Friday, September 24, 2004


As published in The New Mexican
Sept. 24, 2004

The punk era of the late 1970s was the result of a loose-knit movement in which the prevailing attitude was that there was way too much reverence toward rock stars, that music should be considered disposable, a fleeting joke, something for the moment.

Trouble is, there were some bands that included some serious musicians whose work, in spite of themselves, transcended the self-imposed limits of punk.

On a DVD interview included in the London Calling: 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition by The Clash, Joe Strummer recalls having to deal with “the punk police,” purists who insisted that punk rock had to be three-minute bursts of rage and snottiness and nothing else.

But Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon disagreed. Punk was supposed to represent freedom, Strummer said. And that includes the freedom to incorporate the sounds of funk, rockabilly, dub reggae, jazz, R&B and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. If that means using a horn section on a ska version of “Staggolee” (called “Wrong ‘em Boyo” here) and if they sound a little bit like The Band on “Jimmy Jazz,” it didn’t have to distract from the punk ferocity.

One would like to think that the late Strummer is rolling over in his grave at the thought of this album being the subject of a fancy-schmancy multi-disc 25th Anniversary package (list price $29.98).

But remember, the sainted Strummer still was alive in 2002 when the song “London Calling” was used on a television commercial for Jaguar Motors. So I don’t see Joe getting too upset about this.

And not that he should be.

In addition to the original album (which was re-mastered a couple of years ago), the three-disc set includes “The Vanilla Tapes,“ which consists of a recently uncovered demo and rehearsal sessions including versions of most of the London Calling tunes.

It’s a low-to-no-fi affair. It’s got no-frills early takes on what would become signature Clash tunes (an almost tuneless version of the song “London Calling,” an embryonic instrumental “Guns of Brixton,” called simply “Paul’s Tune,” plus some previously unheard songs, like a hillbilly romp called “Lonesome Me” and a reggae-drenched cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me.”

There’s also a DVD featuring an interesting, if hardly essential, documentary about the making of London Calling, with interviews with all four Clash members, including Strummer. (The most fun part of the DVD though is the black-and-white footage of the album sessions, which are hilarious due to the crazed antics of producer Guy Stevens, a balding hippy who kept the band on edge by tossing chairs and a ladder across the studio and pouring wine on a piano while Strummer was playing it.)

But the main course still is the original album itself, which retains its joyful, dancing-on-the-trash-heap-of history power and its raw, working-class hero bite a quarter century later.

“Brand New Cadillac,” a cover of a song by obscure rockabilly Vince Taylor, makes most of the punked-up rockabilly that followed sound like Happy Days.

Though the comparison isn‘t obvious, “Train in Vain” follows in the tradition of Frank Sinatra, proving tough guys can sing love songs.

On the DVD documentary Strummer downplays the socialist politics of The Clash, making the obvious point that as musicians they didn’t really have the answers to the problems of imperialism, repression and unbridled commercialism.

But he’s selling himself short. Songs like “Clampdown,” “Spanish Bombs” and of course the title track, haven’t lost a trace of their apocalyptic relevance. “Lost in the Supermarket” remains the quintessential anthem of consumerism angst.

The Clash considered London Calling to be “the last rock ‘n’ roll album.” Well, they were wrong. But there haven’t been many albums in the last 25 years as powerful as this.

Also Recommended:
*The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
. To be honest, I stopped keeping track of David Byrne’s solo albums about 10 years ago. I never did like The Tom Tom Club, Tina Weymouth’s and Chris Frantz’s side project, and the one Jerry Harrison solo record I heard was painfully boring.

The depressing post-Talking Heads work of these guys is almost enough to make you forget what a great band the Heads were. But perhaps that adds to the refreshing charm of this double-disc reissue.

For reasons best known to the brain trust at Warner Brothers, The Name of This Band, a collection of live Heads material first released in the pre-CD era of 1982, never was released on compact disc.

It took way too long, but they did it right. The new version of the album is nearly twice as long as the original, spanning the band’s early days -- recorded in front of what sounds like tiny audiences -- to the early ‘80s.

The collection is divided into two eras. Disc One features work from 1977-79, while Disc Two has songs from 1980-81.

Although the group’s signature tune is the too-delightful-to-be-creepy “Psycho Killer” (included twice here, once on each disc), the song that best sums up the spirit of the first disc is “Love √†Building on Fire.” I try to imagine myself in the audience the first time Byrne, in his loopy-loo voice sang, “I’ve got two loves, two loves/And they go tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet like little birds …” to a hopped-up folk-rock groove.

By 1980 Byrne had started hanging out with Brian Eno experimenting with funk and African music. By this point the basic Heads line-up was fortified by outside musicians like guitarist Adrian Belew and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, a Funkadelic alum, as well as background vocalistsm, an extra bassist and a percussionist.

On paper this might sound rather cluttered. But somehow it worked. This album’s version of the insane, pseudo-African workout of “I Zimba” might be the finest track ever recorded by The Talking Heads.

Stop Making Sense was a great live album. But this one’s even better. I wouldn’t mind seeing a movie version of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads.

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