Classic Music Review: Combat Rock by The Clash

Combat Rock

It took me a long time come up with a pithy word or phrase to describe Combat Rock and the mixed feelings I have about the last Clash album featuring the classic lineup. The phrase finally hit me as I pondered the record’s highs and low.

Combat Rock suffers from a musical form of bipolar disorder, swinging from highs to lows with little warning. It contains some of their best songs and some of their worst. In that sense, it’s similar to What’s the Story Morning Glory, where some of Oasis’ most timeless works are like gems you have to pick out of the garbage.

Since The Clash were deep into the disintegration process by this time, the unevenness of the album shouldn’t come as a surprise. What may be surprising is that Combat Rock turned out to be their biggest-selling album ever. When you consider that the list of best-selling albums in 1982 included Paul McCartney’s Tug of War, Foreigner 4, Asia and Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage, you realize that 1982 folks didn’t have all that much to listen to, making it easier to understand why Combat Rock sold as well as it did.

Even off-day Clash is better than most.

The background of the album is well-known to Clash fans. Feeling the band was adrift after Sandinista, Joe Strummer convinced the others to bring back Bernie “Complete Control” Rhodes to manage things. Strummer would admit later that this was a mistake, but I think he was too hard on himself. When things seem to be going adrift in life it’s a natural human tendency to try to go backwards instead of forwards, to try to recover the thing that was lost. We hit a losing streak in love and seek out old flames. We fuck up our finances and promise to stick to the budget. Shit, the entire Republican Party has built and maintained a political movement on the basis of trying to bring back the good ‘ol days of white privilege! In this case, Joe Strummer was trying to balance the creative side with some practical discipline, not an unreasonable proposition. Sandinista was a lousy road map that pointed the band in a thousand different directions and they desperately needed someone to help them pare down the possibilities and maximize their impact.

It didn’t work because problems were building up inside the band: Topper Headon’s growing drug dependence and growing differences between Mick Jones and the others. Paul Simonon and Mick Jones got into a two-hour pissing match over the bass level on “Know Your Rights,” and Mick and Joe were headed in different musical directions. There are times when I listen to Combat Rock and I sense that Joe Strummer’s vocals contain too much forced energy, as if he’s trying to sing over all that interpersonal noise.

The other noticeable weakness in Combat Rock was carried over from Sandinista! The socio-political critiques have become too obvious, lacking both insight and wit. The great Clash songs always contained an element of surprise—unexpected perspectives on age-old problems that shone the light on the outrageous absurdities in the many things we take for granted. They said things that needed to be said but said them in a way that wasn’t the same-o, same-o crap we get from politicians. On Sandinista! and Combat Rock, much of the criticism is sadly predictable, leading listeners to nod their heads in agreement but never experience the “aha!” moment that truly raises consciousness and inspires a person to act.

This tendency towards preachy polemicizing is demonstrated on the first track, “Know Your Rights.” I agree passionately with every word that comes out of Joe Strummer’s mouth, but he’s just telling me what I already know. The song presents three fundamental rights that should be assumed as natural and essential to every human being on earth, but all come with “gotchas.”

Number 1

You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a crime
Unless it was done by a
Policeman or aristocrat . . .

And Number 2

You have the right to food money
Providing of course you
Don’t mind a little
Investigation, humiliation
And if you cross your fingers
Rehabilitation . . .

Number 3

You have the right to free speech
As long as you’re not
Dumb enough to actually try it . . .

Okay, I get it: our basic rights are nothing more than slogans, bricks in a structural façade designed to keep those in power in power. And in the end, you’ll learn that your true rights are those contained in the Miranda warning as they cart your ass off to jail.

You have the right to remain silent
You are warned that anything you say
Can and will be taken down
And used as evidence against you

There really isn’t anything in “Know Your Rights” that wasn’t said with a thousand times more power and insight in “Clampdown.” That song burns into your conscience and creates a vivid picture of the methods of oppression. “Know Your Rights” reminds me of the stuff I used to read in left-wing alternative rags of San Francisco: yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it, but you’re boring the fuck out of me.

Don’t tell me what I need to know—move me! Let me discover it for myself!

