The Clash's London Calling stands as one of the few unimpeachably perfect albums. There isn't a dull moment as the band finds its way out of a pure punk corner to embrace all the sounds of the London streets. Staying true to its own spirit, The Clash branched into reggae and points beyond to make music as fierce as its previous work, though while relying on tunefulness as much as volume for that fierceness. Still, sometimes perfection is better off when left unexamined. London Calling: 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition provides a welcome chance for that album to assume the spotlight again, but it doesn't necessarily gain from the added scrutiny.
The three-disc set opens with the original album in its entirety, sounding as great as ever. It then moves on to The Vanilla Tapes, a long-lost rehearsal recording dominated by early versions of London Calling's songs. Completists will swoon, but most others will learn a lesson: It takes a lot of work to make a classic album. The cruddily recorded Vanilla Tapes sounds like a newly formed band's drunken attempts to play its favorite Clash tunes. Even stuff that sounds promising, like a cover of Bob Dylan's "The Man In Me," or the small clutch of songs that never surfaced anywhere else, are undone by the effort it takes to dig through the clumsiness and tape-hiss.
Much better is the London Calling making-of documentary The Last Testament, a short film shot before the 2002 death of singer Joe Strummer. "Punk rock is meant to be our freedom. We're meant to be able to do what we want to do," Clash "consigliere" Kosmo Vinyl says, referring to the band's decision to ignore the punk purists.
The Clash's contemporaries in Mekons learned to live by the same principle. By the time of the newly reissued 1988 album So Good It Hurts, Mekons had taken its music places The Clash might have thought to explore, had it not imploded after just two post-London albums. In 1985, Mekons' Fear And Whiskey cleared some common ground between punk and country, a move that let the band take on whatever style occurred to leaders Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. Basking in the afterglow of that decision, So Good It Hurts (due to be released on January 25th as part of an ongoing series of Mekons reissues) reprises some Clash-inspired dubby-drag for the modern folk song "Johnny Miner," looks toward Mexico for "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian," and finds a haunted pointedness by accompanying Sally Timms' sweet voice with a (gasp) synthesizer on "Ghosts Of American Astronauts." The Last Testament goes on to point out that part of the symbolism behind London Calling's cover, an apocalyptic echo of Elvis' first album sleeve, was to suggest it somehow closed the book forever on the glorious bastard sound known as rock 'n' roll. Thankfully, The Clash couldn't have been more wrong. As Mekons and countless others have proven, it simply helped start a new chapter.