1980: The Clash / Sandinista!

by J A Gray

Sandinista!

You have no idea how hard it is for me to write about The Clash.  You see, Marcus wrote about The Clash.  Properly.  He had books published on them, for God’s sake.  They’re his Mastermind specialist subject.  It’s like walking into a minefield dressed in clown’s shoes.  Ah well, here goes nothing.

It’s funny how this thing works out.  I ignored The Clash’s greatest album to write about Nick Lowe, and now here I am writing about one of their least loved and much misunderstood records instead.  For that you can blame 1980.  At the time I’d opted out of contemporary music for a while.  I had become side-tracked by my hippy mate Tim and was contemplating a return to flares.  When I woke up after my time in Wonderland, I felt a little bit embarrassed about taking my foot off the youth culture pedal and frantically had all my trousers taken back in again.  But looking back, I’m not sure I missed much.  I was dismissive about 1974, but at least I can understand why it was such a rotten year – music had hit a wall and needed a new direction.  But hunting around for the greatest albums for 1980, 1981 and 1982 feels so much more disappointing and underwhelming.  Records people were excited about at the time seem so disposable now.  Between the first flush of punk energy and the blossoming of the American underground rock scene in the mid 80s I find very little to get excited about.  Punk begat new wave and post-punk and pretty soon the new romantics were showing us their pretty faces and empty heads.  The age of the bleating keyboard and the brittle synthetic drum would soon be upon us.  Oh the horror!  Against this backdrop, a triple vinyl LP set of experimental self-indulgence by the old kings of British punk sounds like a breath of fresh air.  And indeed it is.

There was a lot of love for The Clash around my neck of the woods.  Marcus was already a major fan and was buying everything they released.  I think it’s fair to say that they swiftly became his all-time favourites, and that they remain so, even if the hard slog of writing so many words about them may have periodically taken the shine off.  I can remember hearing him play their first album.  He was upstairs and I was downstairs but I’m So Bored With The U.S.A. made a great impression on me through the floorboards.  I asked him what record he’d been playing and said that I really liked it.  He was a little surprised as he thought they’d be too raucous for someone of my more delicate sensibilities, but I was instantly hooked by what I heard.  The Clash remains the definitive British punk rock document in my opinion, and the band has certainly stood the test of time better than, say, the more cartoonish appeal of The Sex Pistols.

Even amongst my peer group, a motley bunch of Yorkshire schoolboys of various shapes, sizes and IQs, The Clash became a pretty big deal.  I think everyone fell for the energy and the swagger.  Give ‘Em Enough Rope may have been written off as a half-cocked misfire by the cognoscenti, but in our little crowd it was right on target.  And how we all cooed with wonder when they issued London Calling, a double album for the price of a single LP.  And then we gasped with incredulity when the word got out that they were going one better – Sandinista! was to be a triple album released for the price of, ooh, an LP and a half.

There was more than a little trepidation even before we heard it though.  What on earth was a punk band doing making a triple album, for God’s sake?  People like ELP, Yes and Santana made those, not bands like The Clash.  The band did their best to undercut any whiff of grandeur by housing all three records in a single sleeve and by insisting on that discount price, even though indulging in such largesse reportedly cost the band all of their royalties from the first 200,000 copies sold.  It’s hard to think of many other bands who put their art and their audience that far in front of making money.

Initial reports suggested that they’d gone too far this time, that there was way too much filler.  Somebody played me a couple of tracks from side 6 to prove their point.  All this served to do was wrong-foot me.  Ever since The Beatles’ “White Album” there’s been a rock nerd’s parlour game centred around distilling flawed double albums down to imaginary, should-have-been single albums.  There was much talk about Sandinista! being so patchy that it was the first candidate for a triple album that should have been a single LP.  Indeed there actually was a one-disc distillation of the album sent out to media types called Sandinista Now!*  It’s a great selection of tracks and it makes a pretty strong case for this argument, until you start noticing the great songs that they left off, like Corner Soul, or Charlie Don’t Surf.

So I’d like to just bat away all such talk as being utter hogwash.  But there’s no denying that Sandinista! would have been tighter, have had more impact, and be more loved if they’d at least have tried to keep it down to a double.  That aforementioned side 6, consisting of one OK song, four dub versions of songs appearing on other sides of the album, and a truly horrendous rendition of Career Opportunities sung by guest musician Mickey Gallagher’s kids comes pretty damned close to being an utter waste of a side of vinyl.  There’s a couple of other dub tracks elsewhere, and really these would have been best kept to one side and maybe released as a separate Sandinista! In Dub LP.  Tymon Dogg’s Lose This Skin could have stayed on the cutting room floor as well.  Now sort out the best twenty-four or so of the other songs, and maybe add the mighty Bankrobber to the mix (released as a single but not included on the album) and you’ve got a true killer of a double album there.  You might argue that it wouldn’t quite be up there with London Calling with regards to its consistency of songwriting, but in terms of texture and breadth of vision I would say it dwarfs its more lauded predecessor.

I finally started getting to grips with the album when I sat down with Marcus’s copy.  It must have been sometime in 1981, after he’d come back from University, because I remember sitting in the small bedroom at home.  That had been mine, but we’d swapped when he left home, so that now when he came back for a visit, he had the little shoebox that I’d grown up sleeping in.  Anyway, I’d decided to make a concerted effort to conquer this behemoth, so off I went, a side at a sitting, with the pull-out lyric sheet, titled The Armagideon Times no. 3 to aid navigation.

