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Sunday, 19 March 2023

Forty Five Minutes Of Sandinista!

I think I've said before that while Sandinista! may not be the greatest Clash album, it is their most adventurous, their most inventive and where the spirit of the band truly lies. Once they realised that they couldn't play 1977 and Garageland forever, they had to move on and that led them backwards into their record collections (rockabilly, blues, reggae, ska, dub) and forwards into the future (rap, hip hop, funk). They went from White Riot to Death Is A Star in six years, exploring everything they could along the way. Joe said in Westway To The World, that they went out to engage with the world in all its infinite variety (or something similar). They were never going to be stuck playing Borstal Breakout for the rest of their lives.

London Calling was the purest distillation of this, nineteen perfectly pitched slices of Clash. Sandinista! was The Clash doing whatever they wanted across the course of a year- 1980- starting with the recording of Bankrobber in Pluto Studio, Manchester and leading them back to London, to Jamaica and to New York. The idea that Sandinista! could have been a superb single disc album or double vinyl opus or a killer EP misses the point. Sandinista! is complete Clash. The roots of all of Joe's solo career, from his soundtracks to Earthquake Weather to the three albums with The Mescaleros are in Sandinista! as are the origins of Big Audio Dynamite. Fast forward to the 21st century and Mick and Paul turn up in Damon Albarn's touring version of Gorillaz, a band playing a hybrid, pick 'n' mix version of dub, pop, hip hop, funk, and whatever else- that's Sandinista! 

Forty Five Minutes Of Sandinista!

This is not an attempt to produce a perfect version of the album, a reduced version or a best of. It's some of Sandinista! mixed together, some of the lesser known songs and the ones where the spirit of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon and the rest of the cast that contributed to the sessions can be found, a cast that takes in Mickey Gallagher and Norman Watt- Roy (The Blockheads), Tymon Dogg, Mikey Dread, Ellen Foley, Don Hegarty (Darts), Gary Barnacle, Ivan Julian (Voidoids), Style Scott, Pennie Smith and cartoonist Steve Bell. There's something about the songs too which lend themselves to being sequenced together, seguing from one to another.

  • Mensforth Hill
  • The Crooked Beat
  • Broadway
  • Rebel Waltz
  • One More Time
  • One More Dub
  • The Street Parade
  • Something About England
  • Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)
  • If Music Could Talk
  • Washington Bullets
Mensforth Hill is Something About England played backwards, the tapes reversed and with bits of Joe's studio chatter from New York's Electric Ladyland dropped in, the whooshing and rushing effects fading in and out. On the album it sits between Charlie Don't Surf and Junkie Slip. Here it is a slow, experimental entry to forty five minutes of deep Clash.

The Crooked Beat is Paul Simonon's tribute to South London blues parties with a lovely wandering dub bassline. Recorded in September 1980 it was one of the last songs recorded for the album, produced by Mikey Dread who drops in some additional vocals at the end. 

Broadway is a Strummer masterpiece, a mellow, late night, jazz inflected song for the bars of NYC. Joe's lyrics concern a meeting with a homeless man and former boxer in New York, Joe riffing on the sights and sounds of the city at night, a Scorcese film set to music. 

Rebel Waltz is a true hidden gem in the group's back catalogue and the album's tracklist. The lyrics are pure Strummer, a dream of armies and the losses of war. The music is Mick experimenting with playing a waltz crossed with dub, recorded at Wessex in London. The Clash as a folk band, in the truest sense of the word.

One More Time and One More Dub have to be taken together, the superb Clash- reggae of the first half dubbed out by Mikey Dread for the second. Joe sings of the poverty of the ghettoes, the civil rights movement and the Watts riots of 1965.

The Street Parade is another lesser known gem, hidden away at the end of side five on vinyl. On release some listeners may have taken ages to get to side five. The Street Parade is about losing oneself in the crowd, Strummer disappearing into the mass. The music is gorgeous, Topper and Mick showing by this point they could turn their hand to anything and do it well, with horns and marimbas carrying a Latin feel.

Something About England is a key Strummer- Jones song, marrying English music hall with lyrics spanning the 20th century, the wars, the Depression, the rebuilding of the cities and the British class system, Joe and Mick trading verses in character. 'They say the immigrants steal the hubcaps/ Of respected gentlemen/ They say it would be wine and roses/ If England were for Englishmen again', Mick sings at the start, the racism of Farage and Braverman rooted in the late 70s. 

Up In Heaven (Not Only Here) is one of Sandinista!'s few out and out rock songs, a Mick Jones guitar song with ringing lead lines and crunching riffs. Mick sings of the tower blocks he grew up in and the lives of the people that live in them. 'The wives hate their husbands/ The husbands don't care'.

If Music Could Talk is a New York song that began in Manchester, jazz blues of late night bars and not one but two Joe vocals. The backing track was recorded at Pluto with Mikey Dread and then added to later, sax wailing and floating on top. Joe's words take in Bo Diddley, Errol Flynn, Isaac Newton and Samson. 

Washington Bullets seemed the perfect place to close (though I was tempted to put one of side six's dubs last) if only because it finishes with Joe singing the album's title over the organ as it fades out. Lyrically Joe casts his eye over the USA's foreign policy in the 20th century, Chile, Cuba and Nicaragua (and the USSR's too in Afghanistan and Tibet) with a mention for Victor Jara, the Chilean singer, poet, writer and activist murdered by the CIA backed coup in 1973. Musically it started as many songs did, Topper arriving in the studio first and messing around while engineer Bill Price pressed the record button. The others would turn up one by one and start overdubbing and soon, as Bill Price says, 'we had thirty- five songs'. 


Charity Chic said...

An album I dip in and out of.I need to give it a proper listen This seems like a good start

C said...

I must give this some attention, I never did get into it but your words here are a great guide. Coincidentally, we did a Clash TV double-bill last night and watched 'Rebel Truce' again, and then the 'New Year's Day '77' Julien Temple film. Excellent stuff and a great reminder of just how special they were.

Nick L said...

Well that's tomorrow morning's commute music right there. Thanks Adam.

Echorich said...

With the breath and diversity that Sandinista! provided the listener, I've never been able to really pick out my favorite track on the album...In reality, the idea of only having 1 favorite across 6 sides of vinyl is a sort of fools errand...but at times its been Charlie Don't Surf, The Magnificent Seven, Something About England, The Call Up. But time and again I find myself landing on The Street Parade. It seems to me there is a song on every Clash album that rises up above the rest - on The Clash it was Remote Control, on Give 'em Enough Rope it was Stay Free, on London Calling it was The Clampdown, on Combat Rock it was Straight To Hell.
The Street Parade ends side 5 - and if that's where the story of Sandinista! ended, then it would have been a perfect album closer, but Sandinista!'s gift is the very personal and yet forward thinking side 6 that plays like a College radio station at 2am on a Thursday night.

The Swede said...

While London Calling is a masterpiece that I feel I've completely assimilated, Sandinista continues to reveal hidden depths of genius over 40 years later. It's an album that grows still further in my estimation with every listen.

Swiss Adam said...

Exactly that Swede.

And yes, exactly that too Echorich.