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Back Tracks: The Clash

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Clash - London CallingWhere were you when you first heard The Clash? If you can’t answer that question because you’ve never heard them, then consider this your Christmas present. The London-based punk band accomplished much in their decade-long tenure, including some of the best albums of the genre. Though they enjoyed the fruits of a major label, they stayed true to their ethos, keeping prices low for albums, tickets and souvenirs (reportedly, the band forfeited royalties on sprawling triple-album Sandinista! in 1980 to maintain a low price for all).

The Clash formed from short-lived punk outfit London SS, which featured guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Tony James (who later formed Generation X with Billy Idol). Jones enlisted several other musicians who’d auditioned for the band, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Terry Chimes, after seeing The Sex Pistols perform in 1976. Soon, pub-rock vocalist Joe Strummer was hired away from his band, The 101’s, to provide vocal duties for the group. The rest, they say, is history, with The Clash both defining what punk music was for the masses as well as what it could be, including elements of pop, rock and world genres.

Though the band’s dissipation was an embarrassing one, and Strummer tragically died eight years ago to the day of this writing, The Clash remain one of the most influential bands of not only their time, but all time. Join us in honoring their legacy with this special Back Tracks piece detailing the many, many releases in their catalogue.

The Clash (CBS (U.K.), 1977 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000) / The Clash (U.S.) (Epic (U.S.), 1979 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000)

Recorded and mixed over three weekends for £4,000, The Clash was punk at its core. Of course, while the songs raged against apathy (“White Riot”), conformity (“Remote Control”) and the economy (“Career Opportunities”), The Clash were, from the outset, willing to experiment with different sounds other than the short, simple-chord blasts typical of punk bands. The cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae standard “Police & Thieves” was just the first example of The Clash embracing the Jamaican genre, and it was embraced by the song’s original producer, the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Two singles were released from the album: the fiery “White Riot” (which was an alternate recording on the 45) and “Remote Control,” released by CBS without the band’s input. This led to the seething “Complete Control,” one of the band’s best non-LP singles, and the promise of just that on all future single releases. There was also a simultaneously-released EP, Capital Radio, which included a snippet of one song (“Listen”), an interview with the band and the title track. (The EP was offered for free to readers of NME and has since become a sought-after collector’s item.)

While The Clash was not considered radio friendly enough by the U.S. branch of CBS/Epic, its massive success as an import – moving some 100,000 copies in the first year – prompted Epic to issue a U.S. version in 1979, between Give ‘Em Enough Rope and London Calling. That version dropped five tracks (“Deny,” “Cheat,” “Protex Blue,” “48 Hours” and the original LP version of debut single “White Riot”) and replaced them with various single and EP tracks (non-LP singles “Clash City Rockers,” “Complete Control,” “(White Man in) Hammersmith Palais” and the single version of “White Riot”; “Clash City Rockers” B-side “Jail Guitar Doors,” and the classic cover of The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law,” from the EP The Cost of Living (1979)). Some early copies also included a bonus single, “Groovy Times” b/w “Gates of the West,” both of which also appeared on The Cost of Living. Interestingly, both U.K. and U.S. versions are readily in print today; the placement and color of the band’s name on the front sleeve is the giveaway.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope (CBS (U.K.), 1978 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000)

Before The Clash was even released, drummer Terry Chimes had left the band. This led to only Strummer, Jones and Simonon appearing on the album sleeve and Chimes being credited as “Tory Crimes” on the album sleeve. For Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band had a new drummer, Nicky “Topper” Headon, who’d been a member of London SS for a week. They also had a new producer, Sandy Pearlman, who reportedly disliked Strummer’s wonderfully froggy voice enough to mix the drums more toward the front, in an attempt to drown him out. Despite this, the album is another strong LP, with singles “Tommy Gun” and “English Civil War” (the latter derived from a traditional Irish tune that would become an American Civil War marching standard, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) leading the pack. “Guns on the Roof,” based on the arrest of Simonon and Headon for shooting air rifles at pigeons from the roof of their Camden Market studio, is one of the more straightforward rock tracks on the album, taking inspiration from The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.”

