Uno, Dos, Tres...
Three From The "Only Band That Matters".
Aptly named. Listening to this album is like going into man to man combat with your speakers. The assault begins with "Know Your Rights" a screaming sarcastic anti-establishment screed. It is the weakest track on the album both lyrically (too overtly political) and musically (unimaginative rhythm).
Things perk up with "Car Jamming" which is full of the musical innovation that put the Clash light years ahead of other punkers. They reversed the traditional roles of rhythm section and vocalist so that, in the Clash, Topper Headon's drums don't just keep time, they morph into a melodic role with swirling beats that dance ahead of and behind the beat. This goes double for Paul Simonon's bass which is completely freed to play its own melody. In essence the Clash had a rhythm section that played with an abandon and inventiveness that would have been at home in a late stage Miles Davis band.
Vocals assume the role of timekeeper with an insistent chant style delivery, leavened with sophisticated lyrics filled with a knowledge of current events far beyond the ken of most pop songs. The guitars had a mostly rhythmic role (especially Strummer), but Mick Jones would occasionally take off with a blistering solo.
"Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" and "Rock The Casbah" are the hit singles that made Combat Rock the Clash's most commercially successful album and hence despised by hardcore punkers. The essence of punk is to be the antithesis of the big-time rock star. Unlike a previous generation, such as the Beatles who openly aimed to make hit records, punkers scorned success and saw it as selling out. So Combat Rock's hits put the Clash up against the Paradox of Punk: what's a punker to do when their record climbs the charts? Break up, naturally. (Could Glyn Johns be the king of sellout? He engineered both Who's Next? and Combat Rock - both considered sellouts by hardcore fans.)
In retrospect, both these songs are good straight-ahead hard rocking numbers. The lyrics of "Rock The Casbah" are eerily prophetic, if you take it as a warning of fundamentalist Islamic backlash against Western culture. Not bad for a bunch of punk ass dropouts from art school. "Red Angel Dragnet" is a chance for Strummer to have some fun doing his best De Niro impersonation. Who says punk can't be humorous?
What the hardcore punkers missed with their cries of, "Sellout!" is the classic number "Straight to Hell", this album's standout song which somehow manages to meld English working class angst with the tragedy of Amerasian children – flotsam from the Vietnam War. If ever there was an anthem to the dispossessed, this is it. A rattling drumline and steady bass underlie the desperate vocals. "Go straight to hell!" is society's message to its outcasts.
Side two opens with "Overpowered By Funk" a parody of funk which nevertheless has a beat as heavy as any laid down by Bonham or Moon. "Atom Tan" is an ironic take on a Reagan era official's suggestion that one could avoid the fallout from a nuclear blast by sheltering behind a bush.
The album ends with a block of four brilliant songs, full of world weary lyrics and haunting melodies. The sequencing results in a slow build whose cumulative effect is overpowering. "Sean Flynn" is a lovely atmospheric number with haunting brass and flute underlaid with a great thumping beat in the bass drum and bass. Eerie synth lines complete the effect. The same lines infiltrate into "Ghetto Defendant" with its growling baritone recitation of disaster counterpoised against Strummer's keening vocals. The rhythm section provides jabbing emphasis. The sad melody of "Inoculated City" underpins the question, "What if the young of all nations refused to bear arms?"
"Death is a Star" provides a coda that is no less effective for its quietness. Clash lyrics are haiku like. Pithy phrases trigger cascades of associations. The striking image of a Ford roaring through the Spanish night is so precise. It has to be Ford and not Chevy or Jeep. One thinks of Huxley (the Charing T Tower) and then Orwell (Catalonia) because these are Spanish mountains that the Ford is roaring through. That it's at night and raining conjures up all the noir movies of that era, Casablanca and The Big Sleep, with their moody romanticism. The same romanticism with which the left has always regarded the Spanish Civil War and which sent legions of hopelessly idealistic foreigners flocking to the doomed Loyalist cause. All this with a couple of lines.
A lot of electronic processing on this album results in sonics that are average at best. The treble is emphasized at the expense of the bass. Imposing a cut at 1Khz and applying a boost at 100Hz helps, but even a good equalizer can only do so much.
As the group's most focused, most accessible album, Combat Rock is the best introduction to the band for those unfamiliar with their music.
The Clash didn't need a bodyguard. They had Paul Simonon. That's him smashing his bass on the cover. A genuine hard man, perfectly at home moving amongst the more unsavory elements of the gang world. In another age, he would have helped build the Empire. (Strummer fled at their first meeting, mistaking the menacing Simonon for a mugger.)
As a band manager you couldn't hope for a more attention grabbing start to an album than "London Calling". An ironic use of the BBC's classic World War II calling card wherein a clipped upper class accent would intone, "This is London calling." Of course, in the Clash version the words come snarling out in an accent that is decidedly not clipped and not upper class. And it is not just working class, but working class of a peculiarly London type: self-confident, swaggering, with a challenging tone suggestive of, "Wanna fight?" The slashing guitar snarls no less than the vocals.
