Friday, June 15, 2007

The Clash - The Singles (****)



You can’t step to the Clash; they were too good, too unpredictable, too genre-busting, too focused, too culturally conscious and just way too important for anyone to pretend that they either don’t like them or don’t at least respect their contribution to the progression modern music. They were ridiculously prolific, releasing six studio albums in only eight years (with one of those being a double-LP and one a triple-LP), at least three of which are landmarks in the American songbook. They were the first punk (not punk) band to consistently make dents in the charts, dropping a series of singles over the course of their career (1977-85) that helped define a generation of UK youths. Last year, all of the band’s UK singles were packaged in a massive 19-disc box set, which re-created down to every last detail, the original art and design of the original vinyl releases. It was lavishly done and beautiful to look at, but also not very practical or economical (it retailed for about $85). Now, less than a year later, we have all the 18 A-sides from that set collected on one single disc compilation, appended with US smash hit “Train in Vain” and funky promotional single “Groovy Times”.

The quality of the work the Clash did is impossible to understate, and hearing these singles sequenced back-to-back over the course of one hour is almost overwhelming - there is nary a misstep to found here. The disc kicks off with “London Calling”, the title track to their groundbreaking London Calling LP, and one of their last attempts at straight ahead punk rock. The Clash were never a group content to rest on their laurels, consistently genre-hopping from reggae to r&b to ska to soul to anything in between, always retaining that intangible quality that made them one of the most vital acts of the last quarter century. After “London Calling”, the disc moves in all sorts of directions, from timeless call-and-response jam “Rock the Casbah” to the reggae inflected “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” and circling back to early punk stunners “White Riot” and “Clash City Rockers” among others.

Oft-forgotten tracks like the fantastic “Bankrobber”, the soulful “English Civil War (Johnny Comes Marching Home)” and the unrelenting “Know Your Rights” are even further proof that the Clash’s deep cuts can stand up to close scrutiny. But let’s be serious, the Clash were notoriously indulgent, and for those of you who have never been able to sit through 1980s notoriously bloated Sandinista!, or their hit-and-miss late career records, then The Singles is a godsend as there is not one moment on this record that sags in the slightest. Their restlessness consistently led them into interesting sonic territory, but was always wonderfully offset by their staunchly political lyrics, which were thankfully never ham-fisted or preachy. Rather, the passionate and insightful words of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer - best represented here by the band’s debut single “White Riot” and the anti-terrorist manifesto “Tommy Gun” - have long since become rallying cries for political upheaval and social unrest.

Despite the band’s dedication to the album format, it is surprising to hear how well their songs stand up their own, not to mention how fascinating it is to witness the strength of their catalogue when highlights like these are strung together non-chronologically. The Singles cannot replace essential purchases like London Calling and their self-titled debut, but it works as a perfect compendium for their stand-alone artifacts. The Singles is exactly what it claims to be – a complete and consistently stunning overview of the complete 12” works from one of the greatest bands of all time; and on those terms it is a fantastic success.

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