The Clash

In their five brief years, The Clash left behind a peerless body of work. Sweeping, ambitious and constantly evolving, their music encapsulated a short history of rock and roll. At first, they were a crude and caterwauling garage band, making up in raw force what they lacked in technique. As they went along, they began to temper their punk aggression with rhythm and blues, reggae and funk. Their lyrics were biting and intelligent, incisive attempts to grapple with the confusions of everyday politics. When in 1982 they finally achieved international success with a hard-won hit single, their story got its perfect, bitter ending: they were branded as opportunistic sell-outs by the critics and fans who’d doted on them.

The Clash suffered this backlash because, with the Sex Pistols, they spearheaded a movement that embodied one of rock and roll’s central contradictions. On the one hand, punk rock damned the old guard for failing to live up to the promises of their youth. When punk broke in 1976, the Rolling Stones had become sodden caricatures, stumbling out of tax exile every few years to sleepwalk through yet another tedious album. Punk bands countered by striving for authenticity, tapping into street-level concerns and speaking directly to the audience from which they had themselves just emerged.

On the other hand, punk reveled in artificiality. Irony was its lingua franca: punk drew more from Andy Warhol than Muddy Waters. For all the talk of riots and anarchy, guns in the street and terminal boredom, punk rock packaged its outrageousness with canny theatricality. This was a movement built on attractive surfaces and created identities, where a middle-class diplomat’s son like The Clash’s Joe Strummer could reinvent himself as both a Marxist champion of the squatting underclass and a trendy fashion plate.

When punk sputtered out in ’79, it left real changes in its wake. The Clash seemed for a time to be the harbingers of the next era, with their militant politics and their genuine commitment. This didn’t last long, as the next pop generation shunned punk’s political edge in favor of its self-consciousness. Punk’s true beneficiaries weren’t the Dead Kennedys or Minor Threat but the Pet Shop Boys. Because they were "The Only Band That Matters" – because they sincerely cared – the Clash instantly looked like classic rock dinosaurs, punk’s own Rolling Stones.

From Here to Eternity Live feels like a conscious attempt to reclaim The Clash’s tattered reputation. The 17 songs, culled from several concerts, offer no surprises at all. Rather, this is a live "Best of," programmed with far more concision and intelligence than the useless compilation Story of the Clash. The set plays like an argument for the band’s place in history, substituting their greatest songs ("Career Opportunities," "White Man in Hammersmith Palais") for their greatest hits: you won’t find "Rock the Casbah" here. The record is arranged in roughly chronological order and focuses on their earliest work. Half the songs originated on their debut album and first few singles.

Boiled down to their essence, the Clash demonstrate just how great and powerful a live band they were. The record packs a ferocious wallop, kicking off with their best single ("Complete Control") then whipping through a frenzied set. The shifts into reggae ("Armagideon Time") and slow atmospherics ("Straight to Hell") provide welcome respites from the assault. Strummer spews out most of the songs in his most impassioned yowl, while Mick Jones’ guitar adds pop hooks and sheen to even the most abrasive songs.

The band’s passion and intelligence still ring through. These songs are as uncompromised – as risky and as challenging – today as they were twenty years ago. This wonderful album is everything a fan could ask for, short of a time machine and a ticket to the 100 Club in ’76.

Gary Mairs