Comparing Graeme Thomson’s hackneyed Elvis Costello biography Complicated Shadows with Pat Gilbert’s fine history of the Clash Passion Is a Fashion sets up a battle-of-the-brands replay of 1977. While Thomson zeroes in on the narrowly careerist aspects of Costello’s music, Gilbert manages to evoke the Clash’s most adventurous and touching impulses alongside the group’s protean contradictions. Yet in sensibility if not production values, “Complete Control” and “Watching the Detectives” were never so far apart, both self-consciously committed to the principle of Joe Strummer’s one-line manifesto—”No more guitar heroes!”
The biggest difference wasn’t Costello’s spastic rock classicism and spiffily constructed persona; it was his disgusted-amused insistence on the sexual as political and sometimes vice versa. But Complicated Shadows is an idea-free zone—songs like “Pills and Soap” sail over Thomson’s head—that reduces the saga to a long, rocky honeymoon. Devoid of any sense of an outside world, the same events repeat like a needle on a broken record: Elvis writes a batch of new songs and hunkers down in the studio to cut an album amid fill-in-the-turmoil, it’s released to great or not so much acclaim, El hits the road, further personal/corporate shit goes down, and so do sales. There’s little about the singer’s times or artistic philosophy (I think Thomson mentions him reading a book on Napoleon), but if you want to know when he had a sore throat or last dug “Hoover Factory” out of mothballs, you’re in luck.
Passion Is a Fashion opens with a “Clash Map of London,” which lays out the fabled council blocks, squats, rehearsal spaces, and landmarks from the Westway to Hammersmith Palais. (It lacks only a schedule for the 19 bus.) Gilbert fills in their roots with admirable clarity, showing how ex-folkie and pub rocker Strummer (the Foreign Office worker’s son who bought his first Chuck Berry record in Tehran), glam kid Mick Jones, and art school reggae freak Paul Simonon were made for each other. And then they would be turned into the Clash by Bernie Rhodes, the manager-catalyst-madman who created a brilliant patchwork framework that facilitated the band’s polyglot leaps of imagination. More than just placing obvious figures, Gilbert is especially good on unstable elements like the Clash’s roadies, who “became a sort of punk equivalent of the RAND corporation, the ‘malignant university’ of intelligent misfits” prodding the band’s sense of mission along.
The Clash brought their own experiences together with the world-historical in a tremendous blast of romanticism, humor, and ambition; their screwy courage made the music exciting, and Strummer’s rueful suspicions made it enduringly poignant. Costello’s retreat into insular pop craftsmanship and Englishman-in-exile professionalism deserves a better book than Thomson’s, but Gilbert not only does the Clash proud, he does them justice.