In their heyday—roughly the late-70s to early 80s—the Clash, with typical insouciant bravado, dubbed themselves “The Most Important Rock Band in the World.” They may well have been right. No doubt the band staked that proclamation on its fervid and acute political soundings. Sure, the Sex Pistols could express anger at the status quo, but that’s about as far as they went. The Clash, on the other hand, railed against the real-world, real-time imperialism it perceived in America, Europe, and the Middle and Far East. Yet while the group dealt with modern-day crises, their subject matter ranged beyond the large scale of war to the personal anguish of alienation. In other words, unlike their contemporaries, the Clash actually had much more to say than “we’re angry.”
But the group’s “most important” moniker, intended to point up its political instincts, could apply equally well to its music. Here was a band that combined fearsome power, a surprisingly sweet sensitivity, melodic hooks aplenty, and— like every great rock band—a drumhead-tight rhythm section. Guttural vocalist Joe Strummer and inventive guitarist Mick Jones made a team with the synergy of a John and Paul or a Mick and Keith.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Clash, and the element that most distinguished it from other bands of the era, was their exultant sense of exploration. Not since the Beatles had there been a group so intent on probing different styles and genres. The Clash was a bold experiment that posed the question, “How much punk bravado can we insinuate into every musical genre we can think of—without the wheels coming off?” For the most part, the wheels stayed amazingly on track.
Now, thanks to a recent spate of Clash download releases on HDtracks, all at 96/24 resolution, we have the opportunity to revisit—and re-evaluate— the band’s work.
The arc of the Clash’s discography bears a striking resemblance to that of another highly experimental band: The Beatles. Consequently, the Clash’s first studio album serves much the same role as, for example, The Beatles’ Live at the BBC. Neither album is one you’re likely to play repeatedly, nor will either reveal hidden depths over time. Rather, knowing what we do now about what was to come, both albums are primarily of historical interest. The Clash showcases a raw, undeveloped band whose final lineup was not yet set, and whose ultimate potential is only hinted at. Far from exploring new terrain, which was to become the group’s hallmark, The Clash rarely veers from standard slash and burn punk: guitar-fueled instrumentation, bitter sensibilities, and a brisk 4/4 tempo. There are flashes, albeit brief, of the strong melodic talent that would later surface, as well as of the group’s facility with reggae.
I don’t mean to diminish The Clash’s significance as a peek into a historically significant band’s formative period, just as I would not belittle Live at the BBC. But in marking the Clash’s catalog being released in high-res, we have the luxury of picking and choosing which releases to buy in this new format. The Clash doesn’t really foreshadow what the band would become. And while it succeeds as a punk album, that genre in its purest form—as it is here—never delivered much in the way of long-term satisfaction. For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend The Clash over other Clash albums any more than I’d recommend Live at the BBC over pretty much any other Beatles album.