“Kick over the wall, ’cause government’s to fall / how can you refuse it? / Let fury have the hour, anger can be power / d’you know that you can use it?”
THE CLASH, “Clampdown”
That lyric, as much as any, sums up what arguably the greatest punk band of all, the only band that mattered, as they came to be known (after their record label used it as a promotional tag), was all about: oppositional, anti-capitalist, anti-elite, anti-establishment, radical, militaristic sentiments. However incoherent their politics ultimately were, the Clash — and Joe Strummer in particular — seemed undeniably committed to them. And that oppositional stance included frequent conflict and permanent uneasiness about their relationship with the multinational corporation that they made records for, CBS.
So “Sound System,” the lavish new 12-disc (11 CDs and a DVD) box set just issued by the current configuration of that label, arrives accompanied by a certain amount of irony, because it not only carries the imprimatur of the surviving members of the band, but two of them, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, were actively involved in putting it together. Back in the day, the Clash insisted that ticket prices for their shows remain affordable, and they demanded that CBS price their multi-album releases, “London Calling” and “Sandinista!,” as single albums. Now they’re collaborators in a product that currently clocks in for around $180 on Amazon and comes garlanded with manufactured nostalgia (dog tags, badges, stickers, an “owner's manual,” reprints of the Clash fanzine and a new edition designed by Simonon, and an “exclusive” poster, all contained in a case shaped like a vintage boombox).
Jones has suggested that this is meant to be the ultimate Clash collection, what he characterizes as a “final statement.” But it isn’t a complete collection of the recorded output of the band, however that might be defined. The majority of the box — its first eight CDs — is given over to the first five studio albums the Clash released (remastered yet again); three of them replicate the original three LPs of “Sandinista!,” and another two the double vinyl of “London Calling.” Note what isn’t included: “Cut the Crap,” the last studio album released under the Clash moniker. Made after both Topper Headon and Mick Jones had been kicked out of the band, that record just wasn’t very good. But it was a Clash record (“We are the Clash,” sang Strummer on the album’s song of the same name), and the total silence about its existence here (which continues a denial that’s been going on for some time) seems disingenuous. Like some Soviet official who fell out of favor with Stalin, “Cut the Crap” has disappeared from the official portrait of the Clash.
Additionally, the set contains three CDs of demos, non-album singles and B-sides, extended versions, outtakes, and a few live tracks. Much of this material is available elsewhere — if you own “the Singles” box and “Super Black Market Clash,” you’ll have most of it — and the logic guiding what is included isn’t readily apparent; some of these sorts of tracks that have appeared elsewhere are here, others are not.
To be sure, there is material on “Sound System” that has never seen legitimate issue before — extracts from the band’s first and second recording sessions, for example — that is of historical, and sometimes more than historical, interest. And since the bulk of the Clash’s album and non-album releases are included, the box does provide a panoptic view of a band that was a premier architect of punk rock but refused to be confined by it. But in the end, this is a collection that will appeal only to a completist, and there’s likely very little here that he or she will not already own, which makes those ancillary tchotchkes and that replica boombox an expensive proposition.
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.