In the current issue of Rolling Stone, contributing editor Mikal Gilmore takes us inside The Fury and the Power of the Clash, outlining their journey from English outcasts to conquering Shea Stadium and their bitter breakup.
Gilmore has deep roots with the band; he was in his late twenties in early 1979 when RS sent him to England to interview the band in the period between Give ‘Em Enough Rope and London Calling.
We spoke to him about how he got Joe Strummer to open up, whether he wishes the band ever reunited and why he wanted to revisit them now.
Did writing about the Clash again bring you back to your original 1979 story? What do you remember about going to London to meet them?
It was just shortly before the Clash made their first trip to the U.S. It was also my first trip to London. The absolute gloominess of the place is what impressed me. It was overcast. It was in the wake of Christmas, so everything was closed. Just walking around the streets, watching this overall dour atmosphere and the grimness of the police on the streets helped me understand the environment the Clash came from as much as anything. [I saw] despite all the romanticism of 1960s music, England could be a very grim and apprehensive place. That stayed with me for a long, long time.
Do you remember the initial reasons you wanted to report on the Clash?
They made the first great album in punk. It was one of those aggressive albums, but then there was also this great melodic sensibility about it. You also had that in the Ramones, but they really didn’t have that much to say. With the Clash, there was the sense of New World daring and risk.
Strummer sounds pretty fearless in your interview. At one point he says, “We’re not just another wank rock group like Boston or Aerosmith, what fucking shit.” What was your impression of him?
From the beginning, the stakes of credibility and reputation in that punk movement, especially the question of authenticity, couldn’t help but trap everybody who came up to it. Strummer was particularly vulnerable given his family background. If I remember right, when I first met them, the Clash had gone through the first wave of reaction against them in the British Press…that was part of Strummer’s wariness. Questions like authenticity would matter much less to an American audience, but I think he was just worrying about everything.
Did anything in particular make you think Strummer was unsure or nervous?
He was never unfriendly, but there was this undercut quality when we first started talking. His answers were brief, laconic, sort of bitten off. But he warmed up over the process…He came out of that shell, but he made plain that he didn’t trust the press. Some of that was just the image, but [Paul] Simonon and [Mick] Jones weren’t like that. They were quite warm and friendly and able to relax and joke around. Strummer was not.
Was there a moment when you felt you broke the ice with him?
As I recall, it’s on the page. It had to do with talking about what the Clash’s goals were and the risks they were running – the idea of not just a cultural uprising like punk, but [writing for] a larger community, the world. It could be lethal. I’ve always thought the most remarkable song lyrically were the ones on that second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, where they really start to look at the world around them and to talk about just what a dangerous and complex place it was. He said he wanted them to be the biggest band, but he recognized the contradictions in that.
When you saw them back then, you wrote they were the most persuasive rock n’ roll show you had seen in years.
They were just so assertive. You got the sense that they were trying to push some limits. They were trying to goad the audience into the kind of confrontation that people could take into their lives and assert themselves, seize some power for themselves.
Is it sad for you looking back to see they never reunited?
People want reunions because there’s a sense of wanting a better ending. When the Sex Pistols reunited, they were still a great band, but they were out of context. I think the Clash knew that. More than anyone other than the Beatles, the Clash had this remarkable progress from record to record – musically, thematically and in terms of sound and production. If you drop off from that for years and you try and go back and pick up that thread, it doesn’t work. The context, the moment, is gone.
After all this time why did you want to write about them again?
I’m particularly drawn to the stories where somebody makes something that basically amounts to more than themselves. You look at the breakdown in the Clash and the way in which Strummer in particular betrayed that community within them; yet Strummer made something that redeemed that. Sometimes the most interesting stuff comes from deeply fucked-up people who manage to be the best people they can or do the best things in the world that they can in their art or in their music, and that was the case in the Clash.
All three original members were people who had been misplaced in their lives. The Beatles grew up together; these guys hadn’t. They made a community, but didn’t have the kind of background to trust a community or to hold it together – tension between creating something new and not really trusting the union that you’re doing it in. All three of those guys had longed for something that they could only find with each other, but they couldn’t trust having it with each other.