For all of its flaws, Combat Rock still contains many of the band’s finest hours.
The Clash’s post-London Calling output is divisive among fans, but no album could draw the ire of Combat Rock. More focused than Sandinista! and less cynical than Cut The Crap, the Clash’s American commercial breakthrough is often criticized for the fact that it was the band’s American commercial breakthrough. In the all-or-nothing world of punk rock, selling out was just as bad–even worse–than making something terrible, and the Clash had committed the ultimate sin in making a record that people wanted to buy with the success of “Rock The Casbah” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” Combat Rock is a strange record, one that further underlines the shifting interests of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones while further displaying the band’s adventurousness.
After the clear-the-decks approach of Sandinista!, it was an understandable move on the part of the band to make something a little more streamlined and clearly-focused with their next release. However, the making of Sandinista! did little to satisfy the differing musical desires of Strummer and Jones. Strummer, ever the band’s ideological soul, strove to keep the band true to their political roots while also going further with their dabbling in modern funk and R&B sounds. Jones, on the other hand, wanted to rock. More controversially, he wanted to rock in a very conventional sense, with a sound more in tune with the glam rock and arena rock of his youth rather than the strident punk of the Clash’s early days. As a result, rather than totally streamlining the band’s sound, Combat Rock presents an even more varied Clash.
Your average Clash fan would probably prefer to never hear either of Combat Rock’s main singles ever again, and “Should I Stay” sounds every bit as dated as you’d imagine. However, “Casbah” is an incredibly innovative piece of work, mixing many different styles in three minutes of pure pop brilliance. Topper Headon incorporates elements of funk and disco into his beat, turning Strummer’s tale of banned records into a damn fun night out at a dance club. If there’s a better way to sell out, no one has done it yet.
Beyond its hits, though, Combat Rock is a weird creature. It sometimes feels as if the band, having assured their radio success with the aforementioned tracks, decided to use that as free reign to do whatever the fuck they wanted to over the course of an LP. Hence, the strident, almost stereotypically Clash tune “Know Your Rights” is followed by the punk/reggae hybrid “Car Jamming,” and “Casbah” is followed up by the organ-driven spoken-word oddity “Red Angel Dragnet.” They try their hand at straightforward disco on the decidedly un-funky “Overpowered by Funk.” Beat poet Allen Ginsberg even makes a surprise appearance on “Ghetto Defendant.” Despite its tighter focus and sense of urgency, Combat Rock retains and even goes further in displaying the Clash’s array of influences, for better or worse.
As a result of the band’s attempt to try to incorporate everything they value about music into one 12-song album, Combat Rock can be incoherent at times. Not everything fits together, and the differences between the stridently political Strummer and the decidedly pop-friendly Jones are even more glaring. Considering Headon’s growing drug problems and bassist Paul Simonon’s growing desire to be heard within the Clash’s music, it’s a shock that the album was even finished. By 1982, the Clash were nearing the breaking point as a band.
Yet, for all of its flaws, Combat Rock still contains many of the band’s finest hours. Its varied approach, while detrimental towards making the album a coherent piece of music, is still a testament to their considerable musical interests and talent. Strummer in particular seemed excited by the new platform, offering up his most politically direct work (“Know Your Rights,” “Ghetto Defendant”) alongside one of the most surprisingly poetic turns he ever took (“Straight To Hell,” which would be reintroduced to a new generation as the base sample for M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”). Were this Strummer’s solo debut, Combat Rock would offer a number of exciting directions for him to eventually explore.
As the product of a band, though, Combat Rock ultimately can’t help but be less than the sum of its parts. The Clash’s greatest commercial success also turned out to be their undoing, and in hindsight, it was inevitable that they would fall apart following this record. It seems as if each member had a different vision of what Clash music was supposed to be. Rather than compromise, they did whatever the hell they felt like and hoped it would work in the end. It’s to the band’s eternal credit that the album works when it does, but in retrospect, Combat Rock is clearly the beginning of the end.