The Clash

The Clash
Give 'Em Enough Rope
London Calling
Combat Rock

The Clash (Epic ‘79) Rating: A
The Clash were the acknowledged leaders of the late 1970's U.K. punk scene along with the Sex Pistols, but whereas their rivals flamed out after one great album, The Clash soldiered on and continued to grow as a band, though ultimately their peak was unfortunately brief as well. The Clash has two major weaknesses: it's all primarily played at one speed (fast, except for two songs), and Joe Strummer’s tattered, slurred vocals aren’t much to listen to (he always sounds like he's fighting a cold) and make it impossible to make out a good portion of the lyrics, which are supposedly this highly charged political unit’s bread and butter (Mick Jones, who has a better voice, sings lead on only a few tracks). On the plus side, their catchy shouted harmony choruses give many of these songs an “us against them” anthemic quality, and the band's raw, energetic performances rock with a righteous rage. The Clash is also filled with inventive guitar playing from Jones, impressive drumming by both Tory Chimes and his replacement Topper Headon, solid rhythm work from Paul Simonon on bass and Strummer on rhythm guitar, and most importantly it boasts some truly great songs, many of which can still quicken your pulse and provide legitimate excitement all these years later. The best of these are probably "Clash City Rockers" (the band was into self-mythologizing), “Remote Control” (which features maybe Jones' best lead vocal on the album and which was released as a single in the U.K. without the band's consent, thereby beginning their adversarial relationship with their U.K. record label CBS), “Complete Control” (about the "Remote Control" fiasco, turning a negative into a positive), "London's Burning" (perhaps Strummer's most powerful lead vocal here; much as I may criticize him and consider his singing a weak link, he was capable of some fine performances), "I Fought The Law” (a great version of the Bobby Fuller Four classic), “Janie Jones” (because I'm in love with a rock 'n' roll world too!), “Career Opportunities” (clever, catchy, cynical, and rocking, this one may be my favorite), "Garageland" (the harmonica is a nice touch and the lyrics are humorous if you know the back story), “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” and “Police And Thieves.” These last two songs, each excellent reggae excursions (the latter a Junior Murvin cover), show a subtler, broader reach which hinted at the dynamic diversity that would later make London Calling their masterpiece. In general, the songs here are simpler and are more punk than on that later album, and though this album isn't without its flaws (previously mentioned plus there are a few lesser songs among the 15 here), it still deserves its place among the all-time classics of its kind. Note: This album was originally released in the U.K. in 1977 by CBS, and was available in the U.S. only as an import (where it sold very well for an import). It's American record label, Epic, went one better (really worse) than CBS by not releasing the debut in the U.S. until two years later, after their second album had already come out! The American version of the album, which is the one I'm reviewing here, differs from the original British edition, replacing “Deny,” "Cheat," “Protex Blue," “48 Hours,” and a re-recorded "White Riot" (also autobiographical and quite controversial as some mistook it as being racist) with “Clash City Rockers,” “Complete Control,” the rawer original single version of "White Riot," “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” “I Fought The Law,” and “Jail Guitar Doors.” Although this seems to be a minority opinion, I prefer the American edition of the album, which though less thematically coherent has better songs overall.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope (CBC, Epic ‘78) Rating: A-
Most punk fans were greatly disappointed by this sophomore effort (what do you expect from people who think "gobbing" is fun?), and it was also less critically acclaimed. Much of the blame was laid on Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman, who does smooth out the rough edges a bit (let's face it the band and their employers wanted a hit). According to the NME (via Wikipedia), Pearlman "was not a big fan of Joe Strummer's voice, to the point that he ensured the drums were mixed louder than the lead singer's vocals on the entire album." Well, I'm not a big fan of Joe Strummer's voice either so I'm ok with that, especially since the drums of Headon (who an impressed Pearlman dubbed "The Human Drum Machine") sound really good throughout. I can understand those who miss the rawer, punkier sound of the debut, as the sound here is bigger and more metallic but less vibrant and exciting on the whole. However, some problems with the sound aside, Give 'Em Enough Rope is comprised of another strong batch of songs that abound with meaty guitar hooks and anthemic shout along choruses. The lyrics are often based on then-current events, but these songs about war, terrorism, drugs, and friendship (among other topics) retain their relevancy, and musically the big guitars, powerful drums, and catchy choruses make rocking songs such as “Safe European Home,” “Tommy Gun,” and “Drug-Stabbing Time” extremely entertaining. “Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad,” “Stay Free,” and “All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” add a more melodic and poppy diversity to this underrated set, and you even get an occasional piano or sax to make up for the fact that they rip off The Who's "I Can't Explain" riff yet again on "Guns On The Roof" (they'd previously done so on "Clash City Rockers"). Elsewhere, you get more self-mythologizing lyrics on "The Last Gang In Town" (and "All The Young Punks" come to think of it), while "English Civil War" rewrites an old American Civil War song ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home"), though Jones' guitar soloing is what makes it for me, and "Cheapskates" sees the band take on their critics (yes "The Only Band That Matters" did have a few). On the whole, though considerably less “punk” than their stellar debut (the songs are generally much longer here), Give ‘Em Enough Rope is still quite good and should likewise be played very LOUD.