“Car Jamming” takes another approach to lyric writing: wandering about aimlessly in the hope something comes up. This is the first of several songs containing references to the after-effects of the Vietnam War, but after describing the plight of the legless veteran suffering from the after-effects of Agent Orange, the song becomes an unintelligible mass of imagery, rather like the Book of Revelations. Ellen Foley makes an appearance as payback to boyfriend Jones and the rest of The Clash for their roles as supporting actors on her album Spirit of St. Louis, but to no great effect.

Things pick up a bit with the classic rock tune that became their first and only #1 hit in the U. K., “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” The Clash didn’t do many relationship songs and they did even fewer relationship songs loaded with sexual tension, so the song has a unique place in their catalog. The story behind the story is that the song could have been more blatantly erotic had not clean-up-the-mess producer Glyn Johns demanded Mick Jones change the line “on your front or on your back” to “so if you want me off your back,” fearing radio station backlash.

Stupid old fart.

While I enjoy the song, its sexiness is seriously tempered by the simultaneous Spanish translation. In the first place, it takes up too much space in the sound field, adding noise to a song that demands a lean approach of guitar, bass and drums. In the second place, what was the fucking point? “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” has never made it into my fuck playlists because the bilingual intrusion interferes with the rhythm and because my Spanish partner breaks into the giggles when she hears the pidgin Spanish.

Nothing kills the mood like the giggles.

Perhaps the original version of the lyrics to “Rock the Casbah” might have given that song a spot in my erotic rotation. Kosmo Vinyl described Topper Headon’s original lyrics as “very, very pornographic.”

If anyone can point me in the direction of a black market copy, please do so.

Topper had composed the music and put together the rhythm and piano tracks all by his little ol’ lonesome, but Joe Strummer had other ideas for the storyline. Bernie Rhodes had complained about some of the other tracks on Combat Rock (“Does everything have to be as long as a raga?”), and after letting that repressive comment simmer for awhile, Joe started to explore a more recent and public form of repression: the Ayatollah’s ban on disco music.

Frankly, I think that was the best idea the Ayatollah ever had.

But even morons have the right to engage in dysfunctional forms of artistic expression, and Joe’s lyrics are more about rock than disco. When I first heard the song I absolutely hated it, largely for the 1980’s production methods that drenched everything in heavy doses of reverb. Still, I did laugh at the fade lines, “He thinks it’s not Kosher” and “Fundamentally he can’t take it,” and after a while I grew to like the song. It is a catchy number and both the lead and backing vocals are executed in spirited good fun. And the lyrics are a hoot:

By order of the Prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out
The electric camel drum
The local guitar picker
Got his guitar picking thumb
As soon as the Sharif had cleared the square
They began to wail

Although much of Combat Rock was clearly geared towards the American market, I don’t think Joe Strummer had the slightest idea that “Rock the Casbah” would feed into deep American prejudices arising from the hostage crisis and he was absolutely flabbergasted when the U. S. military used the slogan “rock the Casbah” as a battle cry during Desert Storm. As I was listening to the song in preparation for the review, the thought that kept running through my mind was that if The Clash had released this song in 2016, they’d be running for their lives from an ISIS death squad.

So, yes, “Rock the Casbah” is a song with a message that should be taken very seriously, as the forces of oppression masquerading in the cloak of religious fundamentalism—Christian, Muslim and Jewish—are still on the march.

The Clash had been spending a lot of time in the States, so the emphasis on American themes in Combat Rock was not a form of pandering, but observations on the world they were experiencing. The band was in New York when the controversial shooting of Guardian Angel Frank Melvin took place, and Joe Strummer grabbed an envelope from the stationery kit provided by the Iroquois Hotel and started writing. The story of “Red Angel Dragnet” mingles aspects of the shooting with lines from the film Taxi Driver, but never makes a coherent connection between the work of the unarmed Angels and paranoid vigilante Travis Bickle. Kosmo Vinyl does a credible job as the Bickle stand-in, but “Red Angel Dragnet” is a fragmented listening experience.

