If history is, as Napoleon is reputed to have remarked, nothing but "a fable agreed upon," then rock 'n' roll history is a collection of fables upon which no one will ever be able to agree. In "Last Gang in Town," the rock journalist Marcus Gray attempts to dismantle the myths that sprung up around The Clash, who are, next to the Sex Pistols, probably the most important band to emerge from the early years of punk.
The Clash liked to pretend they were a gang of streetwise punks who emerged out of nowhere to knock over the pretensions of progressive rock -- and all the other symptoms of '70s excess. But that wasn't quite the truth. The band members weren't as scruffy as they let on. The pre-Clash Mick Jones was a prog-rock star wannabe so proud of his resemblance to Keith Richards he refused to cut his long hair -- until Chrissie Hynde decided to chop off his locks without his permission. And he was so far from streetwise, Gray writes, that the band's manager once assigned him to "hang out" in rough neighborhoods so he could pull off his act with more authenticity. Joe Strummer, for his part, tried to cover over his past as a folk troubadour so enamored of Woody Guthrie he called himself Woody for several years.
The book isn't as entertaining as these stories suggest. Gray seems to think that history is little more than an accretion of facts, and that the job of the historian is simply to arrange these into something resembling chronological order. And while he is able, through the book's sheer mass of anecdotes, to capture a little of the disorderly energy that surrounded early punk, his book can't tell us where this energy came from.
As I slogged through the first third of Gray's exhaustively long book -- trying to keep track of the names of the bands Mick Jones stumbled through on his way to The Clash, of the progress of Paul Simonon's play-as-you-learn struggle with the bass -- I began to wonder how on earth such a motley collection of misfits and musical incompetents could become, for a few moments at least, the World's Greatest Rock Group. By the end of the book, I was still wondering.