A review of the new Clash box set (which I hope to get one of these days), by Patrick Sawer of The Telegraph, dated July 21, 2013…
Joe Strummer and Co. sound as fresh as ever in Sound System, a box set of songs remastered by the band’s guitarist Mick Jones and Tim Young, says Patrick Sawer.
The Clash’s Sound System, the latest offering from what has become the retro recording industry, will only add to a debate that has continued since that spiky cultural movement called punk first exploded on to the British music scene in 1976.
This box set brings together all the band’s albums and singles – at least those recorded by their classic line-up – with previously unreleased tracks and early demo tapes, along with archive film, promotional videos and unseen concert footage.
There are also reproductions of original badges and stickers, a hidden poster, and facsimile editions of two fanzines produced by the band, alongside a collection of essays by those closely associated with the Clash camp, such as film maker and DJ Don Letts, seamstress Alex Michon and the ‘Baker’, band roadie turned blogger.
The content is lovingly packaged in a box neatly dressed-up as one of those giant beat boxes hipsters used to lug around before the advent of the Sony Walkman and the digital revolution that followed.
In 1976, in what can be taken as their founding statement of intent, and yardstick by which the band were subsequently measured, the Clash’s then 24- year-old singer, Joe Strummer, exclaimed: “I think people ought to know that we’re anti-fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti racist and we’re pro-creative. We’re against ignorance.”
On that measure alone the Clash do more than stand the test of time. To listen to “Complete Control,” “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” and “London’s Burning” afresh – particularly in an era of global turmoil – is to be reminded that pop music should still speak to the anger and concerns of the marginalised, dispossessed and disillusioned.
“White Man” is Strummer’s personal account of a night at a pop reggae concert which mutates into a state-of-the-nation broadcast. “Career Opportunities” and “48 Hours” are the staccato refrains of youngsters in dead end, exploitative jobs – a punk rendition of Marx’s theory of alienation if ever there was (“Monday’s coming like a jail on wheels”).
While rock n roll cannot change the world per se, these songs restake the claim that it can at least shape the minds and steel the spirits of those who listen to it.
The tracks, remastered by the band’s guitarist Mick Jones and Tim Young (who won a Grammy for his work on the Beatles 2006 Love album), sound fresh as ever, crisper even. Jones, the official muso of the band, said that during the remastering process he discovered guitar lines he couldn’t remember and previously buried instrumental details certainly stand out – along with Strummer’s biting ad-libs.
Given their preoccupation with keeping the price of records and concert tickets within the reach of young fans, its legitimate to ask whether a box set retailing online at £81.50 betrays the promise of a band who famously declared: “There will be no six quid Clash LP ever.”
After all, the double album London Calling sold for £5 on its 1979 release, and the sprawling six sided of Sandinista! – part groundbreaking genius, part folly – for £5.99, in detriment to band’s royalties.
Sound System’s release will undoubtedly see accusations that the surviving members of the Clash – Strummer died in 2002 – are doing what they once so eloquently denounced, “turning rebellion into money”.
But while this collection may be out of reach of a jobless teenager or student discovering the band for the first time, its 11 CDs, plus one DVD of concert and studio footage, work out at a more than reasonable £6.79 each, even before the added memorabilia is included.
That still begs the question of who the intended buyers are, since most fans will already own most of this material. Archivists? Obsessive collectors? Inquisitive teens wondering what their parents made such a fuss about will need a generous benefactor.
UK punk’s art school and dole queue origins, and the ideological mindset it adopted, created a year zero mentality among both its disciples and critics.
But in reality there was never a year zero – where all punk music was born with no reference to the ‘decadent’ past.
How could there be, especially with a band like The Clash? Jones, was a teenage fan of Mott the Hoople and had sneaked into the Stones’ legendary 1969 Hyde Park concert; Strummer worshipped at the altars of Eddie Cochran and Bo Diddley; bassist Paul Simonon grew up on a south London soundtrack of ska and reggae; and drummer Topper Headon could play jazz and soul licks in his sleep.
