Vanilla Tapes...Pat Gilbert : MOJO

The history of rock’n’roll is peppered with stories of mysterious ‘lost’ recordings and film footage. Their possible existence seems to nag at us like unsolved crimes. The Clash have been the subject of several such mysteries. One of the biggest was solved three years ago when Hell West 10, the black-and-white silent gangster movie made by Joe Strummer in 1983 and starring The Clash, turned up on a market stall in London. No copy of it was believed to have survived.

Its discovery promoted renewed optimism about the greatest Clash riddle of them all: whatever became of the ‘Vanilla Tapes’? This was an itch that had been bugging fans for over two decades. These were recordings the group had purportedly made in rehearsals during the early summer of 1979. They were cut just weeks before the sessions with Guy Stevens at Wessex for London Calling.

The first tantalizing clue that any such tapes existed appeared in an interview Joe gave to NME’s Charles Shaar Murray in June 1979. ‘Suppose a group came along and decided to make a 16-track LP on two Teacs,’ said Joe, ‘which dramatically diminishes the cost factor called "studio cost". Suppose you presented that tape to the record company and told ’em that it cost just a few quid to make… you can still get a fucking LP for two or three quid.’

The idea that The Clash had been experimenting with recording their own material, or even their own LP, was planted in the public mind. The possible existence of self-produced 1979 Clash recordings was forgotten about when London Calling appeared to a grand hurrah at the end of that year. But as the ’80s passed by, it seemed odd that no demos/rehearsal tapes for the album had surfaced on bootleg (bar a couple of studio warm-ups). People began to relish the prospect that arguably the most important group of their generation had joined The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Stones as creators of a mythical lost session.

The group themselves half-remembered committing some material to tape in the rehearsal space they used in Pimlico, called Vanilla. But no one knew where the tapes were, or what was on them. They had other things to worry about, lives to get on with, and were happy to let the stories weave themselves into the myth.

In 1997, some clarity was brought to the legend by the group’s infamous roadie-savant, Johnny Green. That year, Johnny published his on-the-road memoir, A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day with The Clash. This included a detailed account of the months spent at Vanilla developing the songs that would later grace The Clash’s superlative double. He also related how the group taped the rehearsals on a Teac tape recorder and portastudio. So there it was: The Clash definitely had made some recordings.

He also, it appeared, revealed their ultimate destiny. Having been given a tape to deliver to Guy Stevens, then in the frame as producer, he lost them on the London Underground. The way Johnny tells it, the priceless rehearsal/demo recordings of ‘Clampdown’, ‘London Calling’, ‘Guns of Brixton’ and ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ are still travelling up and down the Northern Line somewhere.

Then, in March 2004, something rather extraordinary happened. Mick Jones was preparing to move a few houses around the corner in Holland Park when he found an old cardboard box with some tapes in it. Mick had accumulated thousands of tapes down the years but these seemed extra special.

‘I recognised them instantly for what they were,’ he explains. ‘Then I put them somewhere… and I had to find them again. But I sensed where they were and that took me to the right box. I opened it up and found them. They hadn’t been heard since before the record was made. It was pretty amazing.’

After 25 years, the ‘Vanilla Tapes’ had miraculously revealed themselves at last.

The story behind the recordings begins in February 1979. That month, The Clash returned from their first tour of America. At the end of ’78, the group had split from their manager, Bernie Rhodes. This meant they’d also lost their HQ, Rehearsal Rehearsals in Camden. Johnny Green and fellow roadie Baker Glare were dispatched to find them a new, permanent base.

Eventually, they chanced across Vanilla studios on Causton Street in Pimlico. The building - a former rubber factory - was used for car repairs. ‘It was like a drive-in garage-type place,’ recalls Paul Simonon. ‘There were mechanics and parked cars and fumes. It was great because it was in the middle of nowhere, we weren’t on the map. We could be left alone. You didn’t have other people wandering in and out. It was us, Johnny and Baker. That was the team.’

Mick: ‘Did it feel magical? No, not at all. We just used to walk in through the cars. It was like one of those factories where you go up the stairs and there’s a room where the foreman sits. That’s where we were. It was great because no one knew we were there. Unless they were invited.’

Throughout May and June the new material came together. Topper can vividly remember Mick excitedly turning up one afternoon with the distinctive, strident riff for ‘London Calling’. Some of the music came in ready-made - Rudie Can’t Fail, Lost In the Supermarket, Four Horsemen, I’m Not Down. Other songs grew organically. Mick and Joe were constantly to and fro-ing across the room, showing each other chord shapes on their guitars and guiding Paul and Topper. Sometimes Paul and Topper would be guiding Mick and Joe.

Mick: ‘When you do music, with me, the bit you’ve just done tells me where to go next. I can hear it already, so it’s already there for me. It was really feeling it out, and trusting in the way we work together, knowing it’ll be alright. Looking back, it was a really natural, organic process.’

