Welcome back good people and by kind courtesy of none other than Kris Needs I’m able to share a very special guest post/review of Sound System for you to enjoy like fine wine over this weekend as Kris has taken the (extensive) time to write exclusively for the blog about the box set.
Kris really should need no introduction nor do I feel any noted music journalist is as uniquely positioned as he to explore the most comprehensive release ever from The Clash. I started this blog to pay my own overdue tribute to The Clash, to build a place to connect fans from around the world and perhaps somehow be a modern day digital parallel to the mighty fanzines and music papers of my youth. Therefore having Kris offer to write for the blog is simply an honour for me and all that I set out to do here. Enough with the introduction…over to the guest review by Mr. Needs.
Never thought a few years of my life could end up being captured in a box so uncannily and make me feel so good they happened like they did. The Clash’s awesome Sound System has managed to condense what made them so special into a small, perfectly-formed box with the music sounding better than it ever has, enhanced by stacks of thoughts and memorabilia. The packaging is so beautiful it still draws the eye to where it’s perched over there on the record shelf, often accompanied by a Clash-style moose-like “Baroo!” of sheer delight at the sight of it. Just as The Clash intended.
Everyone else has had their say by now so I’m happy as a dung-beetle to be making my debut on this fine site by being given the chance to vent forth on what has to be the finest boxset of all time. I’ve been reviewing or buying boxsets since they were invented and seen anything from good value works of art [Exile On Main Street, Screamadelica] to hastily-assembled corporate money-spinners [most of the rest]. Sound System obviously fits into the first category, but transcends even that by managing to pack in the band‘s entire career, rather than just focussing on one album.
The secret of success with these things boils down to the amount of artist involvement, plus a large amount of care that fans aren‘t going to be shelling out for the same music in a different box. As a fellow collector of records and memorabilia since the early 60s, I can see where Mick was going to go as this is the kind of set he would dream of blessing his own favourite groups [although that‘s obviously now The Clash]. As he’s said, it had to be something which would make his own jaw drop; a collector’s goldmine and a fan’s delight, while still in the spirit of The Clash. Something for the big, wide 21st century, rather than bowing to those who still reckon The Clash must only be heard on a seven-inch single on an indie label. In short, Sound System presents their whole story, but contextualises it as both definite statement and ultimate affirmation of their place as the greatest rock ’n’ roll band of all time.
There’s no need for me to go on about why The Clash were so vital then and immortal now. I was amazed at the number of reviews which just retold the story everyone knows, voiced opinions of the sort droned for decades and whinnied about this being an expensive way of getting music they already have. Several didn’t mention [or even seem to twig] Mick’s painstaking remastering with engineer Tim Young, which hotwired tracks and brought out previously-buried overdubs while restoring them to how they sounded in the studio at birth. Few really went into the welter of artefacts carefully designed to compliment the music, the band and their story. It’s a labour of love which only deserves to be loved back. Anyway, a ton is less than two gig tickets these days.
The Clash get bigger as time goes on [which just brought up a memory of Mick once saying, “No, I’m still my normal size“]. Some of that’s the 21st century way of dealing with a unique legend, but the music is still heard everywhere, from new group blueprints to commercials. The Clash never reformed to smudge the crystal clarity of those classic images, but there have been so many documentaries, books, reissues and tributes to their music that the time was spot on for the group themselves to come out with the definitive statement on just what they‘d done in that seven year blitz. Or rather it was around three years ago, when the project was first mooted. I remember Pennie Smith talking about it last year, saying how Paul was designing a special package.
He’s done a jawdropping job of macrocosmic detail, the camouflage green ghetto blaster container actually a stroke of genius. Everyone who went to New York in the early 80s went through the same ritual; buy a boom-box on Canal Street, record the city’s sizzlingly inventive dance radio stations and graff it up to look a subway train [before they purged the squirters]. Open it up and everything’s in the right compartment, calculated to sit properly within the dimensions of a caterpillar’s penis.
