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The Unhinged Ambition Of The Clash's Boldest Statement
BILL WOOD | FEBRUARY 25, 2021
By 1980, The Clash had seemingly done it all. In less than four years they'd transcended their "punk rocker" origins to become one of rock’s biggest bands, touring the world over and releasing a body of work that left every single one of their contemporaries in the dust. Their latest release, London Calling, spawned a radio hit in the States with “Train In Vain” and was already being touted as one of the greatest rock records ever produced. You’d think the band might have taken time to rest on their laurels and bask in their accomplishments… but this was not the Clash way.
The follow-up, Sandinista!, is an ambitious, sprawling, unnecessarily lengthy and wildly creative mess of an album. It’s also one of the more compelling listens of its era. Pared down to a single record (digital playlists tempt us with this modern convenience), Sandinista! might easily make any critic’s "Best Of" list. Even with the zonked-out space jams and should-have-been-unreleased-outtakes left intact (the original release is basically the 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, only 40 years before its time), the album is still a must-listen. It's often compared to The Beatles' White Album, and with good reason; It's a snapshot of a legendary band at their creative peak, four musicians undeterred by the prospect of failure. And the drummer gets to sing.
Up to '79, The Clash could still be conveniently categorized as a punk band. Then came London Calling, the landmark double-LP that saw the band exploring a variety of styles and influences, with songs mostly adhering to the 3-1/2-minute pop standard. After that record's mainstream and critical success, The Clash were determined to expand their boundaries even further. They aimed for higher plateaus with Sandinista!, a record that would embrace numerous musical concepts, a record that would bring their political ideology into focus (the title references a Nicaraguan leftist political party), a record with no limitations whatsoever. Oh, and just to piss off their record label, The Clash wanted to deliver a triple-LP that was budget-priced for fans. We may have grown accustomed to exhaustive stream-of-consciousness releases these days, but in a pre-digital era when “triple-LP” actually meant three vinyl records, this was a very tall order. As a result, the band ended up sacrificing royalties just to meet their own lofty objectives.
From the outset, it's apparent that the musical diversity featured on London Calling was only a cracking of the knuckles. “The Magnificent Seven” is a bass-heavy dance/rap track that—much like Blondie's Number One hit "Rapture"—explores the band’s fascination with New York City culture. It's hardly a predictable opener, yet this is just the beginning of a 2-1/2-hour journey full of unexpected twists and turns. “Hitsville UK” is essentially a Motown number, eschewing Strummer’s trademark snarl and Jones’ dissonant riffing for a reverb-paved sonic wall of girl-group vocals, piano and church organ. London Calling: Part Two this is not. It's as if the band are saying, "Hey rockers, you won't be getting your guitars until at least five songs in."
The Clash were heavily influenced by reggae from their earliest days, but “Junco Partner” is far and away the band’s most sincere attempt to capture an authentic Jamaican sound. Whereas earlier songs such as “The Guns of Brixton” and “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” effortlessly fused reggae rhythms with punk/pop sensibility, “Junco” is pure homage, and it is not the last on this record. Speaking of styles, there are almost too many to list here. The album's Wikipedia page lists funk, reggae, jazz, gospel, rockabilly, folk, dub, rhythm and blues, calypso, disco, and rap. They may have omitted one or two (waltz anyone?), but one thing is for certain; The Clash were ahead of their time when it came to fusing the dense mixture of sounds and instrumentation that would eventually become world music.
If Joe Strummer was "bored with the USA" in 1977, he was absolutely infatuated with the multicultural flavor of New York City in 1979. He observes the daily grind of a 9-to-5 supermarket employee in "The Magnificent Seven"; "Hong Kong dollar / Indian cents / English pounds and Eskimo pence." He weaves himself into the frantic fabric of New York street life in "Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)"; "It's Cuban Day / Oy Vey! / Chinese New Year / let's call it a day / Tootsie! Hey Chi man! / That melody is Puerto Rican." This marks the first and possibly final time that a British punk singer has rapped out Jewish slang over a hard funk number. Strummer may have delivered his manifesto with Combat Rock's "Straight To Hell," but he is at his most lyrically inspired here.
In its peak moments, Sandinista! is bursting at the seams with newfound musical muscle, inspired political banner waving, and even refrains of classic punk aesthetic. “Somebody Got Murdered” sounds like a London Calling outtake, and “Police On My Back” is vintage Spirit of '77 Clash (you’d never guess that one of those songs was actually a cover). Subjectively speaking, “Up In Heaven,” “Charlie Don’t Surf” and “Washington Bullets’ are three of the best songs the band has ever penned. But as you might imagine with an undertaking of this magnitude, the pace really starts to slacken towards the end. The third disc eventually crumbles under its own weight, bogged in a mire of dubs and remixes, including a curious retake of an early Clash classic, “Career Opportunities,” as sung by children. I've read a few counterpoints explaining why all of this is vital to the Sandinista! experience, none of them are satisfactory.
After Sandinista!, The Clash were ready for yet another musical departure. Abandoning the no-limits approach to their triple-LP, the more focused (single-LP!) Combat Rock became a universal smash hit, going double platinum in the U.S. and producing their two biggest singles, "Rock The Casbah" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" After that, The Clash… well, clashed. Regardless of how things ended, with London Calling, Sandinista! and Combat Rock, the “Only Band That Matters” delivered a 1-2-3-punch that has rarely been equaled in rock music. Of those three, Sandinista! is definitely the most challenging listen, which not-so-coincidentally makes it the most essential Clash record. - BW