This project originally started out as a long-form non-fiction piece, for which I found a suitor, but not one of “marriage material” (or, I suppose, that was their judgment of the project). Once the project assumed book-sized proportions, and I started sending out proposals, I only ever had this title in mind.
It’s from the opening stanza of “Radio Clash,” the b-side to “This is Radio Clash”:
This is Radio Clash / Stealing all transmissions/
Beaming from the mountaintop / Using aural ammunition.
Radio and aural ammunition are key themes in Clash history, for they imagined their variety of rocknroll could–and should–break down walls of prejudice, in the west and the Middle East.
As Strummer noted in advance of The Clash’s first trip to the US, “All we want to achieve is an atmosphere where things can happen. We want to keep the spirit of the free world. We want to keep out that safe, soapy slush that comes out of the radio … All we’ve got is a few guitars, amps, and drums. That’s our weaponry.” (R. Christgau, Grown Up All Wrong, pp. 220-1)
Strummer’s faith that things could be otherwise was well-founded. Deejays such as Meg Griffin and Pam Merly, on WNEW and WLIR respectively, in 1977, ensured–if not outright stole–transmission time for tracks from the import pressing of The Clash. (CBS, of course, in 1977, deemed the LP too noisy for an American release.)
Likewise, with “Capital Radio” and “This is Radio Clash”/“Radio Clash,” which nearly coincided with The Ramones’ “We Want the Airwaves,” the problem of radio was of keen interest to bands in the punk and post-punk vein. Toward the end, with “Rock the Casbah,” Strummer imagined “that crazy Casbah jive” capable of drowning “the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor [and] philistine sentimentalism,” as K. Marx noted a few years prior.
For my comrades, the subtitle recalls Greil Marcus’s excellent Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1990), which I was assigned in an art theory course back in the day, and thoroughly enjoyed. I, however, had in mind another book, given to me by Dale Sherrard, another visual artist (in a previous life): The Secret History, a novel by Donna Tartt. Tartt’s novel is thoroughly un-Clash like (yet still full of merit), but the secret nature of the history I found, for a band not lacking in biographical documentation, was a pleasant surprise. I hope you, dear reader, come to share that sentiment.
In my first year as a teenager, punk arrived at our middle school in the form of Scott F., a new classmate, whose sartorial choices–black Chuck Taylors and Black Flag t-shirts–and close-cropped hair stood out starkly among the mop-tops and bi-levels sported by most of my album-oriented-radio-listening classmates. Terry and Steve followed suit, and I hung out with them, and I eventually bought the Magnets LP by The Vapors (of “Turning Japanese” fame). (Magnets is melodic, dark, and brilliant, a true gem among the neglected ruins of early post-punk.)
The subsequent summer, in 1982, on a trip my parents figured would expand my budding middlebrow horizons, as noted in the Prelude of Stealing, I toured the UK and continental Europe with the Boy Scouts of America, and returned to the states a devotee of post-punk and new wave.
The categories of punk and new wave were largely lost on me then, but not completely. I had a growing faith that things could be otherwise, that the rubric of muscle cars/bangs-to-the-eyebrows-proto-mullets/Led Zeppelin/Van Halen had a half-life, and that the expiration date was quickly approaching. Other music, as well as other masculinities, were out there, even in California. In spring 1983, on a family trip to Carmel, I visited the local record shop and, much to my surprise, found More Specials, The Specials’ second LP, on cassette. Like The Specials, my host family in England lived in Coventry, and I was astonished that this tape could make its way across the Atlantic, across the US, to a record shop barely the size of a walk-in closet. Much to my subsequent embarrassment, I asked the cashier, “This Specials? It’s the same Specials from the UK, yes?,” which elicited a nod and a well-deserved eye roll. I didn’t care. I tapped my Dad for an advance on my allowance and bought the tape. Upon tearing free the cellophane, I was disheartened by the absence of any liner notes–a sentiment often reprised when I opted for cassettes over LPs. Still, this serendipitous find represented the cornerstone of my new music collection. Long after that tape became a hazard to any tape deck, I held onto it, packing it for moves between northern and southern California, and then off to New York. It’s still in my basement, in a box underneath other boxes, and I hope the cover image finds its way into one of many of my daughter’s collages I have properly filed for safekeeping.