Released between their critical and commercial peaks, Sandinista! is a complex and messy collection of progressive ideals and experimentation. Joseph Preston makes the case for The Clash’s overlooked fourth album
Released December 1980 via CBS
Sandinista!, the Clash’s “triple album for the price of one” was released in December 1980. Nearly 40 years later, it still gleams with the political radicalism that it was forged from.
Sandinista! came only a year after the release of London Calling which had brought The Clash worldwide fame and resulted in a series of world tours. If London Calling is the sound of The Clash highlighting the problems they stood against, Sandinista! is the sound of them searching the world for a solution.
Written a year into Thatcher’s reign of dull monoculture and released just four days after the death of John Lennon, Sandinista! continues Lennon’s optimism for mankind and reacts against Thatcher’s tedious and flat vision for the world by cramming it with as many different genres, cultural and political references as possible.
It has been said that hip-hop is to disco what punk was to the Beatles. If so, then this is The White Album but better, with more diverse influences and a better hit rate of good songs. Few bands would dare to experiment with genre more. From song to song it pogoes from hip-hop to dub to reggae, gospel, rockabilly, blues, and waltz all in just the first disc, but with the common thread of anger, optimism, and politically virility that defines the Clash’s limitless energy, so symptomatic of the punk ‘Do It Yourself’ ethos.
The album opens with a loud kick down of the door that is the shamelessly confident ‘The Magnificent Seven’. Punk does hip hop. But rather than conjuring up cringing images of white boys ‘in da hood’, The Clash prove that the young black kids of America have more in common with London youths than either would’ve thought.
Then, as if to hint at whats to come, it twists down and around with ‘Hitsville UK’, A bizarre mix of ugly gospel and a dystopian Katrina and The Waves ‘Walking on Sunshine’. A series of strange murky genre-mixes continues on for another nine tracks or so, punctuated every so often with moments of clarity like ‘Something about England’ and the short sharp flick behind the ear that is ‘The Leader’.
‘The Crooked Beat’ is the moment the Clash prove their absolute swaggering coolness with Paul Simonon’s laid-back bass line and gap-toothed vocals. It’s also a brilliant example of Topper Headon’s percussion, without which this album wouldn’t have been a fraction as good. Headon holds all the fractious and strange influences together with his creative and enthusiastic flare. His ability to play anything to anything with such ingenuity is the hidden genius in the bands music.
Only afterwards, with ‘Somebody Got Murdered’, do they reward their patient listeners with the kind of sensational anti-anthem that London Calling was so full of. Then, striding through the smoking wreckage such a song leaves behind, comes ‘One More Time’, a terrifying warning to the world that violence leads to violence and we are all victims in the end. This is then followed by a dub version of the same song to remind listeners that they’ve also been to Jamaica.
The opening to ‘Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)’ is a self-aware attack on tedious musicians too busy developing their manifestos to actually write any music; it also serves to remind us that they no longer believe in the shouty nihilism of punk but that a complex ideology is now in play.
A few tracks later and we’re startled back into reality again with the mohican-raising ‘Police on My Back’ injecting an energy that makes your veins hurt and a chorus any decent dad should be able to shout along to. This steams along relentlessly into ‘Midnight Log’, an atmospheric little jig that conjured up images of snake hips in black drainpipes and greasy hair. ‘The Equaliser’ is an unnervingly beautiful, desperate call for peace.
‘The Call Up’ takes a miserable view of history and mixes it with a Nile Rodgers beat. Conjuring up thoughts of Soviet factory workers, mass slaughter and disco, it slides straight into what could be a children’s song, ‘Washington Bullets’. It’s reminiscent of the opening to The Lion King, perhaps, except singing the story of American Imperialism. The next song of note, and a possible album highpoint is ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’, sampling the sound of Apocalypse Now and its most famous quote and turning it into one of the most evocative and simple jigs ever written.
The album then slides into a self-referential reworking of past glories and strange, strange collaborations. But hey, that’s what half of The White Album is made up of and if The Beatles can do it, so can The Clash. They finally run out of whatever they had, and resign exhausted, limping and shrugging into the distance to ‘Shepherd’s Delight’. The sound of people having given it their all, and now needing a lie down.