The Clash's eponymous debut, one of the seminal albums of its epoch, makes it abundantly clear right from the beginning why the band was destined to assume their place in the rock and roll pantheon as "the only group that matters." The punk movement, with its socially relevant messages and contumacious rallying cries, was designed to give a voice to the disenfranchised working class who had long been excluded from popular music, and the Clash were the ideal candidates to fill this void.
This was the case for myriad reasons, but can best be expressed by contrasting them against their contemporaries. The Clash's work was always animated by an innate intelligence that was conspicuously absent from the empty nihilism of the Sex Pistols, while likewise their material was far more sophisticated than the juvenile Beach-Boys-meet-punk anthems penned by the Ramones. The Clash were indeed angry in the archetypal punk fashion but their rage was far more focused and precise, directed in more meaningful directions than the mere misanthropic venting of most of the punk outfits of their era.
The Clash, however, would never have become one of the behemoths of the punk music if their talents were confined to spouting rebellious messages and anti-establishment rhetoric. While they were deeply polemical, they never demonstrated any negligence in the hook department, always sure to make their music catchy and memorable. The band isn't above employing pop hooks, a great asset for the group on an entertainment level that never feels as if it compromises the raw anger or scathing social commentary that's endemic to the Clash's work.
One aspect of the debut that's operated as the catalyst for a plethora of violent debates centers around the two versions of the album that are currently available, the original UK edition and the subsequent American release. The consensus seems to be that the British version flows better while the American edition has more great songs, as it excised a few of the supposedly lesser numbers from the original track listing and replaced them with some of the group's early singles, in the process completely rearranging the song sequencing.
I only own the latter version and thus can't fully assess the relative merits of each edition, but I tend to prefer the option of more great songs over the flow of an album. While I certainly approve of starting the album with the adrenaline rush that is Janie Jones, the bonus single Clash City Rocker makes an excellent opener as well, a Clash classic that utilizes a variation of the prototypical punk riff that originated in the Who's I Can't Explain and subsequently became ubiquitous throughout the whole of the punk movement.
As far as social and political insight goes the Clash's debut is not an epiphanic experience; while far more intelligent and penetrating than the hollow primitivism of the Sex Pistols, they're still in their embryonic stages as lyricists, resulting in an often simplistic, heavy-handed lyrical experience.
What invariably redeems this lyrical shortcoming, however, is the exceptional songwriting of the group. Classics abound, from the aforementioned opener Clash City Rockers to the derision of all things American in I'm So Bored With The U.S.A. to the hyper catchy pop of Remote Control to the irresistible London's Burning. The band displays a great gift for songwriting throughout, while the two covers, I Fought The Law and Police & Thieves, fit perfectly and are brilliantly implemented.
The songs, in grand punk tradition, are uniformly kept short, save the previously mentioned Police & Thieves, an elongated reggae number that betrays the band's innate artistic ambitions that wouldn't truly manifest themselves until later in their career. For now, however, the song is an interesting attempt at something different from the band, a dangerous risk for a fledgling punk outfit desperate to prove their credibility as the punks they profess to be.
Ultimately the album is a huge triumph, not only influential but one of the greatest punk albums ever recorded. While the Clash would progress beyond the narrow confines of the genre in the future, on their debut they prove their total mastery of the style, paving the way for a multitude of inferior knockoffs. Punk is an inherently limited genre, but the Clash make the most of it, hence this excellent offering.
For a band often hailed as one of the best punk outfits of all time, the Clash certainly didn't adhere to the fundamentals of the genre for very long, and it's precisely for this reason that Give 'Em Enough Rope is widely reviled amongst even the most devoted of fans of the group.
This isn't to say that the album marks a huge departure from punk aesthetics, but there a few primary respects in which it deviates from the archetypal punk formula. The most notable of these changes involves the speed of the music; speed is extremely important to the punk movement, wherein most affiliated bands blaze through series of fast, compact and simple songs at an extremely swift pace.
