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The only band that mattered

Sound Bites

August 30, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Weekender co-editor , The Herald-Star

This week I review a gargantuan box set being released by Sony Legacy containing rock pioneers the Clash's entire recorded output, including B-sides, unreleased material and a chest hair from the late Joe Strummer.

No, I'm only kidding about the chest hair.

The Clash -'Sound System'

They were once dubbed "The only band that matters," and in many ways, that's still true. More than 30 years after the breakup of the band that began as a typical British punk outfit only to transcend the genre and create timeless, sterling music, Sony is giving the band its full attention with "Sound System," which contains 11 CDs and one DVD of the band's recorded output over the span of its short life, from the glory flag-waving punk of the band's self-titled debut to its excellent swan song "Combat Rock." The box also contains the band's still-relevant masterpiece "London Calling," an album which hasn't dated at all and sounds more prophetic today than ever.

All this retails for about 185 bucks on as we speak, although I've seen it for higher prices. The box set, which is in the shape of a boombox - remember those? - is set to be released Sept. 10.

Three CDs boast rare B-sides, unreleased material and an additional DVD of the band performing live at various venues as well as several promotional videos. Eight more discs chronicle the band's studio material, including "The Clash," "Give Them Enough Rope," "London Calling," "Sandinista!" and "Combat Rock," Oddly, I can find no mention of the band's single EP "Black Market Clash," but I presume that material of dub and reggae-influenced rock is among the extra stuff.

This isn't Legacy's first attempt at releasing repackaged material featuring the Clash, as several CD reissues over the years have included plenty of live and bonus stuff - a couple of live CDs, an expanded "Black Market Clash" reissue and at least three reissues of "London Calling" with all kinds of interesting and worthy stuff of interest to Clash fans. The fact is the Clash still sells because of the music's integrity, intelligence, political stance and the myth of "the only band that mattered."

As a kid growing up in the Ohio Valley, the Clash was my guiding light, and every new Clash album released was a moment of celebration. Painting themselves as the smart and rebellious voice of a generation, the simple fact is nothing the Clash ever did seemed hollow or contrived. While they may have imploded over musical differences in the early 1980s, by then the Clash were more than just a band of four working-class misfits from Britain - they were superheroes to millions of fans worldwide, including myself.

Hearing a song such as "Working for the Clampdown," a song about working in a factory environment and wanting to escape the only outlet available to many working-class youth in British resonated with me, as I sure as hell didn't want to work in a steel mill in the Ohio Valley.

The Clash also were inspirational in their rebellion, from the politics of warmongering -"Sandinista!," "Straight to Hell" - to warnings about modern-day, apocalyptic scenarios - "London Calling" - the Clash also made being an outsider fun. To be a Clash fan was to be in a club that saw the world from a youthful standpoint that was far more truthful and complicated than any adult dare consider.

And the music itself is sublime and adventurous, from the giddy party atmosphere of "Revolution Rock" to the sweet, "raise-your-beer-in-a-toast" pathos vibe of the young lad joining the military service in "Stay Free," the band's scope and breadth of daring was remarkable. In six short years the Clash went from being a hardcore British punk band to encompassing reggae, dub, jazz, disco, pop and hip hop, all hijacked with reverence for the genre and not a whiff of pretension. The Clash were that good, only they got even better on "London Calling," one the best rock albums of the past 50 years, and an album I can say truly changed my life.

It was difficult to collect the Clash as a young guy in the Ohio Valley, as much of their material was released on EPs in Europe but not always here in the U.S. Some of the review elements Legacy sent me as a preview I'd never heard before or was unknown to me. That's fine, because now I get to listen for the first time and relive the excitement of the Clash again.

And when I want to "sober up" over my angst about the screwed-up world we live in, I still put "London Calling" on the turntable and remember what it's like to be brave and fearless in the face of adversity. For that alone I owe the band more than I could ever repay. When you begin as a Clash fan, you are a fan for life.

While die-hard Clash fans will eat this up, "Sound System" does retail for a steep price, although there are some interesting bonuses, such as posters, strickers, badges and reprints of the band's fanzine "Armagideon Times." All five studio albums have been remastered, although I still believe the best way to hear this stuff is on vinyl.

All in all, there's nothing about "Sound System" that hasn't been done with a lot of thought and care for what the fans want. A real labor of love, Legacy should be commended for doing justice to - and I still feel this way - the only band that ever really mattered.

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