I feel sorry for the Clash fans living in 1980 who carefully peeled off the cellophane wrap encasing Sandinista! and rushed to their turntables thinking they were going to hear London Calling: The Sequel.
The Clash were completely right to branch out in new musical directions and avoid trying to reproduce what they’d done on London Calling. I have no problem with the cornucopia of musical styles that appear on Sandinista!; it’s like strolling through an open air musical bazaar at the meeting point of the four corners of the world. I don’t mind that it’s a triple album, for after all, The Clash had just released what was probably the greatest double album in history, so why not go for three?
The content of Sandinista! will tell you why not. The Clash simply didn’t have the material for six sides. There is an incredible amount of pure filler: dub versions of other tracks on the album, brief ventures into musique concrète and the sounds of little kids singing Clash favorites. The socio-political themes that were the band’s bread-and-butter are still there, but largely presented as boring history lessons or polemical rants in contrast to the biting wit and absurdist humor that characterizes their pre-Sandinista! material. Many of the songs are simply too fucking long and seem to go on forever for no ostensible purpose. There are some great tracks, certainly enough to fill an exceptional single album, and with a bit of work, some of the mis-recorded and sloppily written pieces could have been salvaged for a decent double album.
Fortunately, the band left behind several clues about how Sandinista! would wind up a less-than-satisfying totality. We’ll start with Joe Strummer, who tended to get a little testy when fans and critics attacked the album as a sprawling, unfocused mess:
Joe: Many times I’ve debated with people about what should be on it, what shouldn’t be on it but now, looking back, I can’t separate it. It’s like the layers of an onion: there are some stupid tracks, there are some brilliant tracks. The more I think about it, the happier I am that it is what it is. The fact that it was all thrown down in one go and then released like that makes it doubly outrageous – triply outrageous. I can only say I’m proud of it, warts and all. It’s a magnificent thing and I wouldn’t change it even if I could. And that’s after some soul-searching.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1873-1883). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
Putting aside the ancient truth that an artist cannot objectively assess the value of his or her own work, it’s obvious that Joe treasures the memory of the experience. He spent three straight weeks in the Electric Lady Studios in New York, lodging himself in a roughly-constructed spliff bunker where he could smoke dope and guide the proceedings. I’m glad he had a great time, but too often Sandinista! feels like you’re being forced to watch a slide show of someone else’s entire vacation and listen to them rattle on and on about the funny waiter and the time they locked themselves out of the hotel room. Ha, ha, fuck you and don’t ever invite me over again.
Our second clue comes from Mr. Jones:
By the time we were making Sandinista! we were really experimenting. The whole of Sandinista! is an experiment. It was a continuing development, we were still learning our stuff, taking in influences.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1911-1912). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
Mick had a good time, too, playing with all kinds of musical tools and recording effects. Good for him, but no one, not even Thomas Fucking Edison, produced only successful experiments. There are a few successes on Sandinista! that are breathtakingly successful, but too many should have been left behind to collect mold in the lab.
Back to Strummer for Clue #3:
Joe: The great thing about Sandinista! is that we’d just done a really long tour of Britain and the US and, rather than falling down exhausted and jetting off to opposite ends of the world or something, we were so up for it that we went straight into a studio.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1880-1882). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
This was a mistake. Tour energy doesn’t automatically translate into recording art; live performance and studio recording require different skills and disciplines. The Beatles took seven weeks off before going back into the studio to begin the recording process that resulted in Sgt. Pepper, then took their time creating the finished product. The Beatles also had George Martin around to shape the finished product. Too often Sandinista! sounds like an experience where the museum curator has gone off on holiday and the staff have dragged everything out of the basement and put it on display. Fun for the staff, but not fun for the visitors who have to climb over crates and slog through the crap to find the masterpieces in the maelström. I appreciate the Viva la revolution! spirit of Sandinista!, but by putting all the junk on display The Clash made it equally difficult for the listener to find the material worthy of appreciation.
And there are some very worthy tracks on Sandinista! The sheer diversity of musical styles makes the album interesting in itself; the 180 shifts are exciting, not irritating. Some of the best songs on Sandinista! sound like nothing The Clash had ever done before, demonstrating that genuine progress had indeed taken place.
If you decide to explore Sandinista! let me give you a time-saving tip: Side 6 is pretty much waste of time, so don’t even go there unless you’re suffering from Clash withdrawal. Most of it consists of dub versions of other songs on the album, none of which are the least bit interesting. The version of “Career Opportunities” sung by two little kids won’t make you forget the original. I will say that the piece that serves as the introduction to the five retreads, “Version City,” has a rather appealing, jazz-club style melody, so if you want to play that track, knock yourself out.
That leaves us five sides to explore, so let’s get the fuck on with it!