This paradigm certainly applied to the band's debut, but on Give 'Em Enough Rope the Clash's material fails to conform to the customary fast speed of the genre, as the group instead elected to pen decidedly longer compositions that flowed at a more relaxed pace. This incensed many fans who longed for the breakneck speed and short runtimes of the debut and viewed this development as a betrayal.
Truth be told, however, there's nothing inherently wrong with slower, longer punk songs. For instance, on the Ramones' Road To Ruin the slower speed was its saving grace, preventing it from being a rehash of their first three outings and thus saving the band from creative stagnation. On Give 'Em Enough Rope the songs never feel enervated or lethargic, and accordingly the dearth of speed is never a problem.
A slower speed isn't the only department in which the group began to progress beyond punk on this album. Give 'Em Enough Rope features far more complex songs, with this complexity manifesting itself in the form of multipart tracks, elaborate codas, false finishes, more ambitious lyrics, greater variety and more intricate arrangements. While this may not have resulted in a better product it's certainly a clear sign of artistic and creative growth, as the band began to step outside the realm of conventional punk, yet another development that irked much of the Clash's fanbase.
There are even tracks that eschew punk altogether, such as Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad and Stay Free, the latter of which even adopts some Beatlesque mannerisms. While a small step, these tracks are still precursors to the monumental diversity of their subsequent endeavors, just as the debut's Police & Thieves anticipated some of the maturation on this outing.
What truly makes the album work, however, is the fact that the group are still immensely gifted songwriters, and there's nary a weak track amongst the ten contained here. Songs like Last Gang In Town rank amongst their peak material to this point, and while the album's tracks may not be quite as fresh or exciting as those from the debut they're still uniformly enjoyable.
It's a pity that some listeners grow so caught up with the tracks' speed that they can't get beyond it, thus missing a truly solid affair that's a worthy follow up to the band's epochal debut. While Give 'Em Enough Rope is admittedly a transitional album, and therefore is neither as good a punk album as the Clash's first effort nor as good a rock record as its successor, it's still a highly strong, compelling sophomore effort, enjoyable on its own terms as well as from a historical perspective as a sign pointing the way to the band's future.
While Give 'Em Enough Rope showed signs of the band's inevitable graduation from punk into more diverse and ambitious territory, London Calling still represents a monumental and unprecedented leap above its predecessor; whereas the Clash's previous album displayed a gradual progression over their debut, the jump from their sophomore effort to their legendary double album is anything but gradual.
Even London's Calling's status as a double album alone is indicative of the more ambitious direction in which the group was heading in, and a calculated slight to the punk movement wherein anything as self-indulgent or self-consciously artsy as a double LP is a heinous atrocity meriting the harshest punishment imaginable.
Thus the Clash transcended the punk genre, but rather than settling on a single new sound they crafted a work of the utmost diversity; when compared to the stylistically static debut the variety offered in London Calling is truly staggering, as once free of the massively constrictive trappings of punk the band was free to try their hand at whatever genre they desired.
London Calling is the masterpiece that the Clash had always had in them but would never have achieved had they remained a mere punk group. With everything from punk rock to pop rock to hard rock to jazz rock to blues rock to classic rock to reggae to ska to ballads to introspective numbers the album covers a tremendous amount of ground, and throughout the record the Clash prove themselves to be quite adept at each area they tackle.
The band hasn't eschewed their socially conscious tendencies; rather, they filter them through other mediums besides the perpetually blunt, angry sounding invective they used to favor when orating against the establishment, thus rendering their messages more subtle, cerebral and compelling, coming off as organic parts of the songs as opposed to being savagely shoved down the listener's throat. This coincides with Strummer's growth as a lyricist, resulting in a far more palatable and rewarding listen when it comes to the group's transparent polemics.
Most importantly, London Calling features easily the best songwriting by the group to that point, marrying a cornucopia of styles to brilliant melodies and catchy hooks. The opening title track may very well be the group's best song, an apocalyptic rocker boasting a great riff and superb vocal melodies. From its very first note it's apparent that the group has radically changed, as the idiosyncratic nature of the songs is wholly incompatible with the punk aesthetics of old. The freedom to pen songs of this nature is what elevates the album high above its predecessors, and the group fully capitalizes on this liberating opportunity.
