|Side One:||Side Two:|
There has not yet been a poll more frustrating than the one for The Clash. I own four of five albums on vinyl (no, there aren’t six, you’re imagining things), and at no moment was there a completely clear choice from the people I know who participated. I had three people whose votes I could guess, and all ended up confirming to me that I’d guessed correctly. One unsurprisingly went up for Sandinista!, not because it’s weird, but because he likes weird things. Another went for Give ‘Em Enough Rope because he felt he’d paid it the least attention, and undeservedly so (I’m inclined toward the same, and my copy was a rather special gift, actually). Another went for Combat Rock because it was a favourite of his (which I knew). I had a few more conversations–two who noted their Clash-y inexperience, one suggesting his exclusive familiarity with London Calling meant perhaps he should choose a different record to learn something, another suggesting that because she only knew London Calling, it would be most comfortable to read about. And let’s face it: usually we all read about the records we know already unless we’re deliberately seeking one out.¹ There’s not much frame of reference to understand the description of the unfamiliar, after all.
I was asked by one person what my vote was for–I admitted that I don’t actually vote in these. It would be silly, in a way: the point is to remove my opinion from the choice, as my opinion is the end result, and that would pre-colour it. I also couldn’t really decide. Rope was a present and I often defiantly name it as a favourite (though Side Two occasionally loses me). Sandinista! is a cool and absurdly varied album, but it’s also a 3xLP, and, unlike the Caustic Window compilation, those LPs play at 33 1/3, not 45rpm. I can’t help but cover every track in the interest of talking about a whole album, so that would’ve been masochistic. Combat Rock is an album my friend Brian and I agreed was one we both lost interest in pretty easily. London Calling I found myself inclined to think of as I did Pet Sounds: what in the world am I supposed to say about one of the most influential and important rock albums ever? I love it a little more personally than Pet Sounds (or even Abbey Road), but it’s still daunting.
In the end, it came around to Combat Rock–by a hair, squeezing out over the classicists and London Calling. This is the only Clash reissue–as opposed to those I’d term “repress” as they came within the standing heyday of vinyl as the primary format for recorded music–that I own, and London Calling has a few issues in the copy that sits on my shelf. It’s also, as I always like, an excuse to give more time to an album I’m not otherwise inclined toward. I actually forgot I didn’t own it on CD for some years, only managing to purchase it years after acquiring the rest, and even doubling up with–yes, intentionally–compilations (Super Black Market Clash, The Singles, and The Essential Clash). It did just squeak in before I got the completely ridiculous 19 CD singles collection (no, that isn’t a typo), but the fact that I really couldn’t remember I had it says something about how much I listen to it.
Of course it’s all very weird: London Calling is, by far, the strongest album they produced. The Clash (the one I do not own on vinyl) is confused by its rather striking differences in U.S./U.K. release, with a number of tracks dropped and added in the standard “Quick, put some more singles on there!” fashion. Sandinista! suffers more sprawl than any 2xLP (and London Calling is one of those) possibly could, running for almost two and a half hours. Give ‘Em Enough Rope has an amazing opening trio it couldn’t live up to afterward no matter how good what followed was. And, to be totally honest, a lot of my favourite Clash songs are B-Sides, if I really think about it. I threatened at one point to pull out my Black Market Clash 10″ instead, but a shortened EP when I have four albums would be silly. Still, it does have “The Prisoner” and “The City of the Dead”, so it would be the sweetest of “punishments”.
“This is a public service announcement…with guitars!” Joe Strummer yells as “Know Your Rights” starts, and then the clatter of staccato, metallic guitars begins slashing downward on each beat, Paul Simonon’s bass thumping along happily and more melodiously, Topper Headon keeping the beat steady. Sarcastic and clearly angry, Joe lists the rights of the disenfranchised and destitute: the right to not be murdered (except by policemen and aristocrats), the right to food (after a little “humiliation, investigation”), and the right to free speech (unless you exercise it). Which, of course, covers it, so far as the world seems to be concerned, as Joe (quite publicly) saw it. Simonon makes the song pop, in spite of the bitter satirical nature and the near-atonal guitars–something of the nature of the Clash as a whole to marry the two.
“Car Jamming” has big, tight, “tub” drum sounds and semi-Diddley² guitars, though this time Simonon largely follows Topper. The backing vocals contrast with Joe’s rough, throaty-vocals, with a cheerful “In a car jam!” answer to his lead vocals. Strange synths wobble and warp, theremin-style, through the middle of the track, as Joe continues his description of the variance of the social strata’s experience, largely focusing on characters representing the homeless and the lost veterans. The slightest of ties to the Congo (the beat, the choral nature of the backing vocals) are subtly emphasized with references to Missa Luba (a Congolese arrangement of the Latin Mass), and the idea of a “multi-national anthem” drowning it out, as means of affirming the greater pride and majority of the common man, as it were. That sounds a lot more pretentious than Joe manages, who successfully avoided the sense of being anything but, if you’ll pardon me, a “regular Joe”, in all his life.
