The Clash get the Phoenix City All-stars treatment. Dub Stylee.
Cover versions are a part and parcel of the landscape of contemporary music. Reggae in particular has been eating itself and regurgitating alternate versions pretty much since its inception.
From the uninspiring pub bands that just replicate ‘popular’ tunes, to bands that take a tune, give it their own spin and in the process a new lease of life. It’s a risky business. Sometimes a song gets slaughtered, sometimes the cover will turn out better, and indeed more successful, than the original.
The Clash themselves were masters of it. Their back catalogue is littered with little known rock and roll, jazz and – most notably – reggae songs given the Clash treatment and made all their own.
The Clash were part of this reviewers formative years. The naivety of youth and the lack of historical background meant there were many of the Clash’s cover versions we thought were Clash originals. We were quick to discover original versions of tunes like Police and Thieves, I Fought the Law and Armagedion Times. And through that process the Clash helped open our eyes to a world beyond punk rock. The likes of Wrong Em Boyo, Look Here and Junco Partner took us a little longer to suss.
Perhaps it is only fitting then that the Clash by turn, have themselves been heavily covered. From one off singles, like Inner Terrestrials and Blaggers ITA reworkings of Guns of Brixton, through various artist compilation albums such as Shatter the Hotel: A Dub Inspired Tribute to the Clash and Burning London, to albums where one artist will take on a whole albums worth of Clash tunes, such as Dub Spencer and Trance Hill’s The Clashification of Dub. And that’s without touching on the artists that have sampled the Clash (even getting number one hits with stolen Clash riffs).
But still, after all this, we are apprehensive when we come across new cover versions of Clash. Probably because they played such an important part in our formative years and we are wary of disrespect to our teenage memories.
The Pheonix City Allstars are no strangers to cover versions. In 2016 they released Two Tone Gone Ska, where they took tunes from the legendary ‘ska revival’ label of the 1980s and took them back to their roots, making them old skool ska. They have also singled out both Geno Washington and the Rolling Stones for the ska treatment.
The all-star collective has featured members from Pama Intl, The Sidewalk Doctors, The Specials, Kasabian, Intensified, The Loafers, Big Boss Man, The Bongolian, Dub Vendor All-stars, Ska Cubano, Goldmaster All-stars, and special guests galore.
This time around they stray from ska and decided to go down the dub road – good choice we think. We get nine dub reworkings of tracks from the first three albums, when the Clash were in their prime. From White Riot to Guns of Brixton, taking in Tommy Gun en route, the bass is turned up and the echo chamber twiddled on and off.
As is the way with dubs. The vocals are stripped down to a minimum, many of the tracks showing up sans lyrics, pure instrumental. The ferocious call to arms of White Riot, becomes a foot stomping instrumental call to the dancefloor with its heavy bass line.
Many of the Clash’s best numbers were driven by Strummer’s vocals and on occasion they eclipsed the actual music. They were angry lyrics, making you want to punch the air or kick down some walls. Where vocals appear on here they are Female vocals, almost whispered, rather than shouted, giving tunes a whole new vibe, but at the same time retaining the menace of the originals
Guns of Brixton has been covered so many times by so many people (including Paul Simenon himself) in so many styles, we have to ask if the Pheonix City crew have anything new to add. Well, the answer is yes. Again, female vocals change the vibe, but the bass line keeps its dark edge.
It would be impossible to out dub the Clash’s own dub version of Bank Robber. But you know what? These guys give it a damn good go.
This album has been a source of frustration to us for many months. It was originally pencilled in for release back in March of this year and we eagerly paid up front for a pre-release. Then waited. And waited. Patiently at first but just as we were on the verge of asking for our money back, bang, it lands. All is forgiven. It is a gem.
No doubt Clash purists will be outraged, but for us this is the perfect way to fill a Clash shaped hole. Having split in 1986 (and if we are honest, they had been dying on their feet since 1982), we have been deprived of one of the most important bands of all time for three decades now. Whilst we still dust off London Calling a couple of times a year, this is a welcome and respectful sprucing up of the back catalogue. Memories of unwrapping London Calling on 25th December 1979 rush back.