Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Clash (1977/1979)

For various reasons (or "excuses") I never properly got around to this one until fairly recently. I know it's essential—and found I knew the tracks fairly well by the time I sat down to listen closely. It has been in the air for decades, after all, playing in record stores and clubs and at friends' places, and I had pretty well absorbed it. What I didn't understand nearly as well was how different the original 1977 UK release is from the way-late (thank you, CBS) 1979 US release, even though they share some 10 tracks of their 14 and 15, respectively. If the majority of the tracks are the same—and the versions identical, except "White Riot," re-recorded from the original—the sequencing is significantly altered. Most of side 1 of the UK version appears to be basically side 2 of the US version but there are many alterations. As with the Beatles albums of the mid-'60s, the result is that they are effectively two different albums traveling under the same title and cover art, and this in spite of sharing identical versions of nine songs. I find that I like the UK version better. It sounds more like the landmark this is supposed to be, fresher and more vital and natural. The US version, with such lengthy additions as the 3:58 "Clash City Rockers" that kicks off the first side, or "Complete Control" (which has a guitar solo), or the new-wave gesture of the telling cover (in this case, "I Fought the Law"), seems already to be about the task of creating great iconic myths for its time. The band hadn't yet entered the studio to record any of London Calling, but they were about to, and obviously the ideas that would come to define the Five Great Vinyl Slabs of 1980 (with Sandinista) were percolating. They also hadn't yet entirely thrown off the misbegotten feint toward metal bombast and monotony of Give 'em Enough Rope. All of which ironically makes the US version of their astonishing debut feel more like a transitional effort with a bit of an identity crisis. Yet none of that takes away either from the finest moments they both share: the rowdy and caustic singalong "I'm So Bored With the USA" (notably appropriate in this context), "Janie Jones," "Career Opportunities" (which would make yet another appearance, this time in a different version, on Sandinista), "London's Burning," or the big dub reggae exercise "Police and Thieves." For that matter, "Clash City Rockers" actually manages to effectively signal what was coming, and for that reason alone makes the US version nearly as essential. Oh bother, you need them both after all.

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