Sandinista! opens with “The Magnificent Seven,” a track that fits nicely in the now popular genre we know as rap.
Both Strummer and Jones were ravenous musical explorers, forever enamored of the shiny new thing. During this period they’d been spending a whole lot of time in New York City, where the genres of rap and hip-hop were just beginning to emerge. Rap in particular shared the emphasis on social criticism prominent in Clash songs, so their attraction to it makes perfect sense.
To say that I’m not a fan of rap would be the most dramatic understatement I’ve ever made, but I can tolerate “The Magnificent Seven” to a certain degree due to the combination of Joe Strummer’s enthusiastic delivery and the presence of a rhythm section consisting of live human beings. Still, the piece fails to hold my interest because it loses focus, starting out as a depiction of life in the daily grind and ending with a gratuitous parade of historical figures who have only a microscopically faint connection to the original theme. The famous closing line, “News Flash: Vacuum Cleaner Sucks up Budgie,” is just Strummer reading an oddity he found in News of the World, not a mark of poetic inspiration. In terms of making the break with London Calling, “The Magnificent Seven” is a roaring success, she said, in a tone of bemused irony.
I’m not particularly enamored of the next piece either. “Hitsville U. K.” is a duet featuring Mick Jones and then-girlfriend Ellen Foley, who would hit her peak later in the decade by sharing the stage with Meat Loaf. I find the piece rather annoying in a sing-songy sort of way, a feature aggravated by the choice to sing in octaves instead of harmonizing. The third piece, “Junco Partner,” doesn’t grab me either, as I’ve heard the song in various versions from the James Waynes original to Mike Bloomfield’s posthumously-released version, and The Clash version isn’t distinct enough to float my boat. “Ivan Meets G. I. Joe,” featuring Topper Headon on vocals, places the Yanks and the Soviets in a dance competition at Studio 54. Cute, but merely a glancing blow in the struggle against the superpowers.
After four less-than-satisfying listening experiences, The Clash finally get it going with “The Leader,” the shortest track on Sandinista! “The Leader” is an energizing romp devoted to exposing the cultural masquerade in which leader and followers agree that the leader will adopt a façade of moral rectitude in complete denial of the fundamental human truth that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. This agreement initiates a kind of game: the leader tries to avoid getting caught with his pants down while the people wait in gruesome anticipation of a public scandal and all the juicy gossip that follows:
He wore a leather mask for his dinner guests
Totally nude and with deep respect
Proposed a toast to the votes he gets
The feeling of power and the thought of sex!
The people must have something good to read on a Sunday.
Side 1 closes strongly with “Something About England,” an ambitious music hall number where Mick Jones plays the narrator, a fellow out for a nighttime stroll who happens upon a homeless old man, portrayed by Mr. Strummer. Framed by an opening verse that captures the longing of “respected gentlemen” to rid the country of immigrants and create an England for Englishmen, the song unfolds through the old man’s story. The man recounts his life experience in the context of British history between, during and beyond the two world wars, a story that ends with the bitter acknowledgment that despite “strikes an’ famine an’ war,” the British class system remains firmly in place. While class is certainly a central theme of “Something About England,” the old man’s story brings up issues that have relevance far beyond the shores of the British Isles:
The next war began and my ship sailed
With battle orders writ in bed
In five long years of bullets and shells
We left ten million dead
The few returned to old Piccadily
We limped around Leicester Square
The world was busy rebuilding itself
The architects could not care
Those architects remain in power in institutions like the International Monetary Fund, whose emphasis on cold economic structure have left millions across the world struggling while the rich get obscenely richer. “Something About England” is a powerful tale and one of strongest compositions in The Clash catalog.
The second side opens with the most purely beautiful passage of music The Clash ever recorded: the introduction to “Rebel Waltz.” Mick Jones plays a series of ascending quintuplets in 3/4 meter, the guitar set to a clean tone with the amp on gentle reverb. On the second go-round, his guitar is accompanied by a cascade of delightful sounds resembling celeste, harpsichord and piano, ending in a final pass that incorporates something that sounds like a synthesized oboe. When the rebel yell interrupts the magic, I feel a bit piqued, but I’m somewhat comforted when the song proper arrives and continues the waltz structure. The story describes an army of rebels headed for the final curtain, accompanied by a tune that recalls happier times, a tune that is now a sliver of humanity the soldier can take to his grave. The message of “Rebel Waltz” may be the classic “we fought the good fight” that seems part and parcel of failed left-wing rebellions, but it’s still a well-constructed and executed piece.
