Tuesday, 1 September 2020

The Clash




"I knew something was up, so I went out in the crowd which was fairly sparse. And I saw the future right in front of me. It was immediately clear. Pub rock was, 'Hello, you bunch of drunks, I'm gonna play these boogies and I hope you like them.' The Pistols came out that Tuesday evening and their attitude was, 'Here's our tunes, and we couldn't give a flying fuck whether you like them or not. In fact, we're gonna play them even if you fucking hate them'" - Joe Strummer

"The only band that matters" - so the often-used cliché goes whenever The Clash are being discussed. While this was somewhat hyperbolic (and one suspects, self-perpetuated), the mythology around this seminal UK punk group always had a certain amount of truth in it - guitarist Mick Jones' West London high-rise tower block upbringing, bassist Paul Simonon's initial lack of ability, drummer Topper Headon's unpredictable temper, Joe Strummer's middle-class upbringing and so on. Well, you know what they said - well some of it was true.


For me, the first Clash album was one of my first prolonged experiences of punk (after The Sex Pistols and The Ramones). A friend and I drove from Buckinghamshire to Manchester one weekend and played it continually, over and over again, revelling in the sheer visceral excitement of those thirty-five minutes of tinny guitars, fast metronomic drums and slurred, garbled vocals. Whether singer Joe Strummer's pseudo-political rants meant anything much at all didn't really matter. They sounded as if they were of world-shattering importance, and that suited me fine as an angry, cause-driven eighteen year-old desperate to get some fist-pumping in. The night of Friday 22 December 1978 at Aylesbury Friars when the lights went out and four shadowy figures loped on to the stage and suddenly burst, lights flashing all over the place, into Safe European Home was simply one of the most exciting moments of my life. (For more information on the Clash at Friars, Aylesbury, check out the excellent website  https://www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk).

  

Whether The Clash were the real thing or whether they were a bunch of contrived sloganeers is missing the point regarding their cultural importance to music between 1977-82. Their influence goes way beyond those five great years and five diverse albums (only the first and parts of the second were genuinely punk). The number of subsequent artists influenced and inspired by them is endless. That said, there were no doubt many people in the same period who carried on listening to prog rock, Led Zeppelin or disco as if The Clash never mattered at all.

The Clash (1977)


Janie Jones/Remote Control/I'm So Bored With The USA/White Riot/Hate & War/What's My Name/Deny/London's Burning/Career Opportunities/Cheat/Protex Blue/Police And Thieves/48 Hours/Garageland  

"I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I'd been up for thirty-six hours. I was actually listening to another inductee's record, The Clash's first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote 'Watching the Detectives'" - Elvis Costello

One of the genuine cornerstones of the UK punk explosion, this absolutely seminal breakneck ride through thirteen two minute or so songs, plus Police And Thieves, is so vital to understanding the seismic shock that punk was to the music scene in 1977.

I vividly remember a friend of mine getting his first car and we drove from Buckinghamshire to Manchester for the sake of it, just because we could and slept the night in the car in a backstreet in the city’s warehouse district. We had one cassette to play - this album. We played it over and over, there and back. Its effect was that remarkable. We loved every minute - the buzzsaw guitar, the frantic drums, the rumbling basic bass and Joe Strummer’s barked, often incomprehensible vocals.

Some people question The Clash’s punk credentials because Strummer was the middle class son of a diplomat and was slightly older and Mick Jones had been a Mott The Hoople fan and a Stones fan too (although they claimed not to be in their single release “1977”. Basically, this was irrelevant. Did The Clash blow a huge hole in the ceiling of contemporary pop music in 1977? Were they perceived by the youth of the time as politically and musically relevant? The answer is a firm “yes, not half” to both questions, at least for those who were receptive. Many, it has to be said, were disco or prog rock fans for whom The Clash meant nothing. Thankfully, I was one of the receptive. The group were manna from Heaven for angry young men like me. 

A quick word on that iconic green and monochrome cover and its orange type face. It was just perfect. The three band members pictured on the front (minus original drummer Terry Chimes) looked hard, uncompromising and scruffy/cool - no long hair, medallions or exposed chests here. This was your classic anti-hero cover. The rear image of police dealing with urban rioting left one in no doubt as to the group's political concerns. No Tolkein-esque images, no tubular bells, no guitarists in make-up, no corkscrew curls to be found within a hundred miles of this. The times were a-changing.

On Janie Jones, Terry Chimes’ upbeat drum riff heralds that start of this great album, Mick Jones’ guitar chops in, Paul Simonon’s bass rumbles   and Joe Strummer’s rasping vocal enters the fray in this catchy song about a notorious 70s London madam who made the news for some reason that I cannot remember. On Complete Control, a non-album single, the band began with the line “they said release “Remote Control”, but we didn’t want it on the label...” indicating that CBS wanted this track released as a single but the band did not. 

At three minutes long, Remote Control  is almost a “rock” track as opposed to a “punk” one, introducing us for the first time to that riff from Mick Jones - unique and always musical. I'm So Bored With The USA sees a buzzsaw guitar crackles in the aggressive intro to this militant attack on the USA and its seemingly omnipresent culture, complete with fist punching, singalong chorus.

