Death or glory

Passion is a Fashion: the real story of the Clash

Pat Gilbert <em>Aurum Press, 320pp, £18.99</em>

Towards the end of this impressively exhaustive biography of the Clash, one of the band's associates says: "Their importance was bringing down music to the people and making it intimate again. As grand as their sound was, it was folk music."

Today, with rock music long since co-opted into the corporate cacophony, these words might sound fanciful. Listening to the group's best work, however - the ragged debut album of 1977, and the career-defining London Calling (1979) - only underlines the point. At every stage of its development, the Clash's music bled with a spirit and conviction that allied them with those far below the upper reaches of the music industry. There is a certain poetry to the fact that one of their last schemes before finally withering away was a self-styled "busking tour", on which they hitch-hiked around the UK, vowing to live only on the money they collected.

The title of Pat Gilbert's book is, therefore, a little misleading. Taken from one of the stencilled maxims that adorned the band's early stagewear, it suggests that the Clash's fervour was something of a pose. Yet the story that runs through this account is one of passion and belief repeatedly compromised by realpolitik. These men sought to live in the same world as their followers, to articulate their concerns, and never to follow the superstars of the 1960s into a world of smoked glass, limousines and stadium spectaculars. The group's contract with CBS Records was one reason why they fell short of this ideal; another was their understandable failure to resist the inevitable lure of drugs, musical indulgence and prima donna-ish affectations.

For the most part, though, the Clash did manage to avoid the cliches of the rock life. Their first manager, Bernie Rhodes, was a graduate of the 1960s counter-culture who placed career advancement second to the perpetration of inexplicable mischief. Rhodes's connection with the band provides the book with a picaresque sub-plot: Gilbert describes him flitting around London in a Renault 5 equipped with a Ferrari engine, issuing invaluable creative advice to his charges (such as suggesting that they avoid love songs and sing about the politics of the everyday). In matters of business, however, he was never less than useless. "I went to him one day and said, 'I haven't been paid for three weeks,'" recalls the band's drummer, Nicky "Topper" Headon. "He said, 'If I was your bank manager, would you expect me to live in your wardrobe?'"

Even after Rhodes was replaced by more level-headed management, the group retained a talent for ripping up the career manual and making their lives ludicrously complicated. Their way of endearing themselves to the world's biggest music market was to call their first trip to America the Pearl Harbor Tour and to advertise it with kamikaze artwork. When they abandoned all self-censorship and came up with the triple album Sandinista! (1981), they insisted that it should sell for the price of a single LP, thereby ensuring that it made absolutely no money. In the UK, their success was held back by their refusal to appear on Top of the Pops, the most surreal result of which was an occasion when the dance troupe Pan's People shook their stuff to the Clash ode to criminality, "Bankrobber".

Yet between the fallouts and foul-ups, it is clear that the group's communitarian ethos remained just about intact. Against not inconsiderable odds, it also prevailed after they split up, as is clear from Gilbert's descriptions of recent encounters with the band and associates. These sections give the book a depth that is rare for a music biography, and suggest that, for all the Clash's youthful flash, somewhere within their ethos lurked an ideal for living. One of the band's former confidants has put in time as a human shield in Iraq; another followed working in the music business with a spell as a sex and drugs adviser to Kent County Council. Encounters with the three-man core - the singer Joe Strummer, the guitarist Mick Jones, the bass player Paul Simonon - confirm the impression of lives lived according to the original credo. Warm, candid and wise, these men embody a belief to which most middle-aged musicians are impervious: the certainty that there is nothing to be gained by attempting to revive the old days. "I'd have loved a million pounds," says Simonon, "but I'd like to keep my dignity, too."

Strummer tragically died in December 2002. Gilbert paints an affecting picture of the life-code to which he adhered until the end: playing CDs of Colombian folk music at all hours of the night, endlessly scribbling in notepads, always doing his utmost to transcend the barrier between performer and public. Such, it seemed, were the ways of the modern folk musician. "He was a very humble person," says one of his collaborators, "with this great integrity - political, personal, all those things." Read Passion is a Fashion with one eye on the modern rock whirl, and the implication becomes clear: along with the other members of the Clash, Strummer was among the last of his kind.

John Harris's So Now Who Do We Vote For? will be published by Faber & Faber in January