TIME MACHINE: The Singles allows us to imagine what it was like to experience the emergence of the Clash up close and personal.
There are Clash fans, and then there are Clash fans. The former aren’t likely to see much point in a box of 19 CDs with as few as two tracks on them (seven or eight on the more robust ones), especially since Epic has already reissued every Clash album, including an extended London Calling with the notoriously bootlegged “Vanilla Tapes” intact, not to mention the comprehensive three-disc box Clash on Broadway. Aside from a live album, of which there’s already one, what more could one want from a band who were here and gone in less than a decade, looked cool in everything from American gangster gear to art-school paint splatter to full-on combat rock gear, made one of the more enduring double albums of all time (London Calling), had a couple of radio hits, and split? It really is just rock and roll, right?
Yes, but no is the answer you’ll get from the fans — and I do count myself among that radiantly sorry group. There’s really nothing that will heal the wound of Joe Strummer’s passing at 50 on December 22, 2002, just as he seemed to be finding his rock-and-roll legs again. And so we make do with whatever trickles out of the media machine bearing the image of the Clash, whether it be books by British journalists intent on proving that Strummer and Mick Jones were, gasp, middle-class (most recently Mojo editor Pat Gilbert’s immaculately researched Passion Is a Fashion) or something as conspicuously all-consuming as that new 19-disc set, The Clash: The Singles (Epic/Legacy).
Why? Why indeed. Perhaps because some of us consider “London Calling” or “Clash City Rockers” or even “White Riot” (the band’s first single and a song that would probably ignite as much of a firestorm in 2006 as it did in 1977) as more crucial and integral to rock and roll than “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or any of that stuff by “Elvis, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones,” as Strummer spits out on the chorus of “1977.” It’s not really true: Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones had already changed the world before the Clash came along. But it’s accurate in that, unlike the Pistols or any other punk band of their time, the Clash represented something to believe in — “The Only Band That Matters” — to masses of potential rock fans who’d long ago forgotten how to care. Just read Lester Bangs’s essay on the group in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. The jaded rock critic from America comes to England ready to dispel the myth of this too-good-to-be-true punk band and ends up defeated, won over by the power and ferocity of the Clash and by the genuine nature of their mission, regardless of its flaws.
Those flaws showed up early. Along with The Singles, Legacy has also released Rude Boy on DVD, and never has a film failed so brilliantly. A semi-fictional tale about a Clash roadie who apparently fails to live up to the ideals of punk, it’s notable only for its early live footage. But now that you can cut the crap and get right to the meat of the DVD with one press of a button, Rude Boy has some value. This is classic Clash, fired up by the moment, still figuring out little bits like the solo in their rocked-up cover of the Junior Murvin reggae tune “Police and Thieves,” and taking pleasure in seeing how far they can go with this punk pose they’ve discovered.
As a companion, The Singles allows those of us on this side of the Atlantic to imagine what it was like to experience the emergence of the Clash up close and personal. Great Britain preserves a singles culture that died out long ago in the States. And so the Clash were marketed here as just another band who happened to be punk, with their second, Sandy Pearlman–produced LP, Give ’Em Enough Rope, coming out before their rougher, meaner debut disc. Back home, though, they revealed themselves through the singles included in the Legacy box (along with a number of bonus tracks). If you’re going to time-travel to experience the excitement of that time and place, then single-by-single is the way to do it. Yes, it’s “inconvenient,” as one reviewer put it, to have to hit the CD changer after “Remote Control”/“London’s Burning” just to hear the next two emissions from radio Clash (“Complete Control”/“City of the Dead”). But imagine having to wait weeks or months for “Complete Control”/”City of the Dead” to arrive in the record store.
The Singles box should be the final word. It even has the “This Is England” single the Strummer/Simenon group recorded after they kicked Jones out of the band, a first for any Clash collection I know of. So there can’t be much left in the vaults. But in the years before Strummer’s death, another story unfolded, that of the old warhorse’s unlikely comeback amid a punk-pop explosion in the US. Having revived tunes like “Rock the Casbah” and recorded his first truly great solo album, Global a Go-Go, for Epitaph, Strummer hit the road looking as vital as ever with his young Mescaleros a year and a half before his death. Much of the US tour is chronicled on Let It Rock, an Image DVD that merely scratches the surface of the artist Strummer had become. There’s gotta be enough extras left for another CD/DVD set.