First up, The Magnificent Seven.  What a way to kick off a record.  I don’t think I’d heard anything this funky before.  The Clash hadn’t been this funky before, that’s for certain.  The truth was that Paul Simenon had been unable to make it to some of the early sessions, and the band had pulled in Norman Watt-Roy, Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ bass ace, to deputise for him.  Watt-Roy was in a whole other league than Simonon as a bassist, but, hey, when you’re as handsome as Paul Simonon you probably don’t lose much sleep over that.  Fellow blockhead Mickey Gallagher (father of the unforgiveable singing children) sat in on keyboards at these sessions.  In fact Watt-Roy and Gallagher claim to have written the musical bedrock of The Magnificent Seven, though they received no credit for this.  Musically, it’s certainly closer to a Blockheads record than a Clash one.  But Norman’s bass riff aside, it’s the Joe Strummer show all the way.  I don’t think I’d heard anyone rapping before this either.  Strummer spits out imagery like a machine gun, descriptions of New York, the trials of being a working stiff, and an increasingly surreal collage of newspaper headlines.  I learned the whole thing off by heart – I think it was the first poem I ever learned to recite.

At the time I wasn’t such a fan of Hitsville UK.  I think I was disconcerted by hearing Ellen Foley’s co-lead vocal.  What was somebody else other than Joe Strummer or Mick Jones doing singing on a Clash record?!  But I love it now.  A finer testimony to the independent record label in song you will never hear.  And another boss bass line, this time in the Motown style.

Other favourites revealed themselves one by one: the melodic Somebody Got Murdered, with an aching and tender Mick Jones vocal; One More Time, arguably The Clash’s most successful excursion into the world of reggae; Strummer matching Jones for yearning melancholy in Corner Soul; the upbeat radio-friendly cover of Eddy Grant’s Police On My Back; the brilliant rallying cry for pacifism that is The Call Up; the superb marimba-driven anti-imperialist protest of Washington Bullets.  There’s so many songs on Sandinista! that it tends to obscure how many of them are truly great.

And the genre-hopping didn’t stop with rap and reggae - Sandinista! adds rock, pop, gospel, calypso, jazz, and whatever else took the band’s fancy at the time, to the musical stew.  The result of all this is a record that comes closer to being world music than punk rock.  The Clash still operated with punk’s manifesto tucked in their back pockets (Sandinista!‘s bargain price being a prime example), but as that whole scene began to collapse in on itself due mostly to the narrow visions of the second generation of punk bands, they looked further afield for inspiration.  Mick Jones in particular had become obsessed with the emerging New York hip-hop scene, and was carrying his ghetto blaster with him everywhere.  Joe Strummer was soaking up his surroundings like a particularly thirsty sponge, and was arguably at his peak as a writer.  His lyrical snapshots of New York on songs like The Maginificent Seven and Lighting Strikes (Not Once But Twice) put you right there in the cityscape.

At this point in their history, Strummer and Jones were still bouncing off each other creatively.  The yin and yang of the two men was always at the heart of The Clash’s sound, and is never better conveyed than when they share vocals on a song.  Strummer’s voice was rough and ready – his bad teeth having some influence on his idiosyncratic diction – but strong and full of personality.  Jones’s voice was high and quite sweet, almost feminine sounding – it’s more tuneful than Joe’s voice, but has less power.  When they share the singing, though, they only accentuate each other’s strengths.  It’s the best contrasting vocal double-play since The Who’s Daltrey and Townshend.  They complement each other beautifully on songs like Something About England and Charlie Don’t Surf.

When Sandinista! was issued on compact disc, its charms instantly became more apparent.  Rather than picking their way through six sides of 12″ vinyl, the listener now only had to choose between two 5″ CDs.  Better yet, the filler tracks could now be skipped or programmed out.  Digital music reproduction and packaging may have its shortcomings, but these more user-friendly aspects really come into their own with an album as sprawling as this.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a whole army of music fans changed their minds about Sandinista! when they were able to edit what they heard without getting up and down a dozen or so times to move the needle or flip the record over.

Sandinista! rarely makes the all-time greatest albums lists.  Even when considering just The Clash’s own discography, most of the love goes to London Calling, or the first album.  Their other albums are regarded as various flavours of flawed.  Still, for some strange reason Sandinista! is the Clash album I listen to most often.  Maybe it’s out of some strange loyalty to the underdog, but I think it’s more to do with the album’s lack of overexposure.  You don’t hear many of these songs on the radio, or even on other people’s stereos, so they’ve kept their freshness.  Yeah, maybe three LPs was one too many, though you can’t help but admire their chutzpah.  The band went in and knocked ‘em dead in 144 minutes 09.**

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* The track listing for Sandinista Now! was as follows: Side 1; Police on My Back, Somebody Got Murdered, The Call Up, Washington Bullets, Ivan Meets G.I. Joe, Hitsville U.K.  Side 2; Up in Heaven (Not Only Here), The Magnificent Seven, The Leader, Junco Partner, One More Time, The Sound of Sinners.

** Or, as Joe would say, “Fuckin’ long, innit?!”

N.B. Sandinista! is currently available, in remastered form, on a double CD pack.  I saw mention of a forthcoming ’30th Anniversary Edition’ in a magazine article a couple of years ago, but I could find no further trace of it on the internet, until just this week when a friend noticed that Amazon are listing a ’2013 remaster’ with a release date still to be confirmed.  The non-album single from the sessions, Bankrobber, is an essential part of this part of The Clash’s history, and can be found on various compilations.

My other nominations for 1980 albums of merit:

Dexys Midnight Runners / Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

Pete Townshend / Empty Glass

Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Get Happy!!

Echo And The Bunnymen / Crocodiles

The Jam / Sound Affects

The Psychedelic Furs

Squeeze / Argybargy