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Lost and Found

New Clash reissue offers rare demos

By Greg Cahill

Agit-rocker Billy Bragg once called the Clash "the greatest rebel rock band of all time." In 1979, at the dawn of the ultra-conservative Thatcher-Reagan era, a source of apocalyptic fear over nuclear annihilation, this now-legendary punk band--with their high-energy (often reggae-tinged) grooves, radical stance and working-class themes--set out to do what any great rebel rock band would do in such dire times: record the last rock album.

The double album, demo'd that spring under the title The Last Testament, was released a week before Christmas 1979 as London Calling. The album's graphic design, including the title and the band's name, duplicated the typeface and colors of Elvis Presley's debut album, which had depicted the dreamy-eyed pop idol strumming his acoustic guitar. But the classic Pennie Smith black-and-white photo on the cover of London Calling, depicting bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender bass on the stage of the Palladium in New York, captured all the anger and angst of the punk era.

Inside, the tracks provided a snarling soundtrack for Britain's civil unrest, featuring strong songs, written mostly by the team of Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones (the Lennon-McCarthy of punk music), that denounced police brutality, racial and class inequality and aligned the band with the burgeoning socialist movement, all set to a highly danceable and innovative mix of rockabilly, '50s rock, Phil Spector wall-of-sound pop, Motown soul, modern rock, lounge, jazz, ska and Third World beats.

It was nothing short of a musical revelation.

That remarkable sound is still fresh today. You can hear the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" on a current TV car commercial, and the band's influence can be heard all over the new Green Day album, American Idiot, and in the music of dozens of other less talented imitators. Yet that sound gelled just two year's after a debut album deemed by CBS Records as too strident for U.S. audiences--an album that became the biggest-selling indie record of its time.

This week, 25 years after its initial release, London Calling has been reissued by Epic/Legacy as a three-disc set that won't disappoint fans. In addition to a digitally remastered CD of the album's 19 original tracks, this deluxe edition includes a DVD chronicling the making of the album (suffice to say, the album's manic producer Guy Stevens is the star of that insightful documentary) and a third disc featuring 21 newly discovered demos known as The Vanilla Tapes, recorded between May and June of 1979.

The Vanilla Tapes, so-called because the demos were recorded at the Vanilla recording studio in a converted rubber factory in the London suburb of Pimlico, is one of the most sought-after rarities in rock history. Long believed to be lost, The Vanilla Tapes showed up in March when Mick Jones found an old cassette version in a cardboard storage box while moving from his Holland Park house.

For Clash fans, The Vanilla Tapes are the Holy Grail of late-'70s and early-'80s punk rock. Among the highlights are "Paul's Tune," an instrumental that finds bassist Simonon teaching the band how to play what would later become the defiant anthem "The Guns of Brixton," as well as a raw, instrumental version of "Working and Waiting" (later renamed "Clampdown"), and four previously unknown Clash songs.

The Vanilla Tapes offer an inside glimpse to the creative process that spawned London Calling, which included the classic-rock staple "Train in Vain" and displayed the band's maturing songwriting. The apocalyptic title track served as a call to arms for the punk generation, extolling the death of the counterculture ("That phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust").

London Calling is significant because it embodies a band that had rejected the cynicism prevalent in so much '70s punk rock. The album is a statement of purpose from a group that had no illusions that it could ever create profound societal changes, but felt determined to stand up and urge fans to fight the power nonetheless.

"We were groping in the dark," the late Joe Strummer notes in the 45-minute documentary about the making of the album.

"If Karl Marx couldn't [change the world], then what was the chance that four guitarists from London were going to change it? But we did try."

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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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