Take Cover! The National Vs. The Clash

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. Cast your vote wisely.

The Cover:

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The Original:

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13 Comments

  1. Posted February 9, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I do love me some National, but clampdown pretty much requires aggressive guitar and drum.

  2. JP
    Posted February 10, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    The Clash (the greatest band of all time)!. No one can do a song better than them. Even the covers they do are better than the original (I Fought the Law, Brand New Cadillac)

  3. [email protected]
    Posted February 10, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    The National are a great band, but this version has no balls!

  4. bsman
    Posted February 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Wow — I never thought “Clampdown” would put me to sleep, but the National version did just that. What’s next — a zombie-core version of In the City???

  5. Posted February 10, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Dave – I love the National, but you cannot rework this song without the guitar. Acoustic FAIL.

    I must admit, the Clash is one of my favorite bands, and this is my favorite song of theirs, so not much of a chance for The National.

    The Strokes do a more straight up cover of the song that is worth checking out for fans of both bands.

  6. Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    are you fucking kidding me? come on.

  7. Mike D
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Yikes! Don’t mess with a good thing. You gotta think that Joe’s rollin’ in his grave right now.

  8. Anastasia
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    While I enjoyed parts of the National’s cover, esp. Matt’s vocal, overall it didn’t grab me the way the original does. I think I would have preferred to hear Matt in the lead vocal (i.e., Joe), and the other singer (Bryce/Aaron?) in Mick’s part.

  9. Elena Proakis
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like the National singing over a Pinback background track. Not sure it’s working for them!

  10. Goo Gooners!
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I get tired of white people insisting that punk music is the most important music ever made. (First step in having “cred” amongst music loving caucasians, I guess.) Of course the cover by the National is better.

  11. Posted February 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    The guys in The Clash didn’t care a whit about politics until manager Bernie Rhodes told them to when they were putting together an image. Strummer was a rich kid with a diplomat father. The Clash toed the party line with predictable leftist politics (and oh-so-trendy support of terrorism in the case of Brigate Rosse), which is about as challenging as fishing in a barrel.

    Having said that, The Clash was one of the greatest bands in the history of rock (though Give ‘Em Enough Rope is far superior to London Calling), proving that, if you’re good enough, you don’t have to be authentic to rock ‘n’ roll.

  12. clyde.lee
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    The clash are a level that is impossible to reach in terms of power through aggression. However, I absolutely love the national, and this cover is beautiful. They definitely haven’t ruined something good. They cover with respect and talent and I think the clash would agree. By the end of their career the Clash were masters at blending genres and creating new combinations of sound. Both tracks are incredible.

  13. t. drew hardin
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    The National does perform a nice rendition of a song from a group that was, and to a certain extent, and still is wildly popular? How can you not get swept up in all that energy(better still, where’d they get it?) The National is a heavyweight also but if we’re to cast wisely as aforementioned, it must be cast for The Clash. They are simply overpowering, if reasons otherwise were in short demand.

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