Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray
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|Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: The main focus of this book is the 1979 album 'London Calling', but to an extent it is also an account of the group's history before and after.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 544||Date: August 2011|
|External links: Author's website|
When I began reading these 500 pages or so, my initial feeling was – how could anybody write a book THIS long on one album? Soon, it became clear that I had been slightly misled by the title. Although 'London Calling', long feted as the best LP (now a CD, naturally) ever made by one of punk's most seminal groups, is the focal point, this volume also charts in detail the history and development of the Clash to that point, their subsequent career (and decline), and their legacy.
Like many other punk outfits, when the Clash crash-landed onto the news pages of the then highly influential weekly music press in 1977, they were only too eager to disown most of rock music's recent past. Only a few acts like the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and Mott The Hoople escaped their scorn. Most of the others were quickly swept into the graveyard with the philosophy that this was Year Zero, and nothing that happened earlier mattered. As we know with hindsight, and as the author makes clear, all the punk icons had a wider variety of influences and heroes than they dared to admit at the time. The Clash were no exception, with front man Joe Strummer being a fan of retro rock'n'roll and R&B, guitarist Mick Jones of 1960s guitar-based pop and rock, bassist Paul Simonon of reggae, and drummer Topper Headon of soul, funk and jazz. Without their grounding in and awareness of several earlier genres, as well as their fascination with London, America and Jamaica, and popular arts and culture, this third album would not have been the diverse set that it was.
I learnt a good deal about the Clash's early history, in particular on the battles with their record company and the US arm of same (which initially balked at issuing the debut album in America on the grounds of sub-standard sound quality – somebody there clearly didn't understand the punk ethos), the in-fighting, the love-hate relationship with Britain and the media, and the drugs, with Headon at one stage not far off becoming another Sid Vicious-style casualty. I was also interested in various little details, such as the state of Strummer's guitars. When he took them into the studio, one of the senior engineers was appalled to see the rust on his strings and pickups. It was just as well that his skills on the instrument were so rudimentary, resulting in Jones having to do most of the guitar overdubs. (Strummer's lack of patience, it seems, never allowed for anything as fancy as overdubbing). And the story would not have been complete without plenty about the role of veteran producer Guy Stevens, a much respected figure but sadly an alcoholic nearing the end of his short life.
One of the most interesting sidelights is an examination of how the band managed to manoeuvre a reluctant, cost-conscious record company into allowing them to release a double album without pricing it out of the reach of ordinary fans. No need for a gatefold sleeve, they stipulated. How about a single album with an additional single, or a four-track 7” EP? A 12” EP, maybe? OK, why not go the whole hog and put two 12” long players in a single sleeve? Of course, in the 21st century and the days of CDs or downloads, we are denied the variety of these different formats. That's technological progress for you…
Over 200 pages are devoted to a track-by-track history of each song on the album. Gray's research is staggering, and this section really is a labour of love. It's almost as if he was there in the studio all the time as he describes how they were conceived, recorded and gradually built up, often with the aid of outside musicians such as the brass section who also worked with their contemporaries Graham Parker and The Rumour, among others. Nevertheless there is occasionally too much information. When describing the track 'Spanish Bombs', for example, his explanatory text runs to two or three pages about the history of Spain since the declaration of a republic in 1931, Franco and the Spanish Civil War. Fascinating as it is, a précis would have made for a somewhat more taut book. However that's only a minor quibble, and such sections are easily skimmed through if the reader wants. And although the Clash and their output may not have radiated much good humour, it is amusing to read of an assessment of the homage, pastiche and borrowing from earlier sources on so many tracks of the album. They were not meant as 'sneeringly dismissive spoofs', Gray tells us, otherwise that might have made the quartet nothing more than a sour-faced version of the Barron Knights, a durable (established 1959 and still going) if terminally unhip cabaret group of pop parodists.
Once the record has been dissected at length, there is plenty of detail on the band's later fractious history, Strummer's falling out with the others, eventual disbanding and a reconciliation of sorts before his sudden death in 2002. Then there is the album's, as well as the title track's, reputation and continuing presence in many polls of 'best record of the 70s/rock era/ all time, etc.' – delete as appropriate – and even the band's influence on the likes of Dylan and Springsteen. It's a lengthy read, and probably only for the committed fan, or for anyone who is particularly interested in the minutiae of the rock business. But that includes me – I certainly found the whole detail fascinating. The research has been meticulous, with no stone left unturned.
Our thanks to Vintage Books for sending a review copy to Bookbag.
For further reading on the subject, Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews by Simon Reynolds examines the musical era in some depth, while No Off Switch: The Autobiography by Andy Kershaw is a memoir by one of the Clash's foremost fans who went on to become one of the era's most respected broadcasters.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray at Amazon.com.
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