Interview: The Clash biographer Randal Doane
March 28th, 2017
A Californian expat living in Oberlin, Ohio, Randal is a huge fan of The Clash and is the author of Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash
Who is Randal Doane?
I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California and played what your lot calls ‘football’ through my teens. I trashed my knee on the eve of my 16th birthday—which is lucky, I suspect, for Clash fans and myself. If I had played soccer in college, I probably wouldn’t have had the marks to go to graduate school – an experience that certainly shaped my approach to this book.
Tell us about your book
In 2003, while working as a college professor, I was writing an article on illegal file-sharing for an academic journal. While gathering data – all done in the name of science, I assure you – I found a 77-minute long track called “Clash-Palladium-WNEW-Sept21-1979.mp3.” (You can find the audio on YouTube.)
A couple years went by, and the title of the track gnawed at me. The Palladium was in New York, and I knew The Clash loved it there. But the second half of the title proved enigmatic. What were The Clash doing on WNEW-FM, a station staffed with veteran deejays from the days of free-form FM radio – the two rules of free-form then were: no disco, no punk? Also, how did two concerts take place on September 20-21, 1979, in a theatre with more than 3,000 seats, less than a year after their American debut, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, which peaked at #126 on the Billboard charts, and just two months after the release of the Americanized version of their first LP, The Clash?
So I started my detective work and learned that The Clash (UK) was, by July 1979, the best-selling import LP in the US. I also found out that New York-based rock journalists such as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau were Clash devotees – even proselytizers.
Next, I learned that bass player Paul Simonon’s impersonation of Paul Bunyan (Google him), which served of course as the cover image for London Calling, took place at the Palladium, and that the historical record indicated that the famous moment happened that same night. (That’s false, actually, as my book confirms. Also: search youtube for “Dave Marin Clash” for the definitive account.)
I then talked to WNEW deejays Richard Neer and the delightful Meg Griffin, now at Sirius XM Radio. Griffin recalled how she sought to expand the symbolic boundaries of free-form radio, and how she and her colleagues met considerable resistance, from management and fellow deejays alike. The project continued to gain steam and, after imagining the piece as a lengthy article, I expanded it into the book you have before you – or should! Ha!
How do you think punk ‘evangelicals’ see London Calling today?
As you may recall, UK critics savaged Give ‘Em Enough Rope. I swear, looking back, it’s as if critics, at NME especially, were just waiting to pounce on any sophomore effort: “How dare you release a second album? We shall destroy you!”
Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were like sharks, with a keep moving or die ethos. They didn’t want to be The Ramones, and said as much later, I believe. I think of that bar scene in Repo Man, when Otto checks out The Circle Jerks onstage, as a lounge act, basically, and says, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.” The Ramones are great, of course, but lots of great bands mellow – The Replacements, Husker Du, The Flaming Lips even – and that mellowing can lead to something totally amazing.
Finally, tell us your top five albums of all time
Oh, must we? Ha! All right, here we go, alphabetically:
The Clash: London Calling
Hamell on Trial: Rant’n’Roll
A live album, actually. Think The Clash meet Louis C.K., and throw in a battered ’37 Gibson. Great songs about politics, race, parenting, drugs, and redemption.
Prince: Sign O’ the Times
The best guitar player of his generation, and one of the best songwriters. Gotta have a little bit of ecstasy in this collection
The Specials: The Specials
It’s where it all started for me, I suppose. I hope to be as dignified as bassist – and painter – Horace Panter someday
Amy Winehouse: Back to Black
Such a talent, such a voice, and with the Dap Kings behind her, she was at the absolute peak of her game. Great production work throughout