Turning Rebellion Into Money: Did the Clash End Up Joining the Church After All?

clash_soundsystem

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.

Phil Barnes

12 August 2013

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11 thoughts on “Turning Rebellion Into Money: Did the Clash End Up Joining the Church After All?

  1. Good post – I’ll stick with the box set of 7″ singles I bought years ago – the one with the really good booklet in, with interesting tales from The beastie Boys and Stuart Pearce (amongst others!)

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  2. I can tell by your review are reviewing something that you have not physically handled & heard. I picked up an advance copy today for £70 & I can tell you even at £93.99 it’s worth it. Yes like yourself I was skeptical price wise for paying for albums I have bought many times over but I so happened to bump into Mick Jones last week & he told me the sound quality is sorted. Mick Jones is someone I can trust so I bought it with confidence. You have two choices stand by your words & brave a cold winter or eat your words, admit you were wrong & enjoy this excellent box set that is not a rip off & the sound quality is much better than previous vinyl & cd releases. I can assure you if you just heard these remasters on a decent system you would be very pleased & I don’t begrudge the Clash a payday.

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    1. I hope you are right about the sound quality.

      The blog was not a review but pointed out the difference between the ‘premium’ price of this set and the exemplary way the Clash conducted themselves during their lifetime. It also drew attention to the cooperation of the surviving members of the band – who I do not begrudge a payday either, just not at any price. This made the set different to say the reissues of a band like the Damned who have no control over the exploitation of their back catalogue.

      Other artists have recently managed similar sized box sets for a fraction of the cost of this set (eg Leonard Cohen 11CD £27, Scott Walker 5CD c£20). For the Clash I’d have stretched a point if the set had come in at £50 but £93.99 is way too much.

      I don’t imagine we are going to agree on this, but I’ll stick with my vinyl and current CDs until they are issued for a reasonable price in the future.

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  3. Hello Phil I understand the Studio Albums are available separately & yes other artists do have stuff out cheaper but without sounding flash I have spent a lot of money on my hi-Fi (I take my sound extremely seriously) & the box set sounds better than any previous vinyl (My turntable is well set up) or cd copies I have. The packaging is very high quality & I can tell you listening to this has given me tremendous enjoyment. I feel it has taken 10 years off my life & for 93.99 THAT IS A BARGIN (I am not made of money myself) You have to remember other than the jeans advert the Clash never made money like say the Who or even the Foo Fighters & they are only years from becoming OAPS so fair play to the TLC they have put in this box set. I know you don’t know me but I am sure if you heard & handled this on a good system (which I trust you have) you would be thinking ” I’m getting this” & you will be shocked,floored & delighted how crisp & immediate these remasters sound (even more impressive than the Beatles reissues)

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  4. Please clarify: “the cooperation of the surviving members of the band – who I do not begrudge a payday either, just not at any price.” When was the last time you worked a shift/gig at a price lower than the market would bear?

    I understand your reticence here, but given how The Clash took real strides to make their music affordable (and so many live shows free for so many in the early days), let’s let them eat their cake. 🙂

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    1. I think we are saying something which is 80-90% similar – my whole first paragraph was about the exemplary way the Clash treated their fans in the band’s lifetime and your point on free shows was definitely part of this.

      Where I think we will disagree is in what is a reasonable amount to charge for the reissues. If I read you right you are saying it is okay for the Clash to take a price that the market will bear because of this past benevolence. I think this is not what the band were about – the Joe Strummer interview quote about ‘the rake off’ in your great labor day blog pretty much sums it up (link below for anyone else reading this).
      “http://stealingalltransmissions.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/the-clash-in-punk-magazine-mayjune-1979-pt-3/”

      For me part of the reason I still love the Clash is their integrity in not taking the ‘rake off’ that they could have done from a fanbase that is so passionate about their music. So, ultimately, I think that the price should have been a lot lower – c£40-50 unless there were to be a lot of new material as well. Not being paid/employed by either the Clash or the record company we can’t know how much control the band had over the pricing decision (as opposed to the box content) so we’re left with a choice of buy/don’t buy. My instinct is to wait for cheaper individual reissues in a year or so (without the superfluous packaging) and stick with my existing vinyl & CDs in the meantime.

      Anyway it’s all an individual choice in the end – thanks for the comment and enjoyed your blog!

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      1. Kudos, to you, too — and (here comes the shameless promo) check out my book on The Clash and key deejays in the Big Apple.

        More importantly: it appears the mini-box set is not yet available in the UK at amazon — the US amazon deal — http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CUKTGW6/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B00CUKTGW6&linkCode=as2&tag=stealalltrans-20 — @ $40 seems like a good one, for old and new fans alike.

        I look forward to reviewing some of your older posts sometime soon.

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  5. The passion we feel for beloved artists changes over the years, doesn’t it? The emotional connection you highlight cannot be enriched with new music but can get a re-charge via a new ‘edition’. I think I’ve bought four or five copies of Ziggy. Obsession? Loyalty? Nostalgia?
    Great article and fascinating commentary/discussion.

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    1. Exactly – those of us that feel strong connections to music are easy to exploit. For the most part this can be reasonably benign – if for example the technology moves on enough to improve the sound significantly. It feels like the last year or two that the ‘industry’ has gone too far in exploiting back catalogue in ever more extravagant packages…

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