My favorite track on Sandinista! is probably the most far out piece on the album, “Look Here,” a piece that falls within a genre I just invented called Post-Modern Be-bop Rock. The piece opens with party chatter channeled through various effects that create the sound you hear when you’re totally bombed and can’t tell the difference between the voices around you and the voices in your head. The voices are upper-crust, and what they’re saying in the offhand repartee of the smart set seems perfectly phantasmagorical:
What d’you think you’re
Gonna be doin’ next year?
No lie . . .
How you know you’re not
Gonna up and die?
No doubt . . .
Soon enough your friends
Will find you out
Take care . . .
You know you might not have
Too much time to spare
At that point a modified jazz combo playing at supersonic speed comes out of nowhere and buries most of the conversation, a frantic jam featuring a lineup of piano, bass, drums, vibes, harmonica and electric guitar. From there it’s nonstop riffing on the basic theme interspersed with snatches of posh wisdom, echoing the dynamics of the period in jazz when rich white people would go slumming at Harlem’s Cotton Club. The music is not Duke Ellington, however, it’s jazz-tinged R&B played at be-bop speed with a touch of Cream. The band is stunningly tight, in large part due to Topper Headon’s remarkable range of musical styles. This sucker cooks, daddio! Combined with the disturbing bits of upper-class blather, “Look Here” is a masterpiece of the surreal.
Paul Simonon’s “Crooked Beat” doubles down on the bizarre with a piece that limps rather than moves but is curiously engaging due to the extreme contrast between lyrics and music. The lyrics describe a club scene of “rocking bass and drum,” but the supporting music is played at a tortoise-like tempo with random drum punctuation. Although I think the piece goes on a bit too long, it’s so wonderfully weird that it’s a definite keeper.
Now we suddenly shift to the sounds of what would later become known as BritPop for the jolly melodic tune, “Somebody Got Murdered.” Huh? The contrast in styles here emphasizes the ho-hum reactions to the daily reports of human beings killing other human beings. Another difficult commute, another day at the office, another murder . . . what’s on the radio? Oh, this sounds like a nice tune:
Somebody got murdered
His name cannot be found
A small stain on the pavement
They’ll scrub it off the ground
We don’t even care who got murdered: the victim is a nameless “somebody,” oh well, bad luck for him. Even the appalling finality of death (“Somebody got murdered/Goodbye, for keeps, forever”) fails to penetrate the collective consciousness. “Somebody Got Murdered” takes the stance that until we begin to react to every murder of every human being as an outrage, an unthinkable wrong, there is little hope for humanity, and the somebodies will continue to pile up on the streets, in the schools, in the nightclubs . . . anywhere. And the somebody could be a loved one . . . or it could be you. Wake the fuck up, people!
“One More Time” shifts the style to Jamaican, another compelling piece marked by Joe Strummer’s strongest vocal on Sandinista! Simonon and Headon sustain the relatively high-tempo swaying beat, and despite the sparse but effective lyrical description of life in the ghetto, you find yourself swaying to the music like you were partying at a summer festival. What follows is a dub version of the same song, a deflating experience after hearing six keepers in a row.
“Lightning Strikes” is another rap. Sorry, I’ve met my rap quota for the year. Check back with me next year.
“Up in Heaven” is another Mick Jones upbeat pop rocker decrying the construction of public housing “estates,” tall, bleak, poorly-built towers with prison-like accommodations. The public housing debacle is a worldwide phenomenon, an urban planning scheme that condemns the residents to low-income, low-status lives that foster seething anger that eventually must be taken out on someone or something. When you live in shit, you feel like shit, a fact that the bureaucrats can’t be bothered with:
The wives hate their husbands and their husbands don’t care
Their children daub slogans to prove they lived there
A giant pipe organ up in the air
You can’t live in a home which should not have been built
By the bourgeoise clerks who bear no guilt
When the wind hits this building this building it tilts
One day it will surely fall to the ground . . .
Once again The Clash have managed to shine the light on a problem that affects millions of lives every day while the relatively wealthy go about their business.
“Corner Soul” is a roots reggae number that could have benefitted from more time in the mixing sessions: the basic arrangement is fine, but the mix feels crowded due to reverb bleed, a common problem in the 1980’s. The melody is one of the strongest on the album, and all the parts are well-executed: Topper Headon’s funereal drumming, Joe Strummer’s passionate vocal and the haunting echoes of the supporting female vocalists. The song is prescient in warning about the race-fueled summer riots that would bedevil Britain the following year, and there’s a genuine sense of urgency in Joe Strummer’s vocal reflecting that concern. It’s followed by the upbeat, joyous reggae of “Let’s Go Crazy” that encourages residents to prepare for the “shields and helmets” with “bricks and bottles.”
