Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The Clash (1977)
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
This will never happen again. It was too much of a miracle to begin with. That Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Terry Chimes (soon replaced by Topper Headon) and Paul Simonon found one another at all required a series of coincidences and the strange fusion of scenes and circles in the mid-'70s London punk scene. This isn't the magic, though. The magic we can no longer have is the cultural monolith for a band like the Clash to raise a sucker punch against -- and that was all a big image anyway, some frilly neon Way Things Are to kick down. Who knows if it was any truer then? Crucial to the Clash was their commercial intelligence, their awareness of the power of illusion, the illusion to create an enemy. To be working class would've been one thing, and not wholly relevant; fuck, the Rolling Stones were prep school boys. Strummer would talk in later years about the Clash being boot camp. You dropped everything, you threw your identity away, and everything would become the band, all of yourself a party to it and a participant.
We don't have time to reveal the history of the Clash, but suffice to say it's got the Dickensian intricacy of some Pulitizer prize winning epic novel, the very thing you can pretend Marcus Gray's biography of the band (Last Gang in Town) is. What matters to us is the knockdown drag-out relentlessness of one specific iteration, idea, theory of the Clash. Let's even disregard punk for a moment; what's punk turned out to be aside from one more buzz word? In their all too brief prime, the Clash may have been the definitive rock & roll band -- restlessly creative and intelligent but remaining committed to the basest of base impulse in their work, the Bo Diddley beat and the blasted-out soundsystem, so much more than the One Chord Wonders public image limited of "punk." An upending of pop is what this is ("phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust"), a documentarylike capturing of the frenetic within a galvanizing and hard-working band thoroughly dedicated to craft. Such an intrinsic understanding of impact, of how this lively protest music is so much more than a pretty voice against some bastard tide. And wit, above all. "London's Burning," they said, with boredom. How can something be so well defined and so appealing by these reductive definitions? But if "Janie Jones" is compressed Beatles, Ramones rivalry, why's it so humongous and exhausting? The Clash were about essence, about altering, about seriousness. Seriousness and wit, a miracle (oh, that word again) of the time.
Do we want to run down the list of all these instances of directness and electricity? Let's have a bit of levity, or not, like when Joe Strummer breaks into a giggle on "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" that turns out to be itself a put-on when he chases it harshly with the cockeyed accusation "Ho, you think it's funny? / Turning rebellion into money." In that meantime, that's reggae you're hearing (repeated on the masterpiece cover of "Police & Thieves"), an expression of both solidarity and virtuosity -- disparate influence as a mere inflection, something else the Clash shares with the Beatles. It's the Troggs I think of on the cheerily hammering "Hate & War" though, the Troggs tackling something important. What's important to the Clash? Poverty, racism, alienation, commercialism, anger playing as hard as you can -- the usual punk shit, sans apathy. The Clash are apathetic about nothing. Ever. Everything matters. Everything will continue to matter.
We're talking about the U.S. album here, and we're aware this is a copout and one more instance of Seppo decadence and myopia: I grew up with this LP, therefore it is the LP. CBS didn't think there'd be a market for the Clash here in America where we were only interested in heavy and overblown things, but they had to import so many copies they finally relented... but not until 1979, by which time history had passed. The result is actually a compilation record of sorts, gathering most of the early Clash singles and lopping off about half their actual debut album and to boot throwing in a brand new recording (issued on the EP Cost of Living over there), a weaving and unexpectedly grand take on Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law," with glorious guitar and arrangement. Like The Beatles' Second Album, this unabashed piece of product that everyone knew was a ripoff accidentally stacks together some of the greatest rock recordings of all time, which is saying a lot because nothing is greater than the greatest rock & roll, and some people even voice the belief that it's the best slab of vinyl ever pressed, this. Still... fucks. Meddling of this sort led the band to publicly denounce their label back in 77 Present Day because they released the comparatively feeble "Remote Control," intended just as an album cut, as a single. That pissed them off so much they wrote a song about it, mocking the fact they'd been told that "complete control" was theirs (containment wasn't), but here we were. A humiliation for CBS Records.
A humiliation, and one of those "greatest recordings" aforementioned. Fucking A, "Complete Control," the very title twisting the knife, is an act of heroism. Closeness, fury, a towering conclusion, the slap in the face of Capricorn Records coke rock: "you're my guitar hero!" shouted during a primitive solo. The bent sophistication really kicks off here, something that really extends far beyond the brutish infectious beginning "White Riot" and points the way forward to a band so eclectic you could program a night's worth of their songs without much trace of repetition. Fast forward to "What's My Name" to reveal their way with both a crushingly personal lyric about depression and madness, and the menace and apocalypse of built-up production and layered guitars. It's so loud, it has to be loud! You only get the richness of it when it's loud. They're explosive, and it's not like when the Pistols were scary which they could be, it's something more in the head, less to make an impression, personable in its insanity.
There's a little bit of the Lydonesque sneering abandon here and the Clash is plenty good at it -- "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." is one of the definitive collisions of menacing riffage and sarcasm since the Stones' heyday, while the brash humor in the lyrics of "Career Opportunities" is so appealing and well-written you almost miss what a bit of pop pleasure the song is -- but their interests lie elsewhere. One happy fixation is the guitar, the things you can do with it in the most courageously nonchalant and unembellished context. The Sex Pistols were pretend amateurs; the Clash didn't see much point in acting like they didn't want you to think they cared, which they so! obviously! did!, even if that behavior marked a clear inspiration. "Clash City Rockers" tries to hold up the brash badass image but the bridge reveals the real sophistication underneath. More clues are on the deeply detailed hard rock of "Jail Guitar Doors" and "Garageland," the former full of interacting if thrillingly basic guitar lines, the latter melodic and rife with emotion, a statement of purpose -- I just want to stay in the garage all night and not hear "where the rich are going," we're a garage band.
This record is fucking staggering, still, it's like fireworks and no distraction -- all good stuff, the true instant greatest hits (far better than Never Mind the Bollocks). It's not everything the Clash could be but it's the definitive and most lasting idea of the Clash, the instant when just playing their loudest angriest most revealing tunes was enough. You feel it all over you, and it's never forced or dumb or insincere. Totally alive, as alive as anything gets, as alive as your Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry 45's. It was overexcitement to say no one else matters, but it's easy to see why such a thing was done, because you hear the stuff the Clash did in 1977 and it's like oh, fuck everything else. On first pass, they emerge to the very top of the British punk heap -- where they remain to this day. But legacy is nothing. Pedestals are nothing. This is immediate, bare, now, direct. If you're not in its path just forget recorded music, it ain't fer you.