Nearly every track is a classic, and there's only a modicum of filler present despite London Calling's status as a double album, a testament to the creative condition of the band. Brand New Cadillac is a great garage rocker, Hateful is energetic pop coexisting with lyrics about narcotics, Spanish Bombs is energetic pop coexisting with lyrics about warfare, Rudie Can't Fail is brilliant reggae second only to The Guns Of Brixton, which takes the customarily mellow genre and transfigures it into a haunting, menacing track that sits alongside the title track as one of the group's best compositions, Lost In The Supermarket is a surprisingly intimate, personal track coming from a band that tends to shun sincerity or introspection, Clampdown is a catchy indictment of fascism, Death Or Glory has a rousing refrain while Train In Vain is utterly infectious pop.
These are hardly the only highlights, however, as nearly every track has something to offer. The Clash at their peak were certainly something to behold, as they managed to leave their rebellious ethos intact while maturing both musically and lyrically in every conceivable fashion. The band proves that they can translate the heart of punk into an arena wholly divorced from the limiting, constraining conventions of the genre, expressing anger and indignation without shouting and rawness and passion without derivative, primitive arrangements. Thus the Clash retained everything beneficial about the punk movement while shedding everything deleterious to their growth and progression as artists, resulting in the strongest product the group was capable of and a milestone for generations to come.
In the wake of the mammoth success (on both a critical and commercial level) of London Calling the band was left with a dilemma. Would they progress further beyond the constrictive boundaries of punk and risk alienating a large part of their original fanbase or would they continue their flirtation with the genre to placate their initial audience?
Not only did the band embrace the former, but they did so in a fashion so dramatic and decisive that it made their initial betrayals of the punk movement seem mild and innocuous in comparison. They managed this feat by eclipsing their previous transgression of producing a double album in the most direct possible way: they released a triple album.
Not only was this a heresy in the eyes of punk fans but it was likewise a gesture indicative of such self-indulgence that most progressive rock acts, the natural nemeses of the prototypical punk, would shy away from a project of that scope and magnitude.
In fact, Sandinista! was only the second studio triple album ever, while its predecessor, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, barely qualifies, as its third record was solely comprised of lengthy jams with nary a true song in sight. Thus the release of Sandinista! was an act nearly unprecedented in rock and roll history, an enterprise so bloated and pretentious in nature that it's practically antithetical to every chapter of punk dogma.
Unfortunately, while ambition on this scale is certainly admirable in no way did the material the Clash had penned for the album necessitate three records; rather, it seems that Sandinista! is a triple album for the sake of being a triple album, more a statement from the band than an organic extension of their recent work.
Thus, as would be inevitable even in a more justified triple album, the record is inundated with a massive amount of filler that can't help but dilute the potency of the better numbers. Much of the triple LP is expendable, extraneous padding designed to artificially inflate the length of a record that Strummer had simply decided should be a triple album.
This is hardly as catastrophic as it would seem, however; the filler is very rarely offensive (with just a few exceptions, such as the remake of Career Opportunities that for incomprehensible reasons known only to them the band decided should have vocals performed by grating prepubescent singers), and most of it can actually prove quite enjoyable if unremarkable. While these songs may not be especially memorable they still constitute an engrossing listen, likewise helping to engender an epic feel for the greatly elongated album.
Furthermore the filler is ameliorated by the sheer diversity of it, which greatly aids the band in the endeavor of sustaining the listener's interest for the duration of a 140 minute record. On London Calling the band had already exhibited their versatility, and Sandinista! takes them even further in that direction, this time assimilating elements of everything from funk to gospel to technophile experimentation to even show tunes. The group show a flair for each genre they tackle, displaying an innate gift for not only emulating other styles but likewise marrying it to their own exceptional songwriting abilities.
