I found Gray’s enormous, dense history of The Clash mostly fascinating, but the obviousness of Gray’s authorial agendas bugged me. The book is subtitled “The Story and Myth of the Clash,” and Gray spends a lot of effort looking for the points of divergence between the (hi)story and the myth of the band. He provides ample substantive examples of The Clash’s revisionism of their history and politics, e.g., subsequent claims that the “SS” in London SS, an early Mick Jones band and one of the earliest punk acts, was not a Nazi reference. But statements to the effect that Paul Simonon was born nearly 3 miles from Brixton he always claimed as his birthplace struck me as faintly ludicrous. If Gray were set loose in my own backstory he’d doubtless take me to task for claiming I lived in Baltimore, when in fact I always dwelt a quarter mile or more outside the city line — as well as for the shifts of my evolving political consciousness.
Gray also attempts to force events into his personal view of punk, in which the Clash (for example) are a force of positivity, and Nirvana (very explicitly) is a negative force. That’s fine. Gray is in good company, as far as I’m concerned, with many who fundamentally misunderstand Cobain’s art, and I prefer to view the punk subculture through rosy glasses sometimes myself. But in his quest to whitewash punk, Gray suggests that Sid Vicious might have been the lone bad egg in the early punk scene, and single-handedly tainted the whole movement with violence. That strikes me as not only absurd, but also as exactly the sort of revisionism for which Gray is quick to take The Clash to task.
I was also a little frustrated that something like half of the book goes by before the Clash record their first album. There was rich detail about proto-Clash London SS and the 101ers, but like many punk documents, Last Gang in Town devotes much of its length to the first flowering of punk, at the expense of everything after those first few months, which have already been minutely analyzed elsewhere.
Even though I often disagreed with Gray in particulars (I’m afraid my friends may have found me tiresome on the subject in the weeks I spent with this book) I found him thought-provoking throughout, and often both informative and insightful. Somewhat to my surprise, when I found myself facing a copy of Gray’s similarly-sized It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. Companion, the lizard brain shrill of “buy this, buy this!” quickly won out over my top brain’s sombre muttering of “this guys annoys us.”
Needs More Demons? Maybe. But The Clash had plenty of their own.