SANDINISTA! – THE CLASH (1980)
Sandinista! is a profoundly flawed record, one which, even if its 36-song, two-hour plus content were trimmed by a fifth, would still be carrying considerable excess baggage.
So what’s it doing in The New Perfect Collection? For all its flaws, which will also be explored here, the open-minded, restlessly curious spirit in which it was made, an unexpectedly high strike rate against the odds, and its persistence in standing up to 35 years of out-of-hand dismissal secure it a place in this pantheon of the passed-over.
Few bands have polarised opinion as sharply as the Clash. On one side, they were subjected to rigorous expectations from those who wished nothing more from them than a fistful of rewrites of White Riot each year and a few handily digested slogans (something they were exceptionally adept at; in their first year alone, they came up with at least a dozen). These were, of course, disregarded with wilful brio, while those detractors, who by now saw them as little different to those they were thought to have come to obliterate, hunkered down for the new decade with the entrenched likes of the Cockney Rejects and the Anti-Nowhere League.
On the other, they’re right up there with the Stones, the Velvets and Bowie in having been subjected to screeds of unctuous, over-reverential hagiography. While their detractors will trot out the same, admittedly valid, charges time and time again to condemn them (they signed for CBS and called themselves socialists! They sang I’m So Bored With The USA and then spent half the year over there! Daddy was a diplomat, not a bankrobber!) their champions often show little more imagination (they Famously refused to play Top Of The Pops! London Calling was Famously voted album of the ’80s by Rolling Stone – even though it came out in the ’70s , y’daft Yanks!). Then there’s the ongoing reductive radio campaign to condense their entire career to three or four songs – I Fought The Law, London Calling, Should I Stay Or Should I Go and, at a push, Rock The Casbah. But what everybody seems to agree on is that Sandinista! is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece and there are those who wish that, like the even-more, and this time justly, reviled Cut The Crap, it would just go away lest it tarnish the legacy.
For a start, a triple album? Just after London Calling Smash Hits printed a picture of the band which, if memory serves, had them dressed up as morris dancers and the caption declared that their next album would be a triple enitled Yeovil Calling..What?! Hang on, it was just a joke! But a year later, there it was, housed like its predecessor (and, not coincidentally, labelmate Bruce Springsteen’s just released double The River) in a single sleeve to keep costs down and once again for a capped price – £6 this time rather than £5 but when you’re getting an extra disc…
And then there was what was on those three discs (or reels, if you got the boxed cassette version). The aforementioned conservative (upper and lower case, occasionally both) naysayers were joined by those who heard only a directionless mess, chief among them the NME’s Nick Kent, who labelled the genre jumble “a ridiculously self-indulgent communique.” In more recent years, as the – for grievous want of a better term – world music market has grown, and some of its most earnest advocates have become more precious, Sandinista! has increasingly stood accused of dilettantism or, even worse, cultural colonialism, however benign, as the Clash dip their toes in the sounds of Brooklyn, Havana and Kingston, sing of ghettoes and dictatorships then scurry back to the shadow of the Westway with more cash than the authentic practitioners of all this music could ever dream of.
Again, some valid points. Except – firstly , of course, they’d been exploring other styles for years, ever since their interpretation (they couldn’t have faithfully reproduced it even if they wanted to at this stage) of Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves on their first album. Also, why not try on other clobber? Why should expanding their sound be limited to a couple of other pre-approved sources? It’s not as if they cast the net absurdly wide and attempted to take on opera or North African folk; theirs was the same approach that Primal Scream took a decade later on Screamadelica and the Beatles a decade earlier on the White Album but, while those albums were tuned into, and responding to, specific times, moods, spirits and cultures, Sandinista! (which was released days after John Lennon’s murder) fitted nowhere at all despite being by a band who still commanded more attention than almost any other.
Most importantly, it’s a record made by music fans. The Clash were a punk band but, individually, they were not punks. What they did in 1976-7 was unlike anything that had been done before but the myth that it all descended fully formed from the sky and landed in Oxford Street has long since been quashed. They were people with pasts, hinterlands – Joe Strummer’s prior existence as Woody Mellor the squat-dweller is now well-known; far less remarked upon is Topper Headon’s contribution – superficially, he was often seen as a standard punk dustbin clatterer, like Rat Scabies without the corny stick-juggling, and, well, he wasn’t even with them from the start, but he actually had roots in jazz and was accomplished on several instruments. Not something you shouted about down the Roxy but by the time of Sandinista! the Clash were answerable to no one and there was no punk worthy of the name left to answer to anyway, so Topper was in a position to nudge them in all manner of new directions.
