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, 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 of how many novels by how many authors could have been published for the amount it cost to produce a volume that may never even pay for itself. Check out the remainder bins each year, or even more telling, those publisher's clearinghouse 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 as important as the photography. The recently released The Clash from Atlantic Books is a deliberate attempt at an anti-coffee table book; something that you're 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, it's a self-penned history of 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 the bad times along with the good. The book is laid out chronologically, using album releases and tours as a framework. To start off, each of the four offers details of their years BC (Before Clash), growing up and ending up in the band. If you didn't know before that the guys in The Clash were different from other musicians, reading how they write about themselves gives you a clue. 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 Strummer and Headon both had fairly middle class lives. Strummer spent most of his childhood in boarding schools with his dad was in the foreign service, while Topper's parents were both schoolteachers. Jones and Simonon, on the other hand, grew up in Brixton, London's rough and tumble working-class slum, and each recalls a childhood playing in abandoned bomb shelters. Both came from broken homes – Mick was raised by his grandmother, and Paul divided his time between his mom and step-dad and his dad – but neither makes a big deal out of it. They are each quite matter-of-fact when it comes to their childhood, owning up to when they were shits and all but never looking 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 feel 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 if you try and read 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 around the supposed feud between them and the Sex Pistols, chalking it up more to antagonism between the groups' respective managers at the time. Bernie Rhodes, The Clash's manager, had worked for Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Pistols, and one get's the impression that he was constantly trying to outdo his former boss. When McLaren decided to try and make the Pistols more in demand by not having them play, Rhodes 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.
Hearing Strummer, Jones, and Simonon talk about the early days, however, one realizes 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 Spungen. 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 differentiates it from the usual run-of-the mill coffee table book schlock is the fact it is a Clash creation. From the shocking, fluorescent pink of its cover, to the layout reminiscent of the old punk fanzines lovingly cut-and-pasted and run off on the photocopier 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 price of a single – the book is retailing at a price only slightly higher than that of a normal hardcover.
At 380-plus pages with some 300 photos and illustrations and around 60,000 words of text, they've not shorted anyone on material to keep costs low. 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.