Has it really been over three weeks since I last spoke on that most glorious of music years, 1979? A quick look at the calendar says yes. But a quick look into my heart says I never really left.1
And so, as promised back in the mythical era of late September, I now return to the Promised Land to bring back a slab of near perfect wax. And as promised, I present to you the Finest Hour from The Only Band That Matters. I present:
The Clash - The Cost of Living E.P.
(A disclaimer: I like the Clash. A lot. A whole lot. As in, I "have a tattoo of Joe Strummer on my right arm" like the Clash. So I have some very strong opinions about them. Some of them are irrational. Deal with it. )
Okay, I'm sure several people probably already assumed the best Clash release came out in 1979. And they assumed it was London Calling. I'm not here to find fault with London Calling. I love that album more than most people love their children. But anything that has a song where Joe Strummer sings about tantric sex (shudder) will never be a perfect album.
But the Cost of Living is.
This is four songs that basically define what made the Clash a great rock band. Their seminal debut is a classic of the time, but the razorwire production and inconsistent songwriting knock it down a peg. The criminally underrated Give 'Em Enough Rope is a classic in the heavy 70s glam guitar tradition (and is not a Heavy Metal album, despite what the lazy music press accuses it of being), but the vocals are too far down in the mix, and side two dips in quality compared to the amazing 1-2-3 punch it opens with. London Calling is a deep and rich album, and gives CoL a run for the money, but falls just short. Sandinista! is a sprawling,2 insane mess. Combat Rock is filler-heavy, and is clearly the sound of a band breaking up. And Cut the Crap? Clearly the work of a madman.
The Cost of Living, however? Perfect. It's a distillation of the Clash in their purest form. And as it's only 4 songs, I can actually do a song-by-song review without spending the rest of my life writing this:
"I Fought the Law" - Opening up the first side with a galloping, unforgettable drum beat courtesy of Topper Headon, wailing guitar, and perfectly spat-out vocals, this track is, without a doubt, the definitive version of the Sonny Curtis classic. Sure, the Bobby Fuller Four version still gets airplay, but everyone who has ever covered it since is basically covering the Clash version. Simply stunning song, absolutely flawless cover, and a great way to start the album. In fact, I would go so far to say this is the single greatest cover of any song in rock history.
"Groovy Times" - The fact that this is the weakest track on the E.P. should show how strong an album this is. A scathing indictment of the depressing state of late 70s Britain, this is an epic track, with a surprisingly deft, understated guitar and harmonica courtesy of "Bob"(actually guitarist Mick) Jones. Bitter lines like "They discovered one black Saturday/the mobs don't march, they run" and a subtle swipe at Elvis Costello (so subtle it was nearly 10 years until I became aware of it) dance across the elegiac music. Again: the weakest song.
"Gates of the West" - Mind-rapingly awesome power pop with a Mick Jones vocal about the band on the brink of actually breaking America, an achievement that 95% of British bands claim not to care about while desperately attempting to do so. Proof that the Clash could have gone down the Cheap Trick/Raspberries/Knack path and still been legendary. When I started collecting Clash bootlegs, I was gutted to learn this was never played live.
"Capital Radio Two" - Holy. Shit. This song smokes more than Dan Ackroyd does in Ghostbusters. The original "Capital Radio," a scathing assault on the government sponsored radio station, was released on a promotional flexi-disc from the NME, which was so sought-after that copies were going for over 40 pounds within a year of realease. To rectify this, the Clash re-recorded it...louder...and with a different arrangement. Beginning with a simple, soft intro, the song kicks into overtime about 30 seconds in, as the entire band smashes into the song like a brick of compressed radness slamming you in the face. And after about a minute and a half of pummeling your senses with Les Pauls and Telecasters, Joe Strummer calls the bands attention and tells them they'll never get on the radio like that. So, "on the count of four...FOUR!" the band breaks into a hilarious parody of disco music, including a lyrical swipe at the Grease soundtrack and screeching falsettos leading to fadeout.
Thus ends the most perfect release in Clash history.3
The Cost of Living is a little tricky to get your hands on in a hard copy these days. If you want to pony up the money for the Singles Box Set, you can have a replica sleeve, but it's pretty much only for hardcore fans. "I Fought the Law" is on the American reissue of the debut, and pretty much every Best of... complilation the Clash have ever released. The remaining songs can all be found on Super Black Market Clash (where I originally heard them in 1993), a compilation that I highly recommend for showing all of the strengths and all of the weaknesses of the Clash on a single disc.
Thanks to iTunes, I rather imagine you could download all of the tracks separately and make your own, though. You really should.
Tune in next time as I somehow use the weakest album from one of my favorite bands to glorify 1979.
1. This is entirely metaphorical. A quick look into my actual heart actually reveals decades of McRib-related arterial plaque.
2. It is mandated that all reviews that reference Sandinista! use the term "sprawling."
3. Okay, the original vinyl release, and the Japanese version of the recent Singles box set include the "Cost of Living Advert" track, but that isn't really a song, so much as Joe Strummer talking in a really bad Jamaican accent over music. But you'd have to go out of your way to hear it in that version, so I discount it.
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