Retro Action #4: The Clash ‘Sound System’ Box Set and more!

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The Clash. I’m not going to be able to add much to what you already know, except for my own personal experience. For what it’s worth, I’ll give it a shot, though, in light of a clutch of new releases that are definitely worthy of your time. The band had already been around for years by the time I discovered them as a kid, but I was lucky enough to at least have been conscious of them by the time they released their last couple of records. I’ve since been enamored by virtually everything they’ve done. Hell, I can even find merit in the much-maligned Cut The Crap, the album that saw the band cease operations in disgrace during the mid ’80s.

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For me, the band’s third offering, London Calling stands as one of rock’s greatest achievements. It’s an album that expanded the punk blueprint, while signaling a stylistic shift for the band that would prove to be beyond influential. Beyond that, it had songs, not just quick blasts of noise embellished with pissed-off lyrics. And some of those songs are now spoken of in the same breath as The Beatles and The Who.

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While browsing a music store with my mom, I spotted the landmark album in the bins. I’d seen it before for years and remembered how its iconic sleeve design resembled that of an Elvis Presley record. But this time, what drew me in further was the sticker on the cover. It read something like: “Contains lyrics that some might find objectionable.” For a shy kid from the suburbs, this was more than enough to pique my interest; it was a statement of my own personal rebellion. So, I covered up the sticker best I could, and had my dear mom buy it for me. (I still have this very same record today.)

This double album had a lot on it, and as I’d already heard the poppish unlisted track “Train In Vain,” I’d just assumed that the band had maybe softened its edge a bit—this assumption was mainly due to the fact that the bits I’d heard prior like “I’m So Bored With The USA,” “What’s My Name?” and “White Riot” were much more “punk.” But, what poured out of my cheap speakers was nothing less than mind-blowing, and there were no dull edges whatsoever. Stylistically, the band had grown leaps and bounds, mixing its signature punk with straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, ska, funk, reggae, jazz and rockabilly, without sounding forced or all over the map.

Producer Guy Stevens gave the album a textural and spacious feel, with each instrument making a statement of its own, and the vocals loud and upfront. Joe Strummer’s battered croon is especially effective on the opening title track, which infuses its rock beat with pointed guitars and decidedly punk lyrics. Co-leader Mick Jones takes center stage on a number of tracks, the best of which, “Lost In the Supermarket” showcases his slightly milder, but no less expressive tones. Besides the sonic aspects, it’s the storytelling that makes the record really come alive. Songs like the title track, “Jimmy Jazz,” “Spanish Bombs” and “The Guns of Brixton” are like mini operettas, conjuring up colorful tales of sin, salvation and shit gone awry. It was this aspect that captured my imagination the most. And, very few records since have had near the impact. It truly was life altering

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London Calling is not an album easily explained. You have to experience it as an entire body of work to get the full effect—with each song leading into the next—through ample amplification and a sturdy pair of speakers. You can do just that in the brand-new box set, Sound System. This mammoth set includes the band’s first five albums (skipping Cut The Crap), plus three extra discs of rarities, non-released tracks and demos, a DVD of more rare stuff and loads of cool swag. For diehards, it’s a must. But, for the financially challenged among us, you can pick up Hits Back, which, well, contains several hits and essential tracks, but also mirrors an actual set list from 1982. For vinyl lovers—always my preference—Sony Legacy has also just reissued all five albums in one tidy set, with the original packaging intact.

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While the naysayers will predictably decry the commerciality of all three new releases, and declare the surviving members to be sell-outs, I’m happy to have virtually any worthwhile new release from the band’s vaults, and these, especially the Sound System box certainly qualify.

More releases from artists of yore:

The  Mission

The Mission
The Brightest Light

When he acrimoniously split from Sisters of Mercy during the mid ’80s, Wayne Hussey was on a mission, in part to best his frenemy and rival Andrew Eldritch, the sole remaining member of the Sisters. Hussey quickly assembled The Mission (aka “The Mission UK” in these parts), and scored a multi-album deal in the process. Carving out a new niche with its hippy, heady gothic rock, the band’s first two albums were bold statements of intent, and established it as a force to be reckoned with, capturing the attention of rock luminaries such as Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who produced the band.

But after a while, the fans began to tire of Hussey and company’s grandiose arrangements, penchant for melodrama, and lineup shuffles, and soon, the band began to lose its footing. Ironically, Eldritch and the Sisters would gain in credibility and popularity around the same period. With all that history and baggage, I have to admit I wasn’t overly enthusiastic to play this brand-new outing, The Brightest Light.

After popping said CD into my deck, all preconceptions I may have had were resoundingly null. Let me tell you, this is no longer the fey and frail Mission of the mid ’90s. This is a band with a penchant for power (“Black Cat Bone,” Everything but the Squeal), and a serious hankering to kick out the jams, as in the Zeppelin-esque “Drag.” But there’s an equal amount of light to the shade, as in the slightly whimsical “Born Under a Good Sign” and the sardonic “The Girl in a Fur Skin Rug.” Hussey’s vocals sound weathered but purposeful, and it’s a welcome change. All in all, it’s an album with something to prove and does just that, with a collection of numbers that are both dark and driven at once. With three quarters of the original members back intact and a revitalized sense of purpose, The Mission has indeed found its mojo once again. (The End Records)

Michael Monroe

Michael Monroe
Horns & Halos

The former Hanoi Rocks singer has been on a roll this past couple of years. First, he returned with a triumphant comeback solo album, Sensory Overdrive in 2011. With a kick-ass band in tow and a killer songwriting partnership with Ginger Wildheart, the album sold scores and even snatched up a coveted Classic Rock award for album of the year.

