The Clash may not have been the only band that mattered, but they were the only band that cared.
They proved this repeatedly in many ways, large and small, throughout their quixotic existence, an adjective I do not tie lightly to The Clash for no other band’s actions more closely resembled that of Don Quixote. Like Cervantes’ famed fictional conquistador charging at windmills, The Clash repeatedly charged their record company, winning small but costly victories on behalf of fans. Over the course of eight years The Clash continually strived and gave their fans music at bargain rates and operated as if CBS Records was a socialist enterprise instead of capitalist.
Consider this, at their creative apex between December 1979 and December 1980, The Clash:
- Released a double album (London Calling) for the price of a single. (They had tricked CBS by arranging to have a free single included with the album. They never told CBS that that would be a 12-inch “single” with ten songs, including their hidden first American radio hit ‘Train In Vain’.)
- Engaged in a 6-month stand-off over CBS’ refusal to release ‘Bankrobber’ as the first 45 of project known as the Singles Bonanza, which was supposed to be a series of monthly singles meant to keep fans informed as to what was happening in the world. (Ironically, only ‘Bankrobber’ ever was released as part of this project so it turned out to a Single Bonanza.)
- Released a triple album for the price of a double by agreeing to receive no royalties for the first 200,000 copies sold.
That triple album was the controversial Sandinista! released 30 years ago on December 12, 1980 in Great Britain. But could be found in the cooler record stores stateside by the depressed rock fan looking for consolation in the wake of John Lennon’s absurd murder the previous week. I know because I was one of those depressed rockers. I bought it at Bleecker Bob’s, subwayed home, rolled six joints and then spun all six sides – a joint a side – and listened to all 2 hours: 24 minutes: 47 seconds the first December night I bought it. And it helped in many ways because for rockers of a certain age Joe Strummer was our John Lennon despite Strummer’s protestations against “phoney Beatlemania!” a year earlier.
(And in light of Strummer’s death in 2002, the likenesses are even more striking. I came up with almost two dozen similarities off the top of my head – and more substantial than both being photographed on the same recording studio couch by rock photographer Bob Gruen – but I’ll pursue that in a separate feature since I do want to concentrate here on The Clash’s last important album.)
Stranded in Manhattan at the end of the 9-date American leg of The 16 Tons Tour in March 1980 (and with bassist Paul Simonon off to Canada to play a bit part (as a bassist no less) in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains), the remaining members of The Clash convened at The Power Station on 53rd Street to record some covers, including The Equals’ ‘Police On My Back’ (written by Eddie Grant). The sessions were going so well that The Clash decided on extending them only to discover studio time at The Power Station already blocked out.
This necessitated a move 45 blocks downtown to 52 West 8th Street: address of abstract artist Hans Hoffman’s old haunt, then the Generation Club, and ultimately Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios. Two of Ian Drury’s Blockheads were flown over from London to assist: keyboardist Micky Gallagher (who had already supported The Clash at concerts for approximately half a year) and bassist Norman Watt-Roy, who quickly laid down the bassline that was looped for Strummer to crest as he tackled rap music, which no white band had yet attempted. It still seems like a strange move for a London-based band but with lead guitarist and occasional lead vocalist Mick Jones at the controls, The Clash – especially Strummer - were encouraged to experiment in the studio and try new things, which is how the opening track ‘The Magnificent Seven’ came about.
Jones was listening to black New York City radio stations and it was clear to him before it was to most that rap was more than a fad and had musical legs. He pushed Strummer to take Watt-Roy’s bassline – which is very punky in its own way – and use it as a vehicle to free associate about what was going on around him. And so ‘The Magnificent Seven’ begins Sandinista! by ringing in a new work day, another song in the long line of the “corporations are killing the worker” vein that The Clash regularly issued to their fans. It is an indictment of capitalism and even references Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Consider: there’s “knuckle merchants,” Japanese products that are “so cheap and real phoney,” “clocks go slow in a place of work.” And what is lunch?: “It’s our profit – it’s his loss” and the worker gets an hour to “do your thanng!” Back at work “it’s no good for man to work in cages/hits the town. He drinks his wages.” And for all the worker’s purchasing power, your vacuum cleaner sucks up your pet bird!
The political nature of The Clash’s lyrics has monopolized the attention of lazy journalists, but - if you really listen - their most consistent message to the public was not revolt; it was to not waste life working for others. As Joe Strummer asks later during Side 4’s ‘The Call-Up’: “Who gives you work? And why should you do it?” It’s the age old question.
Curiously, despite his exhortations to Strummer to experiment, Mick Jones mostly plays it safe on Sandinista! Almost all of the album’s rockers are his vehicles, including ‘Hitsville U.K.’, the album’s second track. The song is actually an off-handed, organ driven, Motown homage about DIY bands in England featuring harmonized vocals courtesy of Jones and his then girlfriend Ellen Foley (Meatloaf’s vocal foil on ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’ and later a featured actor on NBC’s Night Court). It is, unfortunately, the most ineffectual song Jones ever sang while with The Clash. It’s not bad – like Paul McCartney, Mick Jones always had his way with catchy melodies - it just lacks oomph.
