I feel a little guilty writing up Combat Rock when I haven’t yet listened hard to all of its songs, because the Clash always deserve the benefit of the doubt and certainly earned the right to a thoughtful listening. But just a little. Simply put, Combat Rock isn’t up to the same standards as the Clash’s first three records (viz. the UK version of The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and London Calling). At twelve songs, it is at least more concise and therefore more manageable than their fourth (the originally six-sided Sandinista!) – but still packs too much of the unremarkable.

Still, the Clash’s 1982 effort is by no means a bad record. In fact, it boasts at least a couple of darn good, fun songs and at least half of the rest is pretty decent. Top two on my list are ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and ‘Rock the Casbah’. The former is not a typical Clash song, if you think of such a creature as boasting intelligent and/or lyrics; in fact, the lyrics are as stoopid as they come. Sample verse:

Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

The brilliance of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is in the music and the performance. Its appeal is thoroughly visceral: Mick Jones whoops his way through the song, accompanied by heavily fuzzed bass line and guitar riffs and resounding drum beats, and backing vocals by Joe Strummer in Ecuadorian Spanish, just for fun. The simplest of tunes with the simplest of sentiments, but it WORKS, and apparently to great effect when Levi’s used the song to advertise jeans a decade later, causing it to belatedly shoot up the charts. (Or so Wikipedia tells me; Combat Rock was released in the year before I was born and I was nine when ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ enjoyed its renaissance.)

‘Rock the Casbah’ is a hilarious political fantasy and more in the Clash’s usual mould. But the tune and instrumentation are, unusually, written by drummer Topper Headon rather than Mick Jones, and consequently rather new-wave-dance-floor-friendly. Legend has it that, in response to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to ban rock music in Iran, Strummer wrote a song imagining the people’s defiance of the ban. But he peppered it with a mish-mash of cultural references from all over the Middle East and North Africa to eliminate the specificity and gleefully hollered his way through it.

Now the king told the boogie-men
‘You have to let that raga drop’
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top

By order of the prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out the electric camel drum
The local guitar picker got his guitar picking thumb
As soon as the sharif cleared the square
They began to wail

The king called up his jet fighters
He said ‘You better earn your pay
Drop your bombs between the minarets
Down the Casbah way’
As soon as the sharif was chauffeured out of there
The jet pilots tuned to the cockpit radio blare
As soon as the sharif was out of their hair
The jet pilots wailed…

Sharif don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah

(He thinks it’s not kosher!)

Of course, in horrifyingly typical fashion, conservatives latched on to that one line ‘Drop your bombs between the minarets’ and practically christened ‘Rock the Casbah’ soundtrack to the 1990s Gulf war. Never mind the Clash’s hopes for the peoples of the Middle East to be united by rock music, as depicted on the single cover. Just look at the Arab and the Hasidic Jew boogie-ing together and see if you can help smiling. Almost three decades on, it still isn’t much more than fantasy…

While I was very amused by the mix of cultural references in ‘Rock the Casbah’, the mix-up in ‘Straight to Hell’ actually irked me at first, perhaps because this one is meant to be serious. I applaud Strummer’s concern for the plight of the ‘Amerasian’ babies of the Vietnam War who were abandoned by their soldier fathers when they returned to the US – but the only Asian culture in which ‘san’ is used as an honorific is Japanese. Oh, I suppose I’m picking nits, but for me, the error detracts from Strummer’s otherwise sophisticated rendering of immigrant hopes and dilemmas in several different contexts.

Wanna join in a chorus
Of the Amerasian blues?
When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say ‘Papa Papa Papa Papa Papa -san take me home’
See me got photo photo photograph of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Lemme tell ya ‘bout your blood, bamboo kid:
It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice

Straight to hell, boys
Go straight to hell, boys
Oh Papa-san
Please take me home
Oh Papa-san
Everybody they wanna go home
So Mamma-san says

Can you cough it up loud and strong?
The immigrants
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
Any hemisphere
No man’s land
There ain’t no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived round here

The music of ‘Straight to Hell’ pulses with an insistent slow drum beat, guitar strokes and mournful, siren-like, Oriental-sounding violin melody. It’s merely memorable here, but was sampled cleverly, and to stunningly gorgeous effect, by M.I.A. in the song ‘Paper Planes’ off her recent album Kala. To be honest, it was ‘Paper Planes’ – which, aptly enough, also dealt with the travails of with immigration – that made me give ‘Straight to Hell’ another chance. It’s still not my favourite, but the general consensus is that it’s one of the Clash’s major songs.

So… depending on who you are, Combat Rock has either two or three classic songs. Maybe not enough to make a classic record, but when the good songs are so good, still a worthy record.