Jones and Strummer were caught up in some of the Brixton riots of the time, and felt somewhat detached from the protesting black youth all around them. The iconic breakneck classic punk rant that was White Riot was the result. The punk riff intro has rarely been bettered. The single version of the track was superior, more abrasive, however. See the bottom of this album's review. 

On Hate and War the racist mentality of contemporary fascist groups was the subject matter of this slightly slower pace track- “hate and war, it is the currency”What's My Name was another fast paced punker. “What the hell is wrong with me” barks Strummer. Then on the next track, "Deny - you're such a liar!” moans Strummer to an unreliable girlfriend. Even punks had girlfriend problems in between all that griping about society.



London's Burning is a true Clash classic. Jones’ guitar chops stab in to a wonderful intro and then some angry lyrics about driving around London’s Westway elevated flyover “speeding around underneath the yellow lights”. London was burning with boredom, they exclaimed. Such an anthem of urban youth protest. Glorious  stuff when you’re eighteen. There is a great moment, just a short while in, when Mick Jones' guitar slashes furiously straight to one of your speakers. Marvellous.

Career Opportunities is another great track, about unemployment and the lack of decent job opportunities - “they offered me the office, offered me the shop, they said I’d better take any job they got”. Finger on the pulse in a sub-two minute punk song. Great guitar and drum intro too. Featured in the scene in the film Rude Boy when lead character Ray put the album on in his grubby bedsit room. Cheat is an angry tub-thumper about cheating if you can’t win, narrated in the first person but written as an observation of a nihilistic, selfish person, while Protex Blue is a short, sharp, furious pace song about condoms, apparently. Never heard of them. I was always a regular "Durex" man. 50p for three from the railway station toilet vending machine.

   

The lengthy Police And Thieves forms what is definitely the album’s oddity - a six minute cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae classic, but here given an almost rock, slowed down approach, with a great riffy intro. The reggae rhythms are guitar-based and clunky, almost not reggae at all, apart from the fact that they are choppy. Either way, it gave a firm hint as to directions the band would take in late years. They were certainly not prepared to be tethered down to the punk "two minute thrash" ethic. Stiff Little Fingers put a similar extended punky reggae cover on their debut album, their cover was of Bob Marley's Johnny Was, in very much the same style as this track.

48 Hours is the shortest track on the album, and maybe the most forgettable. Fast and furious, but that’s about it, while Garageland is another semi-rock song to finish off - the story of the band’s progression to be a “garage band”. “I don’t want to hear about what the rich are doing” gargled Strummer. None of us did, Joe.



The non-album tracks that were recorded either side of this album were quite a few, and of a good quality.

1977, the b side of White Riot, (the single version of which, incidentally, was better than the one that appeared on the album, far more instant, riffy and confrontational) was taken as a call to arms for the punk movement, eschewing all rock bands that had been before - “no Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977” growled Joe Strummer over a choppy, riff-driven guitar backing. Strange that Mick Jones was a fan of Keith Richards, and had a lot of Richards about his look at times, and also that within a couple of years, The Clash would be recording music that utilised influences from pretty every type of popular music that had ever been. That said, it was a great track - those drum rolls and the “danger, danger” refrain. Listen is actually a pretty convincing, albeit simple instrumental, featuring some good Mick Jones guitar. The original Capital Radio was a classic punk single - riff-dominated, vocals spat out, expressing a perceived grievance  - here with Capitol Radio’s refusal to play punk records.

  

Complete Control was a superb single. Starting with a truly blistering guitar intro, it tells of the band’s frustration, firstly with CBS wanting to release Remote Control as a single, the increasing business/financial side of punk and then with their mates not being able to get into their gigs - "They said we'll be artistically free, when we signed that bit of paper - they meant let's make lots of money and worry about it later...."/"At the last gig, my mates they couldn't get in...". Musically, it has one of those classic Mick Jones riffs - “You're my guitar hero” indeed. It loses a bit of momentum a bit in the middle at the “I won’t judge you” point and also in the fade out, but no real matter. It was, and is, a Clash classic. The live version that opens From Here To Eternity is awesome. Its b side, City Of The Dead is a powerful, grinding track that would have been great on the first album, or on Give ‘Em Enough Rope for that matter. It utilises saxophone for the first time on a Clash recording, I believe. It is a track that shows far more musical maturity than you would expect from the group in this period. It doesn't sound out of place in the company of their 1978-79 material. The Clash were progressing at a pace.

Stabbing guitar chops introduce the searing Clash City Rockers and Joe proceeds to rant about “old Bowie” and so on. The b side, Jail Guitar Doors, is a Stonesy rocker that namechecks Keith Richards. The sentiments of “1977” didn’t take long to wear off, it seems.
  
   

Give 'em Enough Rope (1978)


Safe European Home/English Civil War/Tommy Gun/Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad/Last Gang In Town/Guns On The Roof/Drug Stabbin' Time/Stay Free/Cheapskates/All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)  

"Straight English punk with a grip on the future" - Greil Marcus - Rolling Stone  

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 rear 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. It 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.

