Do you measure how good an album is by looking at how much filler it has, or by looking at the actual number of cuts that are extraordinary? That is the key question many ask themselves when they have to analyze this triple album, issued by The Clash in 1980. The previous release (London Calling, 1979) already had found them pushing boundaries by being a two-record set that included far, far more than the punk offerings that many had already associated with them.
Strummer & Co. were always the kind to stick to the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” ethos, and it was only natural they would continue taking steps forward. This particular step forward is what John Alroy calls an “anything goes” mentality. I think it is best to term it an “anything that speaks to us goes” mentality. Just listen to the single “Hitsville UK”, about a band that does not necessarily succeed but makes people happy for doing what it does (IE, playing music), and the terms of the gamble The Clash had taken this time around become all the more understandable.
The range of styles across the 6 sides of Sandinista! is as encompassing as you can imagine. Note that there are few rock songs around, and the ones available do not necessarily deliver. The one exception is their cover of Eddie Grant’s “Police On My Back”. I do like “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)” if only because it showcases the band’s ability to tackle important issues (in this case, the tower blocks that blighted England and the living conditions therein), and I can say the same about “Somebody Got Murdered”. But the latter song highlights how far gone Topper was on heroin. He was to take a permanent leave after the next album – in hindsight, the other members of The Clash have equaled his departure with the beginning of the end for them all.
But when Sandinista! was issued, it must have been a time of celebration for them all. The singles bombed. So what? The three-disc set was quickly hailed as something ahead of its time in terms of scope. It even included two rap songs at a time in which rap was something new even among black audiences.
It also had dub versions of some songs, gospel on “The Sound Of Sinners”, versions of older Clash standards sung by children (“Career Opportunities” and “The Guns Of Brixton” received that treatment)… there was even a waltz – and an excellent one at that. It was named “Rebel Waltz”, and I find it an interesting change of tack lyrically-speaking – the rebels described on the song are defeated. They know that will be the outcome, and they still soldier on and head to battle. At the end, their battle song resounds in the air. Is that another message regarding success and failure in the world of music, and even in life as a whole? It is too good a question not to be asked.
Sandinista! also has what might be Strummer’s most realized political compositions. These are “Washington Bullets”, “The Equalizer”, “The Call Up” and the flawless “Something About England”. In “Washington Bullets”, Joe studies the political landscape from pole to pole and the role leftist governments are playing – sometimes he sides with them, and sometimes he criticizes the way they are headed. And in “Something About England” he casts the most accurate look he ever cast on his own soil, creating a dialogue between a war veteran and a youngster who is just unaware of what has gone before. Strummer sings the veteran’s part, and Jones assumes the role of the young man. The result is my favorite song by The Clash, and the one I recommend as a true exponent of what the band was all about when people start on “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and “Rock The Casbah”.
Calypso, funk, reggae, folk, disco… there is so much to listen to here. Describing each track would be laborious and also a little fruitless. There are 36 tracks to go through. You are going to come across filler. Maybe the filler will be the one songs I adore, and some of the songs I have mentioned above. And maybe you will love them, and dislike the ones I dislike. In any case, listening to Sandinista! is similar to leaving your home town for the first time and heading to the big city. Some things will click with you at first. Others will take some time. Others will take a lifetime. But there is a world out there. In the end, sitting through Sandinista! resembles learning to make the unfamiliar familiar more than listening to a mere collection of songs. Success? Failure? Filler? Hits? There comes a point these things no longer matter. I think they never really mattered as far as The Clash went. And on Sandinista!, the band made that all too clear. If music could talk? It did.