They got the weed, they got the taxis....
Released on 10 November 1978
Recorded at Basing Street Studios, London
Running time 36:57
In what was a great month for "punk" albums, November 1978, after The Jam's All Mod Cons, came this, The Clash's long-awaited second album. Their first one had an earthquake-level effect on contemporary music and many expected more of the same - two minute long frantic punk songs. What they got was far more "rock" than "punk" in many. The Clash, in many respects, had turned a bit more Mott The Hoople-ish than Sex Pistols. The tracks were longer, musically more intricate, lyrically more astute, showing that although the punk explosion had taken place, but now, progress must be made or else stagnation would occur. Why, even The Ramones were diversifying slightly, on the odd track, at least. This, and All Mod Cons were the albums which took "punk rock" to a different level. In fact they conclusively sounded its death knell.
To work on this album, The Clash hired Sandy Pearlman, the American producer of Blue Oyster Cult and, although, some have criticised the results, it is still a good album and, at times, a little underrated.
What was the odd cover all about though? A gaudy, red, blue and yellow image of a cowboy being feasted on by a couple of vultures while a communist-era Chinese horseman watches on. I somehow suited the idea that The Clash had something to say about world politics - communism, red China, Americana and so on. I liked the cover at the time and still do, although I'm not sure why, really. It just goes with my memories of buying the album upon release and listening to it, looking at the cover lying on my bed and wondering about it.
1. Safe European Home
2. English Civil War
3. Tommy Gun
4. Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad
5. Last Gang In Town
6. Guns On The Roof
7. Drug Stabbin' Time
8. Stay Free
10. All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)
Safe European Home was a fantastic opening to the album with a stunning guitar riff to begin things and then a frenetic, almost incomprehensible Strummer vocal about being a white guy in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. Apparently Pearlman objected to Strummer's slurred voice and mixed the drums higher than his voice throughout the album. It certainly sounds as if that is the case here. I saw the band live in December 1978 and they opened with this. It was one of the greatest moments from one of the greatest gigs of my life.
English Civil War is a rousing, contemporary update on the US Civil War song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, with a throbbing bass intro and urban lyrics such as "he's coming by bus or underground..". Again, though, it sounds more of a rock song than a punk one.
As for Tommy Gun. That rat-a-tat drum intro. Wow. That morse code guitar part too. This is a magnificent piece of Clashery, about middle-eastern terrorism, arms sales and hijacking aircraft. Atmospheric and cutting. Best track on the album? Maybe.
Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad opens with another excellent drum intro from new drummer Topper Headon launches us into a tale based on Operation Julie, a British police drug bust in the late 70s. Some rather tongue in cheek lyrics render this a wryly amusing number. The Clash always had a bit of a sense of humour hidden away somewhere.
The old "side one" closes with Last Gang In Town. Now, this is truly a "rock" song. Bags of Stones-style riffery and some Duane Eddy-inspired parts as well in places, even some rockabilly hints under the surface. Several verses as well, over five minutes long in a tale loosely involving street gangs (rockabilly rebels and skinheads) in various parts of London's suburbs. As if punk never happened. Thos two minute thrashes seem a long time ago.
Guns On The Roof was apparently based on a rather puerile incident involving bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon shooting pigeons with an air rifle from the roof of their London flat, resulting in their arrest and eventual fine for criminal damage. The lyrics diversify to cover terrorist incidents, assassins and global corruption as well as the "roof" affair. The opening roof pretty much re-uses the guitar part from an earlier non-album single, Clash City Rockers. Nice big heavy bass sound throughout the track and thumping drums.
Drug-Stabbing Time has a punky guitar opening and a fast punky pace too on this song about, as you would imagine, drugs. Again, there are rockabilly hints in the bass backing. This is one of the tracks that sounds eminently improved on the 2013 Mick Jones-supervised Sound System remasters of the band's entire collection. Previously, it had been a bit murky, now it sounds much clearer, the wailing saxophone in the background can be heard more and the bass is full and powerful. Once more, the length of the track turns it from punk to rock as with most of the other tracks.
Stay Free was Mick Jones' mildly reggae-influenced mid-paced rock reminiscence of the exploits of an old mate who went "on a nicking spree" and ended up with "three years in Brixton". Despite the questionable morality of the guy, there is a touching side to Jones' loyalty to his mate. As well as singing lead vocals, Mick adds a killer guitar solo at the track's end as well.
Cheapskates is probably the "forgotten" song on the album. Muffled in its sound and a bit directionless, the current remaster has improved things a little, but is basically something of a lazy throwaway. Oh, ok, it's alright, I don't mind it, just not up to the standard of the rest of the album. Jones hits the spot with a mid-song solo, though.
Punk rock had by now mutated into something that allowed for more traditional rock anthems to close albums. The five minutes of All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts) had clear hints of the way The Clash's brand of rock would be carried over into the next album. Quite a few verses, harmonised vocals and, of course, that trademark Jones guitar solo (quite superb here, by the way) and a lyric that railed against the money-making and exploitation of the music industry. The incomprehensible vocal blathering from Strummer backed by the others in the fade out was like a punk choir saying goodbye to it all, preparing to face the new, with confidence. This album was The Clash's Diamond Dogs.
The clip below is The Clash performing Tommy Gun on Something Else in 1978.