tue 10/12/2019

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Clash - London Calling | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Clash - London Calling

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Clash - London Calling

The cassette rematerialises for the 40th anniversary of Strummer and co’s breakthrough double album

The Clash caught outside Wessex Studios in August 1979 while recording 'London Calling'Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd

In a first for this column, what’s cropping up is a cassette reissue. The Clash’s third album is so familiar, going into what it is or was in any depth is redundant but it’s worth considering what’s going on here.

London Calling was originally issued on 14 December 1979 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Naturally, it’s hitting the shops again. The definitive reissue came out for the 25th anniversary in 2004, when the album was teamed with rehearsal recordings taped on cassette at Vanilla Studios, a DVD of The Last Testament: The Making of London Calling documentary, promo videos, film of a few tracks performed live and footage of the band making the album at Wessex Studios with producer Guy Stevens. Since the 2004 reissue, there have been various vinyl reissues and, in 2013, a double-CD remaster limited to the original album tracks only.

The Clash London Calling_Great Portland Street 18OCT19What to do to mark 40 years since 1979? That something is going on is confirmed by a flyposting campaign: a poster currently ornaments London’s Great Portland Street (pictured right). Inevitably, there’s yet another vinyl reissue (in a plastic sleeve with the typography on it: slide it off and you’re left with the Paul Simonon image only – it's promoted as a "limited edition", but no information on how many copies have been manufactured has been given) and a double CD too. There is also what’s titled the London Calling Scrapbook, a hardback book including the whole of the album on one CD (this is gone into below). There is also a cassette version of London Calling (another "limited edition" of an unspecified quantity).

Selling for around £18, the cassette (pictured below left) will not be a casual purchase (NB: the 2004 multi-disc reissue can be picked up for £6 or £7). The album was issued on cassette in 1979 and the new version has a pretty inelegant re-rendering of the cover artwork (pictured below right, the 1979 cassette original). That said, having each tape-shell half in the green and pink of album’s front-cover typography is snazzy. Then, there is the question of what it sounds like.

he Clash London Calling_2019 cassetteHandily, a recent purchase is of a TEAC W-1200, one of the two affordable cassette decks currently available on sell-through (the other is a TEAC too). Walkman-like players, boom-box efforts (the best of which is the Sony CFDS70B.CEK), some music centre-style kit and the odd shoebox machine can be found, but TEAC is the only company making cassette players for use in a home hi-fi setting. Thus, the new iteration of London Calling becomes the first reissue stuck into it for playback.

Unexpectedly, it sounds great. How it was mastered and what the audio source is are unknown but, presumably, a digital master was used (if anyone has the 1979 cassette please get in touch, it’d be interesting to hear it). Side One and Two of the album make up Side One of the cassette; Sides Three and Four are on Side Two. There’s a little bit of background hiss at the beginning but once “London Calling” kicks off the sound is unambiguously not that of a CD (and way more punchy than the awful, decoagulated approach taken for the Clash on Broadway box). What comes out of the speakers is close to the original single, with an attractive compression which sounds suitably 1979. It’s the same throughout the album. The levels have a top end hitting 0db, with no distortion and almost no run-over into the red. So, more compressed than the original album but with a digital-era clarity. “Hateful” sounds especially great. But, really, who is going to buy this?

As it sells for £40, the same question applies to the London Calling Scrapbook. This is a lot for a 120-page hardback/CD combo package, even if it does come in a slipcase. While neat, and featuring reproductions of hand-written lyrics and notes, material from Ray Lowry, paper ephemera, photos, press coverage (including Joe Strummer’s funny and shrewd NME tour diary) this seems a high price. £20 feels about right. Again, it's a so-called "limited edition." Without a specific figure, this is meaningless. Are there 500 copies? Or 10,000? Half a million? Is it manfactured until sales dry up?

the clash london calling 1979 cassetteAmongst the London Calling Scrapbook's press clippings is a September 1979 Minneapolis Star live review headlined “Clash concert intriguing but hardly transcendental.” The piece begins by quoting reviews from the days before declaring The Clash had played “the best rock show most people had ever seen” and were “the most intense band ever.” While consciously kicking against the already bedded-in hyperbole/orthodoxy, it’s a thought-provoking read. “Once [Strummer] turned the lead vocals over to lead guitarist Mick Jones, the Clash finally began to click. Listeners began to realize this band was talented and well conceived, not just a garage band that manically banged out intense rudimentary rock ’n’ roll. Few can deny that the quartet is a great dance band.”. Another review, of a New York show, says “the crowd was this year's model: rich punks and metal boys form the outer boroughs looking for band to get high to.” Fascinating stuff, but none of it adds to or alters how the band’s seen.

Anniversaries of course provide opportunities for promotion and, in this context, The Clash will never be exempt from such restatements. After the band signed with CBS in 1977 their corporate, multi-national paymasters were always going to be looking for returns on their investment and any accusations of “turning rebellion into money,” as the lyrics of “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” put it, were accentuated in 1991 by the use of “Should I Say or Should I Go” for a Levi’s ad. The 40th anniversary was always going to be marked somehow.

As appealing as the cassette and the London Calling Scrapbook are, reservations about them centre on them not as a means to turn coin but whether they say anything new and represent value for money. Neither do either.

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