The Clash: Sound System Box Set

Music Reviews
The Clash: Sound System Box Set

On a snowy morning in January 1980, I was restlessly searching the new release racks of a suburban record store in Vancouver, Canada, looking for something a little more challenging than the newest albums from Bob Seger, Boz Scaggs or Pablo Cruise. The ‘70s were over; progressive rock and disco were dead, while artists from the decade before—The Stones, Dylan, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and Paul Simon—still continued to dominate the airwaves and shelf space at music retail outlets. Bob Marley and the Talking Heads were the only new artists I thought worth listening to, but I already had their most recent albums, Survival and Fear of Music, and was about to leave the record store with the kind of intolerant disgust only a discontented 17-year-old could muster, when a grainy black-and-white image of a musician smashing his bass guitar on stage caught my eye. That photograph, out of focus, yet vibrating with energy and angst, expressed all of the intolerance, pent up energy and rage that filled me every day when I woke up in the morning. That image, along with the banner above the record displaying “The Clash: the only band that matters,” willed me to pick up a copy, pay for it (although the picture on the cover almost demanded that I attempt to steal the record instead) and run home to listen to London Calling, one of the few albums that can truly be said to have changed my life and the way I hear and enjoy music. It’s an album that never gets old, and somehow continues to become better and more relevant every time I hear it.

If you never had a chance to experience The Clash while they were in full swing, it may be a little difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. So much has been written about the punk explosion that first erupted in England in late 1976; the names of the players—the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Slits—were as confrontational as the music they played, but right from the beginning there was something that set The Clash apart. They were serious and on a mission from the get-go. Sure, there were some songs of happy destruction, but the band never went in for the nihilism that many of the other early punk bands indulged in. The Clash were all about social and cultural change, and even though their first two albums, The Clash and Give ‘em Enough Rope, didn’t stray too far from the loud, crashing, DIY ethics that distinguish early punk, there was something different about them even then. Perhaps it was the intensity of their lyrics or the breadth of their musicality. Covers of “I Fought the Law” and Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” gave early indications of how far they were willing to push their musical vision and commit themselves to radical social change.

The Clash were never concerned with labels. Like The Beatles a decade and a half earlier, their sound changed and enlarged so many times that by the end of the band’s run, they were unrecognizable as the simple punk outfit they started out as.
With the double LP London Calling, The Clash began to stretch out and bring aspects of jazz, funk, reggae and classic rock into their sound and a predictable backlash ensued. Punk purists went after the band in the same way that the hardcore folkies decried Dylan when he went electric, but it was too late. The Clash’s new richer sound attracted a huge international audience, and by the time Sandinista! was released in Christmas 1980, the band had traveled so far from their original sound that it took many people decades to catch up.

To say that Sandinista! was ahead of its time is an understatement. In addition to the world music sounds that they’d begun to incorporate into the songs on London Calling, new tracks such as “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Call Up” and “Somebody Got Murdered” explored and exploited funk, hip hop and old-school rap rhythms to great effect. Underappreciated when it was first released, Sandinista! showcased a band at the peak of its innovative powers. With 36 new songs spread over three albums, the sheer size and intensity of the work was intimidating for many people in the band’s core audience. Still, listening through the newly remastered Sandinista!, it’s clear that the album has stood the test of time and sounds even better today than it did 33 years ago when it was first released.

If Sandinista! was The Clash’s artistic high point, their greatest commercial success was yet to come. After two multi-disc sets, the band trimmed everything down and dialed it back with the release of Combat Rock as a single album in 1982. With songs like “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”, “Rock The Casbah” and “Straight To Hell,” The Clash finally conquered the North American mainstream with the most commercial record of their career. After the aural onslaughts of London Calling and Sandinista!, many people found the record quite underwhelming given the consistently intense quality of their previous output. But, as is often the case, the passage of time allows for perspective. Sure, the record was annoyingly popular and there was a time in the summer of 1982 when it was hard not to hear “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” playing on every rock radio station in the country, but there are still many great moments on Combat Rock that are worth checking out. Songs like “Know Your Rights,” “Red Angel Dragnet,” “Overpowered By Funk” and “Ghetto Defendant” where Strummer duets with the beat poet Allan Ginsberg are amongst the most radical and challenging music the band ever recorded.

Things began to go wrong after the release of Combat Rock. The band toured incessantly to larger and larger audiences all over the world, culminating with an opening spot on The Who’s “farewell tour” and an appearance before 150,000 people at the 1983 US Festival. It’s hard to say what the problem was. Perhaps they couldn’t cope with the stress brought by sudden popularity, while many have suggested that musical differences between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were at the heart of the trouble. Whatever the case, Jones left the band in 1983 with Strummer and Paul Simenon holding the reins. One mostly forgettable album, Cut the Crap, which is mercifully not included in this box set, was recorded by the duo, but after an extensive tour, The Clash quietly folded into retirement.

Joe Strummer recorded with The Latino Rockabilly War and The Mescaleros as well as produced and toured with The Pogues before his death of congestive heart failure in 2002. Mick Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite and continues to record with Carbon/Silicone, while Paul Simenon performs occasionally with outfits such as The Good, The Bad, and The Queen and Gorillaz when he’s not in his studio painting.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing, and when it comes to commemorating a band like The Clash, it’s trickier still. One can’t help but wonder what a collective that bucked so harshly against greed, profit and capitalism would have thought of a retrospective like Sound System that carries a $200 price tag. But, I’ve decided not to let that kind of speculation get in the way of enjoying some of the best music ever recorded all over again. My old Clash vinyl is scratched, and the first CD versions of their music that I purchased were poorly digitized, so having the chance to hear these cleaned up, beautifully remastered versions of their five crucial albums is itself worth the cost of the box set. The good news is that the extras that come along with the albums are fantastic. There’s not much that the completest won’t have heard, but most people will be really happy to have the best of the band’s B -sides, extended 12-inch versions and EP extras collected on three CDs. There’s not a dud in the bunch, and when you add to it the DVD extra featuring interviews, early live performances, footage from Don Letts’ Clash On Broadway as well as most of their promo videos from over the years, Sound System starts looking like a real bargain.

In hindsight, it’s amazing to consider that almost all of the great music from The Clash was produced over a short six years. That’s half of the time that the Beatles were together and a fraction of the period that The Rolling Stones have been around, yet it’s not much of a stretch to assert that during their peak years The Clash created a sonic legacy that has had an equal influence on the direction of popular music. Thirty years later, their energy, uncompromising attitude and experiments with new sounds continue to reverberate with and influence young musicians. Rock music never got any better than it did with The Clash, and after spending the last week re-listening to their entire catalog, it still feels like they are the only band that matters.

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