It should come as no great surprise that the greatest rock 'n' roll band of the past three decades, the Clash, should also be the most examined and most revisited band of the new millennium. There will have been no less than seven different Clash-related books released within a two-year span that ends this fall. Over the past five years, we've seen a special-edition, three-CD version of the band's 1979 masterpiece, London Calling; the two-disc DVD release of Clash videos, The Essential Clash; and the third, final and sadly posthumous release of Joe Strummer's Mescaleros band, Streetcore, which came out nearly a year after Strummer died in December 2003 at the age of 50 of an undiagnosed, congenital heart defect.
By then, the former bandmates had already learned they were to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following spring. Strummer had even spoken enthusiastically about reuniting the band to perform for the ceremony -- no small feat, given their rather strained relationships.
Strummer's death may be the final tragedy for a band that had more than its share, a band that also died tragically and prematurely -- or as the Who put it, before it got old. This is the stuff of mythology, and you would be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive and revealing exploration of the Clash than former Mojo editor Pat Gilbert's chronicle, Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash.
Until now, Marcus Gray's frequently updated 1995 work, Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash (last revised in November 2004 as The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town) was considered the definitive work, though it has been criticized for its reliance on secondary sourcing and sometimes overly critical tone. Not so in either department with Passion Is a Fashion, which, like the band itself, feels like all of a piece. Gilbert benefits from his own personal coverage of the group over the years, and also interviewed more than 70 sources that include the entire Clash entourage. Plus, he makes the impressive claim of having drawn on original interviews with all of the band members over a six-year period. If anything, the book suffers from so many characters that the uninitiated need a program to keep up.
Gilbert revels in the contradictions of the Clash, a band that both defined the punk aesthetic of creating organically and yet was thoroughly calculated in its ambitions; that spoke passionately from a sociopolitical standpoint only to be criticized for selling out; that believed in the power of the people and yet became consumed by, among other things, its own jealousies and hierarchy. Gilbert explores all of this, and although he's unafraid to provide his own perspective, he doesn't employ it as a veto over others.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Gilbert's treatment of the most controversial member of the group: its Svengali-like manager, Bernie Rhodes, who was to the group what Malcolm McLaren was to the Sex Pistols. Like the two bands, Rhodes and McLaren were both friends and rivals, as similar and different in their temperaments and politics as they were in their approach to their bands. When writing of the controversial rehiring of Rhodes following the making of 1980's ambitious and uneven Sandinista!, Gilbert wades into the complicated situation with knee-high boots of objectivity.
Gilbert is at his best when examining the actual "clash" of influences that surely provided the band with its name -- including that of art, fashion and politics. While he notes that the phrase "Does passion end in fashion" was splashed on a wall in McLaren's Sex boutique, Gilbert suggests, "It's also, of course, a neat inversion of the maxim 'fashion is a passion.' As a slogan, it was powerful but ambiguous -- does it mean being passionate is a passing fad? Or that passion is a (commendable) way of doing things? Either way, passion was a word that summed up The Clash's approach to their art better than any other."
Gilbert brings a rare combination of reportage, sympathy and pathos to the task of untangling the personalities and personas that drove the band, again refusing to typecast anyone. Strummer comes off as much more complex than a Woody Guthrie-wannabe outlaw, his big heart often obscuring his wisdom. Jones is portrayed as much more than a petulant rock star. Gilbert is equally fair in his characterizations of bassist Paul Simonon, now an acclaimed visual artist whose fashion sense helped shape the band's image, and to drummer Topper Headon -- clearly the most musically proficient, if also the most vulnerable, member of the group.
How these four bandmates, and so many others in their orbit, came together is all a complex part of England's dreaming, and Gilbert shows how to match the greatness of a band with the greatness of a biography.