A rollicking double dose of the Clash, this album flashes by despite its length. Side One emphasizes sky high energy at the cost of a certain sameness in the songs. Still, who can resist the frenetic beat of "Brand New Cadillac" especially when it features one of Jones' hottest solos? "Jimmy Jazz" has marvelous slurring lyrics and delicious honking, blaring, sax. The stuttering delivery of "Ji-ji-ji-jimmy Jazz" echoes Daltrey's, "My Ge-ge-generation."
Side Two begins with "Spanish Bombs". How many rock bands would make the Spanish Civil War the subject of a song? War in general and that war in particular is a running theme with this band. This song evokes all the bittersweet hopelessness of fighting for a noble, but ultimately losing cause. Nothing overt, but the ghosts of Orwell and Guernica hover over this song. "The Right Profile" is another unlikely song, this time a paean to Montgomery Clift with jabbing, raucously blaring horns and an absolutely fee-ro-cious beat. "Lost in the Supermarket" is an ironic attack on materialism sung with an almost ballad like softness. With "Working for the Clampdown" we are back to the frenetic energy of Side One. The side closes out with a Clash classic "The Guns of Brixton" which celebrates the tough working class district on the wrong side of the Thames. Simonon knows whereof he sings, having grown up there. Great rolling bass and twangy guitar. Topper Headon contributes some terrific drum rolls that slide from side to side in true Hawaii Five Oh fashion.
Side Three suffers from the same problem as Side One: the songs sound too alike. They all share the big thumping beat of "London Calling". Great fun to be sure, but the constant kaleidoscopic shifts in style and subject of Combat Rock and Sandanista! make for more gripping music. With "Wrong ‘em Boyo" the brass is back. The boyz are having an infectiously good time on this sendup of the classic song "Stagger Lee."
With Side Four, we are back to more interesting music. "Lovers Rock" has a shifting start stop rhythm and piercing guitar. The album ends with its best song, "Revolution Rock," which combines the high energy level of the odd sides with the musical sophistication of the even sides. The drums scatter the beats all over. There is a desperation to the vocals which match the subject of wasted lives.
Spacious natural sounding sonics are above the average.
Best for those who are uncomfortable wandering too far from the familiar beat of rock, but both Combat Rock and Sandanista! are more musically adventurous.
Sandanista! is a magnificent three, count ‘em, three slabs of delicious vinyl. Greeted with mixed reviews when first released; it also died on the charts. Amongst the critics, there was an almost visceral reaction to a 36 track album - that much material couldn't possibly be good! (especially not coming hot on the heels of the double album London Calling). No-one could compose so much good music so fast. Luckily, I ignored the bad reviews and just listened to the album for myself and found that, yes indeed, somebody could compose that much good material that fast. The boys must have been on some kind of manic high which you can hear in the overflowing exuberance of the music. OK, the album is not without its weak spots (mainly on the third LP), but I prefer to think of them as slow interludes between the hot stuff.
Sandanista! LP One
"The Magnificent Seven" is the Clash's love letter to America in general and New York in particular. Unlike a lot of the European Left, the Clash openly enjoyed the USA, even as they criticized its materialism. Driven by a throbbing bass line over which the lyrics are recited, rather than sung. For a song that is supposed to be a parody of the Top 10, "Hitsville U.K." has a sappily pleasant optimism. But that's the whole point isn't it? From Top 10, we leap to the reggae stylings of "Junco Partner."
"Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" is the weakest song on the whole album. Another parody – this time of disco. Even in a parody, that deadeningly thudding disco beat is hard to take. Much more interesting is "The Leader" about the debaucheries of the English upper classes. All that sophistication and it all boils down to a fat man groping some hapless pretty young thing. (The song is based on rumors about the wild bondage parties thrown by a leading member of the Conservative Party.)
The two great themes that run through this album are war and the decline of the English working class. "Something About England" combines both in a sorrowful dirge. The lower classes might have been at the bottom of the social heap, but at one time they could and did take tremendous pride in the huge swath of territory that was the British Empire. And there was always the chance that a young man might strike it rich in one of the far-off colonies. All that came to a screeching halt with the First World War. The Second War only put the cap on what the First started. England bankrupted and sacrificed herself to save civilization. Today there is no outlet for all that working class energy that in an earlier age would have gone into building the empire, but to drink beer and create agro at soccer matches. (Or start a punk band.)
