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.
They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant let’s make a lotsa mon-ee
An’ worry about it later
—From “Complete Control,” by The Clash
Once their groundbreaking début album hit the shelves, The Clash kept a frenetic tour schedule, tightening their chops and making a name for themselves as a must-see live act. In between gigs, they also managed to release some of their most iconic singles: “Complete Control,” “Clash City Rockers,” and the game-changing “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” their first original ska composition. Despite all this activity, the music press started grumbling about the absence of a second album, and manager Bernie Rhodes was feeling the heat from the moguls at CBS, particularly the suits in the U. S. A.
After refusing to release The Clash in the United States, CBS said they wanted a “cleaner sound” from The Clash on their second album, something they felt would appeal to the sensitive ears of American audiences. To that end, they gave Bernie a list of acceptable producers, and Bernie circled the name of Sandy Perlman. At first glance, one might reasonably assume that Bernie reached his decision through the eeny-meeny-miny-moe method, since Mr. Perlman’s claim to production fame involved Blue Öyster Cult, whose style oscillated between hard rock and metal and whose lyrics reflected no social consciousness whatsoever (unless you’re into highly imaginative interpretations of “Godzilla”). He certainly didn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d want to produce a punk band whose primary virtues were unbridled energy and intelligent, penetrating, socially-relevant lyrics.
The mystery was cleared up through a little research. Perlman didn’t just produce Blue Öyster Cult, he created them. A more accurate entry on his curriculum vitae would contain the phrase, “Mr. Perlman was responsible for the creation, production and complete control of the band.” Once I realized Perlman was the wizard behind the curtain, it all began to make sense:
Mick: Complete Control was one of Bernie’s favourite phrases and he’d said to us once that he had to have complete control of the situation, and that stuck with us.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1282-1283). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
Bernie’s selection of Perlman was like-hires-like, two kindred spirits united in an ignoble effort to tame The Clash and make them more acceptable to American consumers.
Bernie, Perlman and CBS wanted to control The Clash because they felt uncomfortable with the hard edges of punk and believed that homogenizing the sound would sell more records and make more money. They thought they were in complete control, but were actually in complete denial. American fans didn’t want a homogenized version of The Clash—the import version of The Clash was selling like hotcakes.
The first time I heard Give ‘Em Enough Rope, I felt a wave of disappointment. Perlman’s production felt suffocating, like The Clash were hired to provide the soundtrack to a claustrophobe’s nightmare. He buried Joe Strummer’s distinctive voice in the mix because he didn’t like his singing. The rough edges were sanded down, the spillover of spontaneous energy contained. At times the bass levels fall so low that I wonder if Paul Simonon left the studio to take a piss. That’s not an implausible theory:
Paul: That was the most boring situation ever, making that album. It was so nit-picking and a complete contrast to making the first album. There was no spontaneity and the only way I could get any kind of relief from the boredom of recording was to get some films from the Imperial War Museum and have them back-projected as we recorded, just to get some excitement going. So we had it running and I was enjoying it . . . but Pearlman then said he could hear the projector so we had to stop it.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1537-1550). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
That’s a helluva lot of bad juju to overcome, but despite the incongruous production and ugly vibes, the irrepressible energy of The Clash comes through. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is a great album despite the production, not because of it. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took their songwriting to the next level, the arrival of Topper Headon was a definite upgrade, and when you can hear Paul Simonon, it’s obvious that he worked like a bastard to raise his game. Once I overcame my initial aversion to the limp production, Give ‘Em Enough Rope became one of my favorite albums.
“Safe European Home” is a fabulous opener, an all-out punk bash with a splash of mambo-like, ass-shaking syncopation in the dominant rhythm. The vocal interplay between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is terribly exciting, Paul Simonon displays growing confidence on the bass, and holy shit, can Topper Headon fucking play or what? The story is based on a Jones and Strummer jaunt to Jamaica, where they experienced what it’s like when white people go to places where they are in the minority, where they are viewed with suspicion and targeted as patsies.
Now they got the sun, an’ they got the palm trees
They got the weed, an’ they got the taxis
Whoa, the harder they come, n’ the home of ol’ bluebeat
Yes I’d stay an’ be a tourist but I can’t take the gunplay
I went to the place where every white face is an
Invitation to robbery
An’ sitting here in my safe European home
I don’t wanna go back there again
Given Joe Strummer’s participation in the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot and his vocal support of black immigrants in “White Riot,” the experience in Jamaica must have been doubly uncomfortable. Even so, uncomfortable experiences are often the best learning experiences, and this unfortunate trip to Jamaica wouldn’t stop Strummer and Jones from exploring Jamaican music even further.
