"THE ONLY BAND THAT MATTERS"
That was how an early ad campaign described the Clash to America, and while some of the slogan was pure hype- "Don't worry about all those other punk bands" it seemed to say, "this is the only one you need to buy!" -it also carried a kernel of the truth.
Of all the bands that exploded out of the London underground in 1977, only the Clash displayed deep determination, ambition and genius. Where other punk rockers rarely concieved of a world beyond clubland London, the Clash took on the whole world, attacking everything from record company politics to U.S. foreign policy. Even better, their music was just as wide ranging, absorbing everything from rockabilly and reggae to rap and disco.
For the Clash, punk rock wasn't a sound, it was a philosophy. That's why albums like London Calling (1979) and Sandanista! (1980) covered so much ground, and why the band seems to tower over such contemporaries as the Buzzcocks, the Vibrators, X-Ray Spex and Generation X. There's more going on in a Clash song than just a few chords and the truth.
Unfortunately, the amount of depth and daring the Clash packed into its recordings makes it tough for bands who try to pay tribute. Because innovation and individuality were so essential to the Clash, a note-for-note recreation seems almost a betrayal of the Clash aesthetic. At the same time, though, the original arrangements conveyed so much of the message in the songs that it's almost impossible to imagine them done any other way.
That Burning London: The Clash Tribute does such a good job balancing such contradictory demands speaks well for the vitality of both the Clash's music and the bands involved. Instead of the high-priced cover-band effect most tribute albums achieve, the bands on Burning London avoid this by focusing on the meaning as much as the music.
Take No Doubt, who open the album with a near-perfect rethink of "Hateful". Although the brisk, Bo Diddley-style groove seems perfectly suited to No Doubt's brash, ska-schooled attack, the lyric- which looks at drug addiciton from the self -loathing perspective of the addict- may at first seem too dark to survive the bubbly charm of Gwen Stefani's delivery.
Stefani and company work that chirpiness to their advantage, however, using it to play up the sarcasm inherent in that song. So they add drawling backup harmonies behind the "anything I want" chorus (underscoring how the addict longs for the hollow promises of the dealer) and a drop-beat halftime verse midway through the song (to show how out-of-it she becomes), touches that play up the tune's pop content while simultaneously strengthening its message.
There's a similar dynamic at work in the Urge's version of "Radio Clash," which fleshes out the song's central riff with all manner of musical gimmickry. At first, the band's everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach smacks of slickness for it's own sake, as the Urge show of their chops by tossing bits of ska and disco, thrash and electro into the mix. But what the arrangement is really trying to convey is a practical demonstration of what the lyric means when it says "now this sound is brave/And wants to be free." By making so many styles fit cohesively in a single groove, the Urge offers a taste of the sonic utopia "Radio Clash" dreams of.
Not every band here brings such insight and imagination to the material. Rancid rips through "Cheat" in total matter-of-fact fashion, doing little with the song beyond reminding us how much Rancid's own songs owe to the Clash, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones render "Rudy Can't Fail" as a straight-up ska tribute, missing the sarcasm built into the Clash's original.
Third Eye Blind, meanwhile, merely updates the rhythm beneath "Train In Vain," slipping a bit of hip-hop groove beneath an otherwise perfect imitation of the original.
It's catchy and fun, but basically pointless- especially given how ingenious some of the other arrangements are. The Afghan Whigs, for instance, sidestep the bland, disco buoyancy that animated the original version of "Lost In The Supermarket" and put their emphasis on the loneliness buried in the melody itself. So their version is sweet and sad, building slowly to an outchorus that intermingles elements of "Stand By Me" and "Train In Vain," thereby turning what was originally a burlesque of American mall mania to a meditation on how unfulfilling consumerism can be.
When the Indigo Girls- a group few fans would expect to find on a Clash tribute album- take on "Working For The Clampdown," their wholly acoustic approach seems far more Indigo than Clash. I mean, there's no way Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon could have managed the luscious, soft-focus harmonies Amy Ray and Emily Sailers slip into the bridge. Yet somehow the girls manage not only to convey the full impact of the melody, but Ray's quietly snarling vocals perfectly capture the sense of steely resistance that lies at the heart of the song.
But for sheer balls-out genius, it would be hard to top Cracker's take on "White Riot." Where the Clash offered the song as a straight social critique- dispossessed blacks take to the street with their grievances while we white punks just sit in the basement making loud music- Cracker rubs our faces in how close the Clash's sarcasm tiptoes to racism. Do their "White Riot" is pure hillbilly hoe-down, from David Lowery's drawling deliverly (note how he substitutes, white trash-style, the words "poor people" for the original's "but white people go to school where they teach you how to be thick") to the whining fiddle and chicken-pickin' guitar. In short, it conveys the idea behind the Clash's version while at the same time critisizing it- a stunt the Clash itself would be proud of!
Article contribution by Michael Santoro
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