Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Artist: The Clash
Album: Sandinista!
Year: 1980
Record Label: CBS (now Sony)

Read any official history of The Clash and it will tell you that the eponymous debut, The Clash, is the landmark, Give 'Em Enough Rope the adequate follow-up, London Calling the classic, and the final album Combat Rock a flawed work with some fine individual songs that don’t gel as a whole.

Sandinista!, which falls between London Calling and Combat Rock, is usually dismissed as an experiment that went badly wrong. The Clash were on a ten-album contract with CBS at the time and wanted out. To speed the process up, they decided to record a triple album, 36 tracks, and argued that it should count as three albums even if sold in one package. CBS responded by counting it as just one and even selling it at the price of a single album.

The critics were bemused and ultimately dismayed. Some of the group’s fans who had followed them since the early punk days accused them of “selling out”, although selling to what wasn’t clear. Certainly not to commercialism, as Sandinista! was anything but commercial. It features a bewildering range of styles, and none of them fitted with the zeitgeist of the day, musically or politically.

A few tracks, such as Police on my Back and Somebody Got Murdered hearken back to the old punk days, but they are much in the minority. There’s a heavy dub reggae influence, and dub reggae guru, Mikey Dread, features on several tracks. There’s dance (The Magnificent Seven, The Call Up), pop irony (Hitsville UK), gospel (The Sound of the Sinners), but most of the album is completely unclassifiable, which might explain why the critics of the time couldn’t get to grips with it. It’s loaded with examples of great songwriting, and there’s a humour about it too (a version of Career Opportunities, a song from the debut album, is rendered here on piano and acoustic guitar with three young children taking the vocals). There is plenty of experimentation, none of which sacrifices the necessity of a good tune.

The lyrics are often political. Mick Jones’s lyrics often verge into over-earnest parody, but Joe Strummer’s hold up better – “in a war-torn swamp, stop any mercenary, and check the British bullets in his armoury”, that’s at a time when subjects like the arms trade weren’t a feature of pop songs and were barely talked about in polite society.

I think it’s about time to re-evaluate Sandinista! Not every track is a classic, but it’s a bold and important album that should be better appreciated. I saw the Clash soon after it was released, and they kicked off their 150-minute set with Broadway, an obscure track from side 4 that I’d hardly noticed on the album. I realised then what a great song it was, and throughout the 36 tracks, understated quality turns up again and again with every listen.

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