“English Civil War” is an update of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” the old American Civil War ditty based on “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye,” an even older Irish air where the Johnny of the song comes home from war as thoroughly sliced up as The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We’d sing the original almost every year at the Irish-side-of-the-family New Year’s Eve extravaganza, trading verses and laughing at the exaggerated lilt of the family members born outside the Emerald Isle. My favorite line in the original is “Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg/Ye’ll have to be put out with a bowl to beg.”
God, I love Irish humor!
Seriously, most scholars believe that the original was intended to be humorous and only became an anti-war song because the British kept forcing the Irish to fight the empire’s wars for them. What Joe Strummer did in “English Civil War” was take it a step further and turn it into a anti-war song about a dystopian future, a future where the racists of the National Front are on the march. The Clash are positively ripping on this track, with Paul Simonon and Topper driving the rhythm and Mick Jones delivering a scorching solo. Most remakes of traditional songs are as boring as fuck, but “English Civil War” is an intensely stimulating exception.
Topper Headon opens “Tommy Gun” with a pattern of snare hits that mimic the sound of an assault weapon, the perfect lead-in to a blistering song about the 70’s model of Middle Eastern terrorism exported from Palestine. Although this powerful anti-violence message would have fallen on the deaf ears of those murderous pricks had they ever bothered to listen to it, Joe Strummer’s insights into the twisted motivations and sick rewards of terrorism are timeless. Terrorism has proven to be not only costly not only in terms of the loss of innocent human life, but a complete failure when measured by return on investment:
Tommy gun, you’ll be dead when your war is won
Tommy gun, but did you have to gun down everyone?
I can see it’s kill or be killed
A nation of destiny has got to be fulfilled
Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it!
But they didn’t get it—there is still no Palestinian state and the terrorism has only made that possibility much more unlikely. If terrorists have no chance of advancing the cause, what’s in it for them? Fifteen fucking minutes of fame:
Tommy gun, you can be a hero in an age of none
Tommy gun, I’m cutting out your picture from page one
I’m gonna get a jacket just like yours
An’ give my false support to your cause
Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it!
The final verse abandons the pattern of the previous verses to make the essential argument . . . an argument unlikely to persuade a professional psychopath, but one that reaffirms the value later expressed in “Know Your Rights,” that “you have the right not to be killed.”
Okay, so let’s agree about the price
And make it one jet airliner for ten prisoners
Boats an’ tanks and planes, it’s your game
Kings an’ queens an’ generals learn your name
I see all the innocents, the human sacrifice
And if death comes so cheap
Then the same goes for life!
Played at maximum strength, “Tommy Gun” is one of The Clash’s most powerful works, and horribly relevant to our world today.
The Clash give us a break from the ugly side of life with a perfectly delightful song about one of the biggest LSD busts in history. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is a paean to the surveillance officer who lent the undercover operation its code name, Ms. Julie Taylor. In Operation Julie, Ms. Taylor played the role of young housewife to fake hubby Detective Sergeant Vince Castle, and with her thick dark hair parted down the middle looked just the type to attract attention from LSD salesmen. The naïve idealists who had been manufacturing LSD by the boatload to a.) transform society through acid and b.) make a shitload of money, fell into the trap:
It’s “Lucy in the Sky” and all kinds of apple pie
She giggle at the screen ’cause it looks so green
There’s carpets on the pavements
And feathers in her eye
But sooner or later her new friends will realise
That Julie’s been working for the Drug Squad
Julie’s been working for the Drug Squad
The song is an absolute gas, thanks in large part to the tightness of the Simonon-Headon rhythm section. The song also features Sandy Perlman’s greatest contribution to the proceedings: having Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist Allan Lanier join in on the piano to add a rollicking, barrelhouse flavor to the mix.
“Julie” is followed by “Last Gang in Town,” a rocker with fabulous syncopation that catalogues the various and sundry gangs of the era and their absurd determination to fight to the death for whatever meaningless shit gangs fight for. The shift to the minor key on the bridge balances the simple chording in the verses, adding a touch a darkness to the aural imagery.
“Guns on the Roof” opens with a slightly modified version of the intro to The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” While the title may have been influenced by the incident involving Topper Headon and Paul Simonon getting hassled by the Metropolitan Police for shooting at pigeons with an air gun on the roof of their rehearsal building, the content of the song is about the madness of gun-related violence in all its ugly forms:
They torture all the women and children
Then they’ve put the men to the gun
‘Cos across the human frontier
Freedom’s always on the run
Guns guns a-shaking in terror
Guns guns killing in error
Guns guns guilty hands
Guns guns shatter the lands
As someone who abandoned her homeland in large part due to the gun-related madness that pervades the United States, it’s impossible for me to be objective about this song. I find guns terrifying, not because I live in deathly fear of getting blown away by some nut, but because of what they symbolize: the willingness of human beings to kill other human beings and to continuously develop new forms of weaponry to make it easier to kill other human beings. Sick, sicker and sickest.
