Saturday, February 20, 2016
Randal Doane's "Stealing All Transmissions": Book Review
How did the late '70s arrival of The Clash to a nation they loved and who loved them, in Randal Doane's phrase, jostle the privileged perch granted FM free-form radio and long-form rock journalism in American popular culture? Doane attempts to answer this complex topic in a few pages. He matches an affection for what was pitched as "the only band that matters" with a professor's determination to apply theory and scholarship about popular culture to the band's American impact.
FM radio crackled with battles between disco and new wave, Steely Dan or the Eagles. Guitar heroes Van Halen threatened Boston and Kansas. Pre-packaged rock radio in syndication, and then MTV, took advantage of alternative rock trends. The Clash and other punks rallied to break down barriers on air. Doane's examines, circa 1978-81, a brief success by the underdogs against the suits. Even if The Clash was signed to CBS. That band marketed its message as widely as possible. The result (as this reviewer can attest) is that many younger listeners picked up guitars and books, inspired by not only the "molten" noise of early import singles, but the Clash's lyrical range and cultural references.
A dean at Oberlin College, Doane combines academic critique (and its concomitant tendency to lapse into seminar-speak) with livelier glimpses from his formative years as a fan growing up in Stockton, California. He enriches these youthful reminiscences with an imaginative journey. He invents a quest narrative, following the figures narrated over four sides of London Calling as that album's storyline follows dreamers and schemers from the band's hometown across the sea to success or failure in Manhattan. (I note as an aside that the first box-set retrospective issued by the band is called Clash on Broadway, a location which fits both London and New York City, even as it emphasizes the latter.)
Doane straddles the boundaries between fan and critic throughout this study. He analyzes the music industry as a Clash historian, and as an often discrete investigation into the state of American rock radio in the 1970s. He documents the struggle on FM stations between AOR, disco, hard rock, and the new wave upstarts. These were often marketed by Sire Records and eager labels, some indie, some subsidiaries of the majors, who allied with the bands which claimed to challenge the system. Of course, they also aspired to chart success and lucrative tours. This bifurcated presentation, by not only the bands in their clash of ambitions but Doane's staggered structure of his chapters between those on The Clash and those on radio, weakens this as a cohesive thesis. However, considering particular chapters apart from this diffused presentation, Doane's attempt to analyze The Clash within an American moment as the 70s leapt into the 80s provides a useful perspective of the band's impact. It draws upon books by Clayton Heylin and Jon Savage, integrating their research with his own predilection for New York City area rock stations. This case study looks into how they did or did not play the Clash, and rivals or colleagues from both local and British punk and new wave scenes.
This book is enhanced by backline roadie Barry "The Baker" Auguste's introduction. He conveys the changing fortunes of a band gradually if seemingly suddenly, for one behind the scenes, lifted from clubs to theaters to arenas by its third album, London Calling. This book does not delve very far into the mid-1980s phase of the line-up. Instead, Doane sticks to the first three albums, and he shows what worked and what did not on the various domestic and import versions of their incendiary self-titled debut, and the more, uh, diverse, follow-up, Give 'Em Enough Rope, produced by Blue Oyster Cult associate Sandy Pearlman. As for the sprawling triple disc, the what to me felt the never-ending experiments of Sandinista!, brisk coverage is given. Doane marvels at it, as diehard fans tend to do.
Tellingly, he offers no real attention to their more mainstream album, the last one with their steadiest line-up, Combat Rock, and none to the album made by Joe Strummer, Paul Simenon, and new recruits to replace Mick Jones and Topper Headon, the widely disdained Cut the Crap. It would have been intriguing to follow the fortunes of the band: their tours, their radio play, and their LP sales. Certainly one wonders how The Clash, once they topped the charts, dealt with their long-term prospects. It's a relevant example of the music industry's own determination to encourage or ignore a band. Yes, the band's saga during their global roller coaster of the 1980s has been covered before. But Doane stops the story early on, preferring to end while the band anticipated greater fame in the U.S. and beyond.
Given this wistful denouement, Doane's study offers a muted celebration and a cautionary tale of how rock radio and promotion U.S. markets tried to fend off, ignore, or embrace us, then-scattered and once few, fans of punk and new wave. Even if the academic tone slows his pace, Doane places The Clash within their attempt to break into the American market. Best of all, his diligence and scrutiny reminds readers about when such inventive music, combative attitudes, and intelligent lyrics (well, some of the time) mattered for millions of fans growing up then. Today, the hit-and-miss history of the one punk band which made it big as arena rockers endures. And, professors grow up to be fans, or in my case, reviewers. For, the Clash were the first "real" band I ever saw, in March, 1980, at the Santa Monica Civic. They arrived hours late, but nobody (except for punctual me) seemed to mind. (Spectrum Culture 9-7-14)