With a whiff of revisionism about it, Sound System collects The Clash’s output up to the departure of guitarist Mick Jones, ignoring 1985’s Cut The Crap but adding a smattering of unreleased tracks, live sessions and a DVD.
Their 1977 self-titled debut is traditionally given a critical free pass, and, undeniably, a handful of songs exist on such a level of raucous, frustrated excitement that they will always speak to new generations of disaffected youth. With the band clattering along behind him, frontman Joe Strummer rages as if frothing at the mouth, articulating his cultural alienation (White Riot, I’m So Bored With The USA), lack of prospects (Career Opportunities) and political apathy (Remote Control, London’s Burning). As an album, though, it tails off rather badly. The likes of Deny and Cheat are limp, predictable fare, suggesting that the album’s reputation rests more on what it represented than what it actually sounds like.
Released the following year, Give ’Em Enough Rope is often derided, largely thanks to its more widescreen, rockist production courtesy of Blue Öyster Cult’s svengali Sandy Pearlman. But, again, when it’s good it’s great; it was also The Clash’s first album with drummer Topper Headon, whose presence is especially felt on the machine-gun-ramalama of Tommy Gun and the jump-blues of Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad. Guns On The Roof, however, is a plodding rewrite of the superior single Clash City Rockers, while All The Young Punks is just a step away from Sham 69.
Thirty-four years after its release, London Calling remains the group’s defining moment, without which we probably wouldn’t even have this box set now. Originally spread over two LPs, it’s a swaggering, often very touching, loosey-goose almanac of the music the band loved. Studio perfection is left to hang as the musicians, spurred on by crackpot producer Guy Stevens, demonstrate the remarkable chemistry they’d developed. This comes to the fore on Spanish Bombs, with Strummer and Jones finishing each other’s lines like twins in a way that still makes your hairs stand on end. Elsewhere, Clampdown was their most fully formed and lyrically focused punk protest; they also show how far they’d progressed since Police & Thieves, with the glorious reggae of Revolution Rock, with Strummer in his pomp as a bizarre master of ceremonies: part singer, part shaman, sounding like a barking-mad CB radio enthusiast with his mouth full.
Sprawling, disorientating, and coming a mere 12 months after its predecessor, in December 1980, Sandinista! was The Clash’s “triply outrageous” exploration of dub, rap, country and whatever else they turned their heavy-lidded attention to. Yet, for all its clutter, it contains some of the band’s most intriguing work. Washington Bullets is a marimba-led dissection of American foreign policy from Cuba onwards – and is an awful lot better than that sounds. Elsewhere, The Call Up and Somebody Got Murdered suggest that, with some focus, a lean, hard-hitting follow-up to London Calling was in there somewhere. That’s not the point, though. Sandinista! is as messy as it was intended to be; sporadically great and often (presumably unintentionally) endearingly silly.
And then came the evergreen hits: Should I Stay Or Should I Go and Rock The Casbah, elevating the band to the next level of rock stardom on 1982’s Combat Rock. Yet that duo rather overshadow the experimentation to be found elsewhere on the album – Mick Jones’ last with the group – notably the jittery Overpowered By Funk, Allen Ginsberg-featuring Ghetto Defendant and The Clash’s most stately moment, Straight To Hell.
The three remaining CDs tidy up the discography, including standalone singles, B-sides and songs chopped from the final Combat Rock tracklisting. Early A-sides Capital Radio and Complete Control are terrific, bratty fun, while it becomes clear how soon the band starting flexing their musical muscles, on the brilliant (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais and Bank Robber, before embracing the Sound Of Young America with glee on This Is Radio Clash.
At their best, then, The Clash were stunning, and Sound System features some of the most exciting music committed to tape by a British band; Strummer oozes charisma, seemingly willing an energy onto record. Yet there are as many pedestrian rockers, directionless noodles and dated tomfoolery as there are moments of brilliance. But that’s what makes The Clash the band they were. Their own implosion was just as chaotic, something conveniently overlooked here. Ultimately, trying to fit them into one box seems too neat, and almost a thankless task. Hardcore fans will own it all already, and newcomers will find it too daunting.