The Clash – Combat Rock Sunday, Jun 8 2008 

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.

Advertisements

Role reversal Sunday, Apr 1 2007 

It’s funny. My mum sticks her head into my room whenever I put on the Clash or the Ramones, grimaces and says, ‘I don’t understand how you can like something so noisy.’ And yet, yesterday, when I suggested she pick some song from my collection for her mobile ringtone, she plumped for the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ and Joey Ramone’s cover of ‘What a Wonderful World’ – hardly tranquil, soothing pieces of music.

I pointed out the incongruity, but she said the whole point of having a loud ringtone was to wake her up – and, of course, to be heard. Ironically, I had avoided picking loud music for my own mobile ringtone because I didn’t want to give my colleagues a shock every time it came on in my (quiet) office. Of course, the net result is that I hardly ever notice when my phone starts ringing (playing the intro to Camera Obscura’s ‘Lloyd I’m Ready to be Heartbroken’), and even less when a text message arrives (to the tune of the low-key ‘Center of Gravity’ by Yo La Tengo). I think it may be time for a change… Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ or the Clash’s ‘Death or Glory’, perhaps…

The Clash: London Calling Tuesday, Dec 19 2006 

I really love the Clash. This is not to say that I love everything they’ve done (and I’ve heard the vast majority of it), though I like lots of it. But if I had never heard anything of theirs save for London Calling, they’d be one of my (two) musical heroes all the same. I listened to this double-album (double in the days of vinyl, that is) early on in my popular music phase – which began about 7 months ago – and almost nothing else has come close to matching it. (A couple of Neil Young albums do, and that’s why he’s my other musical hero.)

London Calling is simply bursting with… exuberance. I think that’s the most apt description of the energy and fun on this record. Well, gosh, just look at the cover. That’s Paul Simonon smashing his bass – in sheer frustration at a show that was going badly, actually – but this image completely evokes, for me, the power, spirit and audacity of London Calling and the Clash in general.

The 19 songs draw, musically, on a whole bunch of genres. There is punk rock (naturally) as on the ominous title track; ‘50s rock-and-roll like the gleeful cover of ‘Brand New Cadillac’; reggae, including the joyful ‘Revolution Rock’ and the clear-eyed depiction of inner-city violence that is ‘The Guns of Brixton’; ska, e.g. ‘Wrong ‘em Boyo’ which actually starts off as a dramatic Broadway-style number , then breaks off abruptly so that they can ‘start all over again’, this time in frenetic ska mode… Quite a progression from the very straightforward three-chord punk of their eponymous debut, and quite a musical feat for a band classified as ‘punk’ (or any band for that matter).

But London Calling isn’t great simply by virtue of being a musical experiment that worked. Well, yes, the music is pretty fantastic – all credit to Mick Jones, who wrote some incredible melodies and arrangements here (to which the rest of the band no doubt contributed). But it’s really Joe Strummer’s lyrics that make the whole thing, and make the whole thing cohere: the varied arrangements may not be punk, but the lyrics are pure punk (in terms of thematic preoccupation and attitude, that is). It’s shocking how often Strummer manages to Say Something of lasting meaning. And what’s more, he’s witty, funny, sophisticated, literate, and most importantly (from my perspective) really humanistic about it. London Calling could almost serve as a handbook on how to grow up, become and remain somebody you’re proud to be – for both men and women – and to have fun while you’re at it.

Consider ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, in which a bunch of rude boys (in the ska culture sense, not the literal sense) conduct a good-natured verbal sparring match with people who consider themselves respectable pillars of society:

Well they’re saying:

‘How you get a-rude and a-reckless?

Don’t you be so crude and a-feckless

You’ve been drinking brew for breakfast’

Rudie can’t fail.

We reply:

‘I know that my life makes you nervous

But I tell you I can’t live in service

Like the doctor born for a purpose’

Rudie can’t fail.

This is an argument that has been played out in many a time and place between two different generations, only set down here with more poetry. Furthermore, the lyrics – partly written (and sung) in Jamaican patois – are perfectly set to ska-inflected rock (audible in the bouncy guitars, joyous horns, and Topper Headon’s astounding drumming). These people really know what they’re doing. And the result is spectacular songs.

Another of my (many) favourites, ‘Hateful’, is an empathetic, understanding account of addict and his dialectical relationship with the drug/s, featuring outstanding rhythm-section work. Strummer really outdoes himself here, especially with the call-and-response structure of the verses:

Well, I got a friend who’s a man

Who’s a man

What man? The man who keeps me from the lonely, the only

He gives me what I need

What you need?

What you got? I need it oh-so-badly

Oh, anything I want he gives it to me

Anything I want he gives it, but not for free

Hateful

And it’s paid for

And I’m so grateful

To be nowhere.

