'The band is gone, and we are the only Clash that remains': Writer Mark Andersen on the lasting legacy of the Clash

The Clash

The Clash Photo provided by the author

If Mark Andersen strikes an evangelical tone when talking about the Clash, there’s good reason.

Andersen is a pastor and political activist from Washington, D.C., and his recently published We Are the Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of a Band That Mattered (with co-author Ralph Heibutzki) chronicles both the end of the band and Joe Strummer’s avowal that “the future is unwritten.”

Andersen talked with City Pages via email about the Clash’s legacy in the here and now in advance of his appearance at Moon Palace Books on Wednesday.

City Pages: The title of your book refers to the Clash as a band that mattered. Their slogan back in the day was “the only band that matters.” What did that mean then, and what does it mean now? How does a band “matter”?

Mark Andersen: Actually, the band never used the slogan “the only band that matters”; it was tagged on them by their record company CBS around 1978-79. I am sure they were ambivalent about it, as the claim is pretty arrogant. Nonetheless, despite its dodgy provenance, the line stuck because it represented something real about the band, that they promised something more than simply entertainment, that their aim was far higher than virtually any other rock band. In short, it meant that their music could revolutionize your life, and through you, maybe even the world. This aspiration might seem pretentious, but indeed was the case for myself and many, many others. Their music and ideas still are an inspiration for me in my political protest and broader community work.

Having said that, Ralph and I had no desire to suggest that no other band mattered (or matters), hence the book's subtitle only refers to them as “a band that mattered.”

CP: In writing the book, what struck you about revisiting the Reagan-Thatcher ‘80s, and how it led to Trump and Brexit?

M.A.: What struck me most profoundly is how much we can learn from this time, and how much inspiration we can also draw from that struggle, despite the very real defeats and failures. We need both that lesson and the fuel for our work right here, right now. That is why Ralph and I write history, as we believe that the past, properly understood, can be essential right now in building a better future.

CP: What’s your Clash story—what was it like as a fan, discovering the band in rural Montana?

M.A.: While I grew up on a farm and ranch in Sheridan County, Montana, I first encountered the Clash in a magazine called Rock Scene at Service Drug in Williston, North Dakota in spring 1977 in a feature on the exploding London punk scene. I was absolutely riveted by the picture of them playing live... their look was extraordinary, and they seemed to be attacking their instruments, ripping out the song with savage conviction. The caption said the song was "White Riot" and also quoted lyrics from another of their songs, "1977": "NO ELVIS, BEATLES OR ROLLING STONES IN 1977!" I was a fervent fan of the Stones but thought this idea was amazing, the idea that we could start again and make something of our own, that could bury (or at least build upon) past glories.

I had to hear this band, but living in rural northeastern Montana this was easier said than done. It took about a year—and a move to Bozeman, a college town in Western Montana—before I finally was able to track down a copy of their first record, which remains one of my all time favorites... it--like all of the best of punk--was an outlet for my rage and confusion, but even more than that it was a window into a universe of possibilities, of a life all my own, one truly worth living... it was a revelation and a revolution, at least personally.

CP: How did the Clash sound to you under that small town Big Sky?

MA: Like anything was possible, if you were willing to fight for what you wanted, what you believed. The Clash sounded like raw courage, and brutal, saving truth.

CP: Tell me about your political protest and community work in D.C., and how that has been influenced by the Clash.

MA: The Clash was one of my main inspirations to go to college—many of my peers in Sheridan County did not go, it was not assumed that you would—and take classes in political science and history, classes that I cared about but that didn't necessarily train you for a lucrative career. I had been warned not to make too much of a stir, to not get tagged as a “radical” by my parents and peers, that this could destroy my life options... but against all conventional wisdom in the rural working class, I became a college radical, an activist.

For me, as there was not really any punk music scene in Montana—even in a college town—activism was an obvious way to express my values, so that's what I did. Even though I had tended to be a pretty reclusive kid before, punk—and especially the Clash—got me to stand up and speak out.

