You can split the world in to three types of people, I find – people who are Clash fans, people who aren’t yet Clash fans, and people who have heard The Clash but for some reason or other (maybe they were ill when asked, I don’t know) have decided they don’t like them. The latter… I don’t understand those people. But the first group in the list are always pretty interesting folks.
The Clash have always seemed to me like one of the few bands where, upon finding out that someone’s a fan, you can instantly tell that said person is a decent kind of human being. The deeper their admiration runs, the more you can likely deduce about the person; their politics and their attitudes on everything from patriotism, to friendship, to music all have light shed on them by the revelation that Strummer & Jones is, as it is to me, as important a songwriting pairing to them as Lennon & McCartney is to the wider world. A ridiculous guide for forming friendships though this admittedly is, it’s something that I’ve used at least subconsciously for doing just that throughout my life. And my mates are the best.
The imposingly weighty Sound System box set, the reason that people are talking just that little bit more about The Clash at the minute, is not aimed at the middle of those three groups I just made up. It’s too in-depth, too baffling, frankly too expensive to offer an “in” to this most imposingly wide-reaching of groups. Who, then, is it for? One can only assume it’s the hardcore of the first group, the ones who must have everything, even if they’ve had it all before in different shapes, sizes and formats. Regardless of the fact that anyone who owns their studio records, a singles collection and the Super Black Market Clash compilation has in the region of about fifteen minutes of unheard material to discover here, what one can’t deny is that the thing looks, frankly, incredible. Housed in a sturdy cardboard replica of a boom box designed by bassist Paul Simonon, the amount of Clash ephemera that comes stuffed inside it is baffling. Ranging from the wonderful (exclusive prints, replicas of the Armagideon Times fanzine, new in-depth interviews) to the frankly tacky (dog tags, stickers, a big poster tube that looks like a cigarette), I’ve had it for a fair while, and I’m still finding hidden bits. The easily ignorable, more tawdry inclusions aside – considering it just as an object, it’s one of the best things I own, something I was sure of before I’d even played the marvellous music it houses.
But yes, ‘a punk band, doing a box set?’ is a valid criticism. Or it would be, if that’s all The Clash ever were. What presenting their body of work like this shows beyond anything else is just how much more there was to them than that. And arguably, the further from “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!” they strayed, the more interesting their music became. Perhaps it’s because the first Clash record I ever got to know was the genre-hopping behemoth that is Sandinista! (cheers, Dad) that punk is never the first word that springs to mind when I think of them. I hear punk, sure, but I also hear reggae, Motown, soul, jazz… the thing is a mess, a huge, spectacular mess that is a permanent fixture in my top five records of all time. But the signs that there was more to this than Mohawks and spitting were there from the beginning.
When Joe Strummer was plucked from his role as singer of pub rockers The 101’ers to join Jones and Simonon in The Clash (along with stand-in drummer Terry Chimes – or ‘Tory Crimes’ as he was listed on their self-titled debut), it wasn’t long before they’d started to branch out from the frantic punk rock they helped define. Not without penning a cluster of indisputable classics, of course – ‘White Riot’, ‘Janie Jones’, ‘Complete Control’ – and a host more all still sound frighteningly alive for songs three decades old. But a glance at what they were choosing to cover, at the time they were the darlings of the punk press – the jaunty ska of Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Pressure Drop’ and the falsetto-heavy reggae of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police & Thieves’ being infinitely bettered by this foursome’s snotty delivery – and the way it was influencing their own work (‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ is to all intents and purposes a straight up reggae tune, one that people from other than Jamaica have no right to carry off with the force they do) speaks volumes as to where this would eventually head.
The thrust of this tl;dr piece might be to try convince you that there was more to The Clash than punk, but it’d be ridiculous to say that were born of anything else. As a disarmingly young Joe Strummer describes his attendance at an early Sex Pistols gig in Tony Parsons’ White Riot film, (“what a great group!”, he says with all sincerity of their only true rivals), it hits home just how exciting the period surrounding 1977’s The Clash was, even when hearing about it through documentary footage now so old that it pretty much counts as a historical artefact.