The other myriad subjects in London Calling – including the Spanish civil war (‘Spanish Bombs’), the futility of war in general (‘Death or Glory’, ‘The Card Cheat’), Montgomery Clift (‘The Right Profile’), suburban alienation (‘Lost in the Supermarket’), the loss of youthful individualism (‘Clampdown’), commercialism and capitalism (‘Koka Kola’), the sexual politics of contraception (‘Lover’s Rock’), and even a(n anti-) love song that became a hit single (‘Train in Vain’) – all receive thoughtful and earnest treatment.

Almost every song on London Calling has something to recommend it as special. It might not be apparent on first listen, but that’s often the case with the Clash because the words are sometimes hard to pick out; put it down to Strummer’s Cockney accent and muffled enunciation. (Thank goodness the lyrics are provided in the insert!) A great Clash song generally grows on you. The music hits you first and then over repeated listens the lyrics creep up on you and before you know it you are marvelling open-mouthed at the craft and collaborative sympathy of the two principal song-writers. (Simonon contributes ‘The Guns of Brixton’, and there are a few covers on this album.) Indeed every time I think I’ve gleaned everything that London Calling has to offer me, I pick up on yet another delightful detail. I don’t think London Calling has finished growing on me yet.

Excepting Headon, perhaps, none of the Clash has exceptional musical chops in the conventional sense. Simonon especially seemed to be the archetype of good-looking non-musicians, although he grew to become a decent bass player: Jones approached him to be in the band purely because of his marketable looks. Jones himself is quite a good lead guitarist though not amazing; Strummer plays ferocious rhythm guitar and sings in a distinctly unmusical manner. But they function superbly as a collective, trading lead vocals or chiming in on the chorus, meshing their instruments, synchronising their tone and energy levels. The outstanding rhythmic slashes in the opening bars of ‘Death or Glory’ – by guitar, bass and drums – come to mind: you can’t help but nod/bounce in time. No wonder the audiences used to pogo furiously at Clash gigs.

And you can’t get much better vocalists in popular music than Strummer. Yes, he doesn’t quite hit the notes dead-centre, and he gargles on the words occasionally. But the emotional range of his delivery is unmatched. In the course of the album he snarls with menace, spits with contempt, yelps with glee, howls (literally, wolf-like) in fear, drawls in a voice that is dripping with sloth, stutters uncertainly, ingratiates himself, squawks in mock-anxiety, and even manages to wink-and-nudge audibly… Strummer is plainly enjoying himself to the hilt on London Calling, and that translates into pure fun for the listener. This listener, anyway.

Sure, London Calling is political and aggressive and scary. It’s thoughtful and socially-aware and occasionally sad. But it is also fun and completely joyous a lot of the time. And that’s why London Calling is not just, objectively-speaking, one of the best albums ever recorded (insofar as it is possible to judge music objectively, but that’s another issue for another day). It’s also one of the most enjoyable albums to listen to. That makes it doubly rare, I think.

‘Complete Control’ (The Clash) Sunday, Oct 15 2006 

It occurred to me only this morning, while humming it, that Mick Jones used modulation to fantastic effect in this song (both in the writing and the guitar-playing).

And the echo-y chorus is pretty great.

‘C-O-N… control!’

Interestingly, this is one of five Clash songs that made it to the Rolling Stone list of 500 greatest songs (the others are ‘London Calling’, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, ‘Train in Vain’ and ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’). You’ll never agree completely with lists like that, but it’s always nice to see songs that you like popping up on them.

How this started Sunday, Oct 8 2006 

One day in June 2006 – the eve of the last day of my final exams – I found myself getting horribly distracted from exam preparations by, of all things, thoughts about how wonderful London Calling (the album, not the song) was. I alternated between berating myself, trying (to no avail) to concentrate on my notes, and digging out the album insert to scrutinise the lyrics of ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. This was, for me, quite a strange and unnerving experience. I don’t generally have problems remaining focused on important (or at least immediate) tasks. Later that night, lying quite sleepless in bed, it came to me: I need to write about my feelings on such things as London Calling.

Call it catharsis if you will. When I subsequently read Emily of New Moon for the first time, I finally understood her ‘flashes’ – instances when she felt very close to a world of indescribable beauty – to be identical to the experience I had with London Calling. I’ve had flashes all my life, except that where the stimuli for Emily’s flashes were always visual, my flashes are brought on by all sorts of things, including nature, art, books, films, and of course music. When they come on it’s as if some sort of veil or fog that perpetually surrounds you lifts momentarily: and you suddenly perceive everything more vividly. The world is more colourful; sharp; tangy; and, for whatever reason, hopeful. You feel more alive. You are overcome by feelings of great pleasure and wonder. And then you feel an incredibly pressing need to record those sensations.

(more…)