I’m not much of a celebrity hound, so I don’t often cry when I hear the news of a celebrity’s passing. I may take some time to reflect on their contributions to human culture, which in turn may move me to tears, but I hardly ever cry when I first hear the news. The process of taking your average human being and transforming them into a celebrity is an act of distortion, and if there’s one quality I prize above all in relationships, it’s authenticity. I don’t know how to relate to a distortion.
Oddly enough, I do cry when I hear of the deaths of innocent people I’ve never met, so this isn’t “I have to know you to give a shit about you.” I can relate to people who aren’t distorted through the prism of fame; it’s harder to see the real person behind any celebrity, given the filters of publicity and hype.
The one time I did cry from the get-go on hearing the sad news was when I learned of Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002. I was in LAX waiting for the home-for-the-holidays flight when I overheard a conversation between two fellow travelers sitting behind me. I spun around and interrupted them with, “What did you say about Joe Strummer?” and one of them replied, “He died. It was on the news this morning.” The shock caused me to spin violently away from them and burst into tears. I remember people looking at me with concern or annoyance, their misshapen faces contorted through a cascade of tears. The crying jag continued through the boarding process and throughout the flight. I looked so perfectly pathetic that the airline attendants offered me free booze, without bothering to check my ID (I’d only just turned twenty-one).
I’ve reflected on my reaction from time to time, especially when other famous musical artists have passed into the great beyond. When I learned of the deaths of Bowie and Prince, I was very upset but didn’t shed any tears until I listened to their music and appreciated the extent of the loss. The fundamental difference is that Bowie and Prince seemed “larger than life,” while Joe Strummer always felt real and accessible to me. If I had run into Joe Strummer in a bar somewhere, I can imagine plopping my ass on the stool next to his and immediately engaging in delightful conversation on a wide range of subjects while we smoked up a storm. This was a man who studiously avoided the ridiculous trappings of stardom and who voluntarily took a cut in his royalties to fulfill his vision of Sandinista! He wrote and sung about things that mattered to me and validated my self-image as a common citizen of the world who cares about that world and the people in it. He poked fun at pretense, challenged unthinking authority and stood up for those left behind by unfeeling bureaucracies and politicians. Joe Strummer was the living validation of some of my most cherished values.
But more than anything else, it was the spirit of the man that made him so very, very special. From a technical perspective, he was never a great singer, but he more than made up for his vocal deficiencies with an undeniable élan that could charm even the most dogmatic musicologist. His openness to a variety of musical traditions always manifested itself in genuine enthusiasm for the music and the culture that produced it. While most of us live our lives defensively and protectively, Joe Strummer lived his life like a great improv comedian, saying “Yes!” to every offer.
What upset me the most about his passing was it happened way, way too soon. David Bowie left behind a solid body of work that will live for centuries. Joe Strummer still had a lot of gas in the tank when he died, and I ache to think about the music I’ll never hear, and the fresh, restorative perspectives he always provided.
Streetcore is proof positive that Joe Strummer still had it and then some.
Due to a combination of disputes with Sony and what he described as his own laziness, Joe Strummer had been essentially out of the music business for ten years when The Mescaleros produced their first album. Rock Art and the X-Ray Style feels at first like an extension of late-period Clash with longer songs and reggae sensibilities, but the arrangements are much more complex and layered, displaying the multi-instrumental talents of the band. The marvelous closer, “Willesden to Cricklewood,” demonstrated that Joe’s lyrical talents had not atrophied during his absence. The second album, Global a Go-Go, corrects the faults of that massive sprawl known as Sandinista! by giving us a thoroughly enjoyable guided tour through the world music scene.
Streetcore was to be the next release, and the band had gone pretty far in the recording process when Joe passed away. While Joe never got a crack at the final mix (about which there was some grumbling from fandom) and some of the tracks are first-take vocals, band members Martin Slattery and Scott Shields did a superb job with the mixing and the mastering. Their work on Streetcore succeeds on many levels, but most importantly, Slattery and Shields’ production allows Joe Strummer’s irrepressible, undying spirit to shine through. Joe’s vocals sound as strong and confident as they did on London Calling, and the inclusion of two Joe-and-acoustic-guitar songs give Streetcore an unusual sense of intimacy, as if you’re hanging out with Joe in the living room while he plays some tunes he picked up on his travels. While the general consensus describes Streetcore as Joe Strummer’s return to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, the diverse influences that formed Joe Strummer’s approach to music still remain, giving the rock-oriented pieces greater richness. There’s also more than a touch of American country-western music, appropriate for a record where Joe continued to explore his combined wonder and exasperation with the United States.
