The Beats: a Very Short Introduction (Books 2019, 4)

The Beats VSI alongside a heart-shaped pottery gift
The Beats VSI alongside a heart-shaped pottery gift

Since I announced back in October that I’m writing a novel called Delta Blues: Beat Poet of the Spaceways, I thought I should learn a bit more about the Beats. Not that my character is necessarily going to be very like the actual Beats, and maybe her poetry won’t be like theirs either, but you need to know about what you’re using for inspiration, right?

Books in the “Very Short Introduction” series do exactly what their shared subtitle suggests, and this is no exception. You get a brief prehistory and history of the movement, then a look at the major novelists, another at the major poets, and then a piece on their influence.

In common with the last two books I read, The Clash get a mention, because Allen Ginsberg worked with them, adding spoken-word part to “Ghetto Defendant,” on the Combat Rock album.

I know more about the Beats now than when I started, and that’s exactly what I wanted out of this book.

The Beats: a Very Short Introduction (Books 2019, 4)

England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, by Jon Savage (Books 2019, 3)

England’s Dreaming alongside a shaving brush

I didn’t start reading this just because I read a book about The Clash recently. In fact I started it sometime last year. But reading the Clash book did make me want to get back to this, and refresh my memories of the early days of punk.

Reading a history of a time you lived through is interesting. Not that I was involved in the events, but I was distantly aware of at least some of them. In the years the book covers I was between 12 and 15. Or maybe just 14, as it only gets as far as early 79. It’s a short period of time, looking back, and they — the Pistols, and most of the other bands too — were incredibly young. They were just 20 and 21 when they signed their first deal. And their second. And their third.

At times Savage appears to think that punk was over when the pistols split, if not before. And generally to have quite negative thoughts about it as it developed Though he undercuts that contempt later, in the appendices and in the notes scattered through the huge discography at the end. He acknowledges the influence of punk, though considers it just to be one of a range of genres or forms that influences popular music. Which is fair enough, though there are still, even today, bands that consider themselves to be punk. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know.

Something that came out of it that surprised me — though doesn’t, now that I know the facts — is that you can no longer get the film of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in any form (though you can still get the soundtrack album). That’s because it was McLaren’s project, it sets him up as hero, and makes Lydon the almost-unseen villain. Lydon hated McLaren by the end, and eventually won control of the Sex Pistols name and assets in a series of court cases. Presumably he controls whether it will ever be released.

I find this mildly annoying, because I saw it couple of times when I was a student, and enjoyed it, and wouldn’t mind seeing it again. Second-hand DVD copies are available, but they’re mostly pricey and/or being shipped from the States.

I suppose the more recent, documentary films, The Filth and the Fury, might be worth seeing. I see that, like The Swindle, it is directed by Julien Temple. Clearly Lydon didn’t mind his work on McLaren’s film.

What doesn’t come through very much is any sense of Jon Savage himself. What was he doing, and how did he get involved in all this? I gather he wrote a fanzine, London’s Outrage, and he became a journalist writing for Sounds, according to his Wikipedia entry. While he has done extensive research, and interviewed many of the participants, some of the story clearly comes from his being there at the time.

But the only real sense of that we get is that, towards the last third or so of the book, a series of dated, italicised entries appear. They clearly are — or are meant to be — diary entries from the time. Or notes for articles he wrote at the time, perhaps, giving us something of a first-person view of some to the gigs and so on. I would have liked to see more made of these, or more generally about his experience and from his point of view. A book about punk ought to be a bit more gonzo, I think.

But on the whole it’s a great read.

England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, by Jon Savage (Books 2019, 3)

We Are The Clash by Mark Andersen and Ralph Heibutzki (Books 2019, 2)

The book "We Are The Clash" with The Clash's "Cut the Crap" album on CD
We Are The Clash with the Cut the Crap CD

This is the book that I mentioned before Christmas. The subtitle is “Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of A Band That Mattered,”1 which captures well its structure. It interleaves the politics of what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic — the miners’ strike, Reagan’s nuclear brinksmanship, the Iran/Contra scandal — with what was happening with the most political of the original punk bands.

It’s interesting to read a history of a time you lived through and were, however tangentially, involved in. Andersen and Heibutzki more than do justice to their material. The research they must have done is impressive. I know personally that Andersen came to the UK on a research trip, but aside from that they have interviewed the three non-original members of The Clash, Kosmo Vinyl, and various other people who were involved or just had something useful to say.

And they must have spent a lot of time listening to concert tapes and studying set lists — which doesn’t sound like a chore to me, it’s fair to say.

