Sunday, June 12, 2011

Day 25: Review of "Sandinista" by The Clash

The Clash
5 of 5 stars

Released on 12 December 1980, The Clash’s fourth studio album was actually three albums, with six songs on each side. The album had a six-paned black and white foldout labeled “The Armagideon Times no 3” with lyrics, credits, photos and cartoons.

Clash fans seemingly had had a long wait for the follow-up to London Calling. For me, Sandinista is the band’s masterpiece on many levels, but the ambitious effort didn’t get much momentum coming just four days after the assassination of John Lennon. As Christmas 1980 approached, people didn’t want to think about how shitty the world seemed to be. The U.S. economy was a disaster; nobody was in a particularly upbeat mood. Lennon had just been murdered. A month before, a con man named Ronald Reagan had been elected president – the product of Democratic disarray after Jimmy Carter’s ineffectiveness in his ability to address the terrible economy, infighting in his party, and the Iranian hostage crisis.

So then The Clash comes along with this triple album – unheard of. The album’s title, Sandinista, tells everyone what was up as a nod to the name of the Socialist party leading an uprising in war-torn Nicaragua. Ironic, eventually, in that Reagan’s warhawks would arm the opposition.

The album was a challenge. Dense. Not only was it crammed with ideas – The Clash was always the thinking person’s punk band, like Public Enemy would become to rap – but it was messy and all over the place. The band’s “White Album,” it veered from idea to idea, thematically and musically. The album spoke of war, urban and societal decay, crime and murder, religion, hate and discrimination, drugs… it’s all here. A snapshot of a dirty world. If only they had known they were just exposing the tip of the iceberg.

Track by track, and what you should have on your iPod:
1. The Magnificent Seven: The album starts with a catchy tune, one of few. The Clash made you earn it. But beneath the tune is a dirty truth… we’re all in this stupid rat race, distracted from real life, playing a bullshit game:

Ring! Ring! It's 7:00 A.M.!

Move y'self to go again
Cold water in the face

Brings you back to this awful place

Knuckle merchants and you bankers, too

Must get up an' learn those rules

Weather man and the crazy chief

One says sun and one says sleet

A.M., the F.M. the P.M. too

Churning out that boogaloo

Gets you up and gets you out

But how long can you keep it up?
A keeper? Duh. YES.
2. Hitsville U.K.: A reference to Motown records, which some of you youngsters might not know was known as “Hitsville USA.” Clash fans will love everything they did, but this is one you could live without. NO.
3. Junco Partner: Not sure totally what this song is about. It could be about Amy Winehouse. Or it could be about some poor wasted Angolan looking for any way to make a living. Fun, but definitely odd. YES.
4. Ivan Meets G.I. Joe: Another jokey song by the band about the height of the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; a battle for supremacy posited as best determined by a dance-off at Studio 54. Topper Headon gets a rare turn at the mic for this one. Love it. YES.
5. The Leader: A swinging little ditty about powerful mean doing powerful things. YES.
6. Something About England: A song about war, which became even more interesting in 1982 when the British got all in a snit about some forgettable South American set of rocks known as The Falkland Islands. This is a beautiful, sad song about the decay of England that took place in the 20th century and the lasting toll the country paid in the aftermath of World War II. Keep in mind that the war was fresh in the minds of these 20-something sons of England, whose parents had fought it and had to rebuild from it. YES.
7. Rebel Waltz: A trippy, off-kilter song that sounds like a fever dream. Preamble over as side 2, The Clash start to get their crazy on. YES.
8. Look Here: Wild, raucous trip to nowhere. I like it, but don’t love it. I guess I shouldn’t inclulde everything. NO.
9. The Crooked Beat: Half of the songs on this album sound like they’re being crooned by a wasted wino as he tries to stumble home, and this fits that bill. I don’t think it’s Joe Strummer or Mick Jones singing this one. Maybe bassist Paul Simonon. Who, by the way, was one scary looking motherfucker. Wiki says it is Simonon. So YES.
10. Somebody Got Murdered: The band was spending a lot of time in New York and cut almost all of the album there. This song is a rush. A lot of the catchier songs seem to have been written by Mick, who IMO had a stronger pop touch than Strummer. I think this song is about the grime of NY, a city that had a pretty harsh image problem in the 70s. YES.
11. One More Time: A lot of fans didn’t love the aural oddities the band tinkered with on this album. These next two songs were variations on the same theme. Stoned headphone wearers (I’m told) could really groove on these songs. This one’s the better of the two. YES here, no to…
12. One More Dub.
13. Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice): Some of those stoned listeners didn’t necessarily know which album was the first one, or which side was the A side. And some of those listeners for years thought this was the song that opened the album. Either way, it’s great. Song is about NY also. As HST said, buy the ticket, take the ride. YES.
14. Up in Heaven (Not Only Here): Just listening to this gives me chills. Once again, a Mick Jones beauty. The music is majestic, and once again the lyrics betray them with the ugly pictures they paint.
Fear is just another commodity here
They sell us peeping holes to peek when we hear
A bang on the door resoundingly clear
Who would really want to move in here?
The comment about “Allianza dollars are spent” is lifted from protest singer Phil Ochs’ song “United Fruit.” What’s it mean? To me, it sounds like Mick is saying England has become a third-world country like the ones Britain used to colonize, dependent on government programs and funding to get by. YES.
15. Corner Soul: Is the music calling for a river of blood? Well, another song on the album is called “Washington Bullets.” Draw your own conclusion. YES.
16. Let’s Go Crazy: Really kind of a throwaway, island-influenced song, but hella fun. Not everything has to be so serious, right? YES.
17. If Music Could Talk: Another experimental venture (and more is coming). But hypnotic and irresistible. Love the sax here. YES.
18. The Sound of the Sinners: Gimme that old-tyme religion. The band has taken the piss out of world powers many times by this point on the album. Let’s not forget to jab that other bastion of baloney, religion. YES.