Despite these compliments the filler remains filler, and thus is insufficient on its own to recommend the album. Fortunately, the record's true assets are anything but filler, a group of stellar songs that rank amongst the band's best material ever. While separated by an excessive amount of padding, the inherent merits of these tracks still show through, resulting in a highly enjoyable listen that can scarcely be marred by the presence of lesser tracks.
The filler may be interesting by filler standards but it can't compare to tracks like the funk rocker The Magnificent Seven with its infectious grooves or the hyper catchy cold war rock song Ivan Meets G.I. Joe or the anthemic Somebody Got Murdered or the cover of the reggae turned rock song Police On My Back or the moody Midnight Log or the album's dark horse, the haunting, ominous The Call Up or the bouncy jingle Washington Bullets with its scathing indictment of American politics or the poppy Charlie Don't Surf or the more experimental The Street Parade.
These tracks, amongst others, compensate for any deficiencies in the lesser numbers which, as I'd stated, are not without merit in their own right. The album still feels severely bloated, expanded beyond all reasonable measures, but it somehow remains entertaining for its massively prolonged duration, providing just enough style and substance to hold the listener's attention for its 140 minutes.
Thus Sandinista!, while undeniably a flawed product, is far from the debacle it's often vilified as; on the contrary, I'd call it a resounding success, as while it may not match its ambitions with comparable content it remains a very strong affair, filled with bona fide Clash classics and material that's just engaging enough to prevent the listener from lapsing into a state of boredom after an onslaught of over two hours.
It's not the monumental achievement Strummer and company envisaged it as, and it can't compare to the far more consistent London Calling, but it's still one of the Clash's best albums, and once one can overcome the triple album stigma they'll find a highly rewarding sonic experience.
After a pair of behemoths of the proportions of London Calling and Sandinista! any subsequent Clash albums on a smaller scale would inevitably appear slight and diminished. Evading that problem would have necessitated something along the lines of producing a quadruple album, an action which, thankfully, Strummer and company abstained from.
Thus the Clash released Combat Rock, their first single album since Give 'Em Enough Rope, but that doesn't mean that they've reverted to their traditional punk stylistics; while the record begins with an intentional throwback to their days as a punk outfit, Know Your Rights, the remainder of the LP is just as diverse as their recent outings, predominantly eschewing punk aesthetics in favor of more eclectic experimentations.
Unfortunately, while the diverse structure of London Calling and Sandinista! was directly inherited by the band's comparatively diminutive follow up, the group had failed to retain their usual stunning songwriting, and the resultant work is of a decidedly lesser caliber than Clash fans had become accustomed to receiving from "the only band that matters."
This isn't to say that the tracks are bad; they're primarily inoffensive, more mediocre than awful in nature. For example, the aforementioned punk opener Know Your Rights, less a song than a battle cry, is rather primitive from both a musical and lyrical perspective, completely unworthy of a band as generally intelligent and clever as the Clash.
Elsewhere Red Angel Dragnet sounds like a rather clumsy attempt at a new wave style song, a paradigm that is hardly conducive to positive results when it comes to the Clash, while Sean Flynn is consummately nondescript and tedious.
Not all of the tracks adhere to that low standard, however; Overpowered By Funk is, predictably enough, a perfectly competent funk rocker, while Ghetto Defendant, though marred by the sheer self-importance of featuring special guest Allen Ginsberg reciting poetry, is a decent enough song in its own right.
Better still are the album's true classics; Rock The Casbah is insanely catchy, Should I Stay Or Should I Go is a conventional but very well made hard rocker and Straight To Hell is a fascinating track that's nearly hypnotic with its repetition. These three tracks elevate the album above its otherwise mediocre level, ensuring that, while flawed, Combat Rock is an ultimately solid listen.
It seems that, after four good to excellent outings, the band had finally exhausted their creative energy, lacking inspiration in the wake of having released albums that inarguably represented the pinnacle of their abilities, leaving them with nowhere to go but down. How to follow up albums with as lofty ambitions as London Calling and Sandinista! is a profound dilemma, and while simply moving ahead with more conventional records was likely the best possible option it still took its toll on the group, leaving them burnt out with no clear answers as to how best to proceed. As long as they were tackling massive undertakings the band seemed energized with a firm notion as to the direction in which they were headed, inspired by the challenge and invigorated by a powerful sense of purpose; when bereft of goals of that nature they simply sounded somewhat drained, not wholly aimless but with a tangible paucity of creative or inventive ideas.