As the box set amply demonstrates, the canon of modern popular music finds echoes throughout the band’s work, from musical nods and lyrical references to cover-versions of pioneering reggae and R&B cuts. That was how me and thousands of other teens received our musical education.
I arrived at Willie Williams through the Clash’s apocalyptic version of “Armagideon Time,” I sought out Diddley because they had invited him to support them on the 1979 US tour, I dug into Prince Far I and Big Youth because their ‘heavy manners’ slogans about the Jamaican state of emergency were stenciled on the band’s clothes.
If it hadn’t been for the Clash’s cover version of “Brand New Cadillac” would I have ever heard of Vince Taylor, Britain’s forgotten rock and roll legend? And “The Magnificent Seven,” from Sandinista! (1980) led many a suburban British white boy to seek out the new hip-hop sounds from New York.
Montgomery Clift? I first met him on the London Calling track “The Right Profile,” written by Strummer after the album’s maverick producer, Guy Stevens, leant him a biography of the actor.
Far from narrowing my cultural horizons punk widened them, heightening my curiosity and that of other fans.
And what of the rule that punk had to be played badly, on two chords? Another myth.
The first people to put paid to that were the founding fathers of British punk themselves, without whom Strummer said there would have been “nothing.” In Steve Jones and Paul Cook the Sex Pistols surely had one of the tightest and most powerful drum and guitar pairings in rock’s rich history.
Compare the first demo tapes the Clash recorded in mid ‘76, at Beaconsfield Film Studios – where their friend Julian Temple, later a renowned director, was a student – to the later incarnation of those songs on the eponymous first album, recorded some 10 months later. There’s a hesitancy and ponderousness, betraying the band’s first time studio nerves and contrasting to their adrenalin rush on stage.
By the time of the first album’s release, however, they had added to their repertoire the reggae vibe that filled the air around their Notting Hill stamping ground, giving even the fastest numbers, such as “White Riot” and “Cheat,” an added dimension, thanks to the echo and dropout techniques pioneered by dub DJs and producers.
This sort of cultural sampling is now the stock in trade of British bands, and their US indie counterparts, but the Clash were early exponents, particularly on London Calling and Sandinista! Whether trying their hand at soul – “The Card Cheat” – throwing in some jazz – “If Music Could Talk” or “Broadway” – or ripping it up rockabilly style, there remains the sense of urgency and anarchic inventiveness that is both punk’s calling card and rooted their sound in the great musical currents of the late 20th century.
Perhaps the most enduring key punk principle was Do It Yourself. You too could form a band, make your own clothes, start your own fanzine – and not just wait for the latest record release or concert appearance from your idols.
When Strummer barked “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977”, hundreds of kids up and down the country took that at face value and formed their own garage bands.
For all its high end production values and high end price tag, Sound System is at root an example of the band’s DIY principle.
This is manifest not only in the reproduction of the two issues of the fanzine-style programme sold at gigs, or the stenciled typography of the artwork. The real measure of the band’s continuing adherence to self-creativity is the fact the box set has been designed by Simonon.
It was Simonon, an art-school dropout, who designed the Clash’s trademark look – from their early Jackson Pollock paint-splattered mod blazers and ties, to ‘40s-gangster-meets-western-outlaw threads – and their stage backdrops.
Tucked into one of the box set’s mini pink flight cases is a facsimile of a Penguin classic. It’s a Clash joke; humorous in execution, serious in content.
The paperback’s title is one of Strummer’s multifarious epigrams: The Future Is Unwritten. But it’s contents is blank page after blank page.
What’s this, but an echo of that exhortation proffered by Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon to their fans more than 35 years ago? You can write your own music, your own story, your own myth. You can still do it yourself.
Whatever the arguments about the price of Sound System, or whether the world needs another Clash collection – however beautifully packaged – that will surely be the enduring legacy of punk and of one of the movement’s most creative bands.