THE CLASH From Here To Eternity Live (Columbia)
Nearly two decades after the fact, the Clash live album is finally with us, along with the documentary film, the reissue blitz (which in a worrying attempt to rewrite history, seems to have neglected the 1985 post-Mick Jones last gasp "Cut The Crap") and Joe Strummer's first new material in years. Maybe I fell victim to the marketing machine in expecting something great from "From Here To Eternity Live", but the Clash's legendary live reputation even seeps onto the sleeves here, which are littered with testimonies from people all over the world to the life-changing power of their shows.
The reality as captured on vinyl would almost inevitably be a mild disappointment in the face of all these odds, and "From Here To Eternity Live" lives down to expectations. The 17 tracks are carefully chosen and sequenced in approximate order of original release if not performance, but whilst they present a precision-drilled outfit crashing through some of the best, and most committed, songs to escape from the filth and fury of the punk explosion, something's missing. Something like life, excitement, vitality. These recordings sound like museum pieces, which, with even the youngest being 17 years old, in a sense they are: the release of these tapes is like the musical equivalent of hanging them on a gallery wall or exhibiting them in a glass case in the mistaken belief that underneath it all the listener can buy back a sense of what it was like to be at the Victoria Park, Hackney in April 1978, or The Orpheum, Boston in September 1982. Unfortunately, nostalgia just doesn't function on such friendly terms.
Which isn't to say that there isn't some great music here: "London Calling" and "Train In Vain" are brilliant, as always, the closing seven-minute "Straight To Hell" almost unbearably poignant, and you can't help but admire how little extra sheen their sound acquired as they rocketed from the toilet circuit to the Enormodome. Nevertheless, "From Here To Eternity Live" is a footnote, at best: you'll learn more about what made The Clash great from the still-scary majesty of "The Clash" or "London Calling" than you could ever glean here.
THE CLASH The Story Of The Clash Volume 1 (Columbia)
"The Story Of The Clash Volume 1" is an expertly compiled retrospective of one of the most endearing and enduring bands to emerge from the maelstrom of punk. Assembled in collaboration with the band, and with the "Volume 1" added to the title as a pre-emptive strike against The Man's perennial recycling of the past (somewhat unsuccessfully, as at least two further Clash compilations of various shapes and sizes have appeared since this 1988 release), it captures everything fantastic and frustrating about them.
Let's do the fantastic first, which for starters encompasses the dozen or so songs drawn from their eponymous debut and "London Calling", easily two of the finest albums of the 1970s. The selections from "The Clash" are all splenetic, focussed rage and bitter, biting sarcasm, typified by the sub 2-minute dole queue dissent of "Career Opportunities" and "Janie Jones"' fantastically contemporaneous line "He's got a Ford Cortina that just won't run without fuel"! Yet from the same album comes their cool, sparse cover of Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves", which takes the Westway to Kingston, Jamaica. By the time of "London Calling", released two years later (and due to a quirk of international scheduling voted the best album of the 1970s by Q and the best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone, an oblique salute to its timelessness), their music has become even more powerful and the melodies exhibit greater verve and control. Nothing extracted from that album here is less than perfect: the title track's call to arms in the face of an unidentified apocalypse, the chiming desperation of "Lost In The Supermarket", the local and international political concerns of the bass-heavy "Guns Of Brixton" and the sweetly elegiac "Spanish Bombs". And then there's "Train In Vain", unlisted at the end of the original album because the band were uncomfortable with the concept of releasing a love song, it strikes the perfect balance between tough and tender. Other highlights include the Middle Eastern storytelling of "Rock The Casbah" and the mysterious oriental reggae of "Straight To Hell". Cleverly "The Story Of The Clash Volume 1" also obviates the need to purchase their below-par second album "Give 'Em Enough Rope" by including its two indispensable moments, "Safe European Home" - "Holidays In The Sun" come home to roost, perhaps - and the teenage camaraderie of "Stay Free".
Next, frustrating: this compilation also documents the moments when the band's sponge-like absorption of musical styles and prolific creative pace worked against them, sounding underwritten and overpowered by funk on thin fare such as "The Magnificent Seven" (sample lyric "Italian mobster shoots a lobster") and "This Is Radio Clash", the latter an example of the self-mythologising that rarely brought out the best in the band (also in this category are "Capitol Radio", "Complete Control" and "Clash City Rockers").
Nevertheless, perhaps it's a sign of their creative integrity that they were unafraid to make such mistakes. Taken as a whole the stylistic plunderings and constant, complete commitment have fashioned a back catalogue that makes even the most intelligent of the bands to have inherited the stadium billings that The Clash pioneered (let's say U2 and R.E.M., for example) look like one trick ponies in certain respects. No one album can tell you everything you need to know about The Clash (two albums might be able to, if the two albums in question were "The Clash" and "London Calling"), but in gathering together the great bits, the brave failures and the advert soundtracks "The Story Of The Clash Volume 1" is a fine place to start.
