Search The Line of Best Fit
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The Clash: Death and Glory

The Clash: Death and Glory

21 September 2013, 12:01

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.


The Clash Live

For those most enamoured with this stage in their career, Sound System unearths some real rarities in the shape of the band’s first ever recording sessions in 1976. Here, although lyrics were still being honed down (“Don’t you think I care about your poxy baseball shirt, I’d rather wear nothing than look like I’m ready to bat” from ‘1977’ being my favourite alternative line), The Clash sound otherwise fully formed, despite this material dating from mere months after they’d actually met. Though they were expertly moulded by controversial manager Bernie Rhodes – their equivalent to a Malcolm McClaren figure, if you will – there’s a startling life to these demos that is all theirs, and a violence to them that’s genuinely scary. Strummer, in particular, started on his most bilious form, and is pictured genuinely angered at the suggestion that his aggressive delivery might be hindering the spread of the band’s ever present leftist political messages. “People are saying they can’t hear the words”, he says in the White Riot film, “but the words are really good.”

He’s not wrong, but by the time of their debut’s follow up, things had been polished up to a degree that their attack was struggling to make as much of a dent. American audiences whose ears were pricked up by the Big Rock Radio sound of ‘I Fought The Law’ being included on a US-only release of The Clash were the ones being pandered to with 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, a record which – despite coming out all guns blazing with the fantastic ‘Safe European Home’ and gifting us the band’s first genuinely touching moment in the Mick Jones-led ‘Stay Free’ – is arguably the least essential moment of the classic line up’s oeuvre.

That said, it’s still an important moment in their development. With ‘Tory Crimes’ now replaced on drums by Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon, the ‘classic line up’ was secured, with the band having found a drummer who had more to his playing than either simple attack or reggae-influenced bounce. Though it’s not their finest moment, you can’t imagine Chimes playing with anything like the dexterity of Headon on the honky-tonk romp of ‘Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad’, another sign that the band were increasingly interested in far more than thuggish, lo-fidelity rock. The whole album is an exercise in The Clash explaining how dead an end punk rock was for them, exemplified nowhere better than in the closing snarl of ‘All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)’, a damning indictment of a scene the band helped start, arguably went on to define, and were the first of their contemporaries to outgrow.

Nowhere was this growth more noticeable than in their prowess on stage. Anything with a ‘Live at…’ in brackets after its name across the Sound System track listing is worth making a beeline for, especially the set of previously unreleased recordings from a London Lyceum gig in 1978 that close the final disc of rarities, with their display of absolute punk perfection. Once a band who revelled in barely being able to sing or play (apart from Mick Jones, who admittedly always managed fine), by this point they combine a new found skill of doing both – simultaneously! – with the anger from which they spawned and a new knack for showmanship that would eventually take them to stadiums.

By the time of 1979’s London Calling, their skill as songwriters had reached a level that matched their lofty, world-conquering ambitions, and the new look, tour-hardened Clash were firing on all cylinders. From the first notes of that era-defining, record-opening title track, it’s like listening to a totally different band, with precisely none of the songs on its predecessor being realistic candidates for a place alongside these numbers, on which their grasp of everything from melody to gripping storytelling remains nothing short of astonishing.

Though it’s also the album of ‘Train In Vain’, ‘Clampdown’ and ‘The Guns of Brixton’ – all acknowledged classics – deeper cuts like the anguished ‘Death Or Glory’, piano-heavy epic ‘The Card Cheat’, the history lesson in a song that is ‘Spanish Bombs’ or the consumerism-baiting ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ deserve just as much attention, if only for the sheer scope of their ambition. Though not an album of ‘classic rock’, it’s justifiably a classic rock album, so far removed from their beginnings that punk should appear nothing more than a speck on the distance of their career trajectory (despite its attitude being still at the centre of everything). Little more needs to be said about it, perhaps other than reiterating arguably the best unintentionally satirical comment ever made about the 1980s; the fact that Rolling Stone magazine named it their album of that decade, despite it being released in 1979.

As had been the case since the start, the band continued to do their growing up (which may sound patronising, but remember they were still all around their mid twenties at this point) on between-album singles, the likes of the heavily funk and hip-hop indebted ‘This Is Radio Clash’ and ‘Bankrobber’ especially representing moves ever further away from the initial template, both going on to become signature songs. The latter, a typically Clash-like adaptation of a reggae song informed by a stay in Jamaica, was their most overtly dub influenced cut yet, a theme that would be explored to glorious extremes on London Calling’s follow up, the sprawling, confused masterpiece that is Sandinista!.

Against the advice of many of their far less stoned friends and business associates, Sandinista! ended up being a then unheard-of triple LP. Surely the final nail in the punk coffin? Perhaps, but it could also be viewed as a demonstration of how much further the attitude of punk pervaded the band’s consciousness than merely stopping at their music (which, by this point, it had all but fled from). For, at the band’s expense, the behemoth was priced at the cost of a single LP, a curious but laudable financial decision that would see them not recoup on their losses for many, many years.

In an interview given to BBC Radio 6 Music (to be broadcast 6th October), Paul Simonon was questioned about whether the band’s attitudes to staying true to their fans ever went too far. Interviewer Cerys Matthews – who Simonon gave a hilariously good-natured hard time to all afternoon – framed the question in a discussion about their famed open door policy at gigs, where fans were allowed to hang out backstage with the band and talk over a beer and a smoke till the early hours of the morning. But when asked if it all ever got a bit much, Paul simply replied “Yeah – an album called Sandinista!”.


