Tuesday, September 28, 2004

While we were talkin', I saw you noddin' out... London Calling is as great as ever; The "Vanilla Tapes" are dull.

When you look back on it, the years 1979 and 1980 were a glorious time for rock and roll. In that two-year period, you had Pink Floyd's The Wall, Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust Van Morrison's Into the Music, Graham Parker's Squeezing Out Sparks, Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, the Talking Heads' Fear of Music and Remain in Light, Prince's Dirty Mind, Bruce Springsteen's The River, the debuts of The Roches, The B-52s, and The Pretenders – and lots of other stuff that will never die.

Towering over them all was The Clash's London Calling. Though hardly the first punk masterpiece, it was surely the most ambitious. Here was a band that seemed to have absorbed everything – pop, country, rockabilly, ska, reggae, and soul – and raised the stakes to a whole other level. Exploding into life on the title cut, the record doesn't let up for a solid hour, as the band rips through fearless personal anthems ("Death or Glory" and "I'm Not Down"), social and political broadsides ("Koka Kola," "Clampdown," "The Guns of Brixton"), a raucous call to arms ("Revolution Rock") and, in true capitalist-socialist fashion, tops it all off with a commercial hit single ("Train in Vain") that wasn't even listed on the sleeve. They didn't sound like anybody else and they knew it -- when vocalist Joe Strummer sings "Everybody smash up your seats and rock to a brand new beat!" you didn't question him for a second.

Although the band was already well-known and this was their third album, it soared with a defiant make-or-break sense of purpose. As in Springsteen's best work, this is rock and roll as salvation: if this guitar thing doesn't work out, it's a factory job and an early death. "You don't owe nothing, so boy get running," urges one song, "It's the best years of your life they want to steal." The urgency of the lyrics betrayed a real fear of losing, of winding up with nothing: "Young people shoot their days away/I've seen talent thrown away."

Aside from the original masterpiece – long available as a single CD – this three-disc 25th Anniversary edition brings together some spottily fascinating extras: a DVD that includes raw video footage and a fine making-of documentary, and a disc of the legendary rehearsal tapes from London's Vanilla Studios.

These "Vanilla Tapes," made just prior to the actual recording, have long been a fascinating mystery to hardcore fans. A rough draft of the record to be, cheaply produced by the band with little more than a reel-to-reel, the tapes were presumably lost by an inattentive roadie while en route to producer Guy Stevens. Just what surprises would these raw, spontaneous, fresh-off-the-drawing-board demos have yielded?

With their re-discovery last spring by co-leader Mick Jones, who found them between moves, the answer is "Not much." It's the template of a great record that isn't there yet, full of muddy vocals and frustratingly crappy sound.

Granted, there is some historical interest here. There is a you-are-there appeal to hearing the twangy rave-up that became "Hateful," or bassist Paul Simonon playing the moody solo that would later open "Brixton," or the lively but poorly miked version of "Brand New Cadillac." Of more varying interest are the deleted covers and originals. Dylan's obscure "The Man in Me" (from New Morning) and the country classic "Lonesome Me" are only so-so. There's also a not bad and atypically listenable song called "Hearts and Minds"; another, "Where You Gonna Go (Soweto)," sounds like one of those half-assed throwaways that clotted the band's follow-up, Sandinista!

Obsessives will buy this nice new thing without a thought, but if you just want to smash up your seats, the single CD is all you'll ever need.

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