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The Clash

      The Clash (Epic U.K., 1977)
     Give 'Em Enough Rope (Epic, 1978)
      The Clash (Epic, 1979)
      London Calling (Epic, 1979)
     Black Market Clash (Epic, 1980)
     Sandinista! (Epic, 1980)
     Combat Rock (Epic, 1982)
   Cut the Crap (Epic, 1985)
    The Story of the Clash (Epic, 1988)
      1977 Revisited (Relativity, 1990)
     Clash on Broadway (1991; Sony, 2003)
     Super Black Market Clash (Epic, 1993)
     Live: From Here to Eternity (Sony, 1999)
      The Essential Clash (Epic, 2003)
     The Singles (Sony, 2007)
     Live at Shea Stadium (Sony, 2008)

The Clash were the romantics of the London 1977 punk explosion. They were the ones who took the noise to heart, who pushed hardest to see how far the new freedoms could go. They were also the ones who wrote the best songs, burning with political rage and mean guitars. Joe Strummer ranted in his guttersnipe slobber, while guitarist Mick Jones shaped the noise into high-speed anthems. They sounded friendly and scary at the same time, mixing up the punk anger of "Complete Control," the street aggression of "London's Burning," the urban loneliness of "Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)," and the jolly laughs of "Safe European Home." They were inspired by Nicaragua's Sandinista revolutionaries, but they weren't above a little art-for-art's-sake--after all, Sandino himself was a Wordsworth man, and the Clash made dramatic music out of their garageland politics.

The raw, messy U.K. debut is still the toughest punk album ever, so full of fury and passion and humor it sounds like it's going to burst into flames every time Mick lights up the coda to "Remote Control," every time Joe rasps, "I hate all the brightness/I hate all the cops" at the end of "Hate and War." The Clash sounds like young men wrestling with monsters, but not turning into monsters themselves--maybe even finding their humanity. But the record company deemed The Clash too rude for U.S. release and shelved it for two years. The belated, reshuffled American version deleted four great songs but added three not-bad ones, one great one ("White Man in Hammersmith Palais"), and maybe the greatest punk anthem ever, "Complete Control." The 35-minute U.K. version and the 43-minute U.S. version are both now separately available; apparently it's too much goddamn trouble for Sony to put all 19 songs on one 52-minute CD, so you'll have to do it yourself. While you're at it, add "Groovy Times" and "Gates of the West," two amazing songs from the bonus seven-inch that originally came with the U.S. version, for an incomparable 60-minute Clash buzz.

Give 'Em Enough Rope has cleaned-up sound and too much easy military shtick, despite killers such as "Safe European Home" and "Guns on the Roof." Like Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, the double-vinyl London Calling dropped just in time to welcome the new decade, and still wound up topping many critics' best-of-the-Eighties lists. Also like Raging Bull—a film Scorsese directed while constantly playing The Clash at top volume for inspiration—it's an expansive portrait of doomed wiseguys, working-class anger, and American mythology, aiming for a grandiose death-or-glory scale. The Clash dabbles in reggae, ska, rockabilly, even New Orleans R&B, stretching out for classics like "London Calling," "Spanish Bombs," and the huge hit "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)."

Some fans liked Sandinista! even better: It's a big triple-vinyl mess, deliberately provocative and offensive from its title on down to the kiddie-chorus version of "Career Opportunities." The Clash's dub, hip-hop, and art-funk experiments get pretty dodgy, but even the many spliffed-out failures are fun to hear once, and that still leaves 14 or 15 great songs. The geopolitical stuff—"The Call Up," "Washington Bullets," "Charlie Don't Surf"—is dense, lyrical, informative, dreamlike, unlike any other protest-rock before or since. "Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)" is a shout-out from the London slums that produced punk to the New York projects that were producing hip-hop. "Hitsville U.K." has a nifty xylophone solo.

Combat Rock, even artier than Sandinista! yet cleverly packaged as a pop move, had some excellent tunes ("Rock the Casbah," "Ghetto Defendant"), but the cover looked stupid and the band was audibly falling apart. Strummer kicked out Jones and replaced him with two handsome nobodies for the career-killing Cut the Crap (alternate title: Contra! ), which offered only the bitter "This Is England" and the proto-Andrew W.K. synth-metal chant "We Are the Clash." Six people bought it, five actually played it all the way through, and everyone else was content to applaud the Clash for resisting reunion gigs after that.

Like the Doors, ABBA, and any other band that checks out, leaving a hungry corporation to feed, the Clash has been repackaged way past any point of dignity. The best compilations are 1977 Revisited, Super Black Market Clash, and the first disc of the pricey gyp Clash on Broadway, which all collect the essential early singles that aren't on The Clash--don't get stuck without "Gates of the West," "Groovy Times," "Armagideon Time," or "Bankrobber." The Essential Clash is a two-disc overview. The Singles is a straightforward collection that hits a few bumps ("Know Your Rights," ugh) but gets the highs and lows of their music right; from the rebel swagger of "White Riot" and "Complete Control" to the arty exuberance of "This Is Radio Clash" and "Rock the Casbah," The Singles makes the Clash's whole career sound like a risk worth taking.

Live: From Here to Eternity picks from highlights from several gigs over several years. Live at Shea documents a 1982 show when the Clash opened for the Who in New York City. It's a crystalline-sounding recording with solid versions of stone classics like "Tommy Gun" and "Spanish Bombs," but there are also much hotter single shows out there; for first-rate live Clash, track down a bootleg of the October '81 gig at the London Lyceum.

Joe Strummer died suddenly of a heart attack in December 2002. The music world mourned for both the man and the old-fashioned idea that a rock star could ever try so hard to understand the world around him. His epitaph was from one of his greatest songs, "The Call Up": "There is a rose I want to live for/Although, God knows, I may not have met her/There is a dance an' I should be with her/ There is a town—unlike any other." R.I.P.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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