Thus endeth the first half of Sandinista.

19. Police on My Back: For some people the sheer volume of Sandinista works against an appreciation of the album. There’s just so much, and they can’t all be winners. This one’s kind of a throwaway. A nice burst of guitars and amusing locomotion sounds in the mix. In some ways sounds like perhaps a leftover from London Calling, or the ugly sister of The Magnificent Seven. NO.
20. Midnight Log: Joe gets funky. YES.
21. The Equaliser: Besides the global political issues The Clash raised awareness of, they also were deservedly credited with using a number of global musical styles that had not been widely heard by most of their American audience. This song ventures into that territory, it’s a dark, bass-y song. When punk hit, The Clash had been lumped in with the Sex Pistols and other hardcore bands. A lot of acts were more sophisticated than that but still were slotted there. The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Police were initially considered “punk.” People realized that didn’t fit and “New Wave” was coined but these groups still didn’t fit easy labels. Sandinista has punk songs on it (“The Leader” comes to mind) but other songs, like this one, were anything but punk. YES.
22. The Call Up: A droning mantra that urges listeners to resist the draft, resist joining the military, resist killing others and resist getting killed. I can get behind that. YES.
23. Washington Bullets: Chris Rock has a hilarious routine about racist team names like the Washington Redskins. He asks why some racist names are OK, while we’d never consider naming a team the “New York Niggas.” Shockingly enough, from 1963 until 1994, the Baltimore-the-Washington NBA team was called the Bullets. Coincidentally that time period saw a lot of assassination and murder in Washington and politics. How stupid a name. Naturally The Clash saw an easy opportunity to ridicule such a ridiculous situation and talk about Washington’s business of exporting bullets and death. Never has a diatribe against murder used a xylophone and an organ so effectively. YES.
24. Broadway: Joe takes it down a notch with this song about a late-night encounter in New York. Is the guy homeless? He’s clearly down on his luck. An interesting song but not the strongest. NO.
25. Lose This Skin: This trippy violin-laced song was written and sung by Joe’s friend Tymon Dogg. Catchy. YES.
26. Charlie Don’t Surf: Taken from a single comedic line in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic “Heart of Darkness in Vietnam” film “Apocalypse Now,” this song expands upon the callousness of warriors. A classic. YES.
27. Mensforth Hill: The bulk of the rest of the album gets experimental. This song is mainly “Something About England” in reverse and with a bunch of tacked-on bits. I kind of like it. The Clash’s answer to “Revolution 9”. NO to normal people, YES to Clash heads.
28. Junkie Slip: No idea what the hell this is about. Don’t care, it’s fun. YES.
29. Kingston Advice: Another anti-violence rant, extremely tasty, and relevant more than 30 years later. YES.
30. The Street Parade: The Clash is hardly known for love songs, but this one seems like a plea from an abandoned suitor. A great use of steel drums and a reggae beat. For me this kind of ended the album because the final side is a lot of sonic dicking around. A big YES.
31. Version City: I kind of like this one, although it doesn’t get much love. I’m going to give it a YES because it’s just too fun to skip.
32. Living in Fame: A dub version of “If Music Could Talk” vocalized by Mikey Dread. What the hell… YES. Can you imagine how much weed was going around on this one?
33. Silicone on Sapphire: A bizarro electronic treatment of “Washington Bullets” dubbed with weird comments. Kind of a “Fitter, Happier” moment. YES. Yes, I know I am saying YES to the whole freaking album.
34. Version Pardner: A dub version of “Junco Pardner”. Pass. NO.
35. Career Opportunities: An amusing children’s choir version of the Clash classic. YES.
36. Shepherd’s Delight: NO. Just off the rails.

So there you have it. 36 songs, 28 of which are definitely worth having in your rotation, and a few others could have easily made the cut. We call this a masterpiece, folks.

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