Jun. 8th, 2014

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With only six proper studio LPs spanning 1977-1985, it's not difficult to complete a basic collection of music by The Clash. This is one of those moments where I look at my music collection and think, "well, I've dropped the ball on this one." I quite enjoy this band's music and really should have all of their albums, but for whatever reason I've yet to take the plunge and just buy the fucking CDs already. So, The Essential Clash is the only set in my collection – a two disc compilation album collecting 40 tracks of previously released material.

It makes sense that Sony Music would include The Clash in their Essential series. For one thing, the band has always been signed to the label or one of their imprints. Furthermore, they never had an album that did go at least gold. The 1985 swan song, Cut The Crap even went silver, 1979's London Calling went platinum and 1982's Combat Rock went double platinum. Not bad for four punks from England.

For me, a good compilation is one which complements and completes the rest of one's music collection. When I am looking to put together everything possible of what a group has released commercially, I try to find a set which fills in the gaps first and foremost. To this end, I prefer singles compilations which include non-LP releases and B-sides. Unfortunately, this care and attention wasn't part of the equation when I bought Essential from a used bin somewhere ten years ago, but apparently I got lucky as this compilation collects all of the singles (albeit lacking in many B-sides) along with significant LP cuts and places them in chronological order. As such, I'm going to keep this in my collection even when I do get around to buying those six proper LPs (along with Black Market Clash and Super Black Market Clash).

So, we begin Essential in 1977. More than the first half of disc one is devoted to songs from The Clash (jumping back and forth between the US and UK versions of the LP). In all, thirteen tracks on Essential come from this LP or singles culled from it, making it the most represented here. Give 'Em Enough Rope gets five songs represented and the remaining two tracks – "Capitol Radio One" and "Groovy Times" were originally compiled on Black Market Clash and Super Black Market Clash, respectively.

Growing up, I'd never heard anything from disc one of Essential. It was songs from disc two that got played on the radio stations I listed to in Northern New York. In Potsdam, New York's college radio community, it seemed to be the same way. One of the more frustrating things I faced as music director was getting newbies to break out of their top 40 induced torpor, which happened more often than not. Regardless, and speaking of top 40, the first song I'd ever heard by The Clash came because I was watching VH1's A to Z music video marathon. They had given lip service to the group by playing "Rock The Casbah."

"London Calling," which opens disc two, has been a Pittsburgh club favourite for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can't remember another Clash song being played at a club in the city for as long as I've lived here. There have been times when I thought "Straight To Hell" was being started up only to discover that I was actually hearing M.I.A.'s Clash-sampling "Paper Planes." I found that quite annoying, actually. Sampling, when done right, doesn't fool the listener into thinking they are about to hear the original song.

The London Calling LP, originally released as a two-record set in 1979, gets seven tracks on Essential. 1980's triple LP Sandinista! gets five songs on the set. The Clash's biggest seller, the 1982 LP Combat Rock gets four songs. The compilation ends with only one song from the 1985 epilogue, Cut The Crap:a ride into the sunset entitled "This Is England."

I have to admit that I possess a bit of a morbid fascination with hearing Cut The Crap at least once. I've heard time and time again that it is a terrible album. It probably is. The group was falling apart at the time and Mick Jones, their primary songwriter had been sacked by Joe Strummer. I imagine that it sounds like decay. Hell, "This Is England" sounds like a studio baby more than anything a cohesive band would come up with – good track, well-produced, but probably should have been credited to any other musicians than The Clash.

Would it have been so far-fetched to think of "This Is England" truly being a Clash song though? One of the reasons Strummer sacked Jones was over musical differences, specifically Jones' desire to integrate the dreaded keyboard into The Clash's music. Yes, the keyboard, tool of wussy new wave musicians like Depeche Mode and New Order and Public Image Ltd. The keyboard would have surely destroyed everything The Clash stood for!

Sarcasm aside, I suspect that excuses were simply being made for what was likely an inevitable break up and the keyboard provided a convenient, if weak, scapegoat. Regardless, Mick Jones went on to form Big Audio Dynamite, who released their debut LP the same year as The Clash released their final LP.

So, I've learned something new today. Did you know that "This Is Radio Clash" and "Radio Clash" are technically two different songs? Yep. Somebody put the dirt on Wikipedia:

The B-side recording titled "Radio Clash" was accidentally released on the US version of this album with the incorrect A-side title of "This Is Radio Clash", much like it had been on Super Black Market Clash. Both tracks have the same length and the only notable difference is in the two mixes and the lyrics. (They also feature an un-credited performance by Gary Barnacle on Electric Saxophone). The similarities of the titles and the recordings has led to quite a bit of confusion not only by fans but by record companies as well. The two songs can be identified by the opening lyrics. "This Is Radio Clash" begins with "This is radio clash on pirate satellite, Orbiting your living room, cashing in the bill of rights" and "Radio Clash" begins with "This is radio clash resuming of transmission, beaming from the mountain tops using aural ammunition." Apart from these two compilations, every other compilation (including the European version of "The Essential Clash") where "This Is Radio Clash" is listed on the sleeve includes the original song rather than its similarly titled B-side.

Since I have the US version of Essential, I'm hearing "Radio Clash" mislabelled as "This Is Radio Clash." I can't correct the track listing on the liners of the disc, but you can bet that I've fixed the tag on my MP3 copy of the song.

The Essential Clash was released in the United States on March 11th, 2003. Joe Strummer had died in December of the previous year, an event which is mentioned in the liner notes of the compilation. Between 1985 and his 2002 death, he'd remained active in music as well as adding some film work to his resume. Mick Jones went on to form Big Audio Dynamite, which has had a rotating group of members (as well as variations on the name of the group) since their inception. He remains active in music, albeit not always with Big Audio Dynamite. Bassist Paul Simonon worked with Damon Albarn (along with Mick Jones) for Gorillaz in 2010 and in 2007 for The Good, The Bad & The Queen. However, he has spent most of his post-Clash career painting. Drummer Topper Headon, long battling drug addiction during his time with The Clash continued to do so afterwards. However, he remained active in music and continues to play, having had and recovered from surgery for hyperkyphosis (a forward curvature of the spine) in 2008.


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Seth Warren

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