3. The Clash, Sandinista!
Trouser Press wrote: “Overblown, overambitious and only this bunch could pull it off. Still the only band that matters?”
How in the hell does a band follow-up a double-album that immediately got tagged with wholly justifiable hyperbole about its excellence that put in league with the finest rock ‘n’ roll records ever devoted to vinyl? With a triple-album, of course.
London Calling, released in the U.K. in late 1979 and stateside in early 1980, included a promotional sticker affixed by label CBS that proclaimed The Clash “The Only Band That Matters.” It’s a measure of the band’s force and the album’s excellence that it was seen less as an example of corporate sloganeering and more of a statement of truth. The songs, penned primarily by guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (with one track credited to bassist Paul Simonon, but what a song), were a collected howl of rage at the decaying society the band saw when they looked out their studio window. Corporate control was stripping away humanity and the mates bashed away as their resulting dismay with music that harnessed the fury of punk but applied it to song structures modeled on far more intricate music styles such as soul and reggae.
The Clash originally hoped to record and release a new single every month of 1980, but the label dissuaded them from that idea. Instead, they marshaled their energies into writing and recording the vast array of songs that would be spread across six vinyl sides for the album Sandinista! Some bands would use that sort of sprawl to demonstrate their range, but The Clash seem determined to decisively demonstrate that range is an inaccurate term for them since it implies a couple of endpoints. Beginning with the bully boy rap on the album’s opening track, “The Magnificent Seven,” The Clash is announcing that they can do damn well anything they want. The whole album proceeds with an almost cavalier willingness to engage in every shard of a musical idea that strikes them. The reggae influence abounds, but the album also has clear nods to Motown R&B, disco (on a song with a rare lead vocal from drummer Topper Headon) and dub. The album is everything all at once, equally exhausting and exhilarating.
For a long time, I was absolute in my view that the discoography of The Clash could be cleaved right in half, with the first three releases–The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope and London Calling–representing unquestionable greatness and everything after suitable for disappointment or disdain. I adhered to a the conclusion that Sandinista! was too wide-ranging, too unwieldy. It was too many ideas, I thought, in search of a coherent unifying vision to hammer them into shape. Lately, though, I’ve come around to the idea that, like The Beatles’ self-titled release commonly known as “The White Album,” that it’s the very scattershot blast of the record that gives it its strength. It’s not muddled and confused; instead, it’s deliberately eschewing the notion of cohesion to embrace unhindered creativity. Everything on the album sounds unmistakably like a Clash song, but not a single track sounds like Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headron were actively trying to make a Clash song, to adhere to established expectations.
My thorough shift in opinion about the quality of the record is almost enough to tempt me to freshly reevaluate Combat Rock. Almost. There’s no such temptation for Cut the Crap, the last studio album billed to The Clash, although Jones and Headon were out of the band by that point. The original quartet went onto other projects, with Mick Jones arguably achieving the greatest success, both artistically and commercially, through his work with Big Audio Dynamite. In a shocking turn, Strummer died at the age of 50 in 2002, felled by a previously undiagnosed heart problem.
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story
3. The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat