Like the best mid-'60s work by Bob Dylan, the first three albums by the Clash redefined the rock 'n' roll landscape into which they were unleashed. Between 1977 and 1979, the British punk foursome issued The Clash, Give 'Em Enough Rope, and London Calling, along with a brilliant string of singles that constituted punk rock's most formidable and enduring body of work. Listening to them more than 20 years later, they chronicle the evolution of the only punk group to both chart the genre's territory and blaze a new trail through rock 'n' roll history. The Clash's music was passionate, committed and charismatic; it was innovative, yet steeped in the verities of the past. The group borrowed liberally, mixing into its twin-guitar assault everything from Jamaican ska and reggae to American blues, R&B and rockabilly, and made it all sound like nothing but the Clash.
The Clash was the only great punk band to successfully free itself from the didactic ideology of that narrow subgenre and, in the process, become simply a great rock 'n' roll band, period. Its American label Columbia once dubbed the group "The Only Band That Matters," and after hearing its early work -- remastered to stunning effect by Sony/Legacy -- that slogan reads like the best kind of hyperbole, the kind that transcends mere brag and becomes simple fact.
The first album, 1977's The Clash, ranks among the five greatest debuts in rock 'n' roll history, and retains all of its emotional fury, social outrage and sonic chaos. In its pristine British edition (finally issued stateside 21 years after a patchwork version was initially released), The Clash embodies as well as eclipses the sound and vision of punk: Guitars ring like police sirens, taut rhythms come fast and furious, and the sandpaper roar of Joe Strummer mixes perfectly with the wailing tenor of Mick Jones. Bassist Paul Simonon plays with a melodic minimalism that belies his love of reggae and ska, and original drummer Terry Chimes (replaced after the first album by Topper Headon) bashes with rabid enthusiasm. More than any album of its era and ilk, The Clash offers a quintessentially gritty portrait of gray London's seething, seedy underbelly: race riots, unemployment (or identity-stripping dead-end employment), heartless political conservatism, random violence, cheap drugs, cheap thrills, and the clattering sound of bands bashing out crude, savage rock 'n' roll in garages and flats. As a soundtrack for the apocalypse and a heartfelt shout from the street, The Clash is a complete triumph.
Its follow-up, 1978's Give 'Em Enough Rope, was deemed a disappointment by critics, who heard the metallic production of Sandy Perlman (Blue Öyster Cult) as a compromise of the band's raging energy. The critics, however, were wrong. Although it lacks the thematic coherence and unity of the band's debut, Rope packs a throttling punch, from the colossal roar of "Safe European Home" and "Guns on the Roof" to the anthemic "Last Gang in Town" and the autobiographical "All the Young Punks." And with "Stay Free," a touching backslap from Jones to a wayward friend, the band revealed a soft side that was incongruous to the cynicism and nihilism of its punk-rock brethren.
If The Clash stands as one of rock's most brilliant debuts, 1979's London Calling is easily the best double album released by anyone this side of Bruce Springsteen, whose The River runs a very close second. With nary a trace of filler, London Calling reveals a Clash that was capable of anything: wildcat rockabilly, horn-laden reggae, cheesy cocktail jazz, relentless rock 'n' roll, introspective pop, and hilarious send-ups of drug abuse, sex, and even a lovingly acidic ode to Montgomery Clift. The title cut presents a horrific glimpse at the aftermath of nuclear war, while "Death or Glory" and "Clampdown" are furious statements of purpose, and "Lost in the Supermarket" pinpoints the pain and confusion of postmodern alienation.
A critical and commercial hit that landed Jones and Strummer on the cover of Rolling Stone and prompted a backlash among punk's wrongheaded standard-bearers, London Calling also yielded a Top 30 single: "Train in Vain," a charging weeper from Jones that offers the flip side to Ben E. King's R&B staple "Stand by Me." It's "Revolution Rock," however, that sums up the genius of this far-reaching, entirely successful masterpiece. An incessant reggae crusher driven by splashing drums, soaring horns and chopping guitar, the song is a showcase for Strummer, and he tears into the celebratory lyric with careless, drunken glee, mixing hilarious word play with equally hilarious gibberish, lost in the music's glorious racket. Its title sums up everything the Clash represented during punk's assurgency, but the music itself was something else: adventurous, intoxicating, funny -- a celebration of joyful noise and a harbinger.
In the spring of 1980, the Clash encamped in the heart of Times Square for an extended run of concerts. Every night for roughly two hours, the band members poured their hearts out onstage at Bond's International Casino, a decrepit vaudeville-era theater taken out of mothballs specifically for the group's engagement. The offstage hours surrounding those shows were reportedly just as intense for the Clash's four members, but in an inwardly directed fashion. By all accounts, the musicians spent their time sucking up virtually every aspect of the neighborhood's singular feel: midnight movies (a screening of Taxi Driver and its dank portrait of Times Square alienation apparently had enough of an effect on Strummer that he would adopt Robert De Niro's Mohawk haircut from that film a year later), the street milieu of junkies, hustlers and "cops kicking Gypsies to the pavement," and, above all else, the music.