Streetcore opens delightfully with “Coma Girl,” a melodic-harmonic rocker with deftly-executed rhythmic changes and gorgeous energy. The opening of the song is absolutely thrilling, with Joe’s voice soaring with total commitment over the spare accompaniment of a rough electric guitar providing a tension-building rhythm. Whenever I hear Joe sing those opening lines, I want to scream out, “Oh, man, have I missed the fuck out of you!” The bass enters subtly on the third line, but interestingly enough, avoids duplication of the main rhythm while foreshadowing a brief shift to a reggae beat in the transition lines (“And the rain came in from the wide blue yonder/Through all the stages I wandered”). All this is a build-up to the driving chorus, with its catchy tune and energizing harmonies. This pattern will repeat itself throughout the song, leading to the let-it-the-fuck-out closing choruses. While the pattern has enough variety to keep the listener interested, Joe varies both phrasing and melody throughout the song to give it added spice.
The lyrics are based on Joe’s frequent visits to the Glastonbury Festival, and the song has become something of a festival anthem since Bruce Springsteen opened his set with “Coma Girl” in tribute to Joe back in 2009. However, the lyrics could easily be applied to the vibes at any American outdoor music festival or a Dead concert (“I was crawling through a festival way out west/I was thinking about love and the acid test”). Here in the “wide blue yonder” Joe encounters the Coma Girl, “Mona Lisa on the motorcycle gang,” an alluring and mysterious figure completely fixated on excitement in the present tense. Nothin’ like a babe on a motorcycle to send guys and discriminating gals into a coma! The last verse establishes her presence as the woman in charge (fuck yeah!) while cleverly synthesizing a series of symbolic images from rock rebel culture:
As the 19th hour was falling upon Desolation Row
Some outlaw band had the last drop on the go
‘Let’s siphon up some gas let’s get this show on the road’
Said the Coma Girl to the excitement gang
Into action everybody sprang
The oil drums were beating out doo-lang, doo-lang
Joe Strummer was the embodiment of the rebellious spirit that drives great rock ‘n’ roll, and “Coma Girl” is a great rock song because it captures that ethos so beautifully.
Way back on Sandinista! Joe tried his hand at preachin’ to the masses with “The Sound of Sinners,” with mixed results. He does much, much better with the more melodic pattern and hot groove of “Get Down Moses,” a mesmerizing, ass-shaking experience. Part anti-drug message and part biting commentary about the modern irrelevance and ineffectiveness of ol’ time religion, Joe is in superb voice and the band is in top form. I just love listening to this arrangement with its diverse instrumentation providing unexpected splashes of color over tight percussion and heart-melting bass. And I really love the line, “Sayin’ the truth crystallizes it like jewels in the rock, in the rock,” something we all have to remember in these horrible days of alternative facts and orange-haired frothing at the mouth.
We get a nice shift with “The Long Shadow,” a song Joe originally wrote for Johnny Cash, whose work he deeply admired. Joe extended a Southern California vacation to hang out with Johnny during the recording of American IV: The Man Comes Around simply because he loved hanging out with The Man in Black. The unforeseen meeting of these two greats did result in the Cash-Strummer duet of “Redemption Song,” but we’ll get to that in a minute. In truth, “The Long Shadow” is a tribute song where Joe emulates Johnny’s singing style with obvious gusto (and a faux-Western drawl). I find it hard to imagine Johnny Cash actually covering the song, especially with lines that are so Strummer-ish like “And I hear punks talk of anarchy.” Even so, I enjoy listening to Joe adopt the primitive style of country-western singers and strummers, and as was true with everything he did, he put his whole heart and soul into the effort. The song’s epitaph is a fascinating admission of a man who spent a good deal of his life exploring the music of diverse cultures, and expresses something I’ve recently come to appreciate about myself:
Somewhere in my soul
There’s always rock and roll
When I’ve been away from rock for a while, it’s the emotional equivalent of nicotine withdrawal on a transatlantic flight: I simply have to have it and have it NOW! In Joe Strummer’s case, I think he was self-aware enough to know that his voice and orientation towards life was best manifested in the driving rhythms, nasty guitars and the inherent fuck-the-authorites character of rock ‘n’ roll. When it came to rock ‘n’ roll, Joe Strummer was The Natural.