There are two Clash songs that I think everyone might know, whether they realize it or not. Oddly, neither is on London Calling, and both are here. The first is the third track on the album, and that is “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, a Mick Jones-led stomper that calls back to the “hidden” track “Train in Vain” that is on London Calling. After the politicization of Strummer’s opening vocals (and probably lyrics, though the album as a whole is credited to “The Clash”), Mick’s half-plaintive, half-eye-rolled request for clarity in a relationship is a big jump in tone. It manages to squeak its way into place with a matching production style, but still stands out. While the song maintains the rhythmic emphasis that precedes it, the melody of the guitars, as well as the little touches of lead in them, set the song distinctly apart in its distinctly poppy nature. The riff is monolithic at this point, readily identified, and easily so, because it plays along when the song opens, the second guitar that joins just playing a slightly more distorted version of it. Mick’s voice is also more interested in melody than Joe’s, and Topper’s drums are bigger and more arena-ready, which is only right for the song. When the song turns its speed up a few notches, Topper’s drums sound something like Motown-style barn-burners (though the echo on them is a bit more Stax–the overall production being neither, though). Handclaps work their way in appropriately, and Joe, ever-unusual, sings the backing vocals in Ecuadoran Spanish (the only translation available to him at the time).
And this is the other Clash song of endless popularity: “Rock the Casbah”. Neither one of these songs would make anyone say, “Oh, right, punk!” despite the fact that the Clash’s punk credentials (even if rarely self-described) are questioned only by the most (rather ironic) uptight of punk purists. Topper Headon plays a wild and boogie-woogie piano tune to open the song that is one of the best intros around, especially married as it is to handclaps in enthusiastic rhythm that just barely avoids “Take the Money and Run”³ levels of need to clap along. Joe finds a bit more easy humour in his lyrics here, the theme not too far from “Car Jamming”, but more absurd. The king of an unknown land attempts to shut down all attempts to boogie, and is thwarted by all his subjects’ refusal to follow his orders (despite the actual reality of Kohmeini flogging owners of disco records in real-life Iran, the inspiration for Joe’s lyrics). Mick’s Pac-Man watch makes a bewildering set of appearances halfway through the song (no, it’s not a cell phone), but the whole thing is stupidly joyous and danceable. The chorus–largely Mick’s voice–and the way “Sharif don’t like it!” is a hook like few others, and “Rockin’ the Casbah/Rock the Casbah” is thrown back at it with a hint of rebellion that one cannot help but join in with.
The first of a few rather odd vocal guest appearances, Kosmo Vinyl (sometime manager of the Clash) appears in “Red Angel Dragnet” quoting Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle in the middle of a Paul Simonon-sung song–the dub-like inflections that recall “Guns of Brixton” make this a rather logical choice, and the spoken-word style, near-monotone delivery Simonon favours fits quite well over this backing (especially the organ flavouring and backing vocals that sing their gentle, restrained but energized chorus).
The slow downward slide of muted guitar chords, the thumping beat of bass drum and the sustained whine of electronics that open “Straight to Hell” are actually quite pretty, and when they become a rather African-influenced beat and clean forward pushes of laidback guitar, it’s only that much more. Joe sings a bit more at ease, playing a bit more with a voice that is distinct and capable of more than the near shouts that mark a lot of his work here. The subject matter is pure Clash-era Strummer: cynical, critical, and empathetic with steel mill workers, abandoned children, and those who see the darker or nonexistent facets of the American Dream. The music and his voice, though, hint a lot at the work he would do with the Mescaleros fifteen and twenty years later, and it’s actually a great song–which I guess the band knew, as it was part of a Double-A with “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. As pretty as the song is, especially the guitar work (which sounds more like Mick Jones’s, unsurprisingly in this), is very bleak and dark.
I was actually inclined to suggest that “Overpowered by Funk” did not remind me of funk at all, but the first thing I thought of at the intro was actually James Brown. Whoops! That said, it moves off into mostly other territory following this: a lot of the album is extremely dance-y, and this song is probably the most emphatic example of it. The hi-hat-dominated drum beat, and the bowing synth noises, the suggestion of “funking out” as a response to all of the homogenization of people and culture, and those dance-y guitars–it’s all more on the line of music as rebellion against control. Graffiti artist Futura 2000 drops a near-rap (!) near the end that explains both his own motivations for his art and the essential sensibility that informs the song. It’s not the idealistic (and rather naïve) understanding of music as a weapon (I’d really like to say something really weird about SDF Macross here, but that would confuse almost anyone who read it)–per se–but rather that it can act as both an act of rebellion and as a symbol or expression of it. And, of course, it simply couldn’t be without complete without an extraordinarily funky bass run, which appears just before Futura’s verses.
