The Clash - The Clash Sound System

“Italian mobster shoots a lobster” indeed

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.

3 stars 3 stars 3 stars

Columbia | 88725460002 (11+DVD)

Reviewed by Jamie Atkins
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