The Clash 1980s

However, it’s believed to be the ever contentious Joe Strummer’s favourite of their albums, which makes me even more settled in my belief of its greatness. It’s certainly the place anyone who thinks they can write The Clash off as a punk band should head first; over the course of its six sides of vinyl, you get the US airwaves-slaying hip hop of ‘The Magnificent Seven’, the melancholy melodic brilliance of Mick Jones’ finest terrace ballad ‘Somebody Got Murdered’, a straight up Motown-style baring of the soul on ‘Hitsville UK’, a trio of three of the best songs about war ever written (‘The Call Up’, ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ and ‘Washington Bullets’ relying heavily on xylophones, surf guitar lines and steel drums respectively) and members of 10cc impersonating farmyard animals on sound collage ‘Shepherd’s Delight’ (OK, so maybe that’s slightly less than essential). Whilst London Calling is rightly acknowledged as their masterpiece, Sandinista! is the single most important record in terms of understanding The Clash as a whole – and if given a similar amount of time, it’s just as easy to love with just as much of your heart.

Though once again lauded by the US press, the UK hacks were less enamoured with Sandinista!, all but writing the band off – it was, after all, a triple album that featured members of 10cc making sheep noises. Understandably perhaps, The Clash temporarily relocated Stateside for a seventeen night stint at Bonds in New York’s Times Square, with handpicked support slots coming from the likes of Grandmaster Flash, The Fall and Lee Scratch Perry. Long time collaborator Don Letts’ Clash On Broadway film – which candidly documented antics both on and behind the stage – is included amongst Sound System’s intriguing selection of footage, and is by far the best of the bunch, the band proving themselves just as scarily involved in their craft when in front of seventeen consecutive sold out rooms of adoring admirers as they were when trying to win people over as a bunch of punkish oiks.

With hindsight, it’s easy to spot that the band were priming themselves for one last shot at the big time before bowing out (the very epitome of burning brightly but briefly, I often forget that The Clash were only together for a mere six years. Six years!). With relations between Strummer and Jones at breaking point (thanks in part to Bernie Rhodes’ increasingly forceful meddling) and Topper Headon battling with addiction to heroin, Combat Rock – their last album as the classic line up – actually has no right to be anywhere near as much of a triumphant swansong as it is.

Headon’s drug problems would eventually lead to his sacking, and it’s sad to see him not on stage with the band at Shea Stadium in the video for ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ (all of the band’s videos are included on the Sound System DVD), but his influence on the record can’t be underestimated, writing as he did pretty much everything but the lyrics for the evergreen dancefloor filler ‘Rock The Casbah’ and playing a central part in making a song like ‘Overpowered By Funk’ live up to its ridiculous title. The rest of the record is a delight, too; it’s not as fantastical a journey as Sandinista! or blessed with quite the melodic Midas touch of London Calling, but succeeds in virtue of being both leaner than the former and more experimental than the latter. Plus, in the form ‘Straight To Hell’, Combat Rock contains the best piece of music ever laid to tape, ever – and if you say I’m wrong, I will fight you.

Sound System comes in to its own at this point. Whereas the rest of the band’s studio off-cuts have been mined to death, it appears there were one or two things left behind on the cutting room floor from the Combat Rock sessions that were never swept up. The quality of the oddly jaunty, synth heavy ‘The Beautiful People Are Ugly Too’ (which points towards Strummer’s often jollier work with The Mescaleroes years later), the decidedly soulful ‘Midnight To Stevens’ and steel-drum heavy ‘Idle In Kangaroo Court’ only goes to confirm what a hot streak they were on, despite so much time spent at war with each other and themselves. Whether they alone are worth the £100 price tag is up to you and your bank manager to decide (I hope for your sake they’re a Clash fan).

The end is sad, so it shan’t be dwelt on too long here. With Jones and Headon now kicked out of the band on the advice of an increasingly domineering Bernie Rhodes, Strummer and Simonon soldiered on with hired hands for one more album – and it’s telling that 1985’s drum machine-laden Cut The Crap is held in such low regard by the surviving members that it’s not even included in their career-spanning box set (the song ‘This Is England’ is worth of hunting down, at the very least). The Clash Mk II didn’t last long, and certainly won’t be what the band are remembered for. That, I guess, is the point of Sound System; there’s nothing more to reissue, nothing more to painstakingly remaster so that listeners can hear every urinal being played (seriously, check ‘I Fought The Law’), nothing, nothing, nothing. This is a tombstone, but a fucking beautiful one.

Thankfully, all of this music sounds so alive that I have no doubt it will outlive them, and me, and whoever comes after me and inherits this beast of a box set in my will. I hope all this gushing has at least gone some way to convincing those with only a passing interest that The Clash are not perhaps the band you thought they were, whatever that might have been. Being honest, immersing myself in it all has been as enlightening as it has enjoyable – they’re not even the band I thought they were, truth told. They were actually much better than I was giving them credit for. For now though, I’ve made my peace with the idea that The Clash might not be for everyone. But I do think the world would be a better place if Sound System were handed out to new born babies by law.

For more information on the release, head here.

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