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New Clash, Sly & the Family Stone Box Sets Clean the Vaults, Test Fans’ Boundaries

The Clash
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Label: Sony Legacy

The Clash, Sound System (Sony Legacy)

Sly & the Family Stone, Higher! (Sony Legacy)

The concept of reissues arguably reached its zenith or its nadir — probably both — with Rhino Handmade’s 1999 release of the Stooges’ 1970: The Complete Funhouse Sessions. As the title promises, it contains every take and false start from the album’s sessions, along with edits, amplifier hum, studio banter, jokes, and random noises, not to mention the obligatory retrospective essays and interviews and other memorabilia — a nearly real-time, torturously completist, seven-disc recreation of the creation of one of the greatest albums of the rock era. Yep, 28 takes of “Loose,” 15 takes of “TV Eye” — you get the idea. And while it was met with some “Is your life really so empty?” derision at the time of its release, the set not only sold out its initial pressing of 3,000 within a year, but 1970: The Complete Funhouse Sessions has been reissued twice.

Clearly, how-much-is-too-much depends on the eyes, ears, and wallet of the beholder, and record labels have been using every ounce of their formidable archiving, marketing, and collector-baiting skills to test fans’ boundaries, digging deeper into already-plumbed vaults as the CD approaches its inevitable obsolescence and those fans drift ever-closer to retirement age. And in that spirit, Sony’s Legacy Recordings — one of the finest reissue divisions in the business, along with Universal — has served up two boxed sets that should be the capstones on the discographies of the greatest funk band (Sly & the Family Stone) and the greatest punk band (the Clash) in history.

Of course, the vaults of both acts already have been excavated with career-spanning boxed sets, complete concerts, outtakes, hits collections, and retrospective DVDs; the Clash even have had several documentaries made about them. When you consider that these collections are aimed at fans who presumably own every remotely essential major release (if not all of the above), to quote Joe Strummer, what have we got for entertainment here?

The Sly set — 77 tracks across four CDs, with a lavish 100-plus-page book situated a 10×10-inch box — sprawls from the group’s prehistory up until the end of their CBS career (and their active significance) in 1975. It provides a sort of parallel history to the official album canon —exhaustively remastered and reissued, with bonus tracks, in 2007 — that runs chronologically through early Sly solo sides, mono mixes, live material, and studio outtakes, 17 of which were previously unreleased.

Consequently, the quality of the set rises and falls with the quality of the band, from the formative fusion of soul, rock, and pop on their first three albums to the sudden, exhilarating sound of it all snapping into focus with 1969’s Stand! and the gradual turn into 1971’s claustrophobic, paranoid There’s a Riot Goin’ On and the nimble funk of 1973’s underrated Fresh. From there, however, it all fell off just as quickly as it had risen, as Sly’s genius dissipated in a downward spiral of drugs and delusion.

Still, the highlights from that golden era burn as brightly as ever: the hot-streak of singles — “Everyday People,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody Is a Star,” and especially “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” arguably the funkiest song ever conceived — are repped here with punchy single mixes and/or edits. The other great gets are 20 or so minutes from the band’s performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, along with an unreleased 1973 live take of “You’re the One” (a single for side-project Little Sister, performed here by the full Family). Higher! is not the place to first meet Sly & the Family Stone — the two-disc Essential serves that purpose — but it’s a solid last-stones-unturned catch-all that presumably empties out the vault.

The cinderblock-sized Clash set is a more complex — and, at $175 on Amazon as we speak, more expensive — kettle of fish. Guitarist Mick Jones has said the objective was to create the “best box set ever,” and with 12 discs containing virtually everything the band already had released — along with a few more odds and ends, and an hour-plus DVD — it’s practically the entire history of the band crammed into a mock boombox. Designed by bassist Paul Simonon, the set incorporates retrospective essays, reprinted fanzines, a poster, dog tags, stickers, badges, and so forth; die-hard fans have probably sold off their existing Clash collections just to afford it.

So apart from all that, what does this weighty collection add to the canon of the most important and influential rock band to arise from the 1970s? Well, their catalog has been remastered and sounds great, although just how pristine the intentionally reptile-brain rock of the band’s first couple of years needs to sound is open to debate. Of the rarities, there’s the band’s first and second-ever recording sessions (featuring raw versions of oft-heard early songs), and live takes of several rarely aired Give ‘Em Enough Rope-era songs from a December ’79 gig. Most interesting is the DVD, which combines live footage — including, apparently, the band’s first rehearsal — and the 1981 short doc Clash on Broadway, along with all the group’s promo videos.

Impressive as this thing is, there is a clear disconnect in a nearly $200 coffee-table-like boxed set being released by a band who loudly espoused working-class, neo-socialist values and fought to keep their record prices down for “the kids.” With that, and common sense, in mind, Sony Legacy is making available smaller versions of the package: a two-CD best-of collection, plus a separate box set containing the five core albums. And anyway, the reality is that the surviving band members, their peers, and most of their fans are deep in middle age now, and aren’t likely to plunk down for this set if it’s going to jeopardize their kids’ college funds.