London Calling (CBS (U.K.), 1979 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000, 2004 and 2009)

This is it. The big one. A sprawling double album sold for the cost of one LP. A jovial affair, recorded with a new producer, Guy Stevens, who bonded with the members of the band as they recorded away from their comfort zones in Camden Market (they relocated upon separating from manager Bernie Rhodes). The album which bears one of the single most iconic sleeves in rock history: Paul Simonon, in mid-axe-swing of his Fender Precision bass, in stark black-and-white against a pink-and-green title inspired by an Elvis LP sleeve. (The finished product, Simonon’s smashed instrument, resides in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum.) An album which bears some of the best of not just punk rock but basic, purebred rock and roll: “Lost in the Supermarket,” “Clampdown,” the title track and the famed, unlisted final track “Train in Vain,” which became The Clash’s first Stateside hit. Rolling Stone cheated by naming it the greatest album of the 1980s – it missed the decade by weeks – but it’s so good that it’s almost hard to care.

On its own, London Calling is a punk rock dream come true, but Legacy has been good to the album over the years. After remastering it in 2000 with the rest of the band’s discography, a 25th anniversary edition added something that nobody ever expected an official release of: The Vanilla Tapes, a presumed-lost, heavily-bootlegged alternate recording and mastering of the album, sourced from a miraculously-discovered tape. The Legacy Edition also included a DVD featuring behind-the-scenes footage and a full-length documentary, The Last Testament. That DVD was coupled with the album (but not with The Vanilla Tapes, strangely) for a 30th anniversary pressing last year.

Black Market Clash (Epic (U.S.), 1980) / Super Black Market Clash (Epic, 1993 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000)

This U.S.-only 10″ LP collected a number of rare tracks that were not available in the States at the time, including the original recording of “Capital Radio,” a cover of Toots and The Maytall’s “Pressure Drop,” a cover of Booker T. and The MGs’ “Time is Tight” (exclusive to this set) and a few others. In 1993, the set was expanded as Super Black Market Clash, including a re-envisioned track list (it still included “Pressure Drop,” “Time is Tight,” the dub of “Bankrobber” and the other non-LP B-sides from the original, though some were not edited, as was the case on the original LP) that covered a great deal of the B-sides from the band’s tenure, including great dub versions of “The Magnificent Seven” (from Sandinista!) and “Rock the Casbah” (from Combat Rock). One genuine rarity is also included for the first time anywhere: the full version of “Listen,” excerpted on the Capital Radio EP.

Sandinista! (CBS (U.K.), 1980 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000)

The Clash went even bigger for Sandinista! While London Calling was a double-album, this one was three LPs. It also anticipated an explosion in interest of world music, fully embracing ska, dub, and rap sounds that had been teased on singles. “The Magnificent Seven,” with its rapped vocals from Strummer, hit the U.S. Dance charts in 1981, making it close to one of the first white rap records in history. Despite what can easily be perceived as excess, Sandinista! was a massive critical success, topping The Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop poll. It’s widely expected that it’s the next Clash album to see any sort of deluxe treatment from Legacy in the coming year.

Combat Rock (CBS (U.K.), 1982 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000)

Intended as a double-album called Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, the single-LP Combat Rock became what may be the group’s most straightforward album. For this, and a heavy amount of radio-friendly material (“Rock the Casbah” went Top 10 in the U.S. and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” remains a rock radio staple, which later topped the U.K. charts in 1991), it was also their most successful, going Top 10 on both sides of The Atlantic. Unfortunately, it was the last great thing the band released; the heroin-addicted Topper Headon was ejected from the band before a massive tour, and Jones left after the tour had ended (first working with General Public, then creating the influential Big Audio Dynamite).

