I have to admit that I felt disdain at seeing the big yellow sticker that proclaims “AS SEEN ON TV! 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees!” on the cover of the latest Clash compilation, The Essential Clash. After all, it was the great man Joe Strummer himself who once spat the accusation, “You think it’s funny / Turning rebellion into money”. But what with the so-called Punk Jubilee, the Hall of Fame induction, and Strummer’s untimely demise at age 50 last December, it’s as good a time as any to reconsider the musical legacy of the group famously called “the only band that matters”.
Truly, it would take an extreme idiot to put together a bad Clash compilation, although given some of the spottier material on the band’s post-London Calling albums, it wouldn’t be impossible. The Clash is not one of those bands whose every record you should own, especially in the case of its limp final effort, Cut the Crap, recorded after Mick Jones and Topper Headon — that’s half the band, folks — were unceremoniously sacked. On the other hand, it would be bollocks to say, as some people do, that the only Clash albums you need are The Clash and London Calling. The truth is that, while those albums are essential to any strong record collection, let alone a solid punk record collection, the Clash had plenty of great songs on mixed-bag albums, plus lots of fine singles and EPs, making a thorough compilation a necessary purchase.
The question to ask, then, is not whether The Essential Clash is good — because of course the music on it is fan-fucking-tastic — but how it holds up compared to previous Clash compilations. At 40 tracks, the new double-disc collection definitely has its advantages over the first Clash collection, 1988’s two-record set The Story of the Clash, Volume 1. Had a Volume 2 of that collection ever been issued, perhaps that wouldn’t be the case, but as it stands, The Story of does a nice job of covering the group’s punk and reggae endeavors, but excludes a few key tracks and doesn’t delve far enough into the band’s experimental side. The 1991 collection Clash on Broadway remedied that fault, but at three discs, it’s probably too much of an investment for casual fans.
In terms of track listing, The Story of has Essential beat on a few counts — the excellent reggae number “Armagideon Time”, “Spanish Bombs”, and a superior version of “This Is Radio Clash”. Otherwise, Essential wins hands-down because it covers a lot more ground, and does it chronologically. The essential tracks “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” and “Police on My Back” are here, plus album tracks that give a better sense of the band’s range, such as “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “Jimmy Jazz” (although I would have preferred “Brand New Cadillac”), “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, “Ghetto Defendant”, and even a synth-tinged track from Cut the Crap, “This Is England”.
Where Essential fails, though — and it fails spectacularly on this count — is in the mix. The Clash was an extremely powerful band, but in this muddied new mix there is no top and no bottom, which does a great disservice in particular to Topper Headon’s muscular drumming. For pure punk power, I’ll probably stick to my 15-year-old (but much better sounding) vinyl copy of The Story of and pull out Essential only when I want to hear specific songs that aren’t available on the previous collection. Given its breadth, however, The Essential Clash will probably be the preferred collection of most listeners.