Friday 2 June 2017

How Not To End A Bands Recording Career - The Clash: Cut The Crap

If one's history of The Clash is learnt by compilation albums and documentaries, you would believe that once the US Tour of 1983 was over, and Mick Jones left the band, The Clash ceased to exist.

The demise of the band can be (initially) traced back to the 'Combat Rock' album of 1982.
Relationships between band members, notably Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were fraught, and Topper Headon's increasing drug habit didn't help matters.  The 'Combat Rock' album was initially conceived as another double album statement, and unable to agree a particular style, format or presentation, Glyn Johns was called in to salvage the best of what was available.  The resulting album was a pretty clear statement of were the band were at the time, and possibly deserving of their moniker "the most important band in the world".  The album was also their breakthrough into the US market.

The Clash toured America supporting The Who, but the increasingly unreliable Topper Headon was replaced by original drummer Terry Chimes, but by the end of that tour he also left the band being replaced by Pete Howard.  By May 1983, Mick Jones left (or perhaps more correctly, was sacked) and The Clash (according to popular belief) were no more.

I previously stated that the bands demise can be initially traced back to 1982.  There is another factor here which may push the beginnings of the demise back a little further - original manager Bernie Rhodes returned to in 1981.
Bernie Rhodes was an associate of Malcolm Mclaren, and followed the lead of McLaren by finding and nurturing a band.  The Clash formed and were housed at Bernie's Camden Rehearsal studio.  The Clash concentrated on the music, whilst the non-musical Rhodes concentrated on managing, positioning and marketing the band (his links with McLaren no doubt helped, including ensuring the The Clash were on the bill for the ill-fated 1976 Anarchy In The UK tour).  He departed (or was sacked, there are conflicting accounts) in late 1978, but was to return at Joe Strummer's request in early 1981.
Can it be just a coincidence that Bernie's return sparked a period of increased tension and eventual falling apart of the band?

Pete Howard had joined on drums in 1983, and now following Mick Jones departure a new guitarist was needed to breathe life back into the band.  Whether it was an attempt to expand the line-up, or the size of the hole left by Mick Jones, guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard were recruited.
This newly convened line-up headed out on a self-financed tour in early 1984, and by the start of the following year commenced recording of The Clash's 5th album.
In need of a writing partner, Bernie Rhodes assumed the role, and also that of the records producer (remember this is the bands manager and non-Musician Bernie Rhodes - what could possibly go wrong?)

If I'm being honest, cracks were beginning to show on 'Combat Rock' - fine album though it is, and it is saved by the singles drawn from it, it does feel a bit "aimless".  But the again, it is sort of understandable as each of their albums moved the band into different areas and styles - maybe this was just too far. or alternatively not enough of a stretch to create any "wow factor".
With 'Cut The Crap' those apparent cracks moved to almost yawning chasms.

Here's the headlines:
  • some of the songs sound like they've not fully evolved from their demo state
  • at points on the album, it feels like Joe Strummer has lost interest and is just "going through the motions"
  • the vocal track is buried so deep on some tracks its virtually inaudible
  • an over reliance on drum machines - drummer Pete Howard never actually hit a drum skin in anger throughout the recording
  • the production adds too many synthesiser splashes and effects - just because you can, you don't have to put a horn part into a song, and similarly a chorus isn't always improved by mass chanting
As a result, the album feels (a) half-finished, and (b) over-produced.
It was released in 1985 - there were many records around that time that were products of the studio and therefore have a similar sound and reliance upon technology.
However, the architects behind these records - prime example being Trevor Horn - were musicians at heart (or at least understood how music worked).  Bernie Rhodes lack of musical nouse renders 'Cut The Crap' as sounding a bit amateur-ish.
With recording complete, Joe Strummer disappeared to Spain leaving Bernie Rhodes to finish the production and mixing.  When he departed, I think Joe took the "Quality Control" button with him, because it seemed to be missing when the album finally came out.

An album is only as good as the songs it contains - all these songs, good and not so good, need to sit together in a way that makes (or breaks) the whole album.
It is perhaps telling that when the first post-existence Clash compilation was release ('The Story Of The Clash' in 1988, it contained no tracks from 'Cut The Crap'.
Of the 12 tracks on the album, only "This Is England" properly passes muster and has now been included on latter day compilations.
Of the other tracks, it's all a bit hit and miss (mostly miss) only "We Are The Clash" and "North And South" properly stand out.  "Cool Under Heat", "Movers and Shakers", "Three Card Trick" and "North And South" nearly cut it, but are hampered by the aforementioned bad production.
The rest of the tracks, in my humble opinion, are not fully formed and no amount of post-production, overdubbing, political posturing or marketing spin can pull them through.
In short, The Clash's legacy lies in tatters - is it any wonder that it has been effectively written out of any officially sanctioned histories of the band.

There is however one bright spot to report from this - whether it was as a result of this albums disappointment, or his recuperation/re-evaluation in Spain (or both), when The Clash finally called it a day in 1986, Joe Strummer sought out his old sparring partner Mick Jones.  Together they co-wrote 6 tracks, and co-produced Big Audio Dynamite's second album ("No. 10 Upping Street").
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but having made this re-connection you just wonder if the tensions in the band could have been diffused, would "This Is Big Audio Dynamite" (or something similar) have been the sixth Clash album (maybe with "This Is England" tacked onto it)?

For better or worse (mostly worse) 'Cut The Crap' was the bands fifth album, released in 1985.  Not a great way to finish off you recording career as a band, but it did give the world the last great Clash track (it also gave Shane Meadows a title for a serial drama 20 years later)

This Is England

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