It takes a band as myth-saturated as the Clash to live up to a career-summing box as ambitious as this one. But Joe Strummer and his crew of London gutter-punk romantics fit the bill. The 13-disc Sound System aims to tell their whole story, from the garage-land fury of their 1977 debut to their messy death-or-glory collapse in the early Eighties. It has all five of their classic albums, mercifully leaving out the long-forgotten 1985 synth-rock fiasco, Cut the Crap.
On a snowy morning in January 1980, I was restlessly searching the new release racks of a suburban record store in Vancouver, Canada, looking for something a little more challenging than the newest albums from Bob Seger, Boz Scaggs or Pablo Cruise. The ‘70s were over; progressive rock and disco were dead, while artists from the decade before—The Stones, Dylan, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and Paul Simon—still continued to dominate the airwaves and shelf space at music retail outlets. Bob Marley and the Talking Heads were the only new artists I thought worth listening to, but I already had their most recent albums, Survival and Fear of Music, and was about to leave the record store with the kind of intolerant disgust only a discontented 17-year-old could muster, when a grainy black-and-white image of a musician smashing his bass guitar on stage caught my eye.
There isn't a lot to say about The Clash that hasn't been written umpteen times before. With six books to their name scribed by various sources together with acres of articles, their story has been told from numerous angles on many different levels. As a longtime devotee of the band - I bought my first Clash 7-inch ('Know Your Rights') in the spring of 1981 aged 11 - I'd wholeheartedly recommend both 'A Riot of Their Own', former tour manager Johnny Green's account of his three years spent on the road with the band, and 'Passion is a Fashion', Pat Gilbert's fairly definitive warts and all 2005 biography.
At one point, The Clash was marketed as “The Only Band That Matters.” Listening back to this sprawling set, it’s hard to disagree. Sound System drives home the foursome’s adeptness at boundary hopping, while never forgetting the value of a good hook and a politically righteous lyric. These will always be some of the greatest albums and greatest songs ever written.
Most box sets are designed to enshrine an artist in the amber of posterity. The idea is that the artist has transcended their time, that they can now be appreciated outside of the context of their era. The digital age, where recordings from the past sit comfortably with tunes from the present, accelerates this trend, suggesting that all the classic artists exist upon their own continuum, that their development was almost a product of self-divination.
The words “Clash Boxed Set” are enough to get just about any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll fan to raise their hackles, pump their fists and ride the proverbial express train straight to hell, boys. Or, at least to slamming down almost two-hundred dollars for the privilege of being the first kid on the block to own Sound System. With a cost like that, it’s a sure bet that only the most die-hard fans of The Clash will be likely to fork over the purchase price and walk away the proud owners of this collection.
With a whiff of revisionism about it, Sound System collects The Clash’s output up to the departure of guitarist Mick Jones, ignoring 1985’s Cut The Crap but adding a smattering of unreleased tracks, live sessions and a DVD. Their 1977 self-titled debut is traditionally given a critical free pass, and, undeniably, a handful of songs exist on such a level of raucous, frustrated excitement that they will always speak to new generations of disaffected youth. With the band clattering along behind him, frontman Joe Strummer rages as if frothing at the mouth, articulating his cultural alienation (White Riot, I’m So Bored With The USA), lack of prospects (Career Opportunities) and political apathy (Remote Control, London’s Burning).
The Clash Sound System (Sony Legacy) In 1976, the Clash was three UK art students and a scab drummer patched together by a cohort of Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren and directed to "write about what you know." They would warp history as the last truly heroic band rock & roll's seen. Punk couldn't contain them, and a late bid for stardom destroyed them within 18 months. Sound System presents the complete Clash, lovingly remastered on six discs, comprising the five studio LPs the classic lineup released between 1977 and 1982, plus a 3-CD set featuring non-LP singles and B-sides.