So let’s put on the first album’s CD and see what’s in the box [There’s a Service Manual with diagram to tell you]. The memorabilia comes in the form of a little replica flight case containing five badges [I’ve still got three originals but lost the Pearl Harbour Tour ‘79 one so wish that was here too]; Vintage Sticker Set, again in pink case [Radio Clash tour backstage pass, ‘79 Clash Attack headshots, Joe‘s setlist, Take The Fifth logo and page of Magnificent Seven-related ones]; The Clash Paperback Book in pink case [Entitled The Future Is Unwritten so blank]; Two bumper stickers [Rehearsals sign, …Rope logo]; replica fag containing Hits Back cover poster [itself in a long yellow and black box replicating the safety barriers at the Lyceum in 1981] and Clash dog-tags. Then there’s The [pink plastic] Clash Folder, containing three issues of The Armagideon Times, their own fanzine. The first two were produced in 1980, number one based on London Calling, with the album insert and Clash story [plus Zigzag ad as ‘The One The Clash Trust’]. Number Two was centred around the 16 Tons Tour. Both were co-edited by Mick’s old school-mate and goat fiend Robin Banks, who wrote all those marvellous front line reports for Zigzag when I editing between 1977-82. We still laugh about the all-nighter at the Zigzag offices when we laid out number two with glue and felt-tips, buying a bunch of comics from the newsagent next door on which to cowgum biographies the band and crew had filled in [Topper was on a prison officer ad, Joe a pulp detective strip, Paul over a music mail order ad, Mick pasted on a wild dog story, Johnny Green a van advert, The Baker an army werewolf yarn and DJ Barry Myers a bloke giving a cow one up the tradesman’s, for reasons which escape me now]. Pennie gave us some classic shots and Mikey Dread, who we’d been dancing with onstage most nights in masks, wrote a message. I’m made up to see it in here, beautifully illustrated by Brenda Siegelman, who sketched the tour from the wings. It’s joined by a modern version full of memories and anecdotes.
All this stuff is fabulous but that wouldn’t mean so much if the audio-visual material didn’t beat what’s been out before. Of course, you know by now that it does [if you read the right press]. You’ve heard Mick talking about excavating the original master tapes and baking them before reapproaching each song with a view to scrape away decades of muddy familiarity and bring out the hidden treasures hidden in the overdubs, while making everything sound like it did booming out of the studio speakers. I remember a conversation with Mick when the Stones did similar to Exile On Main Street a few years back. There were all these previously-unheard riffs! Having witnessed Mick at work on a bunch of Clash tracks [and worked with him when he rescued my Vice Creems single in ‘79], I remember marvelling many times at his foresight and feel as he stood there, relentlessly overdubbing guitar lines like a painter who knew what he wanted to see. Sometimes it was like he was constructing a towering inferno pyramid of counter-melodies which all made perfect sense when meshed together, even the background-deepening effects like a group of us banging on the pipes in the gents for the chain gang effect on ‘I Fought The Law’, or mass cry of the wildebeest which popped up several times on London Calling. It was a kind of widescreen genius playing out in his head, rather like I imagined Phil Spector was pulling out when building those walls of sound. Over thirty years later, that old subliminal power rings louder and clearer, especially on Give ‘Em Enough Rope tracks such as ‘Safe European Home’, ’Cheapskates’ and raging majesty of the often overlooked ‘Drug Stabbing Time’.
Each album is encased in a thick card gatefold slip-case with middle pocket, in the case of The Clash harbouring a lyric sheet. From the opening blast of ‘Janie Jones’ it’s obvious something’s different. Joe’s voice is reverb-framed more within the sound, guitars have more attack [carrying armour-plated counter-lines] and Paul’s basslines are dub-wise stonkers. It is already apparent that each album should be appreciated as a whole, the way they were originally envisioned and sequenced, so tracks such as ‘Deny’ and ‘Cheat’ are just as vital as ‘London’s Burning’ and ‘Garageland’ – both eye-openers with their amped up guitar parts.
Give ‘Em Enough Rope was maligned at the time. Now it sounds like one of the most incendiary high energy rock ‘n’ roll albums of the ‘70s. Apart from the afore-mentioned, ‘All The Young Punks’ now has a raw boogie undertow, boosted by piano and churning guitars, while ‘Stay Free’ sounds more heart-tweaking than ever [I always wait for the ‘Sweet Black Angel’ lift in the fadeout]. Here the cover includes the poster that came with the promos and lyric sheet [There were some jokes at the Pop-Up Store launch in Soho as Cheapo Cheapos used to be just around the corner - first shop in London to carry the album in ‘78 after that launch!].
First time I heard London Calling they’d just finished sequencing it at five in the morning and, for the first playback ever, had elected to lob me on the pool table trussed up in gaffer tape with Topper’s crash helmet and cue-ball positioned in a delicate place. That was after going to the studio the previous night expecting to hear the finished album, but instead Mick was in the vocal booth when I arrived pouring out his new song ‘Train In Vain’. It blew me away then [despite my undignified position] and still does now. There’d already been some restoration with 2004’s expanded reissue, but here it’s back to two discs like the vinyl [with insert in the centre pocket]. In the already sumptuous surroundings of this album, it’s hardly surprising to find yet more guitars looming up and peeling away to reveal further delights such as swirling Hammond organ on timeless beauties like ‘Spanish Bombs‘ and extra wildebeest noises on the title track. Topper’s good tonight, in’e?
Sandinista! is faithfully represented as three CDs [plus original lyric insert on Armagideon Times number three], its panoramic vistas definitely benefiting from Mick’s wash ‘n’ brush up; all that crazed experimenting, New York melting pot celebration and Joe’s other greatest ballad [‘Broadway’].
