ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
It would be impossible to predict the trajectory of The Clash in 1977. Their Ramones-inspired self-titled debut album became a punk classic. It articulated the despondency and boredom of growing up in post-World War Two England.
Their second album “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” (1978) was a predictable extension of their debut albeit with a cleaner, punchier production, courtesy of American producer, Sandy Pearlman.
“London Calling” (1979) is known as their double album full of musical exploration, sliding between ska, punk, disco, and rock ‘n’ roll. Their time on the road with Bo Diddley in the U.S. opened some musical doors to get them out of the logical endgame of punk. They shined brightly.
And in even grander fashion, they then released a triple album, “Sandinista!” in 1980. At the time they confounded their label, CBS, and insisted the album be priced as a single LP. To seal the deal, they forfeited all monies generated from the first 200,000 copies sold and sacrificed 50% of their royalties on future sales of the album. Though some critics asserted it was a self-indulgent work and that they could have pruned it to a double album, the band was insistent and fans viewed it as an artistic triumph. It was a mesh of dub-reggae, punk, majestic themes, proto-rap, strange studio sound effects, and um…. sheep sounds.
The commercial failure of “Sandinista!” was the catalyst for their massive mainstream breakthrough with “Combat Rock” (1982). 2022 is the 40th anniversary of the LP and it has been re-issued (“Combat Rock/The People’s Hall”) with bonus tracks that were originally intended for the album. It includes extended dance mixes and three songs that were removed entirely from the original release to keep the album under 50 minutes and punchy as possible by producer Glyn Johns (Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Small Faces, Easybeats).
“This is a public service announcement with guitars!”
- Know Your Rights
The coked-out Duane Eddy guitar drives the first track, “Know Your Rights,” which features singer/songwriter/guitarist, Joe Strummer’s ramblings, urgency, and humour. “Know your rights… you have the right to free speech, as long as you are not dumb enough to actually try it.” The Bo Diddley rhythmic influence reigns supreme on “Car Jamming” with drummer, Topper Headon, adding percussive elements throughout. Of course, everybody knows “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and the pop classic, “Rock The Casbah.” It catapulted them to stardom in the US playing in stadiums with The Who whilst MTV’s high rotation of “Rock The Casbah” confirmed their status as bona fide pop stars. Of course, this was all too much for the band they were falling apart and at loggerheads with the band’s direction. Interestingly the song was written by Topper Headon and he came up with the piano when the rest of the band was absent from the recording studio.
The experimental “Red Angel Dragnet” was sung by the band’s bassist, Paul Simonon along with former band manager and associate, Kosmo Vinyl. “Straight To Hell” is an unusual bird. Strummer scatters lyrical markers on the horrors of the Indo-Chinese wars and they are accompanied by haunting vocals, guitarist Mick Jones’ moody high-pitched guitar squeals, delayed guitar, and Strummer beating a bass drum with lemonade bottle wrapped in a towel, as suggested by Headon. The song is a rallying call to the horrors of war and the disconnect of humanity that tries to compete for air with the military-industrial complex.
American graffiti artist Futura 2000 raps and Strummer sings a frenzied disco piece, “Overpowered By Funk” whilst “Atom Tan” is classic Strummer/Jones using their tried and true call and response vocal exchanges. By then it became apparent there are so many musical styles that were more focused than the previous 3LP outing of “Sandinista!” “Sean Flynn” is based on a Vietnam War photographer who was the son of actor Errol Flynn. In 1970 he rode his rented motorbike to a demilitarized region and reportedly disappeared after being captured by the Vietcong in Cambodia.
“Starved on Metropolis, Hooked on Necropolis, addict of Metropolis,
do the worm on Acropolis, slam dance the Cosmopolis”
- Ghetto Defendant
What a surprise is “Ghetto Defendant” with its beat poetry stylizing narrated by the great Allen Ginsberg and interspersed with Strummer’s pleadings that heroin addiction is the real war and it’s “not tear gas nor baton charge” that “stop you taking the city.” “Inoculated City" is a Mick Jones standard that is a precursor to the sound of his future group, Big Audio Dynamite, and a hint at a sound that Aztec Camera would die for. The closing song, “Death Is A Star” is a fascinating story told by Strummer in a kooky cabaret finger-clicking style that fades off into a far east sunset, it seems. The piano accompaniment is free and easy as it plays along with a rhythmic Hawaiian-style guitar to the end.
It was well known that The Clash was inspired by the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film about the Vietnam War called “Apocalypse Now.” The group had name-checked the film when it previously released the song "Charlie Don't Surf" on “Sandinista!” “Combat Rock” is a horrific rendering of western culture, imperialism, American movies, cocaine and utilizes the immediacy of punk to get its point across. Punk is never at peace with itself and The Clash continued their social and political outreach on this outing causing them to fall apart and simultaneously taking over the world with their sound.