When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week the National takes on the Clash’s “Clampdown.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
It’s always tempting to shy away from classic tracks when writing this column. Fairly or unfairly, the original—especially when written by a band as sacrosanct as the Clash—nearly always comes out on top when put to our readers for a vote. Moreover, even the mere suggestion that a cover could be better than the original has, at times, invited vitriol. But hey, what’s the fun of the Internet if you can’t be insulted over a competition that has no quantifiable impact on real life in the slightest? All self-pity aside, I’m pretty sure I know which band will prevail this week. And, for once, the result will have little to do with the legendary status of the band that wrote the song in question.
Today, that song is “Clampdown,” an out-and-out rocker on a double album full of them. The Clash’s third record, London Calling was the first to showcase the band at its fullest potential. Stylistically running the gamut of punk, rock, reggae, dub, ska and rockabilly, London Calling still manages to neither feel scattered nor trite. And the Clash’s leftist politics, cultivated with increasing fervor as the band’s success allowed it to see more of the world, were telegraphed sincerely and sternly. (To be sure, the group was politically aware long before London Calling arrived, but the band’s heart had never before been conveyed so convincingly.) “Clampdown” is one of the album’s best songs because it embraces both strains of the band’s growth, each so transparent by 1979.
The National has concerned itself with politics, too, though its activism has never been so overt. Nor has it defined the band in the way politics did the Clash. Nevertheless, the National has been an unabashed supporter of Barack Obama both as candidate and president. (“Fake Empire,” from Boxer, was actually used by the Obama team on the campaign trail in 2008.) And brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner—the National’s primary songwriters—raised more than $1.2 million to combat HIV and AIDS through their Dark Was The Night endeavor. Of course, the latter deals with an issue that is decidedly apolitical, but it manifests the band’s compassion for activism nonetheless.
The question of whether that compassion informs a great cover is another thing entirely.