A sure sign that Christmas is approaching is the sudden proliferation of coffee table books on the market. As sure as holly and mistletoe, each book publisher can be counted on to have one, if not two, of these extravagances available at this time of year.
With subject matter ranging from antique farm implements to celebrity photo spreads, the coffee table book is usually long on glossy photos and short on text, as they are meant more for display purposes than reading. (Hence the name "coffee table book"; its meant to be ostentatiously placed on your coffee table for bored family and friends to leaf through when they have nothing better to do during holiday visits)
For the most part I consider these books a waste of space and money. Each time I look at one I think about how many novels by how many authors could have been published for the amount it cost to produce a volume that might not even sell enough copies to pay for itself. Check out the remainder bins each year, or even more telling, those publisher clearing house stores, and you'll find most of the space taken up by last year's coffee table books. Even a year of supposed economic hardship like this one hasn't stopped book publishers from putting out their obligatory Christmas coffee table book.
However, once in a while there will be a publication of this kind where an effort has been made to make it not only eye catching, but also informative, with the text being as important to the book as the photography. When there has also been a deliberate attempt on the part of the publisher to make it as anti-coffee table book in presentation as Atlantic Books have done with the recently released The Clash you've stumbled upon something that your not going to leave around for people to use as a coaster this holiday season, or ever.
The Clash, distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, is not just a pictorial record of a band, its a history of the band written by the band. Drawing upon personal accounts left behind by the late Joe Strummer, interviews with the three other principle members; Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon, and previously unreleased print material (tour posters, band members' journals and scrap books, newspaper clippings, and tons of photos) The Clash tells the story of the most important band to come out of Britain's 1970's punk scene.
Like a Clash song, the book pulls no punches as the boys aren't shy about admitting to their cock-ups nor hesitant to talk about any of the bad times along with the good times. Using album releases and tours as a framework, the book is laid out chronologically. To start off with each of the four fills in biographical detail of their years BC (Before Clash); growing up, and how they ended up in the band. If you didn't know the guys in The Clash were different from other musicians before, reading what and how they write about themselves clues you in. There's nothing sentimental or mawkish - we were poor but loving - or any of the other bullshit you find in these sorts of things.
In fact Joe and Topper both had fairly middle class lives, with Joe spending most of his childhood in boarding schools as his dad was in the foreign service, and Topper's parents both being school teachers. Mick and Paul did grow up in Brixton, London's rough and tumble working class slum, and each recall a childhood spent playing in abandoned bomb shelters. Both of them came from broken homes - Mick was raised by his grandma, and Paul divided his time between his mom and step-dad and his dad - but neither make a big deal out of it. In fact they are each really quite matter of fact when it comes to reporting on growing up, owning up to when they were shits and all, but never looking back to lay blame or to seek excuses.
From reading those bits, and then everything else each of them wrote about their time in the band, you can't help feeling relieved. They sound like the guys who played and wrote the songs that preached personal responsibility that made The Clash so distinct from other bands. Even straining your ears, and reading between the lines, there's not a hint of anything to contradict that impression. There's no bullshit false modesty about what they accomplished, but neither is there any self aggrandizement where they pretend they were anything more than a rock and roll band.
Along the way the boys dispel a lot of the myths that grew up around them and the Sex Pistols hating each other, putting it down more to antagonism between the groups' respective managers at the time. Bernie Rhodes, The Clash's manager, had worked for Malcolm McLaren, who managed the Pistols, and the impression given is that he was constantly trying to outdo his former boss. So when Malcolm decided to try and make the Pistols more in demand by not having them play, Bernie went the opposite route and had The Clash in the public eye as much as possible. That made for some friction because the Pistols thought it was a deliberate attempt to outshine them.
However, hearing Joe, Mick, and Paul talk about the early days, there was a real sense of camaraderie between the two bands - us against them, and they genuinely liked each other. This is one of the few times I've ever read anything where Sid Vicious comes across as a human, instead of some deranged maniac. Sure a lot of shit happened to him at the end of his days, but that didn't stop The Clash from trying to organize a benefit for him to pay his legal fees when he was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend Nancy. That doesn't sound like the kind of thing you'd do for people you didn't like.
In the end what truly makes this book special, and what differentiates it from the usual run of the mill coffee table book shlock, is the fact it is a Clash creation. From the shocking, fluorescent pink of its cover, to the scatter shot lay out reminiscent of the old punk fanzines that were lovingly cut and pasted and run off at Kinkos in the middle of the night, The Clash by The Clash has about as much in common with other books of its type as the band had with the bloated corporate rock that preceded them. In keeping with Clash history, this is the band that released a triple album, Sandinista for the same price as single disc, the book is retailing at a price only slightly more than that of a normal hardcover.
At 380 plus pages, some 300 photos and illustrations, and around 60,000 words of text, they've not stinted on material either to make this inexpensive. Informative and visually exciting The Clash manages to capture a good deal of the energy and spirit of what made the band for a period of six years "the only band that matters". Who know whether or not this will be the definitive book on The Clash, but for now, its the only one that matters.
(Originally posted November 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.