THE CLASH Clash On Broadway (Epic/Legacy)
An entertaining but somewhat raggle-taggle three CD retrospective, ”Clash On Broadway” casts a smattering of tantalising previously unreleased material amidst much that is familiar. What might initially seem an inessential artefact, especially to owners of the double disc “The Story Of The Clash, Volume 1”, actually grows into a thrilling exploration of the band’s musical development. Sequenced chronologically, and heavily laced with non-album single sides, it shows how they grew as musicians and writers by absorbing genres and cultures. A complete set of lyrics is an essential aid in unravelling the younger Strummer and Jones’ more garbled pronouncements and, in what must be the acme of rock journalist validation, a second booklet includes essays by Lester Bangs and Lenny Kaye.
Excepting controversial record company-sponsored second single “Remote Control”, all the songs from the band’s eponymous 1977 debut are represented in some form. In demo form “Janie Jones” and “Career Opportunities” aren’t too far removed from the real thing, and the single version of “White Riot” is blatantly prepped for chart success with its disorder soundtrack effects. It’s good to finally hear its flipside “1977”, famous for its “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977” year zero declaration but almost a minor work in this context. Those first album tracks proper are great, though; committed, ridiculously tuneful two-minute amphetamine frenzies channelling boredom, frustration and the Westway into the first great British punk album. (Come on, would you really rather be listening to “Damned Damned Damned”?) I don’t know whether “Police & Thieves” counts as the earliest example of white reggae – Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er” preceded it by four years – but this endearingly clumsy yet sincere Junior Murvin cover is arguably where the subgenre acquired some dignity. And “Garageland” is, of course, their manifesto.
There’s practically an album’s worth of material here slipped into the gap between “The Clash” and sophomore effort “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”, tracing the thickening of their sound from punk thrash to something like rock. They used their single sides as proving grounds as much as their albums, one trait they shared with The Beatles and the Stones, much as they’d prefer to believe otherwise. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” is perhaps their greatest standalone single, written after Strummer and Jones attended a disappointing reggae gig, and more homage is paid on a cover of Toots And The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”. “1-2 Crush On You” is bafflingly regressive pub rock amidst all this forward-looking progress. The music on “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” seemed more streamlined and assertive, perhaps due to superstar producer Sandy Pearlman, sometimes backfiring as on the cack-handed “Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad”. At the same time they broadened their emotional range: “Stay Free” is almost sentimental.
“London Calling” b-side “Armagideon Time” is glorious, white reggae with the finesse “Police & Thieves” lacked, but even this is swept aside by the astonishing apocalypse in sound that is “London Calling” itself, both song and album, over half of which is included here. With their political consciousness now diamond-hard, and packing the best music of their career, the power of the “London Calling” material remains undimmed even as it enters it thirties. The authoritative bassline on “The Guns Of Brixton”; the delicious, heartfelt “Spanish Bombs”; the consumer alienation of “Lost In The Supermarket” (and listen to the accompanying music; it’s practically New Order!); the widescreen, doubletracked-everything arrangement of “The Card Cheat”; “Death Or Glory” and “Clampdown”, the sound of a band emphatically not selling out; “Train In Vain”, that lovely love song denied a tracklisting on the original album’s packaging – it’s all so very, very good. And then, trailing in its wake, came the “Bankrobber” single, a crazy mashup of white reggae and spaghetti western soundtrack – not exactly pretty, but certainly unique – giving notice of the sonic sprawl of “Sandinista!”.
Maybe there’s some historical revisionism going on here, but the tracks excerpted from that imposing triple album seem fairly controlled –messy, admittedly, but hardly the stylistic car crash of legend. The mystery funk of “The Magnificent Seven” is almost rap, and “Somebody Got Murdered” is a moment of crisp clarity, albeit declawed compared to “London Calling”. Beyond “Sandinista!” the eclecticism is hardly reined in. They do heartfelt, soulful things with The Small Faces’ “Every Little Bit Hurts”, and “Midnight To Stevens” is a chiming elegy for their former producer Guy Stevens, unreleased at the time. “Combat Rock”, the final album surveyed here – as with most Clash compilations, “Clash On Broadway” perhaps rightly buries the memory of the band’s single post-Mick Jones album “Cut The Crap”- is their most eclectic, hoovering up nascent rap, bossa nova, Allen Ginsberg, Travis Bickle and two songs that would go on to experience an eerie afterlife selling jeans (“Should I Stay Or Should I Go”) and soundtracking desert storms (“Rock The Casbah”). Then there’s “Straight To Hell”, presented here in unedited seven minute form, one of their greatest collusions of style and content, a long, long way from the Westway.
Initially unpromising, perhaps, “Clash On Broadway” is actually the ideal starting point for a beginner wanting the ultimate Clash course in the band’s mythology. It’s got almost all the music you need – so much so that additional purchases might be considered unnecessary – and it arranges it in a manner that allows it to tell its own story.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros