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.”
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
And if you cross your fingers
Rehabilitation . . .
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
In the generation
Clear as winter ice
This is your paradiseThere 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?
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
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.
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.
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.