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. The 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 non-album material from the months either side of this album's release contains some copper-bottomed Clash classics.

One of THE songs that instantly makes me remember the summer of 1978 and subsequent gigs over the next few years, indeed the whole punk/new wave era was the mighty (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais - a wonderful slice of white punky reggae introduced by Jones’s “one, two freefour” and Strummer’s classic first verse bemoaning the lack of crucial dub and rebel music being played at a reggae gig he attended at Hammersmith Palais. The track is full of atmosphere and some classic lines  - “if Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway…” and “they think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money…” to name just two. Top, top track. Its b side was a corker too - The Prisoner is a breakneck punk romp with garbled, almost incomprehensible lyrics - “the prisoner meets the muppet hi-fi north of Watford Junction…”; ”Johnny Too Bad meets Johnny B. Goode on the Charing Cross Road…”. Despite not knowing what the hell it was about, there is a real vibe to it and one hell of an atmosphere. I have always loved this one.

  

Mick Jones’ rare thing, a Clash love song in 1-2 Crush On You, which appeared as the b side to Tommy Gun, is not his best song, to be honest, and the covers of Booker T. & The MGs’ Time Is Tight and Toots & The Maytals’ Pressure Drop (which was the b side to English Civil War) are not convincing, it has to be said. Also dating from the sessions for this album was One Emotion, written in Jamaica while they were watching a James Bond film and ice Jones said "Roger Moore's only got one emotion..". It is a song that is clumsy in parts with a harsh vocal from Jones and equally raucous one from Strummer. It is ok in places but doesn't quite make it for me. Nice drums on it, though.

 

In the summer of 1979 we got the release of a four track EP entitled The Cost Of Living. Both Groovy Times and Gates Of The West start to show that the move away from punk to a broader sphere of influence was coming. I Fought The Law speaks for itself. Clash power at its very best. For more of the same check out the crashing, aural assault of Capital Radio Two. Magnificent.

London Calling (1979)


London Calling/Brand New Cadillac/Jimmy Jazz/Hateful/Rudie Can't Fail/Spanish Bombs/The Right Profile/Lost In The Supermarket/Clampdown/The Guns Of Brixton/Wrong 'Em Boyo/Death Or Glory/Koka Kola/The Card Cheat/Lovers Rock/Four Horsemen/I'm Not Down/Revolution Rock/Train In Vain  

"Whether the Clash completely abandoned their punk roots or pushed punk's musical eclecticism and diversity into new terrain remains a controversial issue" - Jack Sargeant

The front cover visually references Elvis Presley's debut album with the pink and green writing along the front bottom and left side and shows Paul Simonon smashing his guitar, as to symbolically destroy the "old music" of the likes of Elvis. "No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977" growled Strummer a couple of years earlier. Now, they were diversifying as dramatically as The Beatles, pushing punk's boundaries or maybe just turning their backs on punk completely. There is a convincing argument that says they were doing the latter, only two and a half years after the raw punk of their debut. What is certainly not in doubt was that The Clash were now taking all sorts of musical chances. In the following year, they would take even more - the the nth degree.

On to the album. Personally, Sgt PepperPet SoundsBorn To RunA Night At The OperaBrothers In ArmsThrillerLed Zeppelin IVExile On Main Street are not my favourite albums by those particular artists/groups, although they are popularly accepted as such. Similarly with London Calling. I prefer Give 'Em Enough RopeThe Clash and parts of Sandinista!.

That is not to overlook this album's undoubted quality and influence at the time. A "punk" group doing a double album? Wow! It worked too - a chocolate box of styles made for an always interesting listen and you are taken from one feel to another, track by track. Just consider the first few - the urgent "rock" of London Calling, the rockabilly r’n’b  of Brand New Cadillac, the jazzy slurrings of Jimmy Jazz, the poppy Hateful and the calypso influenced bluebeat reggae of Rudie Can't Fail.

The old "disc one" sets the tone for the three subsequent discs. This album killed "punk" and even "new wave" stone dead. It was as seismic as all those groups going "weird" in 1967-68. Genres like roots reggae, ska, bluebeat, rockabilly were creeping in as influences everywhere in the early 1980s. No coincidence. This album opened many doors. For many, it is seen as one of the greatest albums of all time. Veteran producer Guy Stevens, of Mott The Hoople producing fame in the late sixties/early seventies pre-Bowie days was somehow talked out of drinking his days away to do it one more time. Guitarist Mick Jones was a big Mott fan so it was possibly his idea to approach Stevens, although his lunatic genius probably appealed to Joe Strummer and Topper Headon as well.



Stevens encouraged the group to diversify, to rock fast and ad hoc, such as on Brand New Cadillac, but all the band members contributed their own ideas in this loose, creative methodic madness. There is some great reggae in here, bassist Paul Simonon's thing - the dubby, grinding shuffle of Guns Of Brixton, the organ-driven rhythm of Revolution Rock and the irresistible ska of Wrong 'Em Boyo.

