After Rolling Stone magazine labeled the Clash’s third album “London Calling” the best album of the 80’s, where was there to go? Whatever effort the ‘only band that matters’ put forth after such an album was bound to disappoint, no matter if it was as good or not. Some people would always label such a follow-up a failure, which begs the question – is every follow-up a failure by design? Can one ever succeed? Will some critics never be satisfied, no matter what? In this case, it seems the answer is that no matter what was presented, it was going to be overlooked. Everyone talks justifiably about the first album as well as “London Calling” but what about this, possibly their most controversial effort?
The album itself: Bloated? Mmmmm, maybe. Overly long? Eh, possibly. When released, it topped the double album “London Calling” by presenting itself as a three-album behemoth (and done the Clash way, by selling for the price of a single album). I have heard the argument that it could have been made into a double-album as good or better than “London Calling” or one mighty single that would have been the best of their career. I might agree, but I have also heard the same criticisms for the Beatles White album, which I happen to find ridiculous, and therefore I am content to digest the album as was intended by the best authority of the quality and presentation of the Clash’s work – damn right, the band themselves. Punk, jazz, rap, rock, waltz….it’s all here to be digested, and if this album seems too long and too diverse, then maybe this isn’t the album or the band for you.
The highlights are many, and just as varied as the album itself. Things kick off with “The Magnificent Seven” which pre-dates any white man rap by some fifteen years. The English MC Mike Skinner a.k.a. “the Streets” is being hyped as one of England’s first ‘authentic’ MC’s. Well, Strummer, Jones and company did it first. This cut was said to be blaring from New York ghettos in the summer of 1980-1981 alongside early rap pioneers like the Sugarhill Gang. As usual, the Clash were on the cultural edge when it came to exploring music genres.
The hits keep coming, from the gospel-ish “Hitsville UK” to the lush waltz-styling of the beautiful “Rebel Waltz” to the cool social commentary of “The Leader” and “Somebody Got Murdered.” Some of the experiments don’t always work so well. Some of the dub is overused, I think, and the children’s choir doing old Clash hits like “Career Opportunities” seems weird, but then one wonders what the Clash are trying to say. Are they saying punk IS for the youth, for the children, and not for grown men? Are they saying that this is what punk ahs become – little, safe children’s jingles? Either way, it’s interesting, although not particularly ear candy.
Calypso surfaces on the enchantingly fun “Washington Bullets”, Clashifeid reggae on “Police on My Back”, and politico protest in “Call-Up.” That’s nearly ten songs namedropped, all off the top of my head, not too mention “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” which criticizes both the image and the actions of America and Russia, and “Charlie Don’t Surf” etc, etc.
As with many Clash songs/albums, the politics and ideals are a bit naive and dated. Strummer had been obsessed with the Sandinista rebels, and the rebellion in Nicaragua and therefore named an album after them? Curious, but wide-eyed and innocent, in a “true-to-their-gut-feelings” way that makes it forgivable. They wanted to take up a cause for what is right – for the underdog. Always did. It is important to understand the times and the backdrop of the world to fully digest what this album, and the Clash themselves, were about.
In hindsight, this is a hell of any album. To me, it’s funny how no one mentions the works of literature that take thousands of pages to say their peace, but everyone mentions an album that seems long to do the same. You seldom hear critics saying that “War and Peace” or “Moby Dick” are too long or over-indulgent. Why? Because they weren’t too long, they were the length the authors needed to say their peace. So it is, too, with this equivalent of a literary challenge on vinyl – deep, long and engrossing. In parts slow, but as a whole a wonderful statement. “Too long” is a critique that doesn’t hold water with me. If you are too busy to give this album a shot (and I don’t mean every listen has to be the whole damn thing) then you are too busy to understand what the Clash were all about – Strummer is gone, and this is a wonderful reminder of what he was capable of.
Review by Sean Holland