Each month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we sat down with Randal Doane’s recently updated version of Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash (PM Press), a detailed look at how the last gasps of free-form FM radio and long-form rock journalism helped propel The Clash to pop stardom in the United States. Read on to see the Book Club’s reaction to Stealing All Transmissions.
Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor
— Len Comaratta, Senior Staff Writer
— Philip Cosores, Aux.Out. Director
Recent Book Club Reviews:
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr.
Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello
31 Songs by Nick Hornby
Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Purchase: Buy a copy of Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of the Clash here.
Matt Melis (MM): Mid-December marked the 35th anniversary of London Calling’s release. I still remember purchasing the album from JL Records in West Lafayette, IN, as an engineering undergrad at Purdue in the early aughts. I went back to my dorm, spun it, and immediately thought, “Can this even be considered punk?” I also remember cringing each time I heard The Clash referred to as “The Only Band That Matters.” As someone just beginning to acquire his own tastes outside of mainstream radio influence, I instinctively rebelled against anything — even a facetious marketing slogan — that threatened to narrow my search for new music without my consent.
Fast-forward a decade and change. A couple months ago — incidentally, while out celebrating on the eve of CoS Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman’s wedding — friends and I played a game in which each person had to name one album they would try to preserve for all humanity in the unlikely event that a music-annihilating virus from outer space found its way to Earth and began gorging on vinyl and MP3s. Without a second thought, I answered London Calling. Are The Clash the only band that matters? Of course not. But, in that moment, with the hypothetical fate of all recorded music falling squarely upon my shoulders, I opted to throw in with Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon.
Before we dig into the book itself, maybe the two of you could give a little background on your own histories with The Clash.
Len Comaratta (LC): I have loved The Clash since first hearing them. My first encounter was the video for “Rock the Casbah” off the band’s final album, Combat Rock. That was quickly followed by the concert video for “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Of course, this was also when MTV was in its infancy and still worth a damn as far as a source for new (and different) music. As far as the band’s tagline courtesy of Epic records, I never heard that until the mid-’90s, while visiting Boston, and a friend who was very active in the Boston radio world dropped that little nugget. It stuck with me ever since – regardless of how true or not it is.
I didn’t become aware of London Calling until a few years later, but when I heard it, I was blown away. But like you, Matt, I too felt the nagging question, “Is this punk?” Being an American kid growing up in Southern California in the early to mid-’80s, I had an entirely different idea of what punk was supposed to be. But then with punk, was it ever really about following a model or style? The Clash were punks from the perspective of fighting injustice, societal norms, and conformity. It was okay that their music wasn’t as “punky” sounding as The Ramones’ spastic two-minute onslaughts with no solos or the acerbic and intentionally volatile Johnny Rotten and The Sex Pistols because with The Clash it was the message that mattered, not the manner in which it was presented.
Philip Cosores (PC): Wow, I don’t have as much of an interesting Clash backstory. I got into them at a relatively young age and allowed them to shape and steer some of my early music fandom. I sported a Clash t-shirt in high school, and if you ask me my favorite albums of all time, London Calling is the oldest one on the list, since the music that resonates with me really began with punk and with them.
MM: In this updated edition of Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash, Randall Doane delves into The Clash’s story unlike any biographer has done before. In Doane’s own words, his book is “the story of how The Clash loved America and how America loved them back.” Len and Phil, can you start us off with your general impressions on Doane’s unique treatment of The Clash?
LC: In particular, Doane does a great job of showcasing the punk-isms that went into forming The Clash and even goes so far as to admit that by the time London Calling came out, they weren’t really a punk band anymore, but a very good rock band. As Doane put it, this was effectively the band’s last gesture as a punk rock group.
My overall issue with this tome is that it spends so much time recreating the history of free-form radio in 1970s New York City. Understandably, it was free-form radio that allowed movements like punk and new wave and post punk to rise up out of the underworld and thrive, at times even crossing over into the mainstream, but so much of this book was spent covering radio and the politics behind how it went from free-form to commercialized AOR that I almost forgot it was about The Clash. In fact, it was at points like these that I noticed the book would re-insert a Clash reference, almost like it was self-aware of this flaw.
PC: Yeah, I get your critique of the book and how Doane doesn’t seek to simply tell the story of The Clash but more sets the scene for why The Clash broke through in the US. I think a lot of the enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the book is based on whether or not you are interested in that specifically as a subject. In Doane’s defense, there are plenty of Clash history books, and that is likely the reason he felt he didn’t simply need to add to that glut. But I can also see the question being raised if all these circumstances were really as much a factor in the band’s American success as he hypothesizes, or maybe The Clash just really ruled. Right?
LC: I also suffer from being heavily influenced by The Clash already being popular when I discovered them on Combat Rock. Songs like “Should I Stay…” certainly ring of catchy pop goodness and are fun to sing along with, so it’s almost obvious why they were popular. But of course that totally ignores the band’s struggles to find success and support with their first two albums, which of course at the time I knew nothing about.
Though my bias says, yes, The Clash do rule, it is more than just that. The Jam rule too and rivaled The Clash in the UK; however, they never broke through in the US like The Clash. Would they have if the backing and support from radio and print Doane says The Clash got was given to The Jam or another band just as talented? That’s a big What If exercise, but I would venture to say there are other reasons The Jam didn’t succeed in the States quite like The Clash.