I would have liked Armagideon Time to have made it on there though. We get some classic rock in the fist-pumping Death Or Glory, the riffy Four Horsemen and the rousing, anthemic Clampdown.

There is also some classic Mick Jones rock in the subtly amusing Lost In The Supermarket and I'm Not Down. Like on Sandinista!, pretty much everything but punk. Not forgetting also the "hidden track", Train In Vain, which was not credited on the original album cover. It is an upbeat, harmonica-driven bluesy romp which again, is nothing like anything else on the album, or indeed anything else The Clash had done previously.

 

The hard to categorise ones are the frantic, short burst of Koka Kola, the grandiose, piano-driven The Card Cheat and the laid-back groove of Lovers' Rock

As I said, it is a veritable smörgåsbord of different sounds and styles - Spanish Bombs is a catchy, but contemporaneously odd number, being based on acoustic and light lead guitar riffs. It is certainly not punk in any way. Neither, even more so, is The Right Profile, a bluesy, slightly jazzy song with a drunken-sounding, typically Strummer-slurred singalong chorus. There is a real diversity of styles here that makes this quite a cornucopia. The Clash had laid down a marker that showed they were just as willing to change as "old Bowie". They would continue to do so for the rest of their comparatively short career.



The non-album material from this period includes one of the group's most convincing stabs at genuinely authentic reggae in the b side to London Calling, Willie Williams' Armagideon Time. It is full of excellent dub rhythms and a haunting vocal. Also included are two extended, infectious dub variants of the track in Justice Tonight and Kick It Over.

  

Sandinista! (1981)


The Magnificent Seven/Hitsville UK/Junco Partner/Ivan Meets GI Joe/The Leader/Something About England/Rebel Waltz/Look Here/The Crooked Beat/Somebody Got Murdered/One More Time/One More Dub/Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)/Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)/Corner Soul/Let's Go Crazy/If Music Could Talk/The Sound Of The Sinners/Police On My Back/Midnight Log/The Equaliser/The Call-Up/Washington Bullets/Broadway/Lose This Skin/Charlie Don't Surf/Mensforth Hill/Junkie Slip/Kingston Advice/The Street Parade/Version City/Living In Fame/Silicone On Sapphire/Version Pardner/Career Opportunities/Shepherd's Delight  

"The album was made for people on oil rigs who couldn't get to a record shop regularly" - Mick Jones 
                                       
On to this controversial album. Bloated, self-indulgent, 15 tracks too long,..all the contemporary and continuing criticisms hold water. However, for me, despite all those drawbacks, it is only the last few tracks that I feel I could do without.

Sandinista! is a veritable cornucopia of musical styles - hip hop, rap, rockabilly, Americana, folk, cajun, country, 60s pop, disco, Motown, reggae, dub, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, calypso, funk, doo-wop, rock n roll, even waltz...why, they are all there. Everything it seems...except punk. The very thing that had catapulted The Clash on the road to stardom has been eschewed, big time.

To an extent, after the cross-genre success of London Calling, The Clash had suddenly become almost mainstream, and with that came an arrogance and cocksure attitude of untouchability and a feeling that they could get as drug-addled as they liked and, in White Album style, record what the hell they liked - rubbish or not.

From all accounts the sessions for the album, initially in Jamaica (initially the album was to be far more reggae-flavoured, featuring Mikey Dread as producer) and subsequently in New York City, were chaotic and over-populated with numerous musicians and hangers-on. Several different people played bits here and there on the album, it is certainly not all the four members only, far from it. Sometimes drummer Topper Headon was either too drugged up or frustrated by some of Strummer and Jones’ ideas and bassist Paul Simonon was missing on some occasions. Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Mickey Gallagher keyboards) from The Blockheads were present for quite a lot of the sessions.

At times it seemed as if Strummer and Jones had been inspired by London Calling producer, legendary nutter Guy Stevens as they became increasingly off the wall in some of their musical experimentation. They also were apparently motivated to piss CBS executives off over various perceived injustices - still wanting to wilfully stick it to management, punk-style. Granted, you can pretty much write off most of “side six” of the original vinyl album, with its four dub versions that sort of became The Clash’s Revolution 9 or their equivalent of the final "jam" side of George Harrison's All Things Musat Pass, but, for the most part, their drug-fuelled apparent lunacy worked well. Time has served the album well, too, and it is now quite the revered creation.

Quite what they were trying to achieve with this album, however, is still unclear as indeed is whether they ever achieved it or not. Opinions are still divided. For some it is their best work. For others it is a sprawling, indulgent, intoxicated mess. Me, I have always had a lot of affection for it. It has become quite a fashionable thing among Clash aficionados to cherry pick their best tracks and make their own personal Sandinista!. So, I will do the same. There are too many tracks to detail them one by one so I will pick out my highlights to check out -

The Magnificent Seven - The Clash's first use of the burgeoning genre of hip/hop as an influence on a lengthy, lyric-laden, frantic urban rap. It has a totally infectious rhythm to it. Lyrically, it is wry and witty, again showing that the group had a sharp, humorous, observant side to them. A month before Blondie's Rapture, it was the first song from a white group to use hip/hop rhythms and, although the vocals were not pure rap as such, they were most definitely rap-influenced. The sound here was the first brick in the foundations of Mick Jones' next group, Big Audio Dynamite. Despite the rousing fare The Clash remain famous for, this is up there as one of their best ever songs.

