Joe Strummer’s dead. Mick Jones is bald. Paul Simonon’s gone respectable. God knows what’s happened to Topper Headon. And times haven’t just changed for the individual members of the Clash. Their old stomping ground Notting Hill has become a haven for wealthy bankers following Hugh Grant’s whitewash of a film. The Hammersmith Palais, so memorably used in White Man in Hammersmith Palais has been renamed Po Na Na and now hosts the despicable School Disco club night. It’s been 25 years since The Clash spat out their first stuttering chords, and London is a very different town to the one they set out to shake up and tear apart. Thank God, then, that their city and their legacy as the best British band since the Beatles has been captured so vividly on The Essential Clash DVD.
I’m usually wary of band retrospectives, especially ones labelled “essential”. Often afforded to CDs cobbled together as careless money-making exercises, or given to band’s unworthy of a compilation at all (hello The Essential Ace of Base) the epithet can be so wide of the mark as to be totally redundant. The Essential Clash CD, part of Sony’s “Essential” series, is however a pretty much perfect overlook of the band’s brief history and unless you own all of the Clash’s individual albums (which you should), can truly be called essential. The same goes for the companion DVD, a collection dedicated to Strummer’s memory that contains promo videos, live footage, an archive interview, and a silent film made by the band called Hell W10.
The bulk of The Essential Clash DVD belongs to the promos. Mostly directed by long-term collaborator and original punk-dread Don Letts, these vibrant, urgent videos span the band’s entire career from their scratchy beginnings as young punks in West London to their final years as stadium fillers in North America. The section opens with a trailer for The Clash on Broadway, a wonderful document displaying the excitement, riots, and general unrest that descended upon New York in the summer of 1981 when the Fire Department attempted to shut down a series of Clash gigs at Bonds in Times Square. Mick Jones is on particular fine form here, cockily seeing off a journalist who dares to question if and when the band will sell out, and it’s good to see swarms of teenagers thronging through Times Square for something other than Total Request Live.
If you’re a regular viewer of VH1, you’ve probably seen most of the other clips as they seem to be in almost constant rotation on the channel. There’s nothing particularly obscure on here, “Tommy Gun”, ‘Train in Vain”, and “White Riot” all getting an airing. Still, it’s always good to see the Clash dressed up like Cuban guerrillas in the “Rock the Casbah” video and the band’s performance of “London Calling” in the pouring rain remains pretty seminal. Likewise, their rendition of “Should I Stay or Go” at Shea Stadium in support of the Who is exhilarating. The videos aren’t compiled in chronological order although there is an option to reprogram the tracks allowing style-watchers to chart the band’s changing fashions from DIY punks to rockabilly heartthrobs to chic revolutionaries. The only thing lacking on the DVD is a lack of commentary from both Don Letts and the surviving members of the band. Context and background information on the videos would have added another level to an otherwise excellent compendium.
A commentary wouldn’t have also gone amiss for the short film Hell W10, although as a stand-alone curio the movie does just fine. Directed by Strummer in the summer of ‘83, Hell W10 (named after the postcode of Notting Hill) is a 50 minute-long Super-8 silent film that plays like Mean Streets made on a tuppence ha’penny budget. A tale of gang warfare between a brigade of punks led by Simonon and a bunch of sharp-suited spivs fronted by Jones, Hell W10 is an amateurish, silly, funny, gory, and fascinating document of the time, made doubly interesting as the film was thought lost until only very recently when a pair of fans found a rough copy at a car boot sale. It’s not exactly the kind of film you’d watch again and again but it’s worth viewing at least once for both the images of Portobello Road in the early ‘80s and the gusto with which the band members throw themselves into their roles—Mick Jones camps it up like a pantomime villain as the George Raft-inspired pornographer Mr. Socrates and even Strummer puts in a cameo as a bent copper (prefiguring his later movie work in Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train).
The most fascinating part of the DVD for me, however, is an interview clip taken from a 1976 episode of the London Weekend Show. Barely three minutes long and hosted by the grating journalist Janet Street Porter, the clip is nonetheless a magnificent snapshot of the nascent superstars. Unlike the infamous Sex Pistols/Bill Grundy interview, there’s nothing salacious or naughty in this interview. What’s shocking is how quiet and nervous the band seem, especially when seen alongside Mick Jones’s cocky Broadway performance barely five years on (Paul Simonon comes across as especially sullen, rocking backwards and forwards in his chair and replying to Street-Porter’s needling questions in a tone vaguely reminiscent of Nigel Tufnell). Yet in these three minutes, the roots and economic causes of punk are laid bare—as the hippy-baiting Strummer so succinctly says, “If there were jobs, then we wouldn’t be on the dole and we’d be singing about loving and kissing or something.” As this DVD shows, they did a hell of a lot more than that.