Cut the Crap sounds every bit like the nail in the coffin it ended up being for the Clash as a band.
At some point in one’s life, the urge to recapture one’s youth becomes too difficult to resist. Things like logic and common sense get cast aside in an effort to recapture one’s long-lost youth. This is never a good idea, and anyone who tries to do this is almost certainly doomed for failure in embarrassment, whether it means spending way too much on a broken-down sports car or being the oldest person at a Weezer show. Or it could mean releasing an ill-advised album billed as a “return to roots,” which is exactly what Joe Strummer did with the zombified version of The Clash in 1985. Cut the Crap is a painful listen for any Clash fan, and everyone from die-hard fans to Strummer himself ended up disowning the album. Time has been no kinder to the album, which remains the worst thing ever to bear the Clash name.
The seeds for Cut the Crap’s inception lie in the band tensions that came to a peak following the tour behind their commercial breakthrough Combat Rock. The musical differences between Strummer and Mick Jones were pretty obvious from the beginning, but as each songwriter matured and developed their own voice, those differences were becoming impossible to bridge. In a weird way, Jones was indirectly responsible for Cut the Crap: in rehearsals, he began playing a synthesizer and had expressed an interest in the synth-pop trend that was sweeping the world at the time, something that surely rubbed Strummer–a rock ‘n’ roll lifer if there ever was one–the wrong way. Pretty soon, Jones was out and replaced with Nick Sheppard and Vince White. Furthermore, Strummer became determined to take the band “back to basics” with an album that recalled their beginnings as a strident punk rock band.
Unfortunately, a “back to basics” approach isn’t the sort of thing that bands could pull off convincingly in the 1980s, especially not bands signed to Columbia Records who had just broken on to American Top 40 radio and toured with the Who. As such, Cut the Crap is marked by the sort of trappings and arrangements that reflect what popular rock bands sounded like at the time. In other words, the album sounds hopelessly dated. The drums are compressed to the point where drummer Pete Howard may as well be a drum machine, and the guitars are canned and lifeless. Rather than a rebirth, Cut the Crap sounds more like a band on life support.
This perception of the Clash as a band nearing death in 1985 isn’t helped by Cut the Crap’s songs, either. Exactly how much Strummer and Jones split songwriting responsibilities is arguable, but the band definitely misses something without another voice to complement Strummer. Joe himself seems like he’s out of gas on the album, too, as songs like “Dirty Punk” and “We Are The Clash” sound more like tired retreads than like the fist-pumping anthems they’re intended to be.
What’s most frustrating about Cut the Crap, though, is the presence of “This Is England.” It’s not a bad song; in fact, it’s pretty brilliant, far and away the best thing to come out of this Frankenstein’s Monster edition of The Clash. The cheap, dated production almost works, and the message behind the song resonates far more than anything else on the album. It’s the rare moment on Cut the Crap where Strummer just does what he does rather than actively trying to live up to some perception that fans and critics had of him. It’s a beautiful moment. And it only makes the ugly mess surrounding it that much uglier by comparison.
With fresh ears, Cut the Crap sounds every bit like the nail in the coffin it ended up being for the Clash as a band. It’s the work of a band who didn’t know what they were and didn’t give enough of a shit to figure it out. It’s likely that Strummer’s vision for what the album was supposed to be would have been better than the end product we have now, but even that wouldn’t have distracted from the unavoidable fact that the Clash were as good as dead once Mick Jones departed. Anything after that would have sounded like the zombified version of a once-great band; as it turns out, the zombie we ended up getting really loved ’80s arena rock.