We Are The Clash: the untold story of 'the only band that matters,' via Kickstarter
Holy shit, Ralph. Has it been twenty years?
I was in high school when I first got in touch with "Chairman Ralph" Heibutzki after reading his stuff in Record Collector or maybe Goldmine, those large newsprint publications for hardcore music nerds. At their best, the magazines terrific writing about obscure bands, or obscure aspects of a popular band's story, but the writing was only part of the appeal. In the back pages were the classifieds, and in the classifieds were the tape traders. In those pre-historic (well, pre-internet) days, if you ever hoped to hear a particular song by a defunct band, recorded live on a particular night — say "In The Pouring, Pouring Rain" as performed by The Clash at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Washington on a May evening in 1984 — you could either wait for Marc Andreesen to invent Netscape Navigator, or you could send a few bucks (to cover the price of a Maxell cassette and postage, mostly) to some stranger in the back of Record Collector and hope that what came back sounded as good on tape as it did in your imagination. (Speaking for myself, it usually sounded better.)
It's been decades since that particular show, which is undoubtedly floating around the internet for free, along with everything else ever recorded by a fan with a tape recorder. And Chairman Ralph Heibutzki is still writing about music. His current project, We Are The Clash, is a collaboration with Mark Andersen — a well known punk, activist, and punk activist. And one hell of a writer himself.
We Are The Clash is a book about the final line-up of The Clash, which is a story all its own. But It's also a book about the United States and the United Kingdom during a particularly tumultuous time in history. This was the age of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, corporate power grabs, austerity, wars fought in secret, and (in the US, at least) many of the same political actors that are still causing trouble — not the good kind! (In other words, it's relevant.)
In order to get the funds necessary to complete their research, they authors are appealing to fans and friends on Kickstarter. As of today, their $15,000 goal has been reached, but there's still almost two days left if you wish to contribute. Check out the Kickstarter page for more info.
I just spent a few minutes talking (well, emailing) with the authors about the book, about fundraising in the age of Kickstarter, and about how the internet really is an improvement of microfiche.
This interview has been lightly edited because the interviewer has OCD.
This book is about the final lineup of the band: The Clash "Mark II," as it's sometimes called. What is Clash II, and why your interest? Why this book?
Mark: Well, for me, "The Clash Mark II" is simply The Clash. It gets called that because many Clash fans don't consider any "Clash" that doesn't include Mick Jones the genuine article. I understand their point, but can't agree, not when Strummer, Simonon, and Rhodes all were part of this version of The Clash, and the stated intent was to fulfill the original mission of the band. As Strummer said at the time, "The Clash was elected to do a job, and we haven't finished it yet." I think we are doing this book to explore what Strummer meant by this, and assess how they succeeded and how they failed, and why. It is a fascinating and, we think, terribly relevant story.
Ralph: My initial interest came as a fan: I went with several friends to see the band at Michigan State University, East Lansing (5/10/84), and we all came away raving about the new band's potential. "In The Pouring, Pouring Rain" and "Three Card Trick" particularly stood out from the handful of new songs that they did. We all left thinking, "If they get this on vinyl..."
The critical raspberries against [final album] Cut The Crap, followed by the group's sudden breakup, created an impenetrable fog of mystery. As an aspiring journalist and musician, I sensed there was a lot more to the story, an impression only furthered by my first exposure to bootleg tapes and LPs. Far from the [notion of] fumble-fingered bums who couldn't play to save their lives, it was apparent that [the new lineup] could. Why hadn't they gotten the same chance in the studio?
Also, in dismissing the post-Jones lineup, you free yourself of examining the political events that the band were quite legitimately soundtracking – notably, the pincers of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, which only seemed to affirm the virtues of Strummer & Co. "going political again." As if they'd ever left!
The book will redress those imbalances by examining what the band accomplished, and the context in which their music happened, which carries plenty of relevance for today's reader. Thirty years after the band's collapse, we again find ourselves struggling with mass unemployment, a renewed feeling of danger internationally, and yawning income gaps between the haves and have-nots. What's that saying? "Everything old is new again."
This isn't the first book for either of you. Is this your first Kickstarter? Why did you decide to go this route? What does the money go to?
Ralph: The Clash were a British band, and most of the principals still live there. With my first book, Unfinished Business: The Life and Times of Danny Gatton (2003) [I happens that] I live in Michigan, but most of the people involved in his life are in the Virginia/Washington DC area, so you can't say, "We'll talk on the phone, and call it a day." In that case, I made two major research trips, for which I had to raise funds myself.
And that's before you start talking about other line items – such as copying, phone calls and licensing for whatever photos and/or personal ephemera you want permission to use – that have to come from somewhere (besides your own pocket). Simply put, Kickstater is a way of leveling that playing field: it allows you to connect with your fan base directly, instead of knocking on door after door, and hearing: "No, thanks," or, "What else you got, kid?"
Mark: Yes, I've done two other books, and didn't use Kickstarter. Honestly, it wasn't around then or I might have, since I think it is a very "punk" (i.e. grassroots) way of raising the capital necessary to do a book like this and do it right.
