LIVE The Clash will appear in University of Maryland's Ritchie Coliseum Saturday at 8. CANNED THE CLASH, Epic 36060.
A mere three years ago, give or take a few drunken brawls, an English garage band christened the Clash converged upon CBS No. 3 studios in London. Working-class heroes, the Clash were at that time, like the Sex Pistols, early practitioners of a rather nasty movement known as punk rock, which steamrolled across British soil in late '76 in emulation of America's masters of rock minimalism, the Ramones.
Using their sound-man as producer, in three weekend sessions the Clash recorded their debut album. Releases in 1977, "The Clash" has become the largest-selling import LP of all time; many rock critics have even labeled it the greatest rock 'n' roll album of the decade.
In July, 1979, as a sign of the times, "The Clash" was finally released in America.
That an album has just been reissued which was available as an import is not in itself a reason for rejoicing. Yet, the American version of "The Clash" offers more, much more, than the original. Besides 10 of the 14 cuts on the band's British debut, there are also seven of the 13 tracks available only on English singles ("Class City Rockers," "Complete Control").A bonus 45 with two new songs and a complete lyric sheet round out this meticulous packaging, perhaps the best bargain since 49-cent cut-out record bins.
Last year, the Clash attempted to capture the attention of jaded American rock fans with "Give 'em Enough Rope," a cleaner, better produced record than their muddy, raucous debut. Unfortunately, the Clash got caught in their own cross-fire: Critics disapproved because the band was taking fewer risks, while legions of Ted Nugent noodletrains turned away because their music still sounded too risky. Now with the release of "The Clash," each faction should be well-armed.
To convey the sound and the fury of the Clash's music, the best description would be simply a string of war-movie titles: "Attack," "Fixed Bayonets," "Bitter Victory," "War Hunt." For there is no rock band in existence as possessed by urgency as the Clash, battling the poverty of indifference with angry chords.
In an era when boogie bands support Democratic hopefuls, the Clash becomes a rare testament of political consciousness. Still, no Doomsday looms in its foreground: Chuck Berry remains the guiding principle, not Karl Marx. For example, on "Clash City Rockers," the Clash transform "The Bells of Rhymney," a staple for folk-rockers from the Byrds to Sonny and Cher, into a silly rock 'n' roll poke: "Come on and show me say the bells of old Bowie/When I am fitter say the bells of Gary Glitter."
The Clash's art, then, is their refusal to divorce politics from their music, fusing the two "with an iron fist" (as reggae producer Lee Perry has described Clash member Mick Jone's guitar work). To hear the opening right jabs and left hooks of "The Clash" is to hear the first furious chords of the Who's "My Generation" (with Pete Townshend spreading his own brand of teenage politics), shaped by a rebellion of pure indignation that the '70s so demand.
In fact, not since Dylan (and protest music in general) has politics been so inextricably a part of rock music. Indeed, the Clash's political concern can certainly be attributed to the context of rebellion, the British punk movement, in which they created their very best work. Yet today, Dylan could no more croon above a fuzztone than the Clash could write these lyrics from their '77 song, "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." Yankee detectives are always on TV Cos killers in America Work seven days a Week.
It isn't that the band is any less radical, less antagonistic toward repression and totalitarian control. It's just that their true revolt has finally come to the surface, and not surprisingly, it is rooted in rock 'n' roll traditionalism. In short, the Clash are rebels with the ultimate cause, keeping rock 'n' roll alive, preserving its urgency while other bands only slosh through its stagnation.
On their two latest recordings (available on the freebie 45 included in the New Deal version of "The Clash"), the Clash hint at this rebellion against rock's current break with classicism. When they sing the line from "Gates of the West" -- "Little Richard's in the kitchen playing spoons and plates" -- one sees the pathetic figure of the new improved Rev. Richard Enniman in his brown three-piece suit castigating rock 'n' roll as "the devil's work" on The 700 Club.Although "Groovy Times" musically may echo Dire Straits" "Sultans of Swing," such lightweight doodling is undermined by an ironic blow to the skull of AM/ FM/ AOR schlock: They were picking up the dead out of the broken glass, Yes, it's No. 1 the radio said, Groovy times have come too far.
The Clash have always taken risks, for that's the very heart of a rock 'n' roll sensibility. For "The Clash," they recorded a six minute punk translation of a reggae hit, Junior Murvin's "Police . Theives," a challenging stroke that would have toppled lesser bands. But instead, the cut burned and sizzled so intensly that Lee Perry, the reggae genius behind the original production, added a picture of the Clash to the "Wall of Fame" at his Jamaican studio, theirs the only white face on the wall.
And sometimes, taking risks is simply a matter of maintiaining traditions. In 1979, in a move not unlike the Rolling Stones recording "Louie Louie," the Clash have recorded the zillionth version of the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law," Not only does the Clash's version sound like a chain gang breaking rocks in the hot sun, but it also threatens to become the definitive version, reshaping the original into a communal chant for those perpetually on the lam.