Epic/Legacy reissued the Clash's classic third album, London Calling, in 2000, remastering the album and restoring the original artwork, much of which didn't make the original CD issue. No bonus material was added to this or any of the other Clash reissues of 2000, largely because nearly all of the B-sides and useable rare material had already appeared on compilations ranging from Super Black Market Clash to the box set Clash on Broadway. Over the next few years, expanded double-disc reissues of classic albums came into vogue among reissue labels, and eventually the Clash became a candidate for such a reissue, but it seemed like their vaults were empty. Then, a couple of extraordinary discoveries occurred. As he was moving to a new home in the spring of 2004, Mick Jones happened upon a box of tapes that included the long-rumored, long-thought-lost Vanilla Tapes -- rough rehearsal sessions for "London Calling" named after the London studio where they were recorded. Around the same time, legendary Clash associate Kosmo Vinyl sent bassist Paul Simonon old video tapes that contained grimy black-and-white footage of the Clash cutting "London Calling" at Wessex Studios with producer Guy Stevens. These two historic discoveries were more than enough material to justify a new special-edition reissue, so Epic/Legacy prepared a triple-disc set -- containing a CD with the original LP, a CD with The Vanilla Tapes, and a DVD containing a documentary, promo videos, and that newly discovered raw footage -- as part of their acclaimed Legacy Edition series, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the album's release.
Simply put, this reissue, while not boasting anything shockingly revelatory, is nevertheless an illuminating glimpse at how the album was made and is essential for any true fan of the Clash. This is particularly true because it has been so long since any unreleased material has surfaced, even on bootleg, so it would have been a delight to hear something, anything, new. Fortunately, The Vanilla Tapes are very good, at least when judged against the standards of rough rehearsal tapes. Keeping in mind that these are low-fidelity recordings mainly consisting of the band working out new songs, this is very enjoyable stuff. What's interesting about these rehearsals -- and, excluding a stab at "Remote Control," all but five of the 21 tracks on The Vanilla Tapes are rehearsals of songs that wound up on the finished LP (some of these boast different titles: "Paul's Tune" is "The Guns of Brixton," "Up-Toon" is "The Right Profile," "Koka Kola" is expanded to "Koka Kola Advertising & Cocaine") -- is that the Clash began with arrangements that were quite similar to the finished versions; they were a little ragged, sometimes a little slower, sometimes with slightly different lyrics (as on "London Calling" itself), but their sinewy musicality is as apparent here as it is on the vinyl. While it may disappoint some listeners that there are no forgotten classics among these five previously unheard songs, that doesn't mean they're not enjoyable. "Lonesome Me" has an appealing country bounce; given time, "Where You Gonna Go (Soweto)" could have been worked into a fine piece of white reggae, as could their reinterpretation of Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me"; "Heart & Mind" is a pretty impassioned, catchy piece of punk-pop that's distinguished by Joe Strummer breaking into the One O Oners greatest hit "Keys to Your Heart" in the coda. None of these songs are better than what wound up on London Calling, but they're all excellent outtakes on a CD that does qualify as a major historic find for rock historians. The video on the DVD is nearly as noteworthy, particularly those 13 minutes of home movies of the Clash and Guy Stevens in the studio. The accompanying 30-minute documentary takes highlights from this video, threading them between interviews conducted for the long-form Westway to the World documentary, winding up as an effective look at the making of the album (as are the fine liner notes in the lengthy 36-page book). Still, there's nothing quite like eavesdropping on a great band working with a madman producer. Stevens steals the show, as he storms around the studio, throwing ladders, throwing plastic chairs, banging chairs against his head, motivating Strummer during a vocal session, and conducting the band during a rehearsal. Throughout it all, the Clash are cool and unflappable, never letting Stevens' shenanigans affect them. It's a rather amazing piece of archival footage, and it's just the icing on the cake on this splendid reissue. It's fitting that an album that truly deserves an expanded edition not only gets the deluxe edition it deserves, but one that makes a convincing argument that the sometimes ridiculous practice of expanded, multi-disc editions has a purpose after all. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine