Remastering a Masterpiece: The Clash’s London Calling
by Leo Cahalan
(Leo is an audiophile, a vintage-gear expert and a vinyl maven. His considered opinions are redoubtable.)
I spot the white cardboard media mailer left inside the storm door as I turn the car into the driveway. An expectant smile grows on my face. I have been waiting on a purchase – the 2004 remastered reissue of The Clash’s masterpiece, London Calling, still sealed. But my smile fades as my wife says, “You have to stop buying albums.” Her protest is more rhetorical than positional. It’s her way of saying, “Yeah, I see it. I know what you’re up to. I will allow it.” She indulges me.
She has a point. I already own the original 1980 Epic Records pressing of this record. So why duplicate? Original pressings elevate a record collection and usually sound better than subsequent reissues. But, in the case of the London Calling reissue, a remastered version has to be an improvement over the original, right? If not, why bother?
I grab the package and carry it inside, excited to execute the ritual of carefully pulling an old paring knife through the tape securing the cardboard flaps. I unfold the cardboard and smile down at the Elvis-flavored cover of London Calling.
What an amazing cover! Punk angst and violence depicted by a stark black-and-white photo of Paul Simonon about to slam his bass guitar onto the stage floor. The defiant photo is framed in the nostalgia of rock’s beginnings, with the album title written in the same pastel-colored font used on Elvis Presley’s classic first album. Delicious.
The sticker extols the merits of this new and improved version and makes a bold promise: “Remastered for superb sound!”
I pull my original Epic U.S. release off the shelves and I compare the two. The packaging of the reissue is faithful to the original except that the spine is white with red and black printing. More significantly, “Train In Vain” is no longer a mystery track, but is listed as the fifth track of Side 4. This is an unfortunate change, as the original omission of the track listing added to the album’s legend.
I pull Disc 1 out of the sleeve and put Side 2 up on the turntable. Side 2 is one of my favorite sides of any album. It may not rock as hard as Side 1, but the emotions evoked are as varied as the music employed. It is funny (“The Right Profile”), heartbreaking (“Lost In The Supermarket,” “Spanish Bombs”), angry (“Clampdown”), and discontented (“The Guns of Brixton”).
The needle drops and “Spanish Bombs” begins. I immediately feel something missing. I turn up the volume. It still sounds off. I turn it up more, but just don’t feel that familiar punch. Thinking there’s something wrong with this track, I lift the needle and forward it to “Clampdown.” This will surely bring it I think. But no… volume does not help.
I let it play through to “The Guns Of Brixton” in the hopes that the promised “superb sound” will be revealed in Paul Simonon’s famous bass line. No, the mix is too polite; it sounds tired. There is plenty of air around the instruments and vocals, and the sound stage is wide, but the mix is flat. The bass is heavier and more prominent than on the original and Joe Stummer’s vocals are pushed to the back. This remastering tends to veil the whole production.
I take the reissue off and put on the original Epic release and immediately hear and feel the difference. No need to turn up the volume. Joe is front and center, Paul’s bass is tight and back, the highs are crisp and have a sweet, almost-harsh edge. The mix is clean and in your face. The music feels fresh, not tired. The original release moves you to tap, to sway, to feel. The reissue politely asks you to sit and listen.
Hey, if I want to listen to polite, nice, round, spacious sounds, I’ll put on Steely Dan’s Aja. But I want to bang, I want to shake, I want to dance! I want to listen to the damn Clash! And so I do – on the original pressing.
Anyone looking for a polite copy of London Calling, “remastered for superb sound?” I’ve got a nice white media mailer to send it to you in. My wife would appreciate it.