Stretching out with a lights-belching howl, The Clash invaded New York’s black radio with ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and Larry Levan’s fabled disco inferno the Paradise Garage with its dub, ‘The Magnificent Dance’ [here in the extras]. The Clash’s coup of falling for and absorbing the city’s raging dance music production innovations then spitting them back out and cleaning up is one of their lesser-trumpeted but most important achievements. Many bands copied the New York dance sound but sounded like a limp reflection of it. The Clash bust the mirror then reassembled it in their own image, grabbing hiphop along the way. I remember when Mick came back from the US one time, playing these electronic boogie tracks, obviously soaking in every nuance and squeak. Another time, he gave me a cassette he’d recorded off NY radio; Run DMC, the Peech Boys, Indeep, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’. Within the following 18 months I could hear glimmers of all those in what came later.
They’ve resisted the temptation of conjoining Combat Rock with its original evil twin Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, instead presenting the album with its original insert, although offcuts can be found on the Extras disc, which we’ll come to in a minute. The remastering lends tracks like ‘Car Jamming’ and ‘Innoculated City’ an extra depth which, considering the radioactive sonic foliage bristling and glowing throughout much of the album, is a definite bonus. From lemonade bottle percussion to latest synthesiser developments, even Glyn Johns’ rapid remix couldn’t hide the rampant experimentation going on in the hallucinogenic marimba vistas of ‘Sean Flynn’ [originally 15 minutes long], or his shears prune the life out of the now almost unbearably moving ‘Ghetto Defendant’. Joe really hit it off with Allen Ginsberg, who contributed a lot more than eventually showed up here, but his ’voice of God’ sounds even more like it’s booming from your subconscious as Joe’s poignant railing against heroin numbing urban blight soars over Mick’s glistening mutant dub backdrop. Then there’s the previously-hidden pianos of Topper‘s ‘Rock The Casbah’ music, delivered with the elegant panache of Chic.
In addition to the five albums, there’s three more discs of Sound System Extras, with notes from Tim Young and Bill Price, who I first met when he was working with Mott The Hoople on the Mott album 40 years ago. He played an integral part in the London Calling and Sandinista! sessions, working with the rapidly-evolving Mick on production and now on the restoration and preservation of the decaying original master tapes.
Disc One rattles through the singles and their b-sides [‘Jail Guitar Doors’!], through to the late, great Mikey Dread’s ‘Rockers Galore On A UK Tour’ dub; all kicking and sparking more than ever with The Cost Of Living EP a new marvel and ‘White Man‘ soaring as my other favourite Joe song. It now sounds like it did that night I heard them making it at Marquee studios. Disc Two ropes together 12-inch mixes, b-sides [‘The Cool Out’ positively glacial] and extended versions of ‘Sean Flynn’, ’Ghetto Defendant’ and ‘Straight To Hell’. Two more Rat Patrol out-takes show up in ‘The Beautiful People Are Ugly Too’ and ‘Idle In Kangaroo Court [Kill Time]’, while ‘Midnight To Stevens’ – their heartfelt tribute to Guy Stevens – reappears in all its gorgeous splendour. Disc Three presents four extracts from The Clash’s first ever session, recorded by Julien Temple at Beaconsfield Film Studios in 1976, the Guy Stevens demos recorded in January, 1977 [which Joe had dismissed, saying he sounded like Brit-crooner Matt Monro] and a storming stretch from the December 28, 1979 Lyceum gig which, as I was there, comes as a particularly welcome closing whammy.
The DVD package would be a worthwhile purchase on its own, starting with six minutes from Julien Temple’s archive [I sometimes wonder what happened to the footage he shot of the March, 1977 Harlesden gig. The next day me and Mick went round and watched it - amazing]. There’s also the ’White Riot’ Promo Film, four tracks shot at Sussex University in 1977, Don Letts’ blistering Super 8 Medley, five Clash On Broadway tracks [‘The Magnificent Seven’ in New York is sublime] and ten promo videos, littered with classics: ‘Tommy Gun’, ‘London Calling’, ’ ‘Bankrobber’, ‘Clampdown’ [Live], ‘Train In Vain’ [Live], ‘The Call Up’, ‘Rock The Casbah’, ‘Radio Clash’ and the Shea footage of ‘Should I Stay..’ and ‘Career Opportunities’. All just in case you forget the sound always came with eye-blastingly cool vision.
My favourite Clash song? ‘Complete Control’. Like all on this set, it sounds newborn glorious. Just glorious. I only wish Joe was around to see all this.
Back to me again (sorry!). Please be kind enough to join me in thanking Kris for the epic and exclusive journey into Sound System from a writer who truly ‘was there’. Also all images (except Joe B&W) by kind courtesy once more of Pete Stevens – thanks Pete. Wonderful stuff – thank you and please share the post by all means. Tim