I learned two major things: first, I’d forgotten how good Cut the Crap is. I haven’t listened to it in ages, and when I went to do so on Apple Music, I found it isn’t there. Nor is it on Spotify. I have it on vinyl, but I don’t currently have access to a record player.

Luckily Amazon and CDs both still exist, so I put some more money the way of… Bernie Rhodes, as it turns out.

That’s the other big thing I found out: how — difficult, let’s say — Rhodes was. Not least since he signed the band — well, Joe and Paul: the others were effectively employees — into a contract that gave him, Rhodes, control over the album, as well as the name “The Clash.”

But worse was the way he treated the new members while they were with the band. Constantly haranguing them, telling them they weren’t up to scratch, shouting at them… it’s a wonder they stayed. It sounds like an abusive environment.

Joe could and should have stopped it, but it seems like he was still to some extent in Rhodes’s thrall — Bernie did bring the band together, after all — and possible suffering from depression. Certainly he was drinking heavily, and during that time his dad died and his mum got ill, and he became a father himself. It was a difficult time for him.

I have more to say about the album, but I think that’s for a separate post. For now, this is a great rock book about a little-discussed time in the history of my favourite band.


  1. Good to see the proper use of the Oxford comma there. 
We Are The Clash by Mark Andersen and Ralph Heibutzki (Books 2019, 2)

Rude and Rough

I watched Rude Boy for the first time in many years. It is, in case you don’t know, a film from 1980 about and featuring The Clash. It’s kind of a fictionalised documentary, in that the titular character, Ray Gange, is both someone who was a sometime roadie for/hanger-on of The Clash, and playing the part of “Ray Gange.”1

The worst part of it is, as I recalled, his “acting.” Well, that’s not quite true. Viewing it as a film, that’s the case. But viewing it as a document of the end of the seventies, the worst part of it is the casual racism. And indeed the organised racism of the National Front rally shown at the start.

Also bad are the violence from police and bouncers, and the general horribleness of Britain in the seventies. Nothing looks clean, everything looks run-down or broken. It looks, in fact, far worse than I remember it being.

Don’t worry, by the way, if you don’t remember what it was like, are too young to have experienced it, and/or don’t want to watch the film. It’ll be like that again in a couple of years if things go as we fear.

The best parts are, of course, the scenes of The Clash live and in the studio. And we won’t get them back after Brexit.

Also, in looking up the IMDB article, I discover that a) Ray Gange has actually been in a couple of other movies, and b) far more importantly, there is a 2016 movie called London Town, which is a drama about those times. With people acting as The Clash. Whaaaat? Why did no-one tell me about this?


  1. Or not quite. That’s how I remembered it, but Wikipedia suggests the story is slightly different. 
Rude and Rough

Redemption Song: the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, by Chris Salewicz (Books 2007, 1)

Ah, Joe. I can hardly believe that it’s already four years since we lost him. I started reading this on Christmas day, and finished at about two in the morning on the 14th of January: exactly three weeks later. If I read a book every three weeks that would be seventeen in a year, which isn’t very many. Anyway, during that time I completely immersed myself in Strummeriana; as well as reading the book I listened to little music other than The Clash or Joe’s solo stuff, and I also put my bit in on the various Wikipedia articles.

And none if it can make up for the fact that he’s gone.

In fact, reading the book only makes it worse: it reinforces the sense of what we’ve lost. He was on a great creative upswing when he died, as the the posthumous Streetcore album showed. Its opening track, ‘Coma Girl’ (which, we learn, is about his daughter Lola) was the single best song he wrote since ‘Trash City’, at least.

Alas, we’ll never hear anything new from him again.

Or at least, not truly new: it seems from reading the book that there might be quite a few unreleased recordings out there, and he worked on more film soundtracks than I knew about.

Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is this piece of information. Around the time that Joe and the Mescaleros were writing and recording Global A Go-Go, the second of the comeback albums after the wilderness years, he also sent a set of lyrics to Mick Jones. He seemed to be suggesting that he was considering an alternative to the Mescaleros album. Mick wrote tunes for them and sent them back, but heard no more about it. Some time later, after Global A Go-Go had been released, Mick asked what had happened to the songs. Joe said, “Those weren’t for Global A Go-Go; those were the next Clash album.”

There’s no suggestion that he ever recorded any of them; but you never know: one day Mick might, when he’s not too busy with Carbon/Silicon.

What of the book itself, though? Well, it’s certainly compelling reading (at least if you’re a fan like me). It is flawed in some ways, of course. It can be hard to follow the early sections about Joe’s family, without an actual family tree to clarify things, thought that’s not a big problem.

