Credit: Neal Preston

‘The Vanilla Tapes’: The Clash’s early demos of ‘London Calling’

Last year saw the 40th anniversary of The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling rampantly express just how vital the album has become. So, interested by the LP’s larger inception, we thought we’d look back at the record’s earliest known beginnings, AKA The Vanilla Tapes. While the monumental record has left an indelible mark on music since it’s release, these tapes are the foundations on which that iconic album was built.

In the tapes, the band recorded their earliest sketches of the LP straight to four-track tape machine in their dingy and dirty central London rehearsal space. It’s a visceral and vital vision of a band formulating one of the most imposing albums of all time. What you hear is not only the first workings of some of The Clash’s most iconic songs but also a quick reminder of the band’s unstoppable talent and the rawness that underpinned their output.

With these recordings, we are given a snapshot into the violent intelligence, deliberate chaos, and undoubted attitude that permeated one of the best rock albums ever, London Calling. It also shows the groove that permeated everything the group did.

The tapes were recorded in London in 1979 and had been seemingly lost forever before being recently unearthed. While the tapes were known to exist by fans they were only ever mentioned in hushed tones—like a punk Holy Grail hiding in the urban undergrowth. That was until The Clash founding member, guitarist Mick Jones, found the tapes in 2004, saying he “recognised them instantly for what they were.” The iconic demos, “hadn’t been heard since before the record was made,” Jones confessed, “It was pretty amazing.”

On those precious tapes, recorded a short while before London Calling, we are given an audio picture of a band at the height of the creative power some 40 years on.

While Mick’s guitar tone possesses all the knowledge of the muso-extraordinaire which held it, Paul Simonon’s bass takes on a brand new direction, flexing its musical muscles into new genre-defying spaces. Each musician pushing the other to explore new spheres of sonic solidarity. Joe Strummer struts through the demos with the kind of cocksure chop that would see him establish himself as rock hero while Topper is a precise and economical player. It’s an impressive display that suggests the group were firing on all cylinders when they approached the album.

In ‘The Vanilla Tapes’ there are cuts of pretty much every song from the iconic album but we’ve picked out a few of our favourites to show you today. First up, is the album’s eponymous track ‘London Calling’ and its strong apocalyptic message which sings even clearer in this stripped-back setting.

As well as a slightly stuttering start, the song also has slightly different lyrics, with the Big Smoke calling to “the fools and the clowns” and “the mods on the run.” This early version includes Strummer’s howl, thankfully.

Also included in The Vanilla Tapes were a ska-jumping rendition of the now-iconic tune ‘Rubie Can’t Fail’, which bops like no other punk song, and also, as part of “five completely unknown Clash songs”, the tapes include a rockier number called, ‘Heart and Mind’. The track is another heavy-tinned and souped-up punk jam and could’ve easily found its way on to the record.

The early version of ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ also sheds new light on the otherwise hallowed track and suggests that the group’s push towards broadening their sound was of keen interest. All, in all, it offers up a previously unheard landscape of the band at full flow.

The four other unearthed outtakes are ‘Where You Gonna Go (Soweto),’ ‘Lonesome Me,’ ‘Walking the Sidewalk,’ and a reggae-smoked version of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Man in Me.’—Yes, we are searching for this. You can hear them all here. It marks a truly incredible collection of demos and tapes which belies their innocuous discovery.

This makes the Vanilla Tapes, in our minds, as one of the most complete sets of demos you are likely to find. Why not sit back and listen to some of the earliest versions of those songs.

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