The Clash – Sandinista! album review
In 1980, The Clash released triple album Sandinista!, their greatest folly and an indulgence to match the worst excesses of prog rock. But is there a great 48 minute album lost within?
To a young punk, coming across Sandinista! for the first time is a bit like a 7 year-old facing down a heaped plate of strange food in a restaurant. The sheer volume defeats them before they even start picking their way through it. And then the questions start: “What’re these?” “Chick peas.” “What’s this?” “Okra.” “This?” “Coriander…”
Sandinista! is the same: there’s too much of it, the flavours are weird and sometimes it’s hard to know what anything is.
A triple album for the price of a single, The Clash’s fourth album is a sprawling, genre-defying, self-indulgent snapshot of a band run wild. Emboldened by the success of London Calling, free of manager Bernie Rhodes, and stoned out of their fucking minds, The Clash delivered an album seemingly tailor-made to piss off CBS and confuse the more conservative elements of their fanbase (“You want punk rock? Try this, sunshine!”). And that was a major problem in 1980 – when these islands echoed with the sound of fans lifting and dropping the needle across all six sides looking for a Safe European Home, Janie Jones or even a Rudie Can’t Fail and asking themselves one single question: “Seriously: what the fuck are The Clash anymore?”
Even today it’s understandable. The cliche/true-ism about any double album is that it’d make a great single album – Sandinista! surely stands alone as a triple album you could also edit into a really shit double. But as two sides of vinyl it would’ve done alright: The Magnificent Seven, Police On My Back, Washington Bullets, The Street Parade, If Music Could Talk, Something About England and One More Time alone could have provided the spine of an album that touched on funk, punk, calypso, rock, reggae and rap and would be talked about in hushed tones today.
Back in 1980 (pre-CD programming or the ability to make your own playlist) Sandinista! was a headache – and a ‘head’ album, music for stoners – an indulgence to rank alongside the worst excesses of prog rock.
Today it’d probably win the Mercury Prize.
And that’s the thing. Time has changed Sandinista!. I’ve owned it for literally 30 years and I’m only just getting into it.
The context and expectations have changed. If you don’t come to it hoping for punk rock, you’re less likely to be disappointed. If you do come to it knowing that it’s a patience-testing mess that nevertheless contains some gems, then things get interesting.
The way we consume Sandinista! has changed too. On vinyl it’s annoying and impenetrable. On CD you could program it to skip the worst excesses, or rip it and burn yourself a CD of highlights. On an iPod you could just playlist the best bits. On Spotify or Apple Music you can make the album a playlist and delete the songs you don’t like.
The Magnificent Seven
The bassline comes from Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy and it’s not the only thing The Magnificent Seven has in common with Mr Dury as Strummer cracks-wise with the wordplay in an approximation of the new sensation – rap. Daft, surreal, groovy, repetitive – it you can’t get past this don’t bother. (Listen out for Strummer at the 5min mark saying: “Fucking long, innit?” one of many Strummer ad libs to make it into final Clash recordings.)
Police On My Back
The one song guaranteed to keep the rockers happy, Police is a cover of an Eddy Grant song, originally released by The Equals in 1967. It’s a spiritual follow up to I Fought The Law and just as satisfying.
A throwaway rockabilly number about corruption and deviancy at the top and how much the tabloids thrive on it.
Charlie Don’t Surf
Vietnam was one of those ‘boys-own’ topics that Strummer fixated on – a result, maybe, of travelling in the States and meeting former vets, but more likely just a reflection of the biggest movies of the previous years. The mood of American movies in the 70s reflected the disillusionment of a generation brought up in the middle of an unjust war, and from The Wild Bunch to Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men, the good guys became bad guys, paranoia reigned and violence was just around the corner. Charlie Don’t Surf owes its title and chorus to Francis Ford Coppola’s stoner classic Apocalypse Now but is as much about American hegemony and absurd racism as it is about Vietnam itself. It’s also catchy as fuck.
One More Time
Sandinista!’s best reggae track was followed by One More Time Dub on the album. It’s great too – but something had to go to get it to 48 minutes.
Something About England
I’m thinking of this as ‘end of side one’ – Sandinista!’s Straight To Hell, if you like – an ambitious mood changer, a show-stopper. The Clash’s most theatrical song, Something About England is a duet, effectively, between Mick and Joe, with Mick’s character introducing Joe’s, an old man ‘whom time could not erode’. Mick’s character lives in a Britain not unlike the UK of today (‘They say immigrants steal the hubcaps/Of respected gentlemen/They say it would be wine an’ roses/If England were for Englishmen again’) and asks the old man how it came to this. Strummer’s old man answers with a tale of class struggle that takes in two wars, strikes, famine ‘and now the terror of the scientific sun’. A brass band wheezes, Mickey Gallagher plays E-Street Band piano and suddenly The Clash don’t sound too far away from Roger Waters circa The Wall/The Final Cut. (Footnote: The Clash were actually managed by Blackhill Enterprises at this time, the former managers of… Pink Floyd.)
‘Side Two’ starts here, with an overlooked song that might hold the key to Sandinista! Of the many criticisms levelled at the album, one was the idea that – first with London Calling and now with an album named after Nicaraguan rebels – The Clash had abandoned their UK fans. In fact, Sandinista! can be viewed as a comment on and reaction to the UK-centric street punk the band had inspired. The white riot Strummer called for three years earlier had struck a chord in the shape of Oi!, an aggressive whites-only sub-genre with a Little Englander outlook and racist tendencies. In Corner Soul Strummer asks, ‘Is the music of Grove skin rock/Soaked in the diesel of war, boys, war?…Is the music calling for a river of blood?’
