The Irony Age
The Clash, David Quantick's history of the seminal late-1970s punk band, stinks of fear—fear of idealism on the one hand and fear of selling out on the other. If you've wondered about the corrosive effects of all our postmodern irony, here are 136 pages of evidence. Hypersensitive to hypocrisy, the book betrays a childish ethic in which every act is tainted.
When the Clash hit it big in 1977, the book reports, guitarist Mick Jones "moved into what was described as 'a rock star flat,' full of luxury, stereo systems and mirrors." But Quantick doesn't say who described Jones' flat that way, and the use of the passive voice indicates either laziness in language or the postmodernist's desire to deflect responsibility for the claim from the author himself.
Quantick turns out to be a critic who molds every particle of irony into a monument to hypocrisy. Elsewhere, he writes that it was "amusing" to "some" that Joe Strummer "was singing about unemployment and poverty" by night, "while by day, he was living with a millionaire's son." The words "amusing" and "some" are just right for Quantick's purposes, allowing him to point out an apparent contradiction in a way that distances him from either blunt criticism (amusement is the prerogative of the morally superior) or intellectual ownership (others found it funny, but not necessarily Quantick himself). In the real world, some socialists are rich; a few socialists are lucky enough to have rich friends. Quantick would apparently have them all abandon either their politics or their people.
Quantick's music criticism is only occasionally better than his sociology. "Hitsville U.K." isn't the most memorable Clash tune, but irony completely blinds Quantick to the value of the lyrics: yes, it's a roll call of underground record labels "whose heyday was [already] passing rapidly" by the time the band recorded it in 1981. So call it oral history—and spare us the feverish observation that the song's appearance on a major label (Epic) showed "just how far off the point a record could be." From here, it looks like evidence that the marketplace is often truly free.
Similarly, Quantick dismisses "This Is Radio Clash" as "rapping at its feeblest" and notes "its stupid lyric about—again—how great it is being the Clash." In fact, many of us living through the dark days of Ronald Reagan's America—or Margaret Thatcher's Britain—really did see the Clash as something like pirate radio, using their promontory in a multinational entertainment conglomerate to preach the Good News. Quantick might stand in awe, as some of us did, that CBS Records would release the three-record set Sandinista! about the time Reagan was releasing the dogs of war upon Nicaraguan peasants.
The book is worth reading for Quantick's willingness to supply plausible answers to two significant Clash questions: Why did the Clash break up? Because Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon grew "tired of Jones' petulance and rock starriness." And why did the Clash frequently stretch thin material over the canvas of two- and even three-disc sets? Because the band naively believed it could fulfill an eight-record deal with CBS by producing multidisc albums. The book is also useful as a kind of almanac (who knew the Clash also considered calling themselves the Phones or the Mirrors? That Joe Strummer played first in a pub band called the 101'ers?).
But irony is like a case of the boils here: everywhere and painful. The Clash once auditioned drummer Jon Moss, "an opinionated man whose right-wing views were at odds with most of the knee-jerk liberal opinions of most bands." It's an image that "is to some a really exciting one." "Exciting" or off-putting? "To some" or to Quantick himself? How coy.
Quantick's ironic instincts may have been sharpened by forces beyond him: The Clash is part of a publishing project called Kill Your Idols, a series of books on big-time musicians (others include bios of Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Neil Young). Iconoclasm is good, but this is often a game of spot the contradiction, the mere obverse of the adjective "Victorian": stuffy, rigid and self-righteous in its radicalism.
There's a much shorter—and maybe apocryphal—history of the Clash in Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus' weird, brilliant history of the 20th century. It's early 1976, and Joe Strummer has just quit the 101'ers to form the Clash. Friends ask him why. "Yesterday I thought I was crud," Strummer is supposed to have said. "Then I saw the Sex Pistols, and I became a king."
Quantick might dilate on the word "king" and play off the magisterial irony of punks who would be royals. But the rest of us get it because punk—the Pistols, the Clash and (closer to home) X, the Adolescents, the Germs, Black Flag and scores of others—made us a community of people who ruled not others but ourselves. Is there any greater empire?
The Clash by David Quantick; Thunder's Mouth Press. 136 pages, paperback, $13.95.
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