Hitsville UK - Mick Jones' then girlfriend Ellen Foley leads the vocals on this quirkily appealing, Motown-influenced number. It stands out completely from the rest of the album due to its unashamed poppiness and female vocal. Nobody could really say it was The Clash, it was just a good song, written by them.

Something About England - Jones delivers a plaintive, heavily orchestrated song about British social history. Jones always had a good feel for the past, particularly London's, and it comes through clearly here.

The Crooked Beat - Dubby reggae grooves and typically deadpan vocals from Paul Simonon and supplementary toasting vocals from Mikey Dread.

Somebody Got Murdered - The only remotely riffy/new wave number on the album, along with Police On My Back. Jones's trademark melodious guitar and plaintively light vocal are great and it would not have been out of place on London Calling. On first listen to the album, I remember being taken aback, initially, by the music of the preceding tracks and being reassured by this one that The Clash were still The Clash.

One More Time/One More Dub - A muscular, dubby Strummer piece of urban observation over a slowed down vaguely funk/rock/dub beat. Once again, Mikey Dread lends his toasting skills to proceedings. It mines the same dubby seam that Armagideon Time had done and is full of late seventies/early eighties punky reggae party crossover vibes.

If Music Could Talk - A bit similar to Broadway. A jazzy, saxophone-enhanced laid-back stream of consciousness from Strummer. A fine bass line (Watt-Roy, I am sure, but never confirmed) renders it an intoxicating offering, one of the album's unsung heroes. It is a deceptively fine offering. Its barely comprehensible lyrics contain a wealth of great lines - you definitely need the lyric sheet, though.

The Sound Of The Sinners - The Clash try their hand at gospel on this lively, fun number, assisted by Den Hegarty (who does the Vicar voice at the end too) from doo-wop/pop group Darts. You can't help but be lifted by this as Strummer gets into it. To think that a punk group could now be experimenting with stuff like this would have been incomprehensible in 1977. It shows just what a clever guy Joe Strummer was. It is intuitively brilliant.

Police On My Back - The album's only truly punk riff can be found on the intro to this tub-thumper. It is a cover of an Eddy Grant song.

The Equaliser - More reggae-influence here, this time from Strummer. Very dubby in places. It is chock full of dub atmosphere, those funny synth-drum noises and some excellent electric violin enhancement. The vocals are sparse, but that adds to the whole feeling - one of a menacing, late-night urban landscape. It is a song that gets int your system and the refrain of "we don't want no gang boss - we want to equalise..." sticks in your head from the first listen. In many ways, material like this was just as representative of The Clash's sound as White Riot or London Calling. Check out that big rumbling bass - later-era Clash heaven.



The Call Up - One of the album's more commercial-sounding numbers. It contains a great hook, an evocative, haunting ambience and a strong anti-war message. Listening to those sirens and military drums at the beginning still sends shivers down my spine, as does Strummer's baleful, foreboding-laden vocal.

Washington Bullets - One of the albums best cuts. Full of cynical political comment concerning Latin American/US corruption, based, no doubt, on the Sandinista/Nicaragua/US situation. I have always loved the line "in a war-torn zone, stop any mercenary - check the British bullets in his armoury...".

Broadway - Possibly the album's most surprising track - a totally un-Clash piece of late night, slurry jazzy blues. Who would have thought, three years ago, they would have done stuff like this? "It ain't fault it's six o'clock in the morning..." groans a totally done-in sounding Strummer as a jazzy reggae beat tiredly kicks in. You feel you have a hangover yourself just listening to it. Beneath its surface torpor lies a great, almost Bowie-esque piece of gold, however. The piano/bass/drum interplay reminds me of Aladdin Sane and Mike Garson's piano.

 

Charlie Don't Surf - Strummer's Vietnam obsession rears its head, quoting the movie Apocalypse Now on a shuffling, rhythmic groove. It is a song more popular with others than it is with me, so its place in this list is precarious.

Version City - One of the only truly listenable tracks on the last side, in fact the only one. It is a fetchingly rhythmic piece of bluesy funk with impressive bass and harmonica swirling around. A last late treat. Actually, I tell a lie, Mikey Dread's dub-drenched Living In Fame (a dub version of If Music Could Talk) kicks dubby ass too.

There you go. More than enough to be getting on with. Stick with it. It gets better with each listen. It is probably clear, though, that I have selected according to my taste - the reggae/dubby ones are there plus the more vaguely Clash-sounding ones. Some of the initially weirder ones (perhaps) - the bluegrass and folky Americana numbers like the jazzy Mose Allison cover Look Here, the actually pretty irresistible bluesy jazz of Midnight Log and the thoroughly atmospheric Rebel Waltz haven't made it, neither the frantic, bassy doo-wop anti-media rant of The Leader, the politically-inspired pop/dance groove of Ivan Meets GI Joe or the complex pseudo funk/rap of Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice). Despite the eclecticism of these tracks, it was a close thing for all of them. I could make a case for any of them.

