The Clash came into their own with their third LP, London Calling. The success of The Cost of Living EP (which came out in May 1979); their initial North American tours, which had exposed them to luminaries like Bo Diddley, Sam & Dave and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; and the influence of Guy Stevens, whose urging to place importance on feeling over sterile technical proficiency gave the Clash needed encouragement were the elements critical to London Calling’s formation. Every track was performed with unshakable confidence, relentlessly up-tempo, continually building momentum from their cover of Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” to the original closing, “Revolution Rock.” (“Train in Vain,” a last-minute addition, became the Clash’s watershed single in the US.) More impressive was the way the Clash had matured into eloquent storytellers. When what had been a largely autobiographical perspective on The Clash and Give ’Em Enough Rope gave way to a fictional approach, their world suddenly opened up. The well-developed characters in “Wrong ’em Boyo” (the ska continuation of Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee”) and “The Right Profile” fit perfectly with revolution-themed song stories like “London Calling,” “Spanish Bombs,” “Clampdown” and Paul Simonon’s impressive songwriting debut, “The Guns of Brixton.” The end result is unusually affecting. As punk and its vaguely-defined sibling “new wave” were musical forms that had regenerated the single, London Calling was among the select few that rehabilitated the rock album.
London Calling is generally considered the band’s pinnacle but the next full-length Clash release surpasses it. Sandinista! is in a class with very few multiple long players and is evocative of the Beatles’ 1968 self-titled double album in terms of diversity and scope. The Clash almost entirely composed its 36 tracks (in addition to Simonon’s “The Crooked Beat,” Topper Headon contributed his debut vocal composition, a cold war video game entitled “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”) and continued their collaboration with Mikey Dread, who had produced the interim single “Bankrobber” for the aborted Clash Singles Bonanza (which unwittingly provided Sandinista! with much of its early material).
The Clash had already established a reputation for diversity but expanded beyond their usual palette of rock and dub reggae with a surreal waltz (“Rebel Waltz”) and jig (Tymon Dogg’s “Lose This Skin”), doo-wop jazz (a cover of Mose Ellison’s “Look Here”), Motown (“Hitsville UK”), gospel (“The Sound Of the Sinners”), calypso (“Washington Bullets”) and sound collage (“Mensforth Hill”). The heart of Sandinista! is coloured by this. The antiwork dance classic, “The Magnificent Seven,” which employed Ian Dury & The Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy in Simonon’s absence, ends in surrealist, or perhaps even Dylanesque touches. “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice),” “The Call Up” and “Somebody Got Murdered” are crisp and rhythmic but insinuate a vivid impression. “The Leader,” the Clash’s best straight rock and roll number, sums up the Profumo Scandal with an incisive wit and segues into the finest recording the Clash ever made, “Something About England.” The stinging answers Strummer’s homeless immigrant gives to the questions posed by Jones in the opening verses compliments the majestic arrangement making “Something About England” moving in its breadth.
The curious fixation with architecture (Sandinista! has 6 sides, 6 tracks per side, 3 LPs, 3 singles) left the Clash open to undue critical condescension. The sixth side (which is now the last third of the second disc) consists of dub remixes by Dread (“Silicone on Sapphire” is a remix of “Washington Bullets”; “Version Pardner” conflates “Junco Pardner” and “Version City”) an instrumental (“Shepherds Delight”) and a remake of “Career Opportunities” by keyboardist Mickey Gallagher with vocals by his two young sons — what would today be considered bonus tracks on CD reissues, or the “bonus” remix albums included in some late 1980s pop records issued in the UK. The mixes themselves are inoffensive at worst, especially when compared against some of the more egregious dance remixes of the 1980s, and the criticisms toward “Career Opportunities” seem petty. I’d imagine that it might do a lot of good to have schoolchildren singing “Career Opportunities”; the singing of Gallagher’s sons seems somehow preferable to Ellen Foley’s harsh vocal on “Hitsville UK.” To dismiss the end of Sandinista! as “filler” implies a degree of either self-indulgence or avarice which can be refuted by the Clash’s brave disregard for their own royalties in insisting that CBS issue Sandinista! for the price of a single LP (they’d previously tricked CBS into doing the same for the double LP London Calling).
The newly reissued editions of London Calling and Sandinista! are cleanly remastered and both benefit from Julian Balme’s recreations of the original LP artwork, which reinstates the Armagideon Times No. 3 lyric insert in Sandinista!