Hal Hewlett revisits Sandinista! by The Clash for The Mic's Classics Revisited series.
Picture me, age 15, on the floor of Fresh Cuts Vinyl, digging through the punk/new wave crate, when I stumble upon an aging, torn, yellowed sleeve, adorned with a greyscale photograph and some big, red lettering - “Sandinista! / The Clash”. The sleeve was split open across the top, so I peek inside - three discs? I thought it must be some mistake but, sure as day, the sides were all numbered; one, two, three, four, five, six. Questions buzzed inside my head.
What is this strange album?
Why is it so long?
What is “new wave” anyway?
Is it worth twenty quid?
Years later, I seek to finally answer these questions.
The first thing you’ll notice about Sandinista!, before the first song even begins to play, is the length. Three discs, six sides, 36 songs. They don’t pull any punches on the song length either; a two hour and 24-minute run time gives an average song length of exactly four minutes. Especially for a punk band, this is a gargantuan project, especially given the rather tenuous song concepts that occupy the album’s lower points. But, although The Clash are a punk band, this is firmly not a punk album. In fact, it’s incredibly tough to pin Sandinista! down to any single genre - the record dabbles variously in reggae, ska, rock, dub, punk, even rap and gospel. This breadth of inspiration is part of the reason for the length, as the band clearly didn’t want Sandinista!’s legacy to be simply “The Clash does a ska record”. The eclecticism of this album is the single most driving factor in its appeal as a complete product. And while the album begins bringing infusions of other genres to The Clash’s punk rock repertoire, the longer the album goes on, the wider it spreads its reach.
Sandinista!’s place in The Clash’s discography is also particularly interesting. It falls between their artistic magnum opus in London Calling, and their most commercially successful record, the double platinum Combat Rock. Judging by the cohesion problems and structure of Combat Rock, Sandinista! was the last album in which the band would be afforded such creative freedom. Sandinista! feels far more of a follow-up to London Calling than a predecessor to Combat Rock. The jazzy, funk-infused punk rock of London Calling is taken to extreme lengths on Sandinista!, stripped of any need to actually succeed, left only with the band’s love for artistic experimentation. It’s The Clash at their utter weirdest, warts and all, and what’s more, the record goes beyond feeling like The Clash simply playing with other genres, and extends into a genuine artistic statement.
"The genre-bending doesn’t simply exist for its own sake; it’s used to impart serious and artistic personal and political stories"
Because the main thing about Sandinista! is that, for the most part, it feels genuine. The album is fun; it’s The Clash, they’re always having fun. But the genre-bending doesn’t simply exist for its own sake; it’s used to impart serious and artistic personal and political stories. Take The Sound of Sinners, for example. It’s The Clash taking on gospel music, and it’s done with somewhat of a cheeky attitude; swinging choral backing vocals chanting about Armageddon, some jazzy synth, lots of big, cathedral echo in the production, and an outro of a genteel minister saying cheerio to the congregation. The mental vision of Joe Strummer as some kind of weird megachurch preacher is not stated, but it’s somehow sonically implied. Strummer’s lyrics and the song’s approach to them, however, is very different. Strummer’s message is rather genuine - struggling with drug addiction and trying to reconcile this with newfound faith - “After all my lying, crying and suffering / I ain’t good enough, I ain’t clean enough, to be him”. Faith isn’t just something to be tried on for the sake of the music here, Strummer made a song that is, quite genuinely, about faith, and decided that the best vessel for this would be a gospel-style track. Similarly, on The Magnificent Seven, the fast-paced tempo of the track and quick-fire political lyrics are best served by a track that borrows heavily from early hip-hop music; it’s hotly political and lyrically dense. While it’s clear that The Clash are laughing, it never feels like anyone’s being the butt of the joke.
Although sometimes, the listener is. There are tracks on the back end of this album that do feel like jokes that I’m not in on - songs like Mensforth Hill (which is literally just Something About England played backwards with overdubs) and this new version of Career Opportunities (a song from The Clash’s self-titled with vocals redone by local schoolchildren), while not actually torturous to listen to, just come off as a waste of time. Mensforth Hill is particularly offensive - it holds little to no actual musical value, and it’s not very funny either. The only emotional reaction it provokes in me is genuine confusion as to why it was included at all. The same extends to the final six songs, most of which are dub versions of previous songs. The gargantuan political and artistic statement that is this album ends on Shepherd’s Delight, which is an instrumental dub version of Police and Thieves. I can’t decide if this is some sort of statement in and of itself which I’m missing, or if it’s just extremely unambitious to cap off an album of this scale with an instrumental cover track. It’s not a bad song, either, I actually quite like Shepherd’s Delight, but it just doesn’t hold up as a closer to an album with songs like Washington Bullets and The Leader. I’m not saying that The Clash aren’t capable of a triple album; they ostensibly are, but the project absolutely feels as though it runs out of steam. The dub versions aren’t bad, they’re well mixed songs with interesting sonic profiles and creative drive behind them, but they just don’t say anything. And on Sandinista!, that is a particularly fatal flaw.
Sandinista! is The Clash’s most direct and daring political statement album yet. Once again, it’s evident before you even start playing, from the name and even the catalogue number, FSLN1. Both are references to the Sandinistas, a rebel group in Nicaragua, who had recently taken control of the country from dictator Anastasio Debayle. The album goes on to reference, both explicitly and implicitly, various political scandals, proxy wars and international relations. The Leader, for example, is a general stick-it-to-politicians song, which also takes aim at the increasing mediatisation of politics, making heavy references to tabloid journalism and celebrity scandals. And the album is stuffed completely full of these references, too many to name them all. This ranges from general anti-establishment lyrics like in Police on my Back to the brilliant Washington Bullets, which has on almost every line a reference to imperialist policies from 1955 to what was at that point the current day. If you’ve ever found songs like Give Peace A Chance or God Save the Queen to be overly reductive or preachy in their ideological messages, then Sandinista! provides a brilliant palette cleanser. The Clash knows what they want, they know how to address it, and they know how to turn it into brilliant music.
"This is a point at which The Clash were one of the best bands in the world, and here we have the opposite of a commercial project"
The thing that Sandinista! indicates most to me about this point for The Clash is maturity. This is a point at which The Clash were one of the best bands in the world, and here we have the opposite of a commercial project. The band famously agreed to miss out on substantial amount of album sales royalties in order to get the triple LP sold at a low price; for the members to all have agreed to miss out on so much money, they must have believed they were making something important. And despite all the Mensforth Hills and subpar dub remixes on the album, it really does feel like it. After the first side, the slow come-down and transition into an album that is almost entirely new wave is buttery smooth, until you’re lost in bass soundscapes and far-reaching production, motivated by a desire to move past the stagnating punk movement. The Clash didn’t just move forward, they moved outward. Out of punk, out of mainstream sensibilities, and out of the top of the charts. And even if the album isn’t all hits, and isn’t as tight of a cohesive unit as London Calling, I have somewhat of a fondness for products that consciously stuff a bit too much in. I respect the effort. And if sitting through Mensforth Hill and a few other tired dub remixes on the back end is the price for every time I want to get through all six discs, then it’s one I’ll willingly pay. I find it to be The Clash’s best album - not for sales, not for catchiness, but because it represents one of the best rock and roll bands of all time at their imperfect but celestial zenith. Perhaps they flew too close to the sun. But by doing so, they made punk live in their shadow.
(And yes, it’s worth twenty quid).
Edited by: Gemma Cockrell
Featured image courtesy of Bob Gruen via The Clash via Facebook.