Then there is the catchy, reggae-influenced groove of Strummer's Junco Partner, madcap fiddler Tymon Dogg's guest contribution, the folky Lose This Skin and the lyrically Latin-inspired, beguiling Corner Soul. All good tracks that compete for a place on an abridged version of the album. Jones's riffy and tuneful Up In Heaven (Not Only Here) deserves to make the cut, to be fair. It is very similar in feel to Somebody Got Murdered, just not quite as instantly appealing. The bass and drums at the end remind me a lot of Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler from The Jam. The punky dub sound of Kingston Advice is an underrated track from amid the murk of the album's final passages. There are also good points to The Street Parade, with its fine funky saxophone and the loose vibe of Junkie Slip.

Thinking about it again, as I always do with this album, I may put the catchy steel band and calypso-influenced Let's Go Crazy in there. Yes, I will - you see, I've changed my mind already - that's the whole point with Sandinista!, it gets you thinking about all the tracks on offer and all their manifold differences. In the end I find I want to put about twenty-five or more tracks on there, giving me at least a double album's worth. In fact, take the original album's first four sides and you've got a great double. I will also make one final belated case for the dub versions on side six too - back in 1981 people just weren't used to nearly a whole side being made up of such seemingly indulgent "filler" fare but, taken as part of a box set of music these days, where endless demo and alternative versions thrive, they would be accepted far more, for they aren't bad at all. Shepherd's Delight, for example, with its farmyard noises, received a severe slagging at the time, but Lee "Scratch" Perry has used similar noises several times and is hailed as a dub master.

Mick Jones, slightly tongue-in-cheek, later said the overflowing album was made for people on oil rigs who couldn't get to a record shop regularly. Whatever, it is certainly a remarkable piece of work. Every time I listen to it, the more I think that it is a work of bloody instinctive genius.



The non-album material from the period included the atmospheric single Bankrobber, with its reggae influences and its dub b side Robber Dub. Also around was Rockers Galore, an addictive number which utilised the Bankrobber rhythm together with vocals from roots reggae artist Mikey Dread about touring with the band.

  

Other b sides were the muffled vaguely jazzy anti-nuclear protest number, Stop The World (from The Call Up), The Cool Out (an enjoyable instrumental version of The Call Up), Radio One (from Hitsville UK), which has Mikey Dread toasting over a dubby beat for six minutes and The Magnificent Dance, a deep, bongo-driven, funky instrumental version of the single The Magnificent Seven. There was also the experimental dance/hip-hop of the stand alone single This Is Radio Clash, which had an alternative version of the same song as its b side. The latter is a minute short and is slightly more funky and urgent. Both of them are quirkily impressive, though, as the band changed direction again.

A rarity from 1980 is a cover of the Brenda Holloway song, Every Little Bit Hurts. It was recorded as Jones liked the song, in two takes. For such a incongruous song for The Clash to record, it is done surprisingly well, with Jones on vocals over a nice soulful backing. Heaven knows what people would have thought if this had been released as a single! Norman Watt-Roy of The Blockheads plays a sumptuous bass on it. Neither Joe Strummer or Paul Simonon were involved in its recording.

  

Combat Rock (1982)


Know Your Rights/Car Jamming/Should I Stay Or Should I Go/Rock The Casbah/Red Angel Dragnet/Straight To Hell/Overpowered By Funk/Atom Tan/Sean Flynn/Ghetto Defendant/Inoculated City/Death Is A Star  

"Their biggest seller - but the beginning of the end" - Q Magazine   
                                               
Released in 1982, this was the last proper Clash album, and, to be honest, the one to which I return to least frequently. It was the one that people who knew little about the group's first album had, attracted by the big hit single that it contained. Unlike many, I have never liked the Stonesy and incredibly popular Should I Stay Or Should I Go, and also, as the old “side two” progresses, the songs get increasingly lazy and unappealing, particularly Inoculated City and the rambling, jazzy Death Is A Star. These latter two tracks tried, but failed, to summon up a post-apocalyptic Diamond Dogs-style urban nightmare. I know where they were trying to go, but they never got there, for me. They remind me of the final batch of lazy compositions from Sandinista!.

The half-formed, experimental Sean Flynn could fall into that category, but it has a sort of atmospheric appeal to it. The same is true of Ghetto Defendant, which is very beguiling, with its spoken lyric part about Jean Arthur Rimbaud and the Paris commune. This is quite a typical track for this album - apparently full of meaning, portent and importance - full of lyrics about nineteenth century Paris and so on. Maybe just full of pretentious guff, though. The same applies to the Vietnam mystery and romanticism of Sean Flynn. Joe Strummer was always fascinated by Vietnam and this is reflected in the "Vietnam chic" of the tropical front cover. 



