Sandinista! jilts our conceptions of what a punk or rock n’ roll album should be.
If The Clash’s 1979 release, London Calling, was the pinnacle of their varied influences and styles and the album that officially cemented their legacy as more than just a punk band, but a band with vision and genius, what is to be made of their 1980 release, Sandinista!? Both releases encompass a musical range almost unheard of, and both ushered in the new post-punk sound. While London Calling is a controlled, vision-based achievement, Sandinista! is a dirty, complicated record full of silliness and genius. It is a record that symbolizes the totality of The Clash style and politicism, containing the sounds of reggae and dub, punk and gospel, funk and disco, rap and rockabilly and the most potent and scathing political messages.
In early 1980, The Clash returned to their adopted home, New York City, after a whirl-wind world tour. But before the group separated to take some rest, they were soon back in the studio working on their next project. They had originally told CBS they wanted to release an album every month in 1980. CBS laughed at the idea, and they only release one single, “Bankrobber,” before Sandinista! came out in December. Though they didn’t achieve their original goal, their Herculean recording effort gave us a 36-track, triple LP album almost unheard of at that time.
Just like London Calling, rumors spread on how their were able to get away with releasing the three-disc record for the price of a single disc; some say the band forwent royalties to get it out, and others say they duped CBS by saying they were going to release a double-LP with an extra single that they replaced with a full LP before the label became aware. Either way, the massive record is a masterpiece in musical exploration.
There’s no question Sandinista! is a divisive album. Most of the Clash fans I know see it as either their favorite album or their least, and the critics saw it the same way, painting it as genius or nonsense. But why can’t it be both?
When you wade through the sheer amount of material, you find some of the most quintessential elements of the Clash sound mixed with silly tracks that probably came out after long nights in the studio and a few visits to the “Spliff Bunker.” (According to an interview, Mick Jones made a small, enclosed area in the main recording room of Electric Lady Land where the band, and whoever was there, could smoke spliffs and discuss what they were going to do next.)
Firstly, there is a lot of “classic” Clash to be found on Sandinista!. Tracks like “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Police on my Back” have that raw energy and play reminiscent of Give ‘Em Enough Rope. While more dub-inspired songs like “The Crooked Beat” and “One More Time” might not feel too out of place on Combat Rock. But as much as it is an album that has that Clash feel – the intricate bass lines and complicated song structure – it is an album that is completely different than anything they had done before, experimenting more with reggae, world beats and more bizarre song writing.
Thanks to the Jamaican reggae legend and producer, Mikey Dread, Sandinista! features a large amount of dub-inspired songs, straight reggae songs and dub remixes. “Junco Partner,” “The Equaliser” and “Corner Soul” are tight and fun songs that see the band embracing the reggae sound into their own. And tracks like “Silicone on Sapphire” and “Version Pardner,” both dub remixes of “Washington Bullets” and “