Next up is a reggae number recorded in April 1980 at Channel One studios in Jamaica, a session that didn’t go very well because of threats and extortion attempts from the locals who thought a famous rock band should be spreading their wealth around. The Clash fled with only an unfinished version of ‘Junco Partner’ (but that is the infamous studio’s piano you can hear Strummer striking throughout). Back in 1980 I thought this was Sandinista!’s first amazing track, partially because it’s the first track with Simonon on bass and not Watts-Roy.
‘Junco Partner’ takes on even greater relevance now that the Strummer’s race has been run and we understand how the song was dear to him. At every stage of his career, Joe Strummer sang this traditional blues song with its New Orleans roots. He sang it with the The 101’ers, he sang it with The Clash, he sang it with Latino Rockabilly War, he sang it with The Mescaleros. (It was actually the last song I ever saw him sing at St. Anne’s Warehouse on April 6, 2002. It had morphed into a rockabilly shuffle by then.) I bet there’s even a bootleg recording out there somewhere of Strummer doing it with The Pogues during a sound check. The dub version on Side 6 is the most terrifying track The Clash ever recorded. I still get chills listening to it. With an echo rivaling midnight in the Times Square of the 1980s (that true New Yorkers mourn: Patti Smith was so right on New Year’s Eve when she called today’s Times Square “Little Tokyo”), Strummer’s mixed vocals careen wildly and the desperation of a man who’d pawn his “sweet Gabriella” for a bottle of whiskey comes through loud and clear.
So wot have you got at the end of Sandinista!’s first three songs? A rap song, a Motown tribute and reggae fried blues. Not exactly a New Waver’s pint of beer. The fourth track - drummer Topper Headon’s ‘Ivan Meets G.I. Joe’ probably should’ve followed ‘The Magnificent Seven’ as it does on The Essential Clash (2003). With its lyrics about being “on the floor at 54” and lasting “at Le Palace,” the dance friendly rocker with all its sound effects fits better behind the unexpected rap song. It’s as if ‘The Magnificent Seven’ had just played at one of the clubs this song namechecks. Coming up second on Sandinista!’s first side, it would’ve given the white crowd something to warm up to, especially if you still follow with ‘The Leader’, one of Strummer’s few rockers on Sandinista! Giving the fan base a little of what it wanted, they might’ve been more accepting of the album’s black tracks: the rap, the funk, the dubs, there’s even gospel (Side 3’s ‘The Sound Of Sinners’, of which Elvis Costello once said was the Clash song he’d like to cover someday.)
I mention alternate programming because the most common criticism of Sandinista! is that it is too long and should’ve been a double, even a single album. Forgotten now, however, is the fact that Sandinista! was at one time The Clash’s best selling product in America (thanks ironically to the black stations broadcasting remixes of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘The Call Up’: the same stations The Clash had listened to when making the album). It peaked at #24 on the American charts and was picked as the best album of the year in The Village Voice’s annual Pazz And Jop Poll. A weeklong engagement at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square in May and June 1981 swelled to 17 dates to accommodate the fans from all over America who flocked to “old New York” to see punk’s most popular band. The band and record were successful despite their American distributor’s refusal to finance the 60-date American tour The Clash had planned to promote their mammoth offering; the tour another causality of The Clash’s jousts with record company executives.
Only in the latter half of the decade did the voices calling Sandinista! a debacle prevail in the now accepted view. Critics who embrace their calling as being one of criticism over one of championing art complained: “Why does it have to be a triple album?” (‘Why did they have to complain?’ I always wondered. It’s not as if fans are paying for the third album. They’re getting 50+ minutes of music for free.) But no, critics really railed against the sixth side. It was their Exhibit A as to where The Clash had erred on Sandinista! Admittedly having Gallagher’s sons sing a MOR version of ‘Career Opportunities’ was a filler move, but everything else on the side was better than anything The Bush Tetras – the then darling of the purveyors of hip press – ever produced.
But don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourself. You can find a used copy on Amazon for ten bucks – still a bargain. Even new it’s $15.81, cheaper than just about any other multi-disc collection out there and complete with the original liner notes, lyrics and art work. (iTunes has it for $16.99.) Discover for yourself how Side 1’s closer – ‘Something About England’ – serves as a mirror for Side 4’ closer – ‘Broadway’. I’ll let you catch all the cinematic references, spot the sporting terms, count the number of times that time is mentioned. Get it and I’ll bet that thirty years hence you’ll still be checking it out. Especially in the summer. It may have been released in December, but this is a record to swelter along with.