So, while there was some commercial stuff on here, there was also some lazy, half-baked material too. Atom Tan is ok, but doesn't really get anywhere with its slightly clumsy vocals, but Paul Simonon's Red Angel Dragnet has a gritty, bassy appeal. Half reggae, half funk, it has a mysterious allure to it added to by Simonon's decidedly odd semi-spoken vocal. He had a strange manner of diction, did Simonon. These tracks are acceptable, but, previous to this, The Clash hadn't done simply acceptable.

My personal favourites, however, have always been the quirky, rhythmic Car Jamming, the visceral, confrontational Know Your Rights and the monumental, evocative Vietnam-inspired Straight To Hell, with its intoxicating South East Asian percussion sound and moving narrative. There is a case for this being one of The Clash's finest ever tracks, it builds up superbly and is packed full of atmosphere, both musically and lyrically. Topper Headon's Eastern-style drumming is completely intoxicating. 

 

"This is a public service announcement, with guitar..." barks Strummer at the start of Know Your Rights. It was a promising start, unfortunately, by the end of the album, I can't help feeling that it was a patchy one overall. Overpowered By Funk tries to continue where The Magnificent Seven left off, with its frantic rhythm, but doesn’t quite get there, for me, despite having good points, such as being packed full of witty lyrics.

Rock The Casbah was an absolutely great single too, with a killer chorus and catchy piano riff. Overall, it is not a bad album, but only a “good in parts” one. You could somehow feel the lack of cohesion within the band's dynamic, though. It definitely comes across in the songs and their running order. The first half of the album (the old "side one"), is definitely the superior. Not long after this The Clash as we knew them were no more. That was no surprise, really. However, let it not be forgotten that it had been five simply great years.

Thanks for the memories and the music.



The non-album material from 1982 included the evocative, underrated b side of Know Your Rights, Mick Jones' First Night Back In London. I love this track for its broody, late night urban simplicity. It was miles away from the band's debut album but then so was everything they did in 1982.

There were three other b sides, the lively, modern rockabilly of Long Time Jerk (from Rock The Casbah), the industrially harsh, gritty reggae of Cool Confusion from the 12" release of Should I Stay Or Should I Go and the bongos and bass version of Rock The Casbah in Mustapha Dance, also from that track's single release.  

There were also three tracks from the sessions for this album that were not used. They were the lazily melodic paean to madcap producer Guy StevensMidnight To Stevens, which dated from the pre-Combat Rock sessions in 1981, the oddly jaunty Latin-ish pop of The Beautiful People Are Ugly Too from 1982 and Idle In Kangaroo Court, which had a staccato, jerky Caribbean beat that was pretty difficult to categorise. All these songs would not have been out of place on Sandinista! Actually they would have done ok replacing some of the less impressive tracks on Combat Rock.

Of all the Mick Jones-supervised 2014 remasters, this is the one in which there is little difference between this and the 1999 remaster. The others sound revelatory, not so much on this one, for whatever reason.

  

From Here To Eternity: LIVE 1978-1982


Complete Control/London's Burning/What's My Name/Clash City Rockers/Career Opportunities/(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais/Capital Radio/City Of The Dead/I Fought The Law/London Calling/Armagideon Time/Train In Vain/The Guns Of Brixton/The Magnificent Seven/Know Your Rights/Should I Stay Or Should I Go/Straight To Hell/Drug Stabbing Time/Janie Jones   

As noted elsewhere, not much Clash live material exists. Live At Shea Stadium is the only full concert recording, otherwise it is six tracks on the Sound System box set, or this excellent compilation of live recordings that date between 1978-82. They are not in chronological order and come from various concerts, but, strangely enough, they play like one concert and the track list reads like a convincing set list. The wonders of digital technology allow you to programme the tracks in chronological order, should you so wish. 
                                        
The older ones are, unsurprisingly, more rough and ready, but the sound quality is pretty good on all of them. Complete Control is just an excellent opener and there are storming versions of London's BurningWhat's My Name, Clash City RockersCity Of The Dead and the piledriving I Fought The Law as far as the punkier tracks go.

The reggae/dub ones such as a dubby Armagideon Time, featuring Mikey Dread, and Guns Of Brixton are great too. Even the difficult to play (I should imagine) White Man In Hammersmith Palais is done well. 

Train In Vain features a great bass line from Paul Simonon. London Calling bristles with all the vitality of the original. The Magnificent Seven rumbles on full of bass and funk rock. Great stuff. Know Your Rights was always an underrated, latter day Clash classic and the same applies to the marvellously evocative Straight To Hell, which loses none of its atmosphere here. 

Overall, it is as good as we are going to get. Such a pity nothing more is available and that no radio broadcasts have come out of the woodwork, as they have done for so many US bands.

Live At Shea Stadium (1982)


Intro/London Calling/Police On My Back/The Guns Of Brixton/Tommy Gun/The Magnificent Seven/Armagideon Time/The Magnificent Seven (Return)/Rock The Casbah/Train In Vain/Career Opportunities/Spanish Bombs/Clampdown/English Civil War/Should I Stay Or Should I Go/I Fought The Law

There is a paucity of live Clash material, apart from From Here To Eternity, which is a compilation of live cuts from 1977-1982, there is not much else. This, at least, is a full concert, from the end of The Clash's sadly all-too-short career, supporting The Who in the USA in 1982. They weren’t headlining though. The crowd were there to see The Who.