This is vividly demonstrated on the next track, “Arms Aloft,” the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll number in the Strummer repertoire since “Clampdown.” This explosive number starts in an entirely disarming manner with a static beat leading to the first verse, where Joe sings over a guitar playing a pattern of selected high octave notes from the simple F-C chord pattern. The relative quiet reflects the mood of the lyrics, where Joe is singing to a friend going through one of those “life’s fucked me in the ass without lube” moments and can use a little empathy from a fellow traveler:
Sometimes there’s no star shining
Scouting the edge of the universe
Sometimes you can’t see a horizon
Between the ocean and the earth
The guitar then shifts to a fuller but still subdued version of the F-C pattern, joined by a solid bottom of bass and drum. After two rounds, Joe re-enters with a slight sneer in his voice to indicate that he ain’t buying this poor-me shit—“And just when you were thinking about slinking . . . ” and the guitar pattern collapses into a perfectly out-of-nowhere, delightfully devilish F#5 on the concluding word, “. . . down.” Now Joe is ready to drive this baby home with “I’m gonna pull you up! I’m gonna pull you ’round!” Then WHAM! We get full, deep thrust in an explosion of driving rock ‘n’ roll with Joe’s voice squeezed through a filter to emphasize the shift. The words that burst out of the sonic sieve are a timeless reminder to everyone that when things are going bad, we all have the tendency to shade everything in a negative tint and behave as if we’re acting out our parts in a disaster movie with no hope of rescue. “Fuck that!” responds Mr. Strummer:
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
May I remind you of that scene
We were arms aloft in Aberdeen
May I remind you of that scene
Let a million mirror balls beam
May I remind you of that scene
Shit, man, I’m ready for the post-fuck cigarette after the first verse and chorus! Fortunately, I have a very large appetite for orgasmic experiences, and “Arms Aloft” is the fuck buddy who never quits. Driven by an exceptionally strong bass pattern, the second verse is dedicated to us common people who have to work for our daily bread. Save us from our self-pity, Joe!
And you say living ain’t nothing but hassles
In a Manila envelope frame
And driving coal all-night to Newcastle
It’s getting to be a repetitive strain
And just when thought you were going down the drain
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
After a fabulous instrumental bridge of sliding, twisting, cascading guitar effects, the band dials it down just a smidge to clear the way for Joe to step up and remind us, “I’m gonna pull you up, I’m gonna pull you out!” and “Arms Aloft” shifts into a hard-driving fade until the band collapses from sheer exhaustion, having left it all on the bedsheets and then some. My favorite line in the fade is “We got all this and Bird and Diz,” referring to the legendary Bebop heroes who pushed musical boundaries to the limit with virtually no hope of commercial success. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for Parker and Gillespie to forget about expanding musical boundaries, get a steady gig with a big band and play the dance music people wanted to hear. Why didn’t they do that? Because the spirit was their gasoline, just as it was for Joe Strummer.
It’s music, baby! Live it the fuck up!
The contrast between “Arms Aloft” and “Ramshackle Day Parade” couldn’t be greater: one is a song of spirit rising from the ashes, the other a song of spirit crushed by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Over a gentle background of echoed piano and touches of synthesizer, Joe opens the song by depicting the cinematic innocence of America at the start of the new century:
Muffle the drums
The hope of a new century comes
Was it all the amphetamine presidents
And their busy wives
Or did Manhattan crumble
The day Marilyn died
All your life, dreamer of dreams
Somehow connected with the silver screen
Half closed eyes, you realize
Loving the life that is paradise
In the Technicolor fade
JFK and Marilyn were America’s fantasy couple, one the symbol of active masculinity (cloaking Addison’s disease and a degenerative back condition), the other the glamorous sex symbol par excellence (cloaking natural mousey brown hair and lifelong depression). The tendency towards naive fantasy that characterizes the American psyche was further fueled by the end of the Cold War and seemingly unstoppable economy: TV pundits talked constantly about “the new American century.” 9/11 destroyed not only the precious lives of three thousand people but the American fantasy of continuous progress and unbridled optimism. The parade of people walking home on the Brooklyn Bridge after the horror of that sunny day was the cruel opposite of the celebratory ticker tape parades of the past:
This is the ramshackle day parade
Of all those lost, unborn, and unmade
And whose heads got filled with a neon lava
And remain buried underneath this road
Taking the freight elevator
From the incinerator
The ironic line “Bring out the banners of Stalingrad” describes a Pyrrhic victory, and given the continuing decline of the United States in the years following 9/11—masked temporarily and only superficially by the Obama years—the image of a “victory” that causes you to sacrifice everything you stand for is entirely appropriate, given where America is today. “Ramshackle Day Parade” is a haunting and challenging song, brilliantly arranged and executed.
My friends (hah!) over at Pitchfork didn’t think much of Joe Strummer’s version of “Redemption Song,” claiming it “verges on comedy.” Oh, my goodness! I guess if you’ve only got fifteen minutes and a limit of 800 words to write a piece for the moronic music consumers who read your shit, you need to keep your snark skills sharp! Perhaps if Mr. Hartley Goldstein had eliminated the TWO OPENING PARAGRAPHS ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE A MUSIC CRITIC, he might have had some room to write more intelligently and perceptively about Mr. Strummer’s work. As it is, he only mentions half of the songs on the album and blames both Joe Strummer’s widow and Rick Rubin’s production for Joe’s poor showing on “Redemption Song.” To say I believe Mr. Goldstein misses the point would be the understatement of all understatements, so allow me to politely offer an alternative viewpoint to that lazy prick’s senseless meanderings.
