focus his attention on Joe Strummer, the lead singer. Creating a bit of a hierarchy, Mick Jones (co-founder of the Clash and Needs' closest friend from the band) seems to avoid blame for anything, almost saint-like. Bernie Rhodes, the on again/ off again manager, was not close to Needs at all and was subsequently shown to be a pariah, scapegoated for practically all the bad decisions, and worse, the band's downfall. Joe Strummer (and to a lesser extent, members Paul Simonon and Topper Headon) is fortunately kept at a healthy distance. Having been close to Needs, but not too close, Strummer is allowed to be human. He is shown to be creative and energetic, but still imperfect, making mistakes along the way. Jones and Rhodes deserved the same treatment, but they'll have to find someone else to write their books.

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