Sunday, July 08, 2007

Turning Rebellion into Money: Compiling The Clash

Gotta feed the monkey. That apt quote from the movie The Big Lebowski lodged itself in my brain as I read that Epic/Legacy had issued yet another Clash “retrospective.” In that movie, The Dude used the aforementioned phrase to describe Bunny Lebowski’s dalliances in the porn industry in order to generate some needed baksheesh.

And like any aging porno queen long out of tricks or new material, Epic/Legacy has settled into a boring and fairly disgusting routine of groping by rote, in the form of pointless Clash compilations.

The latest offering from the label is the non-essential The Singles. First a disclaimer: The music included is of course for the most part brilliant [insert plaudits, praise, admiration, and general ass-grabbing common to most reviews of The Clash’s recorded output here]. So let’s put it on the pedestal and leave it there.

The main problem I have with this release, and with the glut of Clash releases of recent years, is that it’s impossible to view any of them as anything more than a collective quick cash grab. This new disc simply contains nothing that offers any new insight into the band or their songs. Listeners are still best served by giving the debut self-titled album, London Calling, or the three-disc Clash On Broadway a listen to truly appreciate the Clash’s songs.

I do not expect the major labels to break the stigma of being unimaginative, uncreative, and uninspired. After all, their primary business is bottom-line profit, especially as CD sales plummet and listeners turn to iTunes and other less above-the-board ways of hearing music. If I want creative re-issues or compilations, better to see what the indie labels serve up. The most ambitious recent attempt to place the Clash’s music in some sort of larger cultural and historical context was the 19-disc box set of the band’s U.S. and UK singles from 1977-1985. That set included, b-sides, promos, the Capitol Radio EP, and a chubby booklet full of essays waxing poetic about the good ol’ days when singles meant something.

Aesthetically it was quite pleasing, especially for those fans old enough to remember the Clash on vinyl (I’m not one of them). But in practical and monetary terms, the box set reeked of desperation. At a hefty price of around $80 (over $4 per song, plus there was no discount given for the lousy ones from Sandanista), flashy packaging and faux-vinyl compact discs were not enough to justify this set. Plus, to listen to the entire set, a listener would need to change CDs 19 times. Or, as is more probable, spend an hour or two uploading the songs to a PC. Calling it a “collector’s item” is being generous.

The Clash repackaging campaign seemed to be moving in a more creative direction with the 25th anniversary reissue of London Calling in 2004. That reissue included a bonus disc of rehearsal sessions (the so-called Vanilla Tapes) and a DVD of Don Letts’ post-mortem documentary of the making of the album (complete with a ladder-wielding Guy Stevens). It was a good summation of one of rock’s defining albums, offering a great introduction to people unfamiliar with the album and a worthy investment for those already wary of being held upside down by their ankles and having their pockets turned inside out by previous compilations.

There is still a wealth of unreleased Clash material, much of which has been floating around on bootlegs for years. Sure, a lot of it is unlistenable and sounds like it was recorded from the toilet in the basement of a London punk club. However, there are plenty of great recordings in excellent sound circulating unofficially (like the recent Deadly Serious compilation), and to date there has been only once officially-released live Clash album, the underwhelming From Here to Eternity. That release excluded some key songs (like “White Riot”) and didn’t even contain any performances from 1977, the Year of Punk (a moment of silence, please). Not a good souvenir for a band considered by many to be the best live band ever.

There is a balance major labels can strike between repackaging albums and providing unofficially available material. For a perfect example, check out Rhino’s magnificent Elvis Costello reissue campaign, which offered one disc containing the original album and a bonus disc with demos, outtakes, and live performances. Not to mention the candid, caustic, and insightful liner notes penned by Costello himself. All at the price of a single cd.

Now 30 years removed from the band’s debut album, 2007 seems like the perfect time for a quality Clash reissue campaign. Dust off some key figures from the punk scene to applaud (or criticize) the band one last time, peg Clinton Heylin to write the liner notes, and jam those dics with some raucous noise and tasty treats. Until that happens though, Epic/Legacy is, as Costello himself once sang, apparently content with “picking on the bones of Strummer and Jones.”

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