May 2nd, 2022
That old “Only Band That Matters” sobriquet may sound a bit more pompous today than it did in 1977, but there’s no denying that The Clash was one of the most literate groups in the often borderline-illiterate British punk scene. Don’t get me wrong–I’d no sooner knock the primal joys of shouting “Neat! Neat! Neat!” than I would knock the thrill of crying “A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop”, but such things don’t exactly demand deep decoding. Joe Strummer’s words are more in need of explanation than most because he tackled so many topics in his songs and because a good number of those topics are either very specifically dated or regionalized. A twenty-first century American can still easily grock the righteous rhythms and melodies The Clash laid down, but I often have no idea exactly what Strummer is shouting about.
Which is why Martin Popoff’s new book The Clash: All the Albums, All the Songs is not just the latest book in a format that has also been used to analyze the works of such other major artists as the Stones, Bowie, Dylan, and The Beatles, but it’s also legit necessary to fully appreciate this particular band and their complex, pointed, and often esoteric songs. While there usually isn’t that much to sift through when it comes to a Beatles (Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!) or Stones (Hey! Hey Hey! That’s what I say!) song, Strummer packed a lot of ideas into stuff like “London Calling”, “Clampdown”, and “Koka Kola”. Pieces such as “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” are practically journalistic. So, while also offering his critiques of the music and details about the recordings, Popoff pulls off the difficult and valuable feat of boiling down the meanings of all the songs on The Clash’s six LPs. If nothing else, these explanations clarify the depth of Strummer’s knowledge of current events and the steadfastness of his philosophies to the point that anyone who could read this book and still dismiss him as a political poseur would come off looking quite the putz.
The one flaw of The Clash: All the Albums, All the Songs is that it adheres a little too strictly to its title. While each song The Clash deliberately put on their LPs is well-analyzed, single-only songs get the shaft. Popoff makes room for the singles that were included on the U.S. edition of The Clash, but these entries are strangely inadequate. That means that Clash essentials such as “Complete Control” and “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” receive less attention than non-essentials like “One More Dub” and, well, everything on Cut the Crap. Indeed.
Yet The Clash: All the Albums, All the Songs is still a terrific book, a beautifully designed, full-color hardcover full of great pictures and genuinely illuminating analysis. If I wanted to be really cute, I might call it the only “All the Songs” book that matters. But I’m not cute. I’m ugly as a dog’s gums.