Sunday, March 25, 2018

Classic Album Review: The Clash - Super Black Market Clash (1980/1993)

Super Black Market Clash is basically an expanded version of 1980’s Black Market Clash 10” EP release, and essentially it’s a compilation album incorporating many of the band’s b-sides, rarities, remixes, plus other odds and sods. It covers a five-year time frame (1977-82), and as it tends to avoid the more obvious stuff, it results in a celebration of some of the band’s more unheralded moments.

Another consequence of this almost random approach is that we get a wide range of styles and perhaps the album’s biggest achievement is to successfully showcase the band’s extraordinary versatility. No bad thing.

So much so, it’s actually like a rough guide - a compacted version - to The Clash; from their earliest punk-edged incarnation as found on ‘1977’ (the flipside to ‘White Riot’), and ‘Capital Radio Two’, to the ska flavours of the Maytals cover ‘Pressure Drop’, the whitened urban soul of ‘The Magnificent Dance’ and Booker T’s ‘Time Is Tight’, the mid-album dub peaks of ‘Justice Tonight’ and ‘Robber Dub’, right through to the closer, ‘Mustapha Dance’, which is a remix of the 1982 single ‘Rock The Casbah’, this remains fairly eclectic yet still utterly compelling stuff.

And whatever else you can say about The Clash, love 'em or hate 'em, possibly even a bit of both if you’re anything like me, the band deserve plaudits for some exceptional and perfectly conceived album covers, and Super Black Market Clash is an excellent example of that, its imagery suiting the album’s largely rebellious content perfectly.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Classic Album Review: The Clash - London Calling (1979)

Forget about The Clash’s punk roots, by the time London Calling came out in 1979, the band had evolved considerably, and the result was this masterclass in cross-genre pollination. Not that the band had moved on entirely, or abandoned its core ethos; it's simply the case that collectively, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon, had improved markedly as musicians, and as a unit, and were thus better able to get their message across in a tighter and far more emphatic fashion.

While punk had started to encounter credibility issues, The Clash were evidently quite determined to be taken seriously, and in many respects, London Calling, with its underlying political posturing and unashamedly direct social commentary, established a template that many a post-punk contender would seek to adopt or emulate over the course of the following decade.
What should also be recalled is that the band were still a few years away from fully breaking through in the USA at this stage, and despite the album essentially being conceived in the States, London Calling retains a sense of Englishness that by default or by design still defined them. Make no mistake, even if they’d given this album a different title, the content would still evoke imagery of dark/wet grimy back streets, multicultural high-rise housing estates, rampant social injustice, and varying degrees of street violence.
When Combat Rock came out some three years later, with its plethora of US-chart breaking hit singles and stadium anthems, much of that tone and character was long gone and The Clash were headed for mainstream glory, concert tours, and extravagant pay days galore. It might be said, for all of their eventual popularity on the New World side of the Atlantic, by the time they belatedly achieved it, The Clash had already lost the very edge and points of difference that made the band so vital in the first place. It is hardly surprising a somewhat painful split was just around the corner.
So London Calling captures the true essence of The Clash, and any newcomer should start right here. The raw energy of the highly charged and almost threatening title track opens the album and that track itself remains perhaps the best example of what made the band so special. But look out too for the universal rockabilly influences on ‘Brand New Cadillac’. The ever-present Jamaican reggae vibes of ‘Guns Of Brixton’, ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, and ‘Revolution Rock’. The similarly political overtones on the otherwise catchy ‘Spanish Bombs’. The simple funk of closer ‘Train In Vain’. Plus, what is, in my opinion, the album’s coup de grace, ‘Clampdown’, one of the best anti-working-for-the-man anthems ever committed to vinyl.
And all of that, before I even start to tell you how truly great that album cover is …

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Gig Review: Pitch Black, San Fran, Wellington, 16 March 2018

Last Friday night, local electro dub fiends Pitch Black checked into Wellington’s San Fran venue for the second leg of the duo’s three-date Sonic Portal tour. It was a long overdue return to the capital for Mike Hodgson and Paddy Free, after Wellington missed out on the late 2016/early 2017 - mostly festival - dates that passed for the Filtered Senses (album release) tour.
A Sandwiches (club) gig in the capital of roughly a decade ago is still spoken about in glowing terms by all who attended (yours truly included), so it was little surprise to discover the San Fran venue almost full upon my relatively early 9.30pm arrival. Wellington dubheads and dance music aficionados clearly have long memories … though, of course, the short-term stuff may be more of a challenge. Whatever the case, this one carried the secondary billing of being a 21st party, with Pitch Black celebrating 21 years of being at the cutting edge of the local dub and electronica scene, and a cursory glance around the venue confirmed that it would just as likely have been years, if not a decade or two, since the last occasion many of these early doors punters had attended any kind of 21st celebration (that of their own children notwithstanding).
Free & Hodgson, dub fiends ...
Pitch Black had been playing around half an hour before I arrived, easing the crowd into the night with what they called their “downbeat set”, which meant a lot of gentle swaying and head bobbing, as our dynamic duo filled the room with layer upon layer of ethereal texture and languid bass-driven technicolour soundscapes. That continued for another half hour or so before we had the pleasure of Wellington’s own DJ Ludus (aka Emma Bernard) for company while our party hosts took a well-earned refreshment break.
Ludus was a perfect fit for this gig, and a swelling of the dancefloor during her mostly minimal ambient set – is minimal ambient a thing in genre-speak? – suggests she bought her own rather large following with her. It would certainly account for the injection of a few younger faces into the crowd, many of whom would scarcely have been out of nappies when Pitch Black unleashed its debut album, Futureproof, on an unsuspecting world 20-odd years ago.
When Pitch Black returned an hour later, the bpm factor and energy levels were upped significantly as they launched into what they call their “pumping set” with all the vigour of men half their age. It was around this point I realised it was going to be virtually impossible to review this (or any other) Pitch Black gig in any orthodox kind of way. The duo’s modus operandi is to continually fuck with the heads of their audience by blending and mashing together various tracks from different albums all at the same time. At no one point can it be said “oh, this is ‘The Gatherer’ …” or “this is from Rude Mechanicals”, because at no one single point are we being exposed to one single track. It’s a method that serves them well at giant outdoor festivals across the globe, and it is one that served them equally well at San Fran last Friday night.
Suffice to say Messrs Hodgson and Free covered a fair portion of their illustrious back catalogue as the night progressed into the wee small hours and we zig-zagged back and forth between albums. And they did so with some gusto. If they bypassed Wellington last time around, they were clearly keen to make it up to us, something they achieved with ease, and more …
If I have a complaint, and it’s probably more of an observation given the limitations of the venue, it’s that the visual feast I’ve always associated Pitch Black gigs with in the past simply wasn’t there this time. There was a backdrop with a multitude of FX and far-out visuals etc, but the lighting was relatively ineffective and the whole thing (visually) just failed to hit the heights I’ve come to expect. Having said that, San Fran can’t be faulted for its sound, which was crisp and clear, and there was a moment during the second set when I swear that bass was travelling straight through my chest.
I can’t wait for the next one, just don’t make us wait so long next time, eh fellas?

Here’s something I wrote about Pitch Black for NZ Musician some 18 months ago …