Hear The Clash’s Vanilla Tapes, Demos of Nearly Every Song From London Calling

Every cre­ative work begins with a draft—or two, or three, or four. Great Amer­i­can nov­el, icon­ic paint­ing, gen­er­a­tion-defin­ing poem, album of the decade… each rep­re­sents a palimpsest of sketch­es, blind alleys, dead ends, demos, and out­takes. So it’s no great sur­prise to learn that Lon­don Call­ing, the Clash’s dou­ble-album mas­ter­piece, exists as an ear­li­er ver­sion, record­ed by the band them­selves on four-track tape machines at their rehearsal space in cen­tral Lon­don. What is maybe sur­pris­ing is how good these ear­ly record­ings are, and that they exist at all. Called The Vanil­la Tapes, after the name of their stu­dio, the tapes—though cer­tain­ly rough—represent what The Guardian calls “a col­lec­tion of demos and rehearsals that still man­age to sound more focused, intel­li­gent and rel­e­vant than most of today’s young pre­tenders.” No need to name names; it’s not much of a stretch to say that no rock and roll band today sounds as inter­est­ing as the Clash did in their prac­tices 35 years ago.

Record­ed in 1979, then lost, it seemed, for­ev­er, the tapes lived only in rumors and sly hints dropped by Joe Strum­mer of a self-record­ed LP. That is until March of 2004, when Mick Jones dis­cov­ered them in a box and “rec­og­nized them instant­ly for what they were.” The tapes, he said, “hadn’t been heard since before the record was made. It was pret­ty amaz­ing.” These ver­sions, writes Pat Gilbert at Mojo, are “clean, bright record­ings that reveal a group who are evi­dent­ly enjoy­ing cre­at­ing some­thing organ­ic and musi­cal.”

Paul’s bass walks, hops and lopes as he feels him­self into jazz, funk and dis­co. Mick plays eco­nom­i­cal­ly, expert­ly and flu­id­ly – intel­li­gent licks and chops. Joe’s rhythm gui­tar cuts through like a man who learned his craft from old Bo Did­dley, Buk­ka White and Chuck Berry records. Top­per is mag­nif­i­cent – light, pre­cise and clever. It’s Lon­don Call­ing stripped bare for com­bo play­ing: no horns, Ham­mond, piano, whistling.

At the top of the post, hear a rough take of “Lon­don Call­ing.” Aside from some hes­i­tan­cy in Strummer’s deliv­ery and a some­what plod­ding open­ing, the record­ing captures—perhaps even more than the stu­dio take—the apoc­a­lyp­tic dread of the song’s lyri­cal imagery. Some of the lines are different—London calls to the “the fools and the clowns” and “the mods on the run.” But this ear­ly ver­sion does have Strummer’s were­wolf howl and can­ny sum­ma­tion of the turn-of-the decade zeit­geist. Above, we have the Vanil­la Tapes ver­sion of “Rudie Can’t Fail” in all its funky ska imme­di­a­cy. (Notice the descend­ing melody in the chorus—which I almost like bet­ter than the album ver­sion’s ascend­ing chorus—and the toast­ing inter­jec­tions.) Just below, hear “Heart and Mind,” one of “five com­plete­ly unknown Clash songs” that appears on the tapes, “a rock­er,” writes Gilbert, “pitched some­where between ‘The Pris­on­er’ and ‘Death or Glo­ry.’”

Why this didn’t make the album, we’ll maybe nev­er know, but the cho­rus is great—“You’ve got a heart / You’ve got a mind / But you can’t / Keep them in time.” The oth­er four unearthed out­takes are “Where You Gonna Go (Sowe­to),” a rock­a­bil­ly tune called “Lone­some Me,” “bluesy instru­men­tal “Walk­ing the Side­walk,” and a reg­gae ver­sion of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” The tapes “includ­ed 37 tracks in total… pared down” for release “to the 21 best ver­sions.” Miss­ing from The Vanil­la Tapes are Lon­don Call­ing tracks “Span­ish Bombs,” “The Card Cheat,” “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” and “Train in Vain,” con­firm­ing “the received wis­dom that (except “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”), these were writ­ten when The Clash were in Wes­sex record­ing the album prop­er.”

“Mud­dy, raw, and insis­tent­ly vague,” writes Pitch­fork, the tapes see the band “work­ing hard, but also grasp­ing for a muse.” They found a guid­ing cre­ative force in pro­duc­er Guy Stevens, who craft­ed their demos into the more pol­ished, but still rough enough for punk, stu­dio ver­sions we know well. But even with­out the ben­e­fit of com­par­i­son with the bril­liant real­iza­tions on the record, these ear­ly ver­sions stand up on their own as the sound of a band with more rangy cre­ative ener­gy than most groups can muster over their entire careers. The tapes were includ­ed in the 25th anniver­sary lega­cy edi­tion of Lon­don Call­ing, but you can hear them all on Youtube (lis­ten to “Lost in the Super­mar­ket” above). Like some com­menters, you might be sur­prised to find you like some of these raw demos even bet­ter than their cel­e­brat­ed stu­dio ver­sions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sur­viv­ing Mem­bers of The Clash Recount the Mak­ing of “Lon­don Call­ing” & Dis­cuss New Box Set

Watch Audio Ammu­ni­tion: Google’s New Doc­u­men­tary Series on The Clash and Their Five Clas­sic Albums

Doc­u­men­tary Viva Joe Strum­mer: The Sto­ry of the Clash Sur­veys the Career of Rock’s Beloved Front­man

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Richard says:

    The first band I ever saw live, still leaves a huge impact on my psy­che.

  • Viv Moriarty says:

    The lyrics are still so pre­scient. I am old enough to have seen the rise of neo-lib­er­al­ism, the con­se­quences of which are fore­told here.
    In the late 1970’s we thought we could change the order of things and music was our fuel. Now we are silenced (per­haps ‘cos we aint got a gov­ern­ment licence (see Cap­i­tal Radio 1977)).

  • Harry Goode says:

    The best rock album of all time hands down. The Clash sound­ed like 5 dif­fer­ent bands ‚ska,punk,classic rock.funk and r&b,they were mas­ters of a dozen dif­fer­ent styles.I real­ly miss them.

  • Bryan says:

    The music scene is designed to be ster­ile and hell­ish­ly bor­ing-try re-lis­ten­ing to “Boston” or some oth­er AOR crap from 1977. I lived in Texas and worked at a job that was like a Sovi­et pro­pa­gan­da film of the exploit­ed Amer­i­can work­er. I read about the Clash and liked their intel­li­gence and balls and when they final­ly played Dal­las the first time in Nov. 1979 me and a bud­dy showed up four hours ear­ly so we’d be at the front of the stage. The Clash came out like they’d been shot from a gun and start­ed with “Safe Euro­pean Home” and I thought, Jesus, these guys as are fuck­ing mad as I am!” These guys changed my fuck­ing life. I was work­ing at a shit job and start­ed wear­ing a dog col­lar to work, telling peo­ple that it was sim­ply because I under­stood what was going on. I’ll nev­er for­get that show.I don’t give a fuck about celebri­ties, but I cried when Bo Did­dly died and I cried when Joe went. Thanks mates! You mat­tered!

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