Cut the Crap (CBS (U.K.), 1985 – reissued Epic/Legacy, 2000)

The Clash was now Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard and drummer Pete Howard. Producer Bernie Rhodes took an already awkward group of sessions and drowned them in synths and electronic percussion. Outside of the single “This is England,” the album was excoriated by critics and largely disowned by Strummer for the rest of his life (few, if any tracks, ever appear on Clash compilations and box sets). The album was quietly included in the remaster series, however, and was the only one with a bonus track (“Do It Now,” the B-side to “This is England”).

The Story of The Clash, Volume 1 (Epic, 1988)

The first Clash compilation featured two discs’ of the most notable singles, album cuts and B-sides and a strong set of liner notes written by “Albert Transom,” the supposed valet to the band. Transom was, in fact, Joe Strummer, who did a great job of coloring the band’s story for fans. A proposed Volume 2 was to have featured live recordings, but never materialized.

1977 Revisted: A Collection of Rare Tracks and B-Sides (Relativity, 1990)

A budget-priced compilation that was the first disc to include almost all of the U.K.-only tracks from The Clash on CD (excluding the album version of “White Riot”). It also included some other great B-sides, including a non-LP live version of “London’s Burning” from the “Remote Control” single. Subsequent compilations have since rendered it obsolete.

Clash on Broadway (Epic, 1991)

One of the best places for a curious Clash fan to take a bigger step in discovering the band, this three-disc box includes a hefty amount of the band’s material, along with unreleased demos, outtakes and live tracks.

The Singles (Epic, 1991)

A simple, single-disc singles compilation.

From Here to Eternity Live (Epic, 1999)

The first fully live account of the band, spanning performances from 1978 to 1982. While it’s obviously overdubbed in places, it’s perhaps the best package entirely devoted to The Clash in a live setting.

The Essential Clash (Epic/Legacy, 2003)

Another basic two-disc compilation of the band’s output, most notable for two things: the fact that “This is Radio Clash” is mistakenly listed as being part of the album (it is in fact the similarly-mixed B-side “Radio Clash,” which also appeared on Super Black Market Clash under the wrong title), and an accompanying DVD version that featured the band’s videos as well as a bunch of other great bonus footage, including Joe Strummer’s Hell W10 short film, shot in the summer of 1983. It was also the first Clash catalogue set to be released after Strummer’s death; he died during compilation of the collection, and the set is dedicated to his memory.

Singles Box (Epic/Legacy, 2006) / The Singles (Epic/Legacy, 2007)

This artfully done 19-disc set collects reproductions of all The Clash’s singles and EPs, each with CD-sized reproductions of their respective art work. That’s enough for collectors alone, but it’s one of those great boxes that doesn’t miss much in the compilation process. Each disc includes different B-sides depending on the country of origin, whether it’s the U.S., Canada, Spain or The Netherlands. It’s also the sole place to find every non-LP B-side in one spot. (The Japanese version does have an additional rarity – a radio spot for The Cost of Living EP.) In 2007, a similarly-packaged singles set (including all the proper A-sides plus U.S. favorites “Train in Vain” and “Groovy Times”) was released for new fans.

Live at Shea Stadium (Epic/Legacy, 2008)

One of the band’s biggest shows, an opening gig for The Who during the Combat Rock era, was captured on tape but only discovered by Strummer years later. Headon’s not a part of the band at this point, having been replaced by Terry Chimes, but the set is strong (if focused mainly on hits). The packaging (a deluxe, book-styled number) is a treat, too. It’s the latest great tribute to one of the best bands of the U.K. punk scene – but surely it’s not the last.

And those looking for The Clash on film would do well to check out the following documentaries: Westway to the World (2000), a Grammy-winning doc directed by Don Letts (who directed the London Calling doc for the Legacy Edition) and Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007), which was widely praised upon screening at the Sundance Film Festival.

Written by Mike Duquette

December 22, 2010 at 14:08

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