It is a shame that by now, The Clash had become a "stadium band" supporting a big, bloated rock act in the US. I prefer to remember them as I saw them, in 1000-capacity venues like Friars, Aylesbury or London's Lyceum. That was the true essence of The Clash live, a thousand pogoing, sweaty punks in a cramped indoor venue, not huddling from the rain outdoors, as they are here. Some of that feeling is caught on From Here To Eternity where there are some earlier tracks, but actually, about a third of that album comes from the 1982 US tour. There are also six tracks from 1978 at the London Lyceum included in the Sound System box set. These are probably the best live cuts out there.

  

Despite that, the material here is good. The band deliver some excellent versions that cover their all too brief career. A great mix of The Magnificent Seven and Armagideon Time; a powerful opener in London Calling followed by a rousing Police On My Back and then the bemused audience trying to make sense of the punky reggae of Guns Of Brixton.

Unfortunately, a punk classic like Career Opportunities gets a bit "stadium-ised" and loses a lot of its original energy. However, overall, the album is a good one. The sound quality is surprisingly good for an outdoor gig from 1982. A powerful memory of just how good The Clash were and what a shame it was that they split soon after this. Any bad feeling is certainly not apparent here, they go for it.

I must admit to a certain amount of pride listening to this oh-so-British band hitting the American audience between the eyes with London Calling at the beginning of the show. Then Joe Strummer tells the audience to “stop yakking” during Police On My Back. You tell ‘em Joe.

 

The Clash Goes Jamaican: Various Artists


This is a most interesting compilation. Given The Clash's love for reggae, it is not surprising that someone eventually came up with the idea of having various reggae artists covering The Clash's music in authentic reggae style. The artists are not well-known ones, but it doesn't matter, the sound quality and delivery is excellent. In fact, I haven't heard of any of the artists.

The songs are played in various reggae styles - rocksteady, dub, roots, lovers, ska. There are thirty-one tracks on the album, and a bit like The "Bryan Ferry Orchestra's" jazz interpretations of Ferry and Roxy Music's material, some are more recognisable than others. More of these are identifiable compared to that album, however. Some have vocals, others are purely instrumentals. Surprisingly, two of The Clash's most authentic reggae cuts, Armagideon Time and Guns Of Brixton are not one here. I think the intention was more to "reggae-fy" less obvious contenders.


Spanish Bombs is done in a melodious, easy style with a fetching female vocal and some sumptuous Rico Rodriguez-style trombone at the end. White Riot is turned into a dubby instrumental, which is certainly interesting. Of course, it takes away all the song's fire and attack, but it is a good piece of dubby groove anyway. Ghetto Defendant uses the same slightly sampled spoken vocals of the original and the beat is not much changed from the original. Train In Vain is given a lively ska makeover, as is London Calling, which is given a mysterious vocal. White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) keeps in intoxicating original skank ad has a convincing vocal. Nothing experimental on this one, more like a reasonably authentic cover version.

I Fought The Law has a vibrant, lively ska bluebeat rhythm. It is irresistible. Clampdown sounds not so much like reggae, but more like early T. Rex, with its frenetic bongo backing. A dubby groove doesn't really work with Janie Jones, though. Washington Bullets has a croaking "toasting" Prince Far I-style vocal order a Latin acoustic rhythm. Bankrobber has a rocksteady sixties beat to it, driven by melodic keyboards. Revolution Rock is dreamily dubby in an Aswad/Third World sort of way. Stay Free has a seventies mid-pace, horn-driven ska beat that really suits it. Straight To Hell is beautifully dubby, with no vocals. Safe European Home skanks it up to the max and with a growling vocal sounds superb. Lovers Rock is played dubby and rootsy by Chris Murray and in a sort of psychedelic way by Sarah Connors (quite who Sarah is is unclear - the track has a male vocal). Rebel Waltz is a ska-ed up slice of dub.

Ok, I could go on about the style of each track, but I am sure you get the picture. It is an interesting album of covers done in a myriad of reggae styles and is worthy of half an hour's dipping into every now and again.



2 comments:

  1. My cherry-picked list of Sandinista would be kind of like yours except I would have Lose This Skin and Career Opportunities and Police on My Back. Even though I only like maybe a quarter of this album, there's still more songs I like here than on any other of their albums. Aside from Police on my Back my favorite one is Magnificent Seven. It's the best dance song they ever did . Too bad Radio Clash isn't on this album to go along with it. Hitsville UK is great too. It's the ones here that are most different from the usual Clash that are the best I think. And there's way too many of those dubby reggae type ones or whatever the hell it is.

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  2. As you have probably gathered from my reviews - I enjoy the dubby stuff.

    The more I listen to Sandinista! the more I appreciate its glorious variety. Recently I found it was the ones that didn't make the trimmed-down list that I was enjoying.

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