We do have an outstanding independent publisher, Akashic Books, which came straight out of the DC punk underground. They will put up the money to print, promote, and distribute the book, but they don't have the cash to help relatively poor folks like Ralph or myself survive while researching and writing. You need money to do this, and while Ralph and I already have sunk a lot of resources into this, we can't afford to pay for a trip to the UK to interview folks who were there for the busking tour of May 1985, for example.
How has response been? Have you had mostly a number of smaller donations, or a couple big ones?
Mark: We have had extraordinary grassroots support, almost 200 people giving an average of $75 each. Honestly, it has been truly humbling and inspiring. Clearly, there is a serious hunger for this book.
The Clash - North and South live at Brixton Academy 7/12/1984 (via bigobassplayer97)
I'm also really curious about online "fan" culture, and how this helped researching your book. Or maybe even just the influence of the internet in general.
Mark: Clearly, the online Clash fan world has been instrumental in making this book possible, simply because it not only enables Clash devotees like Ralph and I to connect — that is how we met! — but it also puts the live shows out there for people to make their own judgments about The Clash Mark II.
Ralph: Remember the pre-internet era? If you wanted to find Clash concert reviews, you'd schlep to a library in a bigger city, such as my alma mater (MSU), and spend hours trawling through blurry microfiche images until you found "the one," and hoped that it copied decently. Rinse, wash, repeat as required.
Mark: As Nick Sheppard [guitar] noted in one of my interviews with him, it was the ability to access the live music and demos [on the internet] that has built a strong and growing portion of the Clash audience who simply won't accept having this two year period dismissed or even written out of history.
Ralph: But you still have to do a lot of good old-fashioned inductive reasoning, to make sense of it all...
Where do you hang out online when you want to "talk shop" about The Clash?
Ralph: For me, it's If Music Could Talk (IMCT), now roughly going on a decade, but still the go-to spot in all Clash-related matters – particularly in light of the demise of earlier, excellent sites, like London's Burning, and StrummerNews. More recently, however, The Clash Blog has emerged as a powerful force, in its own right; founder/supremo Tim Merrick keeps The Casbah Club hummin' with commentaries, essays and interviews that you simply won't get anywhere else.
How big a role did this online network of fans play in helping you collect information, make contacts, and research this story?
Mark: Clearly if the co-authors met through the internet, you know the online network has had a tremendous impact on this book! Honestly, I'm not sure this book could have been made without that resource to call upon. If so, it certainly wouldn't have been anywhere as in-depth or nuanced.
Ralph: That's how you and I also connected, some 20-odd years after you first wrote me. And that's how I ended up joining the IMCT board, after someone posted one of my Youtube videos there (which featured me reading excerpts from my book-in-progress, as I envisioned it then). Suffice to say, that network has played a major role in making all of the above situations possible!
How much contact have you had with ex-band members? How has their response to the project been?
Mark: All of the "new" members of The Clash — Nick Sheppard, Vince White, and Peter Howard — have been very generous and supportive. Bernie Rhodes, the manager and co-founder who has to be seen as a member of the band, has helped out a bit, as have other really knowledgeable and passionate folks like Johnny Green and The Baker, crucial members of the Clash camp. We are trying to win the trust of other key players like Paul Simonon and Kosmo Vinyl, as their insights and recollections are crucial to telling the story with the depth, nuance, and balance that we are striving for. We hope and believe they will agree to speak once they realize the seriousness and truehearted intent of this book. Honestly, we are trying to do a book that it is in the best spirit of The Clash. We are about seeking and speaking the truth, but if we didn't believe the book could help to rekindle and spread the transformative spark of the Clash, to jolt people into action today, we wouldn't waste our time or yours.
Ralph: Johnny Green he's always been supportive, and (to use that now-hackneyed expression) "tells it like it is."
I've met Pete Howard [drums], Nick Sheppard, and Vince White [guitars] personally – back when I started this most personal of quests – and have communicated with them down the line over the years. Needless to say, they're all interested in seeing their voices represented properly within the story, and have given generously to us of their time.
We also have gained the cooperation and trust of associates like The Baker, another gent who saw the original lineup's story play out, from 1976 through [founding guitarist] Mick's last gig at the US Festival. Suffice to say, we'll be looking to expand the circle as we go along.
What would we be surprised to learn about the Clash in this incarnation?
Mark: That they wrote and performed songs that can stand comfortably next to the best of the Jones-era Clash. Given that we both believe that Mick Jones is a musical genius and helped write some of the most important songs in our lives, songs that revolutionized our lives, this is a heavy statement, but we think we can back it up.
Also, that the final British tour that The Clash ever did was a "busking tour" where this multi-platinum band just went hitchhiking in the north of England, playing for free to whomever they encountered with acoustic guitars and no microphones. Speaking as a hard-core DC punk who put on the first ever Fugazi show — and organized dozens of such benefit/protest gigs ultimately — I know of no more pure expression of the revolutionary punk ethic than this tour.
This is a story people need to know about, and we are determined to tell it as powerfully as it should be told.