In contrast, “Straight to Hell” is a masterpiece, a haunting, agonizing poem about the human hatred and prejudice. The music is a dark bossa nova with minimal instrumentation where Topper Headon’s mastery of rhythm is on full display, balancing relentlessness with sufficient variation. The first verse deals with the scene in Britain during the early years of the Iron Lady, when steel mills rusted and the people thrown out of work often chose to vent their anger at immigrants (with tacit encouragement from the government):

As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust
Water froze
In the generation
Clear as winter ice
This is your paradise
There ain’t no need for ya
There ain’t no need for ya
Go straight to hell, boys, go straight to hell, boys

The second verse speaks to the wholesale abandonment of Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers, kids who would be forever afflicted with an oscillating sense of identity:

When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say papa papa papa papa-san take me home
See me got photo photo
Photograph of you
Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Lemme tell ya ’bout your blood bamboo kid
It ain’t Coca-Cola it’s rice

The third verse returns to a common Strummer theme: the debilitating effects of drug addiction in the underclasses, where going straight to hell takes on the meaning of “suicide aided and abetted by the system.” The closing lines are intensely moving, as they speak poignantly about how our intolerance and fear of differences shuts down any access to human wisdom. Given the intensity of the struggles concerning immigrants and refugees today—fueled by unscrupulous, small-minded politicians who exploit the fears of the populace in order to secure power—these lines remain sadly relevant:

Can you cough it up loud and strong?
The immigrants
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
Any hemisphere
No man’s land and there ain’t no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived round here

Go straight to hell, boys
Go straight to hell, boys

The emotional impact of the final rendition of the chorus lies in the tone of utter helplessness: there seems to be no answer, no hope. It leaves the listener feeling troubled, disturbed—as we should be. Joe Strummer deserved to be proud of this one:

I’ll never forget coming out of the Times Square subway exit, just before midnight, into a hundred billion people, and I knew we’d just done something great.

Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 2174-2175). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.

It’s really a drag that “Straight to Hell” had to be followed by something as inane as “Overpowered by Funk,” a hodgepodge of classic Clash themes set to a cheesy funk beat and dragged down to oblivion by an idiotic rap consisting of the usual rhyming blather that often characterizes that so-called genre. I rather like “Atom Tan” from a musical perspective, with the call-and-response vocal pairing and the driving beat, but the lyrics are really just more babble. “Sean Flynn” is supposed to immortalize the missing-in-action journalist, but if the song weren’t titled “Sean Flynn,” you’d have no idea that the very skimpy lyrics had anything to do with him.

“Ghetto Defendant?” Oh, for fuck’s sake. Allen Ginsberg? Allen Ginsberg was a poet who rose to fame not on the strength of his poetry but because of a lawsuit. Have you ever read “Howl?” It’s a poem about people “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.” Just like Allen Ginsberg! The only explanation I have for the appearance of his characterless, intrusive, grating voice on this track is that perhaps The Clash were trying to build artistic cred. That hypothesis is supported by the verse devoted to Rimbaud, which plays fast and loose with the history of my favorite poet, making it seem that his poetry set the entire Paris Commune in motion (“his words like flamethrowers”). The truth is the Paris Commune took place two years before he published Une Saison en Enfer in 1873. The experience of the Commune certainly influenced him, but really, he was too busy drinking absinthe, smoking hash and buttfucking Verlaine to become the spokesperson for socialist radicals.

Harrumph!

Combat Rock dies a slow death with two meh songs: “Inoculated City” and “Death is a Star.” The first deals with blind obedience in the chain of command. It features tortured syntax (“The bulletins that steady come in say those familiar words at the top of the hour”) and the insertion of the television commercial for the toilet cleaning product 2000 Flushes. “Death Is a Star” is at least musically interesting, mingling spoken word with semi-melodic passages over jazz-tinged piano and faux strings. Joe Strummer explained that the lyrics made the point that the cinema hall is the modern locale for public executions, where the populace flocks to see both on-screen and film career deaths. If true, the song could have been strengthened with a reference to Tyburn or Newgate, where hangings of the rich and famous did boffo box office.

In the end, Combat Rock was not The Clash’s finest hour, a forced effort that exposed the cracks in the interpersonal foundation. While I may quibble a bit with Joe Strummer’s retrospective view of Sandinista!, his reflections on Combat Rock were spot on:

Joe: When we got back to England we went to a studio in West London and began working on the material that would become Combat Rock. Then we went back to New York to record it, at Electric Ladyland studio. But by this time we were all getting pretty tired because all this stuff had gone down in the space of four or five years and we’d released hours and hours of long-playing material at a rate that doesn’t bear thinking about in this day and age . . . I think we should have taken a year off, but we didn’t think in those terms then. If we’d recharged our batteries the band would have still been going today, perhaps.

Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 2111-2117). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.

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