The Clash's deterioration certainly can't be attributed to their less ambitious nature on Combat Rock alone; more likely they were simply running short on catchy hooks and memorable melodies after having generated countless classics over the course of the last several years. It was inevitable that they'd reach an artistic slump, a process that was doubtless accelerated by penning 36 songs on their previous album.
Nonetheless Combat Rock is still a good album, with a handful of classics, several lesser but decent compositions and nothing that's truly noxious.
Much of the content is rather mediocre but these defects are invariably eclipsed by the superior material. It's certainly a far cry from the brilliance of their prior work, and indeed Combat Rock was the band's weakest offering to this point, but it's still an enjoyable listen, a solid affair highlighted by a few genuine Clash classics.
The conditions of Cut The Crap's genesis were hardly conducive toward the production of a good album; Mick Jones had recently left the band, and his departure was a severe blow to the group, as he was not only a gifted guitarist who could fluidly adjust his style to any of the Clash's myriad genre shifts but likewise was a strong creative force in the band, second only to Joe Strummer.
The quality of Cut The Crap, however, cannot be wholly attributed to the band's loss of their lead guitarist, or even largely; the origins of the album's defects lie elsewhere, and while Jones could possibly have averted these calamities had he not severed his ties with the group this is uncertain, leaving the true culprit the band's producer, Bruce Rhodes.
Jones' desertion certainly left a void in the band, and it was Rhodes who emerged as the creative force who would inherit his role. Rhodes' presence is felt throughout the album, and he became such a forceful figure on the creative front that he ultimately received co-songwriting credit on every track.
Unfortunately, Rhodes' creative agenda was wholly incompatible with the band's vision, to the point where it sabotages nearly every track, no matter how initially promising. Strummer had indeed penned some tracks that, given the right treatment, could have been quite solid, but these efforts proved to be in vain as the band's leadership was usurped by an overambitious producer.
The future of the Clash that Rhodes envisioned was rather different from Strummer's conception of the band's direction, and it centered around a modernization of the group's sound. To this end Rhodes implemented nearly every brand of noxious eighties production techniques in existence, an inherently bad idea exacerbated by the fact that, while the Clash could never have been compatible with such a treatment, it was especially egregious at this stage of their career wherein Strummer wanted to recapture some of the old punk spirit, a plan that was castrated by the ubiquitous slick eighties production.
Worse still, this eighties treatment was handled in the most clumsy fashion imaginable. Each track sounds like an array of punk and eighties fragments haphazardly grafted together with no rhyme or reason, resulting in a headache inducing, cacophonous mess.
These disparate elements all melt together in such a way that it's difficult to decipher much of the music, while Strummer's vocals are far too low in the mix, often scarcely audible. The resultant jumble is mired in dissonance, with eighties techniques that would have been deleterious in the first place compounded by their amateurish execution.
There are some tracks that aren't completely ruined by Rhodes' butchery, like the anthemic This Is England, but most of the songs, regardless of their innate potential, are transfigured into a discordant mess by the incongruous and ineptly implemented production.
The album was such a fiasco that Strummer himself even renounced it in retrospect, but that wasn't enough to prevent Cut The Crap from tainting the band's otherwise nearly immaculate reputation. The record is the worst swansong imaginable for a group of the caliber of the Clash, an utter debacle arriving after five solid to excellent outings. Whether the album's quality is a repercussion of Jones' departure, the product of Rhodes' unadvised meddling in the band's creative direction or a symptom of Strummer's inevitable stagnation is irrelevant; the point is that the group had produced an abomination that sadly irrevocably tarnished the image of "the only rock group that matters," showing that even the greatest of rock outfits were capable of massive artistic misfires.