While everything that is best in my life now largely flows from that basic decision, made as a teenager, the Clash in their final form revolutionized my life again in 1984-85. By this time, I had excelled as a student and was headed to a fancy school in the east—Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies—with massive student loans all aimed to purchase a route into the lower ranks of the American ruling class. This was a huge deal for a kid from nowhere... but when I heard Strummer question their Top Ten success, and call for the Clash to get back to punk roots and political barricades, it helped me realize that I was selling myself out to achieve society's idea of success, and that I needed to get back to punk in some real way, to something real, something grass roots, something really that stood for the underdog, the throwaway people... that inspired me to help co-found the punk activist collective Positive Force DC, to focus my energy on serving the people... which led me into being part of DC punk's Revolution Summer of 1985 , into making that commitment the center of my life and into work in the inner city with groups like the outreach/ advocacy group We Are Family DC. That work brought me to my wife, and in time to our two kids, now five and eight, who are playing next to me as I write these words.

In other words, the journey(s) that the Clash helped spark are the most precious parts of my life today, valuable beyond the power of words to describe.

CP: Most fans of the Clash regard the era chronicled in “We Are the Clash” as an afterthought, or weaker sauce than what they once were, post-Mick Jones and Topper Headon. Your book is a defense of that era. What did you learn in researching the book that negates or supports the idea that the Clash Mark II was a pale imitation of the original?

MA: The irrefutable evidence of the power of this final version of the Clash is on the live tapes that fans made of their about half of their 120-plus shows across Great Britain, Europe, and the United States, which form the backbone of our narrative, along with interviews from that time and those done more recently, including about 100 hours of our own interviews with as many of the key folks involved as we could get to talk to us... and almost all of them did.

The existing tapes include their astounding miner strike shows, some incredible performances from the busking tour, where the band went out throughout northern Great Britain playing for free to whomever they encountered on the streets, in parks, town squares, bars and colleges without promotion, without amps, without any entourage... just the band and their audience together in an extraordinary and unprecedented way. One of the most punk endeavors ever, done by anyone. And I make this claim as the person who organized the first Fugazi show, and collaborated with that band on dozens more, working with them from before their first show till now as a friend and co-conspirator.

CP: You’ve reported on two of the most vibrant political punk movements in history—the Clash and the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene of the ‘80s. From your prism, where have the seeds of those scenes taken root, in terms of urgency and reacting to these times?

MA: The seeds have taken root just where they should: In the hearts and minds of people around the world, who have been emboldened to live in a more creative, compassionate and courageous way. These ideas are eternally relevant, just waiting for us to have the guts to try to live them, whatever stage of life we are in. I write history because I believe lessons and inspiration can be found there, and surely this story has plenty of insight and spark to share, even if parts are heartbreakingly painful.

NOW is always more important than THEN, and the roots of Trump and Brexit lay in the battles fought and lost then, in the mistakes that were made, and in the passion that still burns. We need to know why we lost then so that we can win now. We also need to know that nobility does not lay in success necessarily, but in striving to do what is right no matter what the cost. In this way, failure can be more valuable and essential than success, because at least you tried to do something and didn't just go along with the flow of the times... and because failure can be the school in which wisdom and endurance can be fostered.

We need wisdom, courage and compassion right now, and a commitment to pursing truth, no matter what the cost. This is the story of the Clash; it is also the tale of the clash we all face in this scary, but possibility-filled moment. We all have to do what we can with what we have wherever we are RIGHT NOW. That is the best of punk, and it is the lifeblood the Clash spilled for us on stages around the world. Now the band is gone; and we are the only Clash that remains... just as Joe Strummer suggested in those final, hard-fought months before the band imploded.

Mark Andersen
Where: Moon Palace Books
When: 7 p.m. Wed. Aug. 1
Tickets: Free; more info here