I have a strong aversion to genre identification games but if you must, there are about 14 on Sandinista! and, at its best, it’s an exemplary kaleidoscope of educated pastiche. Far-sighted, even, on the two rap workouts, The Magnificent Seven and Lightning Strikes, which are relatively conventional band performances, rather than deploying scratch or beatbox, and this, paradoxically, means they’ve aged better than some of the more authentic early rap, which at the time was the sound of the future but now faces the, fairly unjust, fate of being considered as quaint as nursery rhymes.
At the opposite pole, The Sound Of The Sinners is a complete one-off in the Clash’s repertoire, such a perfect exercise in gospel that they didn’t need to repeat it. Its evangelical fervour is undercut more than slightly by the voice of a tweedy, Derek Nimmo-esque vicar (rumoured to be actor Tim Curry, though I prefer to think it was recorded straight from a televised Sunday service) bidding “cheerio” to a departing congregation, presumably to contrast the ardent, celebratory nature of gospel with the staid, Conservative-Party-at-prayer perception of churches they might find closer to home.
Rockabilly gets a runout on The Leader, a masterly, 100-second distillation of the Profumo affair which, again, shows that this type of music was closer to Strummer’s heart than punk ever was and that, on form, he was a lyricist with few equals (“Vodka fumes and the feel of a vulture”); also on Midnight Log, a macabre, blues harp-scarred tale of being in the pay of the devil who, we’re told, “ain’t been seen for years/’Cept every 20 minutes, he zooms between my ears.” I always hear the feedback buzz at the end as the latest of those unwelcome visits.
As always, there’s plenty of reggae but in some unfamiliar guises. Junco Partner, a song shrouded in mystery at the time (to the point of Unknown receiving the songwriting credit) but which turned out to be an early ’50s blues tune; the 12-bar melody always suggested as much but its peripatetic violin was rarely heard in either reggae or blues.
It’s there again in The Equaliser, a dub-heavy, anti-slavery (with or without wages) diatribe which is followed by The Call-Up, uptempo and skanking but deeply melancholy as it contemplates the then very likely prospect of a return to the conscription which had killed so many throughout the 20th century (to remove all ambiguity, NO DRAFT was emblazoned on the label when it appeared as a single), while even deeper reggae is explored on If Music Could Talk and its dub version, Living In Fame, with a toast by the late Mikey Dread, who sternly counsels the young pretenders to live up to their names (“If you say you are Selecter, you’ll have to have a good selection”). Bizarrely, he was at it again years later, when he was by chance captured in a fly-on-the-wall airport documentary lambasting his chosen airline (“Life is not easy with easyJet!!”) . The same tune is re-reprised on the closing Shepherd’s Delight, a poignant finale that turns sinister the second the music stops, to be replaced by what’s always sounded to me like a rocket launch (red sky…). It’s like a bite from a seal. Perversely, they also cover an Eddie Grant song, Police On My Back, and turn it into the most traditionally Clash-sounding thing on the whole album.
Of course, not everything works. About a side’s worth is wholly negligible but one of these songs has to be mentioned as, without recourse to the music, it’s actually the most significant song on the album. Washington Bullets is a Latin/salsa flavoured tune, a style of music I can never help feeling sounds corny, but lyrically, it recounts the 1979 overthrow of the oppressive Somoza regime in Nicaragua by the Sandinista (hence the title) rebels. Unlike the Special AKA’s later Nelson Mandela, it didn’t directly lead to anything but in recounting this episode and other examples of corruption and injustice (notably the odious Pinochet regime in Chile) they raised awareness in many, myself included. And there was plenty to come – Ronald Reagan was preparing to enter the White House and his administration would later pass the proceeds of arms sales to Iran on to the Contra rebels opposing the Sandinista government. I guess the music of Washington Buĺlets is appropriate to the countries it tells of but the arribas and ululations tip it into parody and undermine the power of describing “the cries of the tortured men.”
Ultimately, all the debate, posturing and pontificating you hear about music is irrelevant. All that really matters is what the artists intended when making the music and your own perceptions whenever you hear it. Sandinista! always vividly reminds me of finding my feet at secondary school, so while it evokes Ladbroke Grove, Manhattan and Santiago, it evokes even more double Latin and discovering my ineptitude at throwing the discus. Pre-internet, I didn’t even hear anyone else’s view on many of these tracks for years, such was the sheer volume of material and the bewilderment around much of it, so I was free to form my own images – Sandinista! may be popularly seen as the second biggest runt in the Clash litter but I love it for all these reasons and more (PG).