"WBLS was blasting all over the city," recalled Strummer in the recent Clash documentary Westway to the World, referring to the NYC radio station and its pioneering broadcasts of breaking rap artists such as Kurtis Blow, The Funky Four + 1, and Grandmaster Flash. "We just hooked on to that vibe and made our own version of it."
The result was Sandinista!, a sprawling, three-album set recorded largely in New York City during a burst of post-tour energy. "As soon as they got a rough mix down, we'd be like: 'Fresh tape on the reel! Let's get the mikes out!'" Strummer gleefully explained in Westway. "We'd keep doing that day and night. That's why it had to be a triple album, even though it would have been better as a double or a single album, or an EP. We recorded all that music in one spot in one moment in one three-week blast, for better or worse. That's the document."
Released in late November of that year, Sandinista! received a savage drubbing from many of the same critics who only 12 months earlier had hailed London Calling as proof that the band was indeed "the only band that matters." Fans, too, seemed confused, though the boos and jeers with which they greeted the Clash's handpicked concert openers of Grandmaster Flash and Jamaican reggae toaster Mikey Dread reveal the real reason behind that critical vilification. For rockists still on the "disco sucks" warpath, Sandinista!'s fusion of punk with dub reggae, rap, thick slabs of churning funk, and even West Indian steel drums stood as nothing less than an embrace of everything they hated. Moreover, it was a pointed reminder that the rock world itself was rapidly slipping into cultural irrelevancy -- a bitter pill to swallow for those who still saw themselves as rebels rather than diehard reactionaries.
Twenty years later, with orthodox punk now sounding just as stale as the orchestral prog-rockers it tried to wipe from the historical stage, Sandinista! endures, and in its newly reissued form with sterling sound, it remains fresh as ever. What emerges foremost is the crystallization of the band's at-times-inchoate rage into a political attack as nuanced as its newfound musical passions. It's a position brought home forcefully by the album's titular salute to the victorious 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and further laid out in "Washington Bullets." The band members aren't the well-meaning but foolishly shortsighted liberals they would later mock in a plea from "This Is Radio Clash" to "please save us, not the whales." Rather, they unambiguously embraced the guerrilla movements of the Latin American revolutionary left.
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For those either in denial over American actions in that region or balking at picking up the gun as a valid response, Strummer sings: "As every cell in Chile will tell, the cry of the tortured men/Remember Allende, and the days before, before the army came/Please remember Victor Jara in the Santiago Stadium/Es Verdad -- those Washington bullets again."
It's a world view that takes equal aim at the Soviet Union ("If you can find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow bullets missed/Ask him what he thinks of voting communist") and Beijing ("Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet/How many monks did the Chinese get?"). "The Call Up" continues in that vein, begging both Soviet conscripts being shipped off to Afghanistan and young Americans swept up in the resurgent jingoistic frenzy surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis: "It's up to you not to heed the call-up/You must not act the way you were brought up."
Does all of Sandinista! work? Well, no. For every finger-snappingly sublime pop moment in a song like "Hitsville U.K." there's the backward tape loops of "Mensforth Hill" to wade through, a creation that may have seemed inventive in the studio, but on CD is simply annoying. Then again, the recorded snippet of addled Rastas torturously rambling their way through a bizarre late-night WBAI-FM talk show instantly captures a moment familiar to any insomniac who's flipped his way through Manhattan's noncommercial airwaves. As Strummer himself insists, one man's filler is another man's living document of a particular time and place, and Sandinista! evokes the avant-garde sounds and political vanguards percolating around New York City circa 1980 like few other recordings.
Cliché though it may be, "those were different times" is a notion that comes to mind here. The moral certainties that gripped the Clash during that Cold War period -- "the terror of the scientific sun" -- have given way to a more muddled social terrain. A socialist (albeit a self-neutered one) has returned to the helm of Chile, while Pinochet and the killers of Victor Jara face the imminent threat of an international tribunal. Even the FMLN guerrilleros of El Salvador (saluted on the Clash's final album, 1982's Combat Rock) have traded in their all-or-nothing revolutionary purism for the more ambiguous parliamentary road to utopia. Still, those looking to score the soundtrack for the next round of World Trade Organization protests, whether they be hip-hoppers picking up the torch from fallen prophets Public Enemy or the Zapatista-feting Rage Against the Machine, could do a lot worse than look to Sandinista! for inspiration.