“If Music Could Talk” is Joe Strummer musing from the spliff bunker over a soft jazz background, a track that seems much longer than the advertised 4:36 run time. Joe then leaps out of his bunker to deliver a sermon in “The Sound of the Sinners.” This was allegedly Elvis Costello’s favorite Clash song. It’s not mine. I think the concept was good, as Joe Strummer was a natural for the part, but the lyrics fail to provide the expected impact.
Though the lyrics are rather skimpy, Mick Jones captured the frantic fear of the black man when faced with the irrationality of racism in the guise of law enforcement in “Police on My Back.” Opening with Mick’s guitar duplicating the sound of a siren, the song is an intense burst of energy with superb drum work from Topper Headon. It’s followed by “Midnight Log,” a short ramble from Joe Strummer with a few good lines about corporate crime that you can pluck out of the muddle, then by “The Equalizer,” a peculiar piece with a catchy chorus and a whole lot of silly noises that goes on for an eternity.
Unnecessary length also afflicts “The Call Up,” a draft resistance anthem without much substance. It’s kind of a warm-up for “Washington Bullets,” the song that Rolling Stone called “the heart of the album.”
I kind of agree with them in an ironic sort of way.
Look. No one needs to tell me about the fundamental evil and hypocrisy of the government of the United States of America. I was raised by left-wing anti-war hippies who experienced the empire-building, the repression of The Left and the utter silence of the American people regarding the outrages of military and intelligence cabals embedded in the bureaucracy. I had a vague memory, since confirmed, that my dad frequently replaced the villains in the fairy tales he’d read me at bedtime with “the military-industrial complex.” My reaction to Obama’s recent agreement to sell arms to Vietnam sparked in me the same sense of outrage my parents felt when Reagan and his pals sneakily funded the Contras. American foreign policy is designed for one thing and one thing alone: to maintain superpower status to make the world safe for American corporations.
So, I don’t need the history lesson of “Washington Bullets,” but even worse, The Clash really don’t make much of a point beyond “America sucks . . . and oh, by the way, the Soviets, Chinese and British suck, too.” The language is not even remotely poetic; it’s dogma you can read in any third-rate leftist newspaper. “Washington Bullets” is a yawner on an album that has too many yawners. You can add “Broadway” to that list, a jazz-based number about a boxer (they’d been watching way too much Scorsese during this period) featuring a promising narrative that unravels pretty quickly, fading into the sound of a child singing parts of “The Guns of Brixton.” Yawn.
Most reviews I’ve read have bitched about the insertion of Tymon Dogg’s “Lose This Skin” on a Clash album. Tymon and Joe Strummer had roomed and busked together before Sandinista! and Tymon and Joe would link up again when Tymon joined The Mescaleros. Most see his presence on Sandinista! as Joe doing a favor for an old pal.
That’s funny, because I find “Lose This Skin” one of the best compositions on Sandinista! The combination of his androgynous voice, sharp violin attack and half-step moves in the chord structure create a magnificent listening experience, a superb balance of tension and resolution. The argument that it doesn’t belong on Sandinista! is silly—shit, anything could have wound up on Sandinista!
“Charlie Don’t Surf” gets a lot of attention because it’s based on a line from Apocalypse Now, the Coppola epic that transplanted Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from the jungles of Africa to the jungles of Vietnam. I find both song and movie dull and obvious. “Mensforth Hill” is The Clash version of “Revolution (No. 9)” in economy size. “Junkie Slip” is simply awful, while “Kingston Advice” suffers from an overabundance of echo effect applied to the vocal. “The Street Parade” is a nice pop tune “enhanced” by a flood of off-tempo effects, half of which could have been stripped without losing the intended effect of sound in motion.
As noted above, skip it.
Sandinista! has been compared favorably to The White Album. Since I don’t care for The White Album, I consider that a backhanded compliment. A few years ago, I created my own version of The White Album with what I considered to be worthy tracks, but I had to add “Hey Jude” to bring the total to twelve. Sandinista! tops that with room to spare:
- The Magnificent Seven
- The Leader
- Something about England
- Rebel Waltz
- Look Here
- The Crooked Beat
- Somebody Got Murdered
- One More Time
- Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)
- Corner Soul
- Let’s Go Crazy
- Police on My Back
- Lose This Skin
- The Street Parade
- Mensforth Hill
There—I’ve allowed for sufficient diversity and put Tymon Dogg in his proper place. I’ve even permitted one (and only one) rap! Topper Headon said the thought a single album would have been a masterpiece, and while his version may differ from my version, I think his perspective was spot on. Sandinista! was hardly a step backward for The Clash—the great tracks proved they could still deliver the goods. More discipline in the mixing and selection process would have given us an album so fantastic that no one would have questioned the claim that The Clash were the only band that mattered.
Alas, the classic lineup would only get together for one more go at it, making Sandinista! an experience to be treasured, warts and all.