Now two years on, Horns & Halos continues the momentum. Most of said band is still intact, with the exception of Mr. Wildheart, who’s on to other endeavors, including the excellent Hey! Hello!. With that, core fans waited on the edge of their seats to see if Monroe could pull it off without his star songwriting ace, only to be pleasantly reassured by the results. Is it as sonically potent as Sensory Overdrive? Not quite. The hooks are not as immediate or obvious. And in general, it’s a more challenging record. But, the punk pyrotechnics of “TNT Diet,” the moody shuffle of “Eighteen Angels” and the vintage rock ‘n’ roll of “Saturday Night Special” do well to infiltrate the psyche, while the single “Ballad of the Lower East Side” is a corker of an anthem, and the most instantly catchy piece on the record.

After years of tragic mishaps, label skullfuckery, media indifference and scores of younger bands plagiarizing his bits, Michael Monroe is seemingly back for good, and that’s a great thing for rock ‘n’ roll. (Spinefarm)

Motels

The Motels
Self-titled

Before they became mainstream hit-makers during the mid ’80s with hits like “Only The Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer,” LA new wavers, the Motels hung out at punk clubs like the Masque, with the likes of The Go-Go’s, cranking out dark, sullen post-punk. This sterling, mini-LP reissue of the 1979 debut captures that band at its most deviant, and features semi-hits ” Total Control,” “Counting,” and Celia,” all of which benefit from singer Martha Davis’ deep, dramatic vocals. Killer reissue label Culture Factory has also done a fine job at releasing the band’s other LPs in the same deluxe format. But in my view, the first is best. (Culture Factory)

Vibrators

The Vibrators
Greatest Punk Hits

The Vibrators have been mainstays on the UK punk scene since it started. And surprisingly, they still manage to churn out a viable punk product even to this day. This “hits” collection includes stuff from the entire spectrum, from the irreplaceable Pure Mania and V2 albums up to 2009’s Under The Radar, and a bonus live cut. For the uninitiated, it’s a great place to start. (O-Rama)

 

Primitives

The Primitives
Lovely – 25th Anniversary Edition

There was a glut of female-fronted UK indie pop bands during the late ’80s and early ’90s, many of which played benign jangly pop with syrupy vocals and neutered guitars. The Primitives were different, incorporating fuzzy riffs and driving beats with elements of punk, power pop and garage rock. Debut album Lovely (1988) features the surprisingly massive hit “Crash,” plus several other goodies (“Spacehead,” “Shadow”) that pushed the parameters of this very predictable trend. This stealth reissue features the original album in remastered form, plus a second disc of B-sides and rarities that showcase the grittier side of the band. (Cherry Red)

Lost Sounds

Lost Sounds
Lost Lost

This one’s been out for a bit, but for some reason it’s eluded me until now. I was never a big Jay Reatard fan. But, a buddy of mine owned everything the guy had done, and was always pushing it on me. That said, I’ve always seen the value in his plug-and-play approach to songwriting and releasing music—an approach that was more DIY and against the grain than most everything else out there.

Lost Lost compiles odds and sods from Lost Sounds, one of several bands Reatard was involved with. Stylistically, it’s a mix of gritty garage rock, acoustic, new wave, and even dashes of metal in the form of demos and alternate versions. Standouts include garage train wreck “I Cannot Lie,” and the synthy “No One Killer,” which is both campy and eerie at once—two adjectives that could aptly describe Lost Lost as a whole. (Goner)

Nik Turner

Nik Turner
Space Gypsy

It’s been said over and over how much the Velvet Underground has done to inspire what would ultimately become punk. And while not necessarily a close second by any stretch, deviant Brits Hawkwind have also had an impact. With its countercultural stance, strange arrangements and the fact that Lemmy of Motörhead was once a member, I’d say its credentials are pretty solid. Now, bandleader Nik Turner is just about to unleash a new solo opus, Space Gypsy.

The album opens with the single “ Fallen Angel STS-51-L,” a driving, punkish number with Turner’s stoic delivery over the top. The madness continues on “Joker’s Song,” complete with garage feel and ample sound effects. “Galaxy Rise” recalls vintage psych in its cosmic grooves. Turner has assembled a cast of punk and post-punk luminaries as guests on the album: Nicky Garratt of UK Subs, Jeff Piccinini of Chelsea, and Jürgen Engler of industrialists Die Krupps, among others, and the results are nothing short of electric. (Cleopatra)

Nilsson

Harry Nilsson
The RCA Albums Collection

Even if you’re not that familiar with Harry Nilsson the man (RIP), you’ve definitely heard his some of his songs at some point in passing. Mr. Nilsson’s music inhabits a place where offbeat melody is king above all else, and many of his three-minute, pop masterpieces such as “Cuddly Toy” and “1941,” have gone on to be influential with later rock and power pop artists. The RCA Albums Collection compiles much of the man’s work on 17 discs with glossy sleeves and a plush box. (Sony)

Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix
Purple Box

As a kid discovering both punk and heavy metal, Hendrix was one of the few musicians that appealed to and got respect from both sides, at least with the misfits and malcontents that I knew. Musically, he was definitely at the forefront of heavy metal, but there were aspects of his profile that were purely punk—a decade ahead of the game—starting with his break from traditional genres and stereotypes.

This box was originally released in 2000, but has now been given a sonic upgrade as well as a few bonus tracks. Tracks span the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s entire run from 1966-70, with the group’s very first known recordings up through Hendrix’s very last session. It also has all of the classics, many of which in alternate versions that should get the diehards hot and bothered, especially with the likes of “Purple Haze” and Foxy Lady,” as well as unearthed gems “It’s Too Bad” and “Country Blues.” (Sony)

For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a line at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, JK

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