Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Top 5 Underheralded, Underappreciated Clash master oeuvres
"Pressure Drop", Black Market Clash
Cover versions are indelibly etched near the top elechons in the Clash musical lexicon ("I Fought The Law", "Police On My Back"); reggae of course features prominently as well (too many to mention); for that matter, "Police and Thieves" is a reggae cover that is often featured among top Clash song lists. From where I sit however I'd take their rollicking take on the Toots and the Maytals classic any day. Covers are a tricky business, naturally: optimally one walks a fine line between roboticallly reproducing the original (why bother) and perverting the original into something uncomfortably unfamiliar, cringeworthy, or both. The band imbues this classic with just the right measure of infectious abandon without contorting the original beyond recognition.
"Up in Heaven", Corner Soul and Let's Go Crazy, Sandinista
About midway through the sprawling multicultural epic, albeit surely the most polarizing of all Clash albums, lies this one-two-three knockout punch that ranks among the band's most brightly shining moments. After the merciful fadeout of Lightning Strikes, a catchy four second riff masquerading as a 5 minute funk workout, intones the opening organ of Up in Heaven, one of Mick Jones' criminally overlooked Clash masterpieces. Where Joe Strummer's ideological fervor often drove the bus through the band's trademark high octane manifestos, sometimes dangerously bordering on the bully pulpit, Jones was always more subtle, more nuanced in his approach to social justice, his signature compositions weaving character portrayals of the everyman struggling to deal with everyday challenges (ie the oft-celebrated "Lost in the Supermarket") rather than polemic bannerwaving. (Of course, there's always an exception to every rule, witness Strummer's stunningly brilliant "Broadway" on this very album, which easily could have made this list, dripping in pathos as it evokes rain-soaked down and out New York street folks...). In my view nowhere is Jones' essence more evident than in "Up in Heaven", a pleasantly uptempo melody betrayed by a heartwrenching lyrical glimpse into the plight of London's underclass:
And whatcha gonna do when the darkness surrounds?
You can piss in the lifts which have broken down
You can watch from the debris the last bedroom light
We’re invisible here just past midnight
After the final drums clatter and fade away into that darkness we are startled awake by Strummer's invocation at the outset of Corner Soul. Loosely based on Enoch Powell's famous River of Blood speech (learn more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivers_of_Blood_speech : newsflash - apparently xenophobia is nothing new!, and certainly not limited to ultraconservatie militias pacing the Arizona border...), musically Corner Soul defies easy music categorization. Guitar, bass and drum chug away in an understated reggae vibe, but keyboard effects and ethereal choral vocals give the music a hypnotic depth. But Strummer's vocals are the centerpiece of this gem, conjuring up the sceptre of impending violence without rooting it in the historical grounding of any particular set of facts. Simply riveting, spinetingling listening.
The third track in this sequence isn't the slightest bit opaque, nuanced, or subtle: it's the Clash at their effervescent, pedal to the metal, celebratory best. "Let's Go Crazy" is the "Party Rock Anthem" of the Clash anthology if you will - an unbridled celebration of Carnival's ebulllience, with a few touches of Strummer's wryly cynical views of law enforcement, the drug trade, and the like thrown in for comic relief. The band dabbled in just about every musical genre imaginable on those three discs, sometimes more effectively than others for sure, and this calypso barnburner replete with steel drums, police whistles and streetcorner preachers positively captures the exuberance of this cultural phenomenon.
(i LOVE this viewer-created video!)
"Sean Flynn", Combat Rock
"You Know He Heard The Drums Of War."
Such is the haunting refrain that infuses this sinewy, softspoken track hidden deep on side two of Combat Rock, perhaps the second most polarizing of all Clash releases. While the karaoke-friendly power chords of "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and the playful blues bar riffs of "Rock the Casbah" (drummer Topper Headon's finest moment?) remain permanently ingrained in top 40 rotation to this day, having rocketed the band's final release to commercial superstardom, Sean Flynn, along with the more widely acclaimed Straight to Hell and Ghetto Defendant, much more effectively capture the band's restless, experimental essence at the sunset of its glory. No verse, no chorus, no real structure at all; just Jones' undulating, understated riffs punctuated by darting saxaphones and slowly galloping Asianesque percussion, with Strummer intoning with typical passion about the plight of the actor-turned-photojournalist son of the dashing Errol Flynn. It doesn't characterize his disappearance and presumed tortured death at the hands of Khmer Rouge in anything resembling any sort of linear cohesion so much as summon his spirit cosmically. It's virtually unfathomble that it was produced by the same quartet that just a few years before was blurting out hyperkinetic, three chord, twominute blasts about rude boys, hateful record company execs, and condoms, but such was the evolution of the greatest band that ever mattered.