“Joe Strummer And The Legend Of the Clash” by Kris Needs
Yeah right! Just what the world needs - yet another Clash book ..!
But before I reached for the barf bag a closer inspection revealed this particular tome wuz penned by Mr Kris Needs of Zigzag (and trakmarx!) infamy which piqued my curiosity as like ‘im or loathe ‘im his front line punky-waver credentials are damn near impeccable - and unlike so many of the current folks knocking out revisionist punky prose for a quick buck - he was actually there when it was happening and for me there simply ain’t no substitute for that….!
And so I snapped a copy up via Amazon’s very generous pre Xmas offer and sat back patiently awaiting it’s arrival…(no freebies here bub!) When it arrived the book was thicker and weightier than I’d expected and corny as it may sound - once I’d started the damn thing I couldn’t put it down ‘til I’d finished.
So is it any good? Well…Needs sets out his stall from the word go this book is a 110% unapologetic celebration of the Clash and Joe Strummer in particular - and a big two fingered ‘fuck you’ to the begrudgers, whiners and backstabbers - and his sheer infectious enthusiasm for his subject just leaps off the pages.
Where the book really hits the spot for me is in Needs first hand account of the early days of punk. This is one of the very, very few books I’ve ever read that actually manages to capture the exhilarating amphetamine rush and sheer nerve shredding excitement and thrills that gripped the early punk crusaders. This stuff is quite simply enthralling and well worth the price of admission alone. Needs tales of his initial encounters with the Clash camp are funny, witty and kinda touching and as he becomes an accepted member of the mythical Clash entourage of assorted movers, shakers and liggers, he’s witness to many of the episodes that have since passed into legend as our heroes weather the ups and downs of their very own rock’n’rollercoaster ride. Needs scores top marks too for highlighting the very different personalities that made up the band and their entourage and for anyone wanting a first hand account of the internal wranglings of any band this is first rate stuff.
We get a glimpse into the background of all 4 band members and a very real insight into the conflicting hopes, dreams and ideals that spurred them on - and later drove them apart. Inevitably too, we also get to see how the constant external pressures from the record company, the fans, ’punk’, the media and (mis)management started to tear the band apart almost as soon as they started to achieve the success they had all struggled so hard for - and Needs chronicles the sad demise of the band and Topper’s fall from grace in almost heart breaking detail.
Another area where Needs comes up trumps is that unlike most ‘rock’ writers he’s well equipped to address the westway wonders much derided departure into ‘dance’ music with ‘Sandanista’ and all that followed - and in fact he does argue very convincingly that the Clash were at the very forefront of the emerging hip hop/dance explosion, backing this up with very creditable first hand evidence.
Unlike most other Clash works, Needs doesn’t gloss over the post Clash years either and there’s a wealth of new information on what Strummer in particular got up to before his untimely demise.
Flaws? Well, for me the pictures coulda and shoulda been MUCH better sure there are some neat previously unseen shots but surely the Needs/Zigzag archive coulda come up with something other than grubby record sleeve shots? There’s also a wealth of text quoted directly from other writers throughout the book and frankly, while it does fill gaps in the narrative, for anyone even slightly familiar with the Clash story it’s all pretty much old hat. Needs isn’t above settling a few scores along the way too which is kinda petty though I’m sure I’d have done the same! (or worse).
Ironically too, perhaps because of the nature of the book, Needs seems reluctant to even remotely criticise anything the Clash and, in particular, Joe Strummer did.
F’rinstance - the reason the Derry gig was nixed was cos Strummer allegedly received a death threat from loyalist paramilitaries Needs neglects to mention that the threat arose because Joe wore that H Block t shirt. You play with fire...? Sorry, but their terrorist chic still rankles folks here...and I woulda liked that and some of the many other Clash anomalies and contradictions addressed and not papered over. Still, like the guy warned us at the start, I guess that wasn’t the point of the book.
My main criticism of the book though, is that Kris very obviously favours Joe and Mick and I can’t help but get the feeling he seems to deliberately overlook Paul’s not inconsiderable contribution to the band. Though Needs delves into both Strummer and Jones post Clash combos in depth, Simonon’s ‘Havana 3AM’ barely merit a single mention and for my money they were by far and away the best and most adventurous post Clash endeavour - marrying, reggae, rockabilly, samples, mariachi and spaghetti western twang into a singularly heady and intoxicating brew - certainly when I saw them live they pissed all over BAD’s tepid backing tapes and the Mescaleros hamfisted pub rock.
Personally I’d have liked more input from folks like Bernie Rhodes and other ex Clashers like Keith Levene - or especially Terry Chimes - who surely has a better insight than most into how the band changed as he was there at the start and the end. They’re probably saving their juiciest anecdotes for their own books though!
The verdict? Well, despite a few minor gripes, for me this book gets a mighty thumbs up! It’s a goddam essential purchase for anyone even remotely interested in ‘ye olde punke rock’ and for everyone who is thinking of picking up a guitar and starting a band. As Clash books go this is right up there with the very best of them which for my money is Johnny Green’s “A Riot Of Our Own”. Buy/read both of these and you’ll know everything you ever wanted to know about The Clash…and more! At least until Mick or Paul decide to write their own book!