London Calling (CBC, Epic '79, ‘80) Rating: A+
On this legendary album, gone is the one-dimensional punk band from their early years. Simply put, the breadth of this 19-track double album, including strands of rockabilly, r&b, reggae, ska, jazz, punk, and pure pop along with the often-imaginative use of horns and piano, is simply staggering. It has often been said that this album expanded punk’s parameters without sacrificing its energy, and that’s partly true. The fact of the matter is that although lyrically this album is still pretty in your face, musically I’ve always viewed it as being more of a rough gem of a pop album than a punk album. It helps that the main weakness of the band (Joe Strummer’s singing) can generally be overlooked, since Mick Jones sings more songs than usual and they harmonize on many of the choruses. Also, musically The Clash has become a more diverse and accomplished unit, and the band’s increased technical proficiency allows for a broader palette of sounds without sacrificing their vibrant energy. Additionally, producer Guy Stevens, who the band had admired due to his work with Mott The Hoople (another self-mythologizing band who they were fans of), was a much better fit for the band than Sandy Pearlman had been. One of the all-time great double albums (now available as a single cd), every song here is at least solid, and most soar far above that. Highlights for me include the fist pumping title cut (surely the band's greatest song with Strummer's best vocal performance by far), the slinky, funky lounge jazz of "Jimmy Jazz," the catchy Irish punk of "Hateful," the catchy sing along reggae of "Rudie Can't Fail" (think Rancid were fans of this one?), the catchy (there's that word again), the anthemic "Clampdown," the intense, darkly powerful reggae of "Guns Of Brixton" (written and sung by Simonon), the galvanizing shout along “Death Or Glory,” the stellar mellower duo of "The Card Cheat" and the surprisingly sexy "Lover's Rock," and the optimistic "I'm Not Down." In addition, “Spanish Bombs,” “Lost In The Supermarket,” and “Train In Vain” (the famously unlisted 19th track and their first significant hit in the U.S.) are ultra catchy, damn near perfect pop tunes boosted by great vocals from Jones (and sometimes Strummer). Maybe there are a few songs here that are merely solid, but suffice it to say that this was a landmark “punk” album that helped to define an era, and it still holds up exceptionally well today. Later proclaimed the best album of the '80s by Rolling Stone magazine (in the U.K. it actually came out in late '79), London Calling (whose cover art brilliantly pays homage to the first Elvis Presley record for RCA) saw The Clash at their absolute peak.

Sandinista! (CBS, Epic '81) Rating: C-
I've read that this astoundingly ambitious, 36-track triple album came about because the band thought that it would lessen the amount of albums they owed their record company (which wasn't the case, which they or at least their lawyers should've known!). That right there should be a warning sign; this wasn't a triple album because the band had so many good songs they couldn't even fit all of them onto a double album. Rather, there's barely enough truly good songs for an EP here, maybe a concise single LP if I'm feeling really generous, and as such I can't help but consider Sandinista! a monumental failure. The problem is that "The Band That No Longer Really Mattered" was confused about their direction, and appropriating various black musics (reggae, dub, soul) doesn't really work for them (at least for me it doesn't). There are tons of other experimental fillers as well, too many oddities to mention, really, as the band's strategy seemingly was "let's throw everything against the wall and see what sticks." Unfortunately, precious few of these songs stick for me, in large part because there's precious little rock music and hardly any punk rock music here. Heck, for all their subsequent attempts, the best Clash reggae songs are still "White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)" and "Police And Thieves," and though there are some good songs here, such as "The Magnificent Seven," “Hitsville U.K.,” "Something About England," "Somebody Got Murdered," "Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)," "The Sound Of The Sinners," "Police On My Back," and "Charlie Don't Surf," you have to wade through so much lesser material to in order to get to them that it's hardly worth the effort, at least in terms of listening to Sandinista! from start to finish.

Combat Rock (Epic '82) Rating: B
The band's bestselling album is another hit-and-miss affair that's primarily remembered for its two big hits, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" and "Rock The Casbah." Both of which are great, by the way, though punk purists were offended by such "sell out" moves, as I guess delivering catchy new wave rock was considered a no-no whereas delivering second rate dub and reggae was perfectly acceptable. Whatever, like I said I really like both songs, both of which you've doubtless heard so let's move on to the rest of the album, shall we? The other top-flight tracks here to me are "Know Your Rights," which delivers stomping, intense, political reggae rock, and "Straight To Hell," a simple but effective and again quite intense tune and one of several songs here with inventive percussion and world music influences. In general, the album is also obviously influenced by new wave and dance music, with fast-paced punk being a thing of the past, but again the band again too often lacks a clear sense of direction. Don't get me wrong, I like other tuneful and danceable tracks like "Car Jamming," "Atom Tan," and "Inoculated City" (the latter two quite short), but much of the album is again overly experimental and not all that memorable. Let's face it, The Clash are not a funk band, but that didn't stop them from trying (and failing) on "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Overpowered By Funk." "Sean Flynn" at least is a pleasantly mellow jam even if it's not much of a tune, but "Ghetto Defendant" delivers more weak reggae and the lounge-y "Death Is A Star" is such a strange finale that I'm not quite sure what to say about it. Really, the majority of what used to be side two on record (tracks 7-12) is pretty weak, though much of side one is extremely strong, the band's last gasp in retrospect as Jones and Headon (by now a major heroin addict) would get sacked after this album and the subsequent Cut The Crap should've been called simply Crap (I'd recommend buying the worthy b-sides and rarities compilation Super Black Market Clash instead). Jones' subsequent band, Big Audio Dynamite, had some success at first, but truth be told none of The Clash alumni achieved much after their breakup.

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