It wasn’t meant to be like this. The Clash were the band who at the peak of their fame pulled all kinds of strokes on record company CBS to give their fans better value. For instance their 1979 masterpiece ‘London Calling’ was meant to be a single album with a giveaway 12” single, that mysteriously morphed into a second LP. They made its excellent follow up ‘Sandinista’ into a treble album retailing at £5.99, when new release single albums typically cost c£4, agreeing to CBS’ condition that they waived UK royalties on the first 200,000 copies. Given that ‘London Calling’ only sold at roughly that level at the UK in 1979/80 this effectively meant that they knew that they would make no money at all from UK sales.
On 09 September, nearly 11 years after Strummer’s untimely death in December 2002, CBS release the ‘Sound System’ box set, available at an eye popping £93.99 from Amazon UK (as I write this on 12/08/13). And a lavish box it certainly is – remastered versions of the first 5 albums split across 8 CDs, plus 3 CDs of ‘extras’ and a DVD. The promotional material suggests that all previous versions missed some of the music recorded due to a mal-functioning tape head – so this would be the way to best hear what the band actually recorded. Early reviews seem to agree that the mastering is a step up in quality – although it is worth remembering that there are separate album only boxes and yet another new singles compilation available, that should work out around half the cost of this box. In terms of unique features the extras for the full box include the usual single and EP tracks, early demos, and live tracks from the Lyceum in 1979 (some of which were included in the 1991 ‘Clash on Broadway’ box). That said the Clash were not the sort of band to leave a huge trail of outtakes or unreleased material – what they completed was almost always released (eg “Train In Vain”’s late, unlisted, addition to the original vinyl of “London Calling”) and they released so much in their short, turbulent, lifespan that there is no great reservoir of previously unavailable gems. So what exactly are we getting here for our £93.99?
If this were just the record company reissuing and repackaging back catalogue it would matter less but this set has been designed by bassist Paul Simonon and appears to have the approval of the surviving members. In truth the design has a playful, pop art, feel – from the ghetto blaster shaped box to the huge cigarette included along with the stickers, badges and Clash dog tags (no I’m not making this up). There are even facsimiles of the ‘Armagideon Times’ fanzines and I’m sure all concerned enjoyed putting it together – but to charge £93 is outrageous and shows a lack of understanding of what the band stood for, if not it appears what they stand for now. Not one of the band members and most of their audience would have been able to afford this back in the day, and at this sort of price point the uncommitted are unlikely to be tempted either. In consequence its hard to escape the conclusion that this is just a cash call on the pockets of the faithful and, frankly, it stinks.
So why does this matter? Why should we judge the Clash to a higher standard than the likes of Pink Floyd and their disgraceful ‘Immersion’ versions of their key 1970s albums – presumably so called because you’d want to drown yourself after paying c£70 for a single 40 year old album stretched over 5 discs? The Clash were about not selling out, trying to move forward artistically and not taking the money just because you could. They could easily have repeated ‘London Calling’ ad nauseum throughout the 1980s and been stadium huge by the time the world caught up with what they were doing. For sure they did allow “Should I Stay…” to be used for that Levi’s advert in the early 1990s, but somehow that felt different – no-one who had the original would have bought the reissue since the track was the same and it did, arguably, break the music to a wider younger audience. This time around there is only the spurious rarities and demos to tempt the completist into a substantial purchase for what is effectively 1 to 2 CDs of new material.
As the market for music collapses in the face of dodgy downloads, it seems to be the latest industry wheeze to milk the faithful, older, audience who wish to support creative artists by providing ever more expensive rip offs. Look at the forthcoming Dylan bootleg series reissue of ‘Self Portrait’ – the two main CDs are available at a reasonable price (c£14), but a deluxe version adding a single live CD and a remaster of the original album (memorably reviewed by Greil Marcus, in 1970, as ‘What is this shit?’) weighs in at an eye watering £76.99. Even the Velvet Underground tried to tempt us to part with upwards of £60 for 6 discs of largely previously available material, augmented with a few bootlegs, last year. And if you venture into the live arena Rolling Stones tickets will set you back over £100 a person a night. I don’t think it’s good enough to say no-one is forced to buy – music works on an intangible emotional level, making people who are fans of an artist ripe for exploitation and the best artists know this and don’t abuse their audience.
In the early days of sampling the great cliché was that pop would eat itself, feasting on its own recycled entrails and it seems that we are finally approaching that point. Perhaps you disagree, perhaps you will say you gladly support former heroes recycling their past, playing on the emotional connections that the music has to your memories. But look me in the eye and tell me that you don’t feel ripped off and empty as you place this absurd, ridiculously priced, folly onto your bookshelf and I won’t believe you.
12 August 2013