"Rebel Waltz" continues the downbeat mood of "Something About England" using sad guitar solos spiced with percussion and horn choruses. Not the usual horns, but atonal which perfectly expresses the special poignancy of the lost cause. "Look Here" is openly jazzy with vibes and a slippery sliding beat. How many rock bands ever display this much creativity? The innovation continues with "The Crooked Beat" which features a duet between horn and bass. When did you last hear that on a rock album? "Somebody Got Murdered" is a high energy rocker distinguished by its urgent vocals. "One More Time" elides into "One More Dub". Both are driven by a furious reggae beat. Electronic processing gives the high hat a gritty metallic edge.
Sandanista! LP Two
The musical innovation continues unabated on the second LP with "Lightning Strikes" and its stutterstep drumbeat. "Up In Heaven" about the hell of living in public housing is classic Clash, with high pitched vocals floating over a pounding beat. "Corner Soul" has a haunting melody. "Let's Go Crazy" is an infectiously danceable celebration of Carnival, introduced and closed by a nice West Indian gent. "If Music Could Talk" has separate vocals coming out of left and right channels, a mournful sax in the center and bounding drumbeats scattered all over. "The Sound of the Sinners" is a gospel revival encapsulated in a single short song.
Side Four opens with "Police On My Back", a straight-ahead rocker with a pounding beat that would have been right at home on London Calling, but seems out of place on the more experimental Sandanista! "Midnight Log" delivers its anti-corporate message in double quick time. That message is continued in "The Equalizer" with its weird keening violin and earthshaking bass. Jones interjects snatches of guitar that echoes the haunting violin phrases. "The Call Up"? No call up is more like it. Someone in the band must have read Einstein's intriguing question, "What if the draft age youth of all nations resisted conscription?" The thudding beat is relieved by crisp tinkling bells. The closest thing to a title song is "Washington Bullets" with its refrain "Sandanista!". In retrospect, the elegy to Castro and the Sandanistas is embarrassing. Oh well, can't be right every time. Fortunately, their music is better than their political analysis. Marimbas give it a vaguely Latin feel and there are some tasty guitar solos. As so often, the Clash ends with a quiet coda in "Broadway" which comes off like a poetry reading over start and stop drums. The mood is one of quiet melancholy. I found the (very) young Maria Gallagher's rendition of "The Guns of Brixton" accompanied only by piano rather charming. Others find it merely annoying.
Sandanista! LP Three
"Lose This Skin" features the banshee violin and metallic voice of Timon Dogg (sometimes spelt Tymon). Opinions on Mr. Dogg are strictly polarized (as is his/her gender -- I've seen references to Ms. Dogg). Some like him, others think he ruins the song. "Mensworth Hill" is the instrumental introduction to "Junkie Slip". Both share an experimental avant-garde sound with grinding repetitive loops of music on top of a pounding beat. You'll either find it boring or bracing. "Kingston Advice" and "The Street Parade" also form a pair. The former is a downer with its constant refrain "In these days" -- not good days to be sure. The latter beaming bright with a sunny tune of hope on the guitar.
Critics surely pounced on Side Six as Exhibit A to prove that this triple album was a load of dross. First there is a recurrent upper class announcer type voiceover straight out of Monty Python. Second it is heavily loaded with instrumentals. Thirdly many of the tracks are reworkings of songs we've heard already and seem to wear out their welcome.
"Version City" is an affectionate nod at the infrastructure of rock n roll. It's as if Woody Guthrie were to take a train through a landscape dotted by Gibsontown and Fenderville. If "Living in Fame" sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it recycles "If Music Could Talk" from Side 3 with a loose reggae feel and some haunting sax solos. Likewise "Silicone on Sapphire" recaps "Washington Bullets" from Side 4. Well, if we can have repeats in classical music, why not in classic rock? "Silicone" has terrific flexible drumming and wildly swirling synths. It does go on a bit as does "Version Pardner" which is a reworking of Side 1's "Junco Partner". Best to chill out and dig the great bass line. Sandanista! marks the full flowering of the rhythm section into a melodic instrument, supple and flexible.
"Career Opportunities" gains added poignancy by being sung by a grade school kids. You know these kids have got no opportunities to look forward to and the resentment this generates is poisonous. "Shepherd's Delight" reprises "If Music Could Talk" for the third time. Guess music talks a lot. Wonderful walloping bass drum. Take the time to enjoy the haunting acoustic guitar chords and its echo on the piano.
You've probably noticed the odd phenomenon of how melancholy music can give you a lift. Sandanista! certainly fits the bill despite its relentless emphasis on the rottenness of life. I guess it's because they're having so much fun even as they bemoan the state of the world that it ends up being uplifting.
This album deserves a Blue Note Award for going beyond mere musical excellence and delivering a stunning rumination on its times. Like all great albums of this type, it does so with a generally light touch. Little scraps are woven into the lyrics that seep into your consciousness later. You don't have to agree with their politics to find that the larger worldview enhances the music by giving it an extra dimension beyond the usual rock songs of love and hate.
Same natural sonics as London Calling, but lighter in tone.