Are black and white youth as divided as ever? Is the music (punk) calling for a river of blood (cf Enoch Powell’s ‘river of blood’ speech)? In 1980 Ladbroke Grove, while houses are searched and ‘war has been declared’, Strummer asks if he needs to pick a side: does he need to grab a machete ‘to chop my way through the path of life?’ Is running ‘with the dog pack’ the only way for The Clash to survive musically? The simmering anger and sorrowful tone provides the only answer to the question. Well, that, a triple album full of dub reggae and calypso – and the very next song…
Let’s Go Crazy
Let’s Go Crazy, which also followed Corner Soul on side three of the original album, opens with a West Indian accent inviting people down to the Notting Hill Carnival, calling for “peace and love” among the “young generation of England today – black, white, pink, blue, you name it”. The music picks up the celebratory steel band sound of the Caribbean but comes with a warning: ‘you wanna be careful’. It might sound like a party but the police are watching and scores will be settled when night falls (‘Darkness comes to settle the debt/ Owed by a year of Sus and suspect/Indiscriminate use of the power of arrest’). The ‘sus laws’ – based on old vagrancy laws – allowed police to stop and search ‘suspicious persons’ but were ultimately used to harass young black men, back in the days before ‘community policing’. The ‘sus laws’ were abused throughout the 70s and by 1980 tensions were high. In April that year Bristol’s St Pauls erupted. (Sandinista! was released in December.) The following year, it was Brixton. Operation Swamp – an attempt to curb street crime – had used the sus laws to stop 1,000 people in six days, the vast majority of them black. Brixton burned through three days of rioting that led to £7.5m in damages. It hadn’t happened yet, but The Clash saw it coming. Contrary to what their critics said, they were still singing about young men in the UK – it just so happened they were young black men. Let’s Go Crazy is a message from the heart of the storm.
If Music Could Talk
If Music Could Talk, meanwhile, is a message from heart of the Spliff Bunker (‘Hey stoner!/Get over there in the spliff bunker one’). Part of Strummer mythology, the Spliff Bunker was a corner of the studio, surrounded by flight cases, where Joe could skin up and write – first adopted during the Sandinista! sessions, it was regularly rebuilt through his career. If Music Could Talk is, I think, jazz. (Jazz!) Strummer recorded two vocals and they’re split into right and left channels, a different voice saying different things in each. The music bubbles like a jacuzzi, a sax soothes and Joe goes stream-of-unconsciousness, channeling Tom Waits (‘Tonight the sailor boys have hit Shanghai/The kick-out traffic goes creaking by’) and name-dropping heroes and friends: Bo Diddley, Joe Ely, Buddy Holly, some gibberish about Errol Flynn. There are few times you can say this about The Clash’s music but it’s genuinely lovely.
Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)
I’ve agonised over this more than anything else. To put in Up In Heaven (Not Only Here) I’ve kept out the much-loved Somebody Got Murdered, The Call-Up (the second-worst Clash single after Hitsville UK but still a decent track with a great sentiment) and a couple of other semi-decent tunes like The Rebel Waltz and The Sound Of The Sinners that could pad the album out if you wanted a CD-length version. (Somebody Got Murdered is probably the most controversial omission. I’m sorry. The lyrics are trite and the tune is shite.) Up In Heaven is another rare rock song and, like Somebody Got Murdered, it’s another state-of-the-nation song sung by Mick Jones, this time about living in a tower block. (Like the one, maybe, that Mick was raised in by his grandmother, overlooking the Westway.) Place it with Corner Soul, Let’s Go Crazy and Something About England and suddenly you have a Sandinista! full of British social commentary.
The Street Parade
It’s not a reggae song exactly but The Street Parade’s dream-like evocation of carnival echoes with the influence of dub, guitars chiming endlessly like steel drums (before real steel drums bring the song to a close). The critics carped on about The Clash’s sloganeering and politicking and overlooked the band’s experimental side. Sandinista! is The Clash in playful and artful mode, indulging themselves, fucking with the format, using the studio as an instrument. The music press let you get away with that sort of thing if you’re Brian Wilson or Lee Perry – but not if you’re some pasty-faced oiks from London. Then, it seems, you’re just a bunch of wankers.
The track that gives the album its title, Washington Bullets is an extraordinary song and a fitting end to our 48 minute version. It’s Strummer at his most expansive, rattling off references to American expansionism and CIA-sponsored conflicts – especially notable when you consider that London Calling had been criticised for seemingly pandering to an American audience – but expanding his ire from the Bay of Pigs to Russia in Afghanistan, the Chinese in Tibet, and ending with a gleeful look at the revolution that had happened the year previously in Nicaragua (’The people fought their leader and off he flew/With no Washington bullets what else could he do?’) and the revolutionaries that gave the album its name: the Sandinistas. Often derided as worthy and sloganeering, Washington Bullets is anything but a dreary political anthem. It’s jubilant – dancing on the graves of the ‘evil presidentes’ mentioned in Clampdown – a song that details how the little guy gets crushed under the weight of empire but that sometimes they can win too.
So there you have it. Six sides of vinyl reduced to a tight, thematically cohesive 48 mins. (If you wanted to really take liberties, you could maybe throw Bankrobber into the mix – released as a single ahead of the album, it was recorded in the same sessions.) This is the ‘lost’ Sandinista!, buried in a mess of ideas and self-indulgence. If it had been released like this it’d probably be seen as The Clash’s third best album today.
*With apologies and thanks to Chris Knowles whose book Clash City Showdown – the most entertaining book about the Clash ever written – featured a Beginners Guide To Sandinista! which kept me going back to the album over the years.