Despite its size and comprehensive nature, there are parts that come across as too anecdotal and perhaps incomplete. Certainly there are places where I would have liked to have a lot more detail. But a book this size could be written about The Clash alone (several have, of course, but perhaps none quite the size of this one).

Still, it’s totally a must-have for any Clash fan, or solo Joe fan (can you be the latter but not the former?)

I wonder what it would have been like if The Clash had kept going and had become like U2 (who were heavily inspired by them)? In a good sense: I listened to an interview with Salewicz, where he pointed out that, though Joe didn’t like the distance from the audience at stadium gigs, he was very good at handling them. So imagine them doing something like the Zoo TV tour (indeed, when I saw footage of that, all the TVs as backdrop reminded me instantly of the Clash Mk II ‘Out of Control’ tour).

Redemption Song: the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, by Chris Salewicz (Books 2007, 1)

Straight to Elgin Avenue

So I ordered the new Banksie from Amazon, and to get free delivery, of course, I had to order one or two other things, to bring the price up to the threshold. I tend to have a number of things queued up to buy when the time is right, so I selected some things from that list.

All three items I chose are things that I meant to get at the time they came out, but didn’t, for one reason or another. The book was Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, which I’ve meant to get since I read the reviews when it came out. I’m not sure why I never bought it (actually I did buy it once, but that was to give to a friend who had a particular interest in stage magic).

Anyway, my interest was recently rekindled because of the film coming out, of course. I may want to watch it one day, and I’m not going to read or not read something on the reported say-so of some film director. I can’t find a reference for that: the director is supposed to have said, “Don’t read the book before you see the film.” Though I suppose that I will, in effect, be doing exactly that — in a contrary way — by insisting on reading the book before seeing the film. Whatever: books come first.

But I didn’t bring you here to talk about books, for a change. No, this time it’s music. Because I also got two CDs from Amazon.

Regular readers might not be surprised to hear that I’m a huge fan of the late, and sadly missed,Joe Strummer. As such, I want to get a hold of anything he released that I don’t yet have. Now, during his so-called “wilderness years”, Joe did a lot of soundtrack work. I’ve got most of that on record, but I never got round to getting the soundtrack for Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell. I recall hearing a borrowed copy in ’87 or so, and enjoying it, but not being overwhelmed by it. The one track I remembered was ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’, by The Pogues, more of which later.

In the intervening years, I mostly forgot about the album. Once in a while I might have poked around a second-hand record shop, but it was low on my list of priorities. Recently, though, I discovered that it had been reissued, revised and expanded. Into my “buy later” list it went, until the other day.

As well, I discovered it was possible to jump back to an earlier part of Joe’s career, namely his pre-Clash band, the 101ers. Elgin Avenue Breakdown was originally released back in 19-something-or-other. At the time I was mildly interested, but saw no need to rush out and buy it. I had the ‘Keys to your Heart’ single, and it was OK, but nowhere near as good as the heights of The Clash. And Joe was still around, and we could expect new music from him in the future.

We are in that future now, of course, and we don’t have Joe anymore. So buying the 101ers’ album is a way to hear him again.

And a damn fine album it is. Straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll, jam-packed with bounce, verve and excitement. What it doesn’t have is the political sensibilities of The Clash. Or actually, it does have the first vestiges of them; and indeed, the first vestiges of The Clash’s excellent ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ (the B-side of ‘Clash City Rockers1‘), in the form of ‘Lonely Mothers Son’. And I’m sure that title should have an apostrophe in it, but I’m not sure where.

And the Straight to Hell soundtrack? It’s great. It’s mostly film music, of course: largely instrumentals. There are selections by Elvis Costello and Pray for Rain, as well as by The Pogues and Joe. Among the proper songs are one by Joe called ‘Evil Darling’, which is OK, and the original version of ‘If I Should Fall from Grace With God’, which The Pogues wrote during filming, apparently. Then there’s a version of ‘Danny Boy’, by the cast, led by Cait O’Riordan, and the album ends with ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’.

It’s hard to express how good that song is. From the opening guitar riff, through Shane’s crazed-gunman-death-worshipper lyrics, to the shouldn’t-work-but-does device of the verse and chorus being exactly the same tune, it struts into your ears and rips your head apart. In a good way. I’ve hardly had it off repeat on my MP3 player since I got it.

Go and buy it. Now.



  1. In googling to check that I had the right A-side (how crap is my memory?) I discovered an excellent project that Billy Bragg is involved in. Check it out 
Straight to Elgin Avenue