"Still digging up the bones of Strummer and Jones," wrote Elvis Costello, and it's as true today as ever. There will always be 16-year-old hearts astir at the calls for a riot of their own. Somewhere, London is forever burning and the guns of Brixton are eternally leveled at anyone who kicks at the front door. Two new releases -- an anxiously awaited live album and frontman Joe Strummer's first solo album in 10 years (see Rock Art and the X-Ray Style review) -- are set to take their place as tiles in the mosaic of the Clash myth.
The Clash was a band with many faces, having been in their time snarling yobbo punks, white auxiliary rastas, arena rockers in terrorist costumes, value-for-money pop idealists and electro-funk-rock frontiersmen. But a few crucial elements were always instantly recognizable: Strummer's raggedly expressive voice, the soaring guitar leads of Mick Jones, the economically catchy melodies and a certain propulsive quality in the rhythm section (bassist Paul Simonon and, for most of the band's career, drummer Topper Headon). They had a Dumpsterful of personality, which is how they remained unmistakably the Clash even when they went from 90-second meat-grinder rants to six-minute dance remixes. From Here to Eternity is the first officially released live album from the Class of '77's most-bootlegged band. First, this: The music is great. The performances are solid and fiery; the sound is clear and full; and, of course, the songs are selected from one of rock's very best bodies of work. Highlights are a majestically throbbing version of "London Calling," a hot "Guns of Brixton" and a version of "Armagideon Time" that fully delivers on its title's promise of apocalypse. This is a most entertaining record.
So why, then, does it feel like a missed opportunity? The answer lies in the selection of recordings. Of the 17 tracks on From Here to Eternity, 11 were recorded in 1981 or '82. More tellingly, not one dates from before 1978. Sound quality must have had something to do with this, but surely a 17-track CD has room for at least one song from the band's earliest days, no matter how low-fi. And the song selection is pretty much what you'd expect; "City of the Dead" and "Know Your Rights" are as adventurous as it gets.
Anyone familiar with extant bootleg versions of songs like "Wrong 'Em Boyo," "Julie's in the Drug Squad" and "Koka Kola" will be let down by the conventional track listing. As undeniably powerful as this music is, it's the sound of the Clash proving that they belong in the big leagues alongside, say, the Rolling Stones, and as such it's hardly the most compelling vision of The Only Band That Matters. What could have been a revelatory artifact turns out to be just a souvenir for pilgrims to the Clash altar.