“Atom Tan” lurches and leans, the guitar seeming to teeter with all its weight falling forward, before a scramble of drum roll rushes in to push it back up–only to see it falter again. An interesting vibe, to be sure, as are the double-tracked vocals of Mick’s alternated responses to Joe. Though he’s back to more cynical material, Strummer himself puts more music into his voice again, maybe egged on by Jones, or maybe just feeling it for the song–and who could blame him? The song is sheer momentum, even when it breaks for walking bass that goes up to a drop for the chorus.
Apparently it was a long take of “Sean Flynn” that inspired Bernie Rhodes to question whether their songs need all be “as long as this rāga”, the phrase that led to Joe’s re-write of Topper’s abandoned lyrics for “Rock the Casbah”. It is no surprise that this song was once played at great length by the band. Flutes, smooth saxophone and marimba (I believe; I’ve played the darn things, but I’m by no means expert at clarifying which set of percussive keys is being played) are the majority of the song’s sound. Drums are almost all kick, bass working its way into that beat. It’s atmospheric and scattered, and quite strange indeed for the band. As I listened to it again, probably paying attention for only the first time, I was reminded of a sardonic defense of appreciation for the album, despite its “pop” and “not punk” nature–though it is these things, it’s actually a much wilder experimentation in places than Sandinista! ever was. Sounds slip in and out of the song, occasionally reflecting the weirder moments of even prog rock bands (?!), though the sounds tend to be more pop in origin (this is not the wild experimentation on sax, and in another context would be utterly schmaltzy). It’s actually enjoyable, but mostly worth hearing for the sheer sense of “Where in the world did this come from?” Of course–this, too, hints at Joe’s Mescaleros period in the 90s.
Reggae bass that unexpectedly works its way upward, unified keys and guitars playing a melody that hits the scratch-a reggae sound only briefly–“Ghetto Defendant” isn’t exclusively odd for its spoken word portion, nor even the fact that those words are spoken by none other than Allen Ginsberg. Where “Red Angel Dragnet” functioned more as backing to the spoken style of Simonon, it sounds more as if the music of “Ghetto Defendant” is arranged around Ginsberg’s recitations, or as if he spoke in keeping with it. That Joe sings between and sometimes over his lines even more emphasizes the feeling of a “sampled” recording being interwoven into a song that seems to momentarily think of itself as reggae and then immediately forget it. The rattling gallop of Central or Southern American percussion, and a harmonica enhance the sound of a song that actually has one of the most unique sounds on Combat Rock.
Occasionally found (as it is on my copy) in an edited form for legal reasons (thanks, 2000 Flushes…), “Inoculated City” resembles, in some ways, my favourite song on London Calling: “Lost in the Supermarket”. Like that track, Mick Jones takes over the lead, and the song is mostly relaxed and kind in sound, catchy and poppy, and rather friendly. The political content is more hopeful and encouraging than jaded and sneering like much of what Strummer sings.
Rounding out the album, “Death Is a Star” is more weirdness: crickets chirp and Joe begins to tell a story, speaking with the rhythm of a storyteller, before adding a tune to his voice for a moment, a waltzing rhythm joining him for those few moments, and the beautiful piano work of future Mescalero Tymon Dogg. Up-front finger-snapping and the sway of background strings keep the song both light and pretty, as the drums are kept to brushes and calm, the choruses usually Mick and Joe singing in a harmony that manages to smooth out the rough bits of Joe and the awkward, semi-nasal bits of Mick. A lovely but very odd way to end the album, and, other than a scattering of B-sides, the band itself.
Okay, okay. There was Cut the Crap in 1985. But Mick had left, and the album is generally ignored (at best) or derided, seen as a shadow of the band and nothing on its preceding work–indeed, Joe had started to doubt their ability to authentically sing about the issues he held so dear after their new-found successes.
I’m not sure what to make of Combat Rock; Sandinista! may well have covered more genre-ground, but the variety and the space between them is more starkly contrasted on Combat Rock. In some measure, this sounds like a more mature work for the band, with a refinement of the sounds and ideas that first inspired “White Riot”, but now both more understood and more carefully delivered. I don’t think it’s going to displace…whatever my favourite Clash record is, but the more I think about it, the more I think–You know? Actually, it might.
- Next Up: Codeine – Frigid Stars LP
¹I’m going to have to call an exception for my known Sandinista! voter, as that’s John, who I mention here a lot. He has always had one of the most voraciously curious personalities I’ve known, which I oddly developed independently years later. When around him, I just picked up the results of his experimentation and exploration.
²That’s Bo Diddley for the unfamiliar: the man responsible for the “Bo Diddley Beat”, which is an extension/renaming of son clave rhythms. It’s really quite distinct, though I could not personally wow anyone with a technical description of it. It’s kind of shuffling, and emphasizes non-standard beats (ie, not 1,2,3,4 or 1&2&3&4&, etc).
³”Take the Money and Run” being the Steve Miller Band single, which I’ve been told has prevented people from completing jobs or art, due to the need to stop and clap along. I can’t blame them.