The Clash: Sound System

[20 September 2013]

By J.C. Macek III

More Than Just Radio Clash, But It's Got Its Share of That, Too.

The words “Clash Boxed Set” are enough to get just about any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll fan to raise their hackles, pump their fists and ride the proverbial express train straight to hell, boys. Or, at least to slamming down almost two-hundred dollars for the privilege of being the first kid on the block to own Sound System. With a cost like that, it’s a sure bet that only the most die-hard fans of The Clash will be likely to fork over the purchase price and walk away the proud owners of this collection. Casual fans will more likely pick up the double disc The Clash – Hits Back, released on the same day.

This, of course, leads to the question of what hardcore Clash fans, outside of the absolute completists, would even require this 13 disc collection considering that nine of these 13 discs comprise The Clash’s first five albums: The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, London Calling, Sandinista! and Combat Rock. The initial interest may come in the fact that the packaging looks like a classic Boom Box emblazoned with “THE CLASH” in a military stencil with the overall box decorated in a Combat Rock reminiscent camouflage. This is definitely a visual treat for Clash fans to add to their mantle.

The package is certainly attractive to say the least and the inside is a grab-bag of Clash extra goodies, such as posters, pins, stickers, booklets, fanzines, and Clash dogtags, so the bonuses are pretty much covered. Any fan who has ever wanted Clash stickers for their cars or Clash posters to tack up in their dorms would certainly find them here, but then again, what hardcore fan would dare ruin the swag by actually using it (especially at such a high price)?

While the very “PUNK” nature of an expensive, fully loaded, pristine, collectible “Boxed Set” may be something of an antithesis, but then again, The Clash was never exclusively a Punk band. The band’s self-titled debut is probably as close to “pure punk” as anything in the set. This more mature evolution of the indignant rage and political skewering of Punk Rock is found in the memorable tracks “I’m So Bored with the USA” (a reworking of guitarist/vocalist Mick Jones’ “I’m So Bored with You”) and “White Riot”, while “Garageland” stands as a rebellious and furious (if depressed) kiss-off to the critics who dismissed them early in their loud career.

The Clash features many of the staples of the band’s best work, including their genre manipulation, atypical maturity and the classic, cool and recognizable voice of rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer. The version of The Clash included on Sound System is the original 1977 British pressing, as opposed to the 1979 American re-release with the rearranged track listing.

The Clash’s second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978) was their first to hit American shelves and was so well received that it was named both Time‘s and Rolling Stone‘s album of the year. The record kicks off with the hard driving solid Punk Rock of “Safe European Home” and ends with the anthemic “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)”. Rope also evokes classic rock memories with its capturing of The Who’s “Can’t Explain” guitar riff on “Guns on the Roof”.

By this time, The Clash had surely shut up their early detractors and the band had become bonafide rock stars with critical acclaim to boot. Their third album rode the wave of this momentum, amping up the band’s political and social commentary in the lyrics, while diversifying their music significantly, including more jazz, ska, funk, pop, and reggae influences than ever before. The album was called London Calling and featured the now-iconic record cover showing bassist Paul Simonon smashing his best bass guitar (with the label’s font in tribute/parody of Elvis Presley’s debut album).

The title track, “London Calling”, is one of the band’s absolute best, from its smashing guitar riffs to its hard-hitting lyrics, as poignant today as they were in 1979. The beauty of London Calling is that the remainder of the record flows directly from this title track and creates a loose, meandering sonic tale of rebellion, frustration, anger, confusion, and wild Punk abandon. This is truly the Clash’s finest hour and deserves its centerpiece in the Sound System box. The hype is true… London Calling is one of the greatest albums of all time.

London Calling was a Punk Rock record with world music influences throughout its run, but The Clash’s fourth album, Sandinista! (1980) is a world music album that also includes Punk Rock (along with the folk, rockabilly, blues, and even gospel and rap sounds). This three-disc release essentially made later dub bands like Sublime and Jones’ own Big Audio Dynamite possible with its fusion of genres and impacts. However, songs like “Hitsville U.K.” are all but completely unrecognizable as Clash songs of any kind. “Hitsville U.K.” is a poppy tribute to indie rock featuring Jones in a duet with Ellen Foley (made famous on Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). Standouts on the album include “The Magnificent Seven” and “Junco Partner” (both sung by Strummer) as well as a lead vocal from Jones on “Somebody Got Murdered”.