No matter what Joe Strummer did in his career, no matter how many musical avenues he explored, and no matter how complex and rich his arrangements could be, all his songs are Everyman songs that anyone who learns a few simple chords can play. The two acoustic numbers on Streetcore allow us to hear Joe without The Clash or The Mescaleros filling in the spaces. All we get is Joe Strummer, armed only with his acoustic guitar and his gravelly, wandering voice. Does his performance on “Redemption Song” come close to any of Richard Thompson’s acoustic masterpieces? Fuck, no! What comes through is his spirit, his passion for human freedom and his deep respect for a great song. That’s good enough for me! Still, I wish they could have included the Cash-Strummer duet instead—the combination of Johnny’s sadly fading voice as he makes one of his last recordings and Joe Strummer’s respectful counterpoint is incredibly moving. Both would be gone within the space of two years, but when I hear that recording, it inspires me with the hope that I leave this mortal sphere singing, no matter how old and creaky I sound.
Joe and the Mescaleros get back to ass-kicking rock with “All in a Day,” where the constant refrain of “Hey, hey!” presents the listener with the overwhelming urge to join in. It’s a great dance number with some nice breaks to let the listening audience throw in a few exuberant shouts. It’s followed by the majestic “Burnin’ Streets,” an update of “London’s Burning” a quarter of a century after the first Clash album hit the U. K. shelves. Joe is in particularly fine voice here, supported by a nicely flowing arrangement highlighting acoustic guitar and Mellotron. Not much had changed in twenty-five-or-so years, but the passage that surprised me highlights Joe Strummer’s lack of tolerance for guns in a civilized society:
Too many guns in this damn town
The supermarket, you gotta duck down
Baby flak jackets on the merry-go-round
I’m thinking, “Compared to the gun-crazy USA, what the fuck are you talking about?” I remain eternally grateful that the NRA hasn’t extended their satanic claws to England’s green and pleasant land, praise the fucking lord and don’t pass the fucking ammunition.
Joe Strummer spent part of his out-of-the-industry years as a BBC disk jockey in a programme appropriately titled London Calling. You can find recordings of his shows in the BBC archives or on YouTube, and I highly recommend them. I mean, can you imagine a better disk jockey than Joe Strummer? His natural curiosity and deep knowledge of world music made him a perfect fit for the job, and exposed a lot of people to music (including me) that I would never have heard anywhere else.”Midnight Jam” is essentially an extended instrumental with snippets from Joe’s programmes, riffing on the music he’s spinning. While that doesn’t sound like much, the combination of that unmistakable voice and solid backing makes for a compelling listening experience. My favorite “line” is “Since the last programme I’ve been around the world touring with a group—you name every jail in Germany, I’ve been there.” The line is both a reaffirmation of rebellion and a final nod to The Man in Black, who made some of his best recordings in prisons.
Streetcore ends with the third acoustic number, “Silver and Gold,” Joe’s cover of the Fats Domino-Bobby Charles song originally titled “Before I Grow Too Old.” The two original versions share a New Orleans feel, differing largely in the tempo—Bobby skips through the song at a decent clip while Fats takes it slow and easy. Reflecting his late fascination with voices from the American heartland, Joe turns the piece into a Western tune, replete with harmonica and Tymon Dogg on the fiddle. Obviously, the song’s lyrics take on more meaning because of his sudden death, but I think if had Joe lived to a ripe old age, this song would be remembered as an anthem to his commitment to live life a certain way: at breakneck speed, and if you break a few rules along the way, fuck it.
Oh, I do a lotta things, I know is wrong
Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone
It’ll take a lotta prayers to save my soul
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old . . .
Heh, I’m gonna go out dancin’ every night
I’m gonna see all your city lights
I’m gonna do everything silver and gold
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old
Joe sings the song with almost boyish sincerity, and when you realize this is the last thing we’ll ever hear from Joe Strummer, it hits you with a combination of terrible sadness and irresolvable frustration that he died way, way before his time.
At a time when several Western countries are turning the clock backwards to pursue the discredited ideology of Nationalism that gave us decades of war, the life and work of Joe Strummer reminds us that there is an alternative to fear-driven self-destruction: the celebration of human diversity and inclusion. Through his endless curiosity about different cultures and the music of those cultures, Joe Strummer was the model world citizen, actively chipping away at the real and imagined borders that divide us. I am certain he would be absolutely astonished to return to the world of today and see that its inhabitants have responded to fear by splitting apart instead of coming together . . . and I’m equally certain he would respond forcefully with songs that expose the absurdity and validate the humanity. Streetcore is the final gift from a man who lived life to the fullest and had complete confidence that the human spirit could survive the worst tendencies of the human race.
The spirit, after all, is our gasoline.
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.