MM: Well, let’s look at the angle Doane takes in Stealing Transmissions, which both of you brought up. Clearly, he’s intent on showing how the rebels of both ’70s free-form radio and print music journalism paved the road for The Clash to find its audience in America. I also think we can read his book as an elegy of sorts to those mediums. Now, I specifically teamed up with you two on this book for a reason. Len, you’ve worked in radio for years, and Phil both writes and podcasts a great deal about the music journalist’s role in music discovery. So, from that perspective, what did the two of you think of Doane’s take on these respective formats? Did you buy his argument?
LC: I agree with Philip that we don’t need another straightforward band history/bio; and yes, as far as interest in free-form radio, I am totally in. I’ve written about free-form radio for CoS, but I guess my gripe is that I felt that the meat of the book was (at least to me) the history of those mediums’ influence in NYC culture more so than how they paved the way for The Clash. There are points where content could have easily been taken out and put into a Blondie bio or a CBGBs history. At times, it felt like this book would be better suited in a larger history of the mediums rather than as a window into The Clash’s breakthrough in the US.
Both of you have raised the question, and it’s something I wanted to touch upon myself. It gets to the crux of Doane’s argument. Just how important were the radio and zines in breaking The Clash in America? I fully believe in the power of radio to influence styles, promote trends, resurrect old songs, and even help to create new ones. UB40’s cover of “Red Red Wine” received a jumpstart via a radio station putting it back into its rotation years after its initial release. And the theme to Friends wouldn’t have been more than just that if it wasn’t for a couple of DJs at a radio station who looped it into an appropriate length for airplay, prompting The Refreshments to go back and make a real song out of it.
Doane does his best to try and put us into the environment of mid-to-late ’70s NYC commercial radio and the changeovers that were occurring as free-form died and AOR rose up in its place, but perhaps, at least for me, I still lack a true understanding of the effect of these stations on the NYC populace. How influential could they have been if they were being bought and sold and their formats were being changed? How many people listened to these stations, and what about that record store Doane mentions that imported albums from the UK? Would it still have existed without these stations? The punk movement was happening regardless. The zines discussed in this book didn’t seem to have much of a reach beyond the city, though a few notable critics, like Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs [pictured below], certainly had a national reach and were perhaps able to influence culture to the left of New York on a map, helping improve The Clash’s foothold in the States.
PC: Wow, a lot to unwrap there. I agree with Len that there is too much fat on Doane’s meat. There is a whole chapter seemingly about Bruce Springsteen that I’m still not really sure had a purpose besides laying the groundwork for why critics and DJs were interested in punk. And notably, the parts that were explicitly about The Clash, like how Christgau sought out the self-titled album and praised it and suggested it might never see a release in the States, or how Bob Gruen suggested that Rolling Stone had no interested in bands without label supports, thus making the punk zines highly necessary (which, side note, kind of reminds you of why blogs became essential, right?).
I think Len’s point is that it might be truly impossible for us in 2014 to understand the actual feel of music discovery in the ’70s. Even going back to the ’80’s and ’90’s, things had changed so dramatically that a book like Doane’s might need the asterisk “But you had to be there.” One thing we didn’t have to be there for is to understand the power of The Clash’s music. That’s the intangible that allows their songs to make sense for generations of listeners apart from certain societal conditions. And that fact leads us to ask that while, sure, the radio and journalists may have played a part in the success of the band in the States, but couldn’t the band have found an audience without them?
LC: Exactly. Part of me questions how much is due to Doane’s personal attachment to the scene and the band and how much was legitimately the media’s passion for this particular group. I think The Clash would have found their audience in the States at some point. In terms of what came before London Calling and what came after, I don’t think the band’s evolution was really affected by their relationship with the American (New York) press and certain critics in particular.
MM: Stealing All Transmissions isn’t for all Clash fans. I think we’d all agree on that. Doane comes from the academy, and I think that’s reflected in both his prose and thought process. He also admits in his prelude that his book jumps around frequently, as he tries to tell a different type of story about The Clash. But I admire that he offers an alternative narrative that champions the voices and pens that so often go unmentioned. He takes the infrastructure of ’70s music discovery and puts names and faces to it. I appreciated seeing the types of people who did an earlier form of our jobs get their due. What were the major takeaways for you guys?
LC: I do like the alternative narrative aspect of the band, but I have to circle back to earlier and say I see it more as an addendum to the whole history of the scene in general. Almost like how the Tolkien universe has tons of secondary and tertiary books in the mythology that are virtually nothing but footnotes, so too could this book fit snuggly into the larger story of punk/new wave/post-punk but also alongside a history of the commercialization of radio. With that, the book praises the likes of particular DJs, stations, zines, and writers in such a way that you almost want to go and find out more about these people and who else they championed.
This is a good read. Don’t get me wrong. My complaints aren’t against the subject matter but more against the title leading you to thinking it is one thing, but it ends up being a story of almost something else entirely. Many Clash fans would definitely find interest within regardless, as would people curious to the history of radio or punk.
PC: I think my ultimate opinion is a little less forgiving than Len’s. For me, it wasn’t just misdirection. I found the book a little dull. It isn’t a long one, at well under 200 pages, nor is it particularly dense, but it is dry, and reading often felt more like work than reading for enjoyment.
The other thing for me is how I approach books like this. My inclination is to compare how different today is from the time The Clash emerged and how the role of critic has changed. Things I find interesting, like the ways writers could be more and less key in breaking bands today, are largely irrelevant to most music fans. With that in mind, I wonder just how interesting Doane’s book could be to simply fans of The Clash or fans of punk or music history buffs. I think Doane’s collection is a useful book, and that is something to commend.