Paul: ‘Mick would be an hour late or half-an-hour late, so we’d be playing something. I suppose it was the first time we played together in terms of creating the songs. There was a lot of experimentation. I’d hear tunes on the radio or a record, I’d play it, then Topper would join in. Or Mick or Joe would arrive with something, and we would work on it. It was like doubles at ping-pong but with music as the ball.’

Towards the end of June, The Clash decided they wanted to record their new stuff. Joe talked animatedly about taping an album there and then in Vanilla. However, both Paul and Mick contend there was never any real plan to make London Calling at Number 36 Causton Street. ‘We were bluffing,’ says Mick. ‘We were winding up the record company. Our chant for that record was "two-for-one!". We were concerned about value for money.’

Earlier in the year, Johnny and Baker had struck up a friendship with The Who’s soundman Bob Pridden. They knew him from hiring gear from ML Executives, a hire company set up by The Who. Pridden suggested they use a Teac 4-track machine and link it to a portastudio. He helped them set it up, and Baker learned to work the equipment. In this way, The Clash taped several rehearsals. At the end of each session, they ran off cassette copies, which Mick in particular would take away to study. It was one of the final cassette copies that Johnny Green had left on the tube.

Today, Paul and Mick think it was, in fact, Bernie who suggested Guy Stevens as a possible producer the album. That was fine with The Clash. Joe went off in search of Stevens and found him propping up the bar in a pub off Oxford Street…

So what exactly is on the ‘Vanilla Tapes’? What have we been missing out on for the last 25 years? Well, you’re possibly listening to them right now, so you’ll already have a very good idea. Basically, they’re clean, bright recordings that reveal a group who are evidently enjoying creating something organic and musical. Paul’s bass walks, hops and lopes as he feels himself into jazz, funk and disco. Mick plays economically, expertly and fluidly – intelligent licks and chops. Joe’s rhythm guitar cuts through like a man who learned his craft from old Bo Diddley, Bukka White and Chuck Berry records. Topper is magnificent – light, precise and clever. It’s London Calling stripped bare for combo playing: no horns, Hammond, piano, whistling.

The tapes Mick discovered included 37 tracks in total. These have been pared down to the 21 best versions. Every song they recorded is represented here. There are some interesting snatches of studio chatter, but the most exciting revelation is the presence of five completely unknown Clash songs: ‘Heart And Mind’ (a rocker pitched somewhere between ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Death Or Glory’), ‘Where You Gonna Go (Soweto),’ 'Lonesome Me' and a bluesy instrumental, 'Walking The Slidewalk.' There's also a cover of Matumbi’s version of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Man In Me’. The Clash’s takes on Vince Taylor’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’ and Danny Ray’s ‘Revolution Rock’ made the final album, of course.

‘Remote Control’ gets an airing and shows how different The Clash’s first-album material was sounding two years on. A remnant of the warm-up sessions at Vanilla, it’s a surprise to find it here: the song wasn’t played live after the White Riot tour in spring 1977. ‘We’re not supposed to like that, are we?’ laughs Mick of the song CBS famously released as a single in 1977 without the group’s permission. ‘I think Joe disliked it on a symbolic level, because of what happened with the release. But we always liked the tune.’

‘The Right Profile’ is still in its instrumental stage, and is called ‘Up-toon’ (a version called ‘Canalside Walk’ has been passed over in favour of this one). Paul’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ is still without lyrics and is slightly groovier and more conventionally reggae. You can hear he and Mick suggesting a drum intro to the track to Topper. On other songs, bridges and intros are missing, and lyrics differ. ‘Clampdown’ is in its early ‘Working And Waiting’ incarnation, while we’re treated to the version of ‘London Calling’ that Joe alludes to in The Clash On Broadway box set - here London calls to ‘the fools and the clowns’ and ‘the Mods on the run’ (the 1979 Mod revival resulted in seaside skirmishes that Easter).

Four songs from the finished " London Calling " album are absent: ‘Spanish Bombs’, ‘The Card Cheat’, ‘Wrong ’Em Boyo’ and ‘Train In Vain’. This confirms the received wisdom that (except ‘Wrong ’Em Boyo’), these we written when The Clash were in Wessex recording the album proper.

Even so, that means that the ‘Vanilla Tapes’ feature versions of 15 out of the 19 songs on the album. It’s a fascinating document.

‘We only played these demos a few times,’ says Mick. ‘We didn’t go into the studio and slavishly copy them. We knew the basics, some of the lyrics came later. They were sketches, really. But I’m glad I found them. They tell you quite a lot about what we were like at the time.’

Sadly, Number 36 Causton Street, the site of Vanilla, was redeveloped in the early 1990s. Today, a new building stands on the site, renumbered 1-16. It was in these premises that Joe first sung the immortal words ‘I believe in this and it’s been tested by research/He who fucks nuns will later join the church!’ on ‘Death Or Glory’. It was the ultimate insight into how youthful rebellion is eventually tempered by the responsibilities and realizations of adulthood.

I’m sure Joe would be laughing his socks off if he knew that Vanilla studio is now a church building called London Diocesan House.

 

 

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