One of the catchiest tunes on Give ‘Em Enough Rope explores the strange dynamics of drug users. “Drug Stabbing Time” is an ironically energetic bash satirizing the paranoiac orientation of people who live in constant fear of the cops and of other drug users. The explosive introduction featuring Mick Jones’ distorted power chords and Topper Headon’s dramatic punctuation is perfectly designed to pull your ass out of your chair and into the mosh pit. The middle section demonstrates that The Clash were absolute masters of dynamics. The song moves like a bat out of hell until the band brings it down just a tad after the sax-enhanced instrumental passage. They return to full bash for a couple of lines then shift to stop time with hard power chords to raise listener anticipation, and in the far distance you hear Topper building steam like a runaway freight train until the band just fucking explodes. God damn, I feel like slamming into a nice, hard body right fucking now! Bruises! I need bruises!
I’ll put my sadomasochistic tendencies on the back burner for a moment and move on to “Stay Free,” one of the most unusual nostalgia songs ever written. Mick Jones reminisces about the good old days at school where he and his pal fucked with teachers and students, eventually getting themselves thrown out to pursue a life of dancing, laughing, fighting, shooting pool and smoking. At a certain point in their story, Mick takes up music while his mate is nabbed for theft and sent to the hoosegow. Unlike most white people who want nothing to do with the riffraff once they’ve made it in the material world, Mick makes a ringing statement of loyalty and the continuing presence of shared values:
When you lot get out
Were gonna hit the town
We’ll burn it fuckin’ down
To a cinder
Mick sings “we’ll burn it fuckin’ down” with obvious delight and commitment. When the man says, “we’ll burn it fuckin’ down,” he fuckin’ means it! The last verse is incredibly touching, an undying statement of the meaning of friendship:
Cos years have passed and things have changed
And I move anyway I wanna go
I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home
An’ I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cos I knew where you would be
An’ if you’re in the crown tonight
Have a drink on me
But go easy . . . step lightly . . . stay free
In an unusual moment of clarity on the part of the producer, the song’s forward movement is driven primarily by Paul Simonon’s bass: deep, filling, rhythmic and melodic. Although The Clash play the song with full intensity, the even mix of major and minor chords soften the impact enough to allow the emotional content of the lyrics shine through.
“Cheapskates” is a big fuck you to critics and fans who refused to let The Clash be the pretty regular guys they were. Joe Strummer sings this sucker with blistering resentment, with a tone of “go fuck yourselves” pervading every single note:
Just because we’re in a group
You think we’re stinking rich
‘N we all got model girls
Shedding every stitch
‘N You think the cocaine’s flowing
Like a river up our noses
‘N every sea will part for us
Like the red one did for Moses
Well I hope you make it one day
Just like you always said you would some day
And I’ll get out my money and make a bet
That I’ll be seein’ you down the launderette
Give ‘Em Enough Rope closes with “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts),” a punk update of “All the Young Dudes,” a song Mick Jones was very familiar with from his days following Mott the Hoople on the concert circuit. The message is pretty much the same message we’ve heard from other disillusioned rockers from The Stones to The Kinks to Traffic, but, shit, nobody tells it quite like The Clash:
Everybody wants to bum a ride
On the rock ‘n’ roller coaster
And we went out
Got our name in small print on a poster
Of course we got a manager
Though he ain’t the mafia
A contract is a contract
When they get ’em out on yer
You gotta drag yourself to work
Drug yourself to sleep
You’re dead from the neck up
By the middle of the week
Face front you got the future shining
Like a piece of gold
But I swear as we get closer
It look more like a lump of coal
But it’s better than the factory
Now that’s no place to waste your youth
I worked there for a week once
I luckily got the boot
The advice to all the young punks (and cunts) is to laugh and live for the moment, whatever your lot in life. “All the Young Punks” is one of the most melodic songs on the album, a melody strengthened by some superb spot harmonizing on the part of Strummer and Jones. This is The Clash, though, so the song rocks hard enough to keep the more energetically-oriented listeners (like me!) completely engaged. I have to confess that I start feeling sad when they get to the fade and Joe and Mick babble on in the background over the dominant chord riff . . . I want MORE!
In Give ‘Em Enough Rope, The Clash defied all the naysayers and management control freaks to create a more than worthy follow-up their maiden album. The crammed tour schedule did for them what the Reeperbahn did for The Beatles—forced them to get tighter and begin exploring more interesting musical and lyrical ideas. The experience was also a lesson to them about how “complete control” manifests itself in the filthy world of the music business, and in the intervening period they’d fire Bernie Rhodes and choose their own producer for the next album: a complete wacko by the name of Guy Stevens, who through unconventional methods indicating the likely presence of a psychological disorder, encouraged the band to let it all fucking out, put all their chips on the table and try to create nothing less than the best rock ‘n’ roll record ever made.
You want more? Man, are you about to get MORE!