This review applies to the 2004 hardcover edition. I knew a reasonable amount about The Clash before reading this book but the author here opened my eyes to a number of things and helped to confirm some of my ideas and reject others.
This is an academic book in the sense that any university sociology or history department type would or should respect the high standard of scholarship here - painstaking research involving interviews with a large number of band friends, business associates and childhood and youth buddies - and objective and intelligent analysis throughout. Although the research is detailed and Gilbert takes the subject matter seriously, the writing is still lively and captivating.
The book first traces the childhoods, youth days and former bands of all members individually which is fascinating and well researched. A lot of this information would be new to even the diehard fans. It's fascinating to read about and see a picture of Mick Jones' gran's 18th floor council flat in West London overlooking the Westway - where Mick "practised daily in my room" according to the song "Stay Free". We also get to learn about Mick's close friend, also written about in "Stay Free", who in real life did serve time for a bank robbery offence.
The art-school beginnings and the "squatting days" in early 1970s London (living in vacated houses under the Westway without paying rent) and the members' pre-Clash bands are well documented. Overall, Gilbert does an excellent job in helping the reader recreate in his/her mind the world of 1970s West London where the Clash story was played out. That is one of the book's great strengths in my opinion.
The book demolishes some punk myths, but keeps others alive. Firstly, the book demolishes the cherished idea that The Pistols and The Clash were working-class lads who met up, decided to form a band, and sing about social and political topics. There is some element of truth in that idealised view. However, the bands' respective managers, Malcolm McLaren of The Pistols and Bernie Rhodes of The Clash, clearly manufactured the bands to a certain extent based on their personal visions of what they wanted to achieve. Joe clearly understood this and was willing to co-operate with Rhodes to achieve common goals - but Mick was less supportive, being more of a traditional old-time rocker.
Gilbert clearly describes the social changes affecting Britain in the late 1970s - the rise to power of the Thatcher right-wing government and the first wave of West Indian immigrants into London (and especially Brixton). We see how all band members had a genuine and sincere desire for racial harmony - they were fascinated by Jamaican reggae music and later New York hip hop. The bands' involvement in anti-racism gigs and sharing the stage with acts such as Bo Diddley and Micky Dread were extremely influential in contributing to the unity of the streets.
Another Clash myth that the book does not debunk but strengthens is their closeness to the fans and genuine warmth they felt towards the fans and vice-versa. However, the bitter infighting and bad vibes involving Joe, Mick and Paul often seemed to take the joy out of their lives and the book exposes this fully. It ultimately led to Mick's sacking at the hands of Joe, Paul and Bernie.
Other highlights are detailed descriptions of the recording sessions that led to each album and brief song-by-song descriptions (however, the focus on the actual music is fairly brief - the book is more a study of people and society).
Producer Guy Stevens' drunken chair-smashing antics during the London Calling sessions are hilariously recounted. His crazy energy probably contributed to the eclectic joy that London Calling produced. The details of the football games during the London Calling sessions are also interesting. The orange mohawked Japanese guys they met playing football in the London park - who knew every note of every Clash song (and Joe's cynical reaction to them, in contrast to the other band members) - also is humorous in my opinion.
Lastly, we are also are given a rare insight into The Clash Mark II. The three young band members who replaced Mick and Topper are all interviewed. Naturally they were dissapointed with certain aspects of the Mark II experience - but they don't seem bitter and it doesn't seem that they were treated totally badly (at least not by the band - by Bernie Rhodes maybe). In my opinion "This is England" (from 1985) ranks in The Top 3 Clash songs of all time. Good to get an insight into this less-publicised and once-denied stage of the band's existence. It almost makes me want to go out and buy Cut the [...]!!
I enjoyed my trip to the world of West London that Gilbert offered and South London became a better place I'm sure due to the huge influence of Joe, Mick, Topper and Paul. Stay free...