While London Calling featured The Clash’s most iconic work, Combat Rock contained some of their biggest pop hits including “Rock the Casbah” (written by the Clash with their drummer Topper Headon), “Straight to Hell”, and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (Jones’ most famous lead vocal with the band). It was impossible to top Combat Rock in the sales category, but aside from the highlights of the singles, the album doesn’t have a massive amount to offer and contains its fair share of filler material. This is the poppiest of The Clash’s output and the most commercial of releases, which explains its singles being the only major high points. Even the incredibly famous “Rock the Casbah” feels like something of a New Wave novelty track when compared to the serious output the band previously output.

Contrary to popular belief, Combat Rock was not The Clash’s final album. This distinction went to a record called Cut the Crap, the band’s only release after the firing of Mick Jones. As some sort of possible meta-commentary on this critically reviled final offering, Crap was completely cut from the Sound System release. Clearly the album’s title was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy and Mick Jones is clearly shedding no tears about this fact.

This isn’t the end of the boxed set, however, as Sound System‘s ninth through thirteenth discs contain a remarkable amount of rare material for fans to sift through. ”Sound System Extras Disc 1” contains 21 tracks including their version of “I Fought The Law”, the rest of the Cost of Living EP, a number of single-versions of the band’s most famous songs along with B-sides and 11 minutes of interviews from the Capital Radio EP.

Sound System Extras Disc 2” continues the trend with a series of outtakes, more B-sides, and remixes from 12” and 7” singles. These first two Extras discs are fun for the completists among us, but make for a quite repetitive experience for many listeners. Multiple versions of “1977” and “This Is Radio Clash” exemplify some of the sameness that reduced the band’s impact, especially in later years.

Fans should truly enjoy the rarities found on ”Sound System Extras Disc 3”, which features extracts from the Clash’s first two recording sessions (ever), including “London’s Burning”, “White Riot”, and “Career Opportunities”. Again, this disc can be repetitive, as many of the songs repeat, but it’s a fine rarities disc to sift through and perform comparisons and contrasts. The third part of this thirty-five minute disc features six live tracks recorded at The Lyceum in 1979 and capture The Clash in the raw on tracks like “English Civil War” and “City of the Dead”.

The final disc in the set is a DVD that contains all of The Clash’s music videos, along with twenty minutes of The Clash on Broadway, bootleg-quality live sets and interviews. This last disc is a great collection for an at-the-fingertips Clash video retrospective, but, like much of the content on the audio extras disc, the DVD does not lend itself well to a single sit-through viewing session. If there was ever a chance for fans to get burned out on hearing “White Riot”, the DVD is sure to find and exploit that chance. Further the rare live footage is nice to have, but isn’t of particularly great audio or video quality.

This is, of course, the problem with creating boxed sets. Include everything and some fans and critics will wonder how some things made the cut. Fail to include enough, fans and critics will demand to know why something obscure failed to make the cut. Sound System errs firmly on the side of inclusion in virtually every way. This means, of course, inclusion of the albums Sony Legacy assumes we already own, so true fans might want to quickly Ebay their last purchase of the first five albums to afford the hefty price tag of Sound System. Those of you going that route should avoid getting rid of Cut the Crap (assuming you own it in the first place) as this is the only exclusion from the otherwise remarkably abundant Clash boxed set called Sound System.

The Catch 22 of being a gift for true Clash fans but consisting mostly of material true Clash fans already own is hardly lost on this critic. Luckily starting with The Clash and thrashing through the band’s overall excellent career can be such a rewarding experience that the complaint of redundancy is no longer worth even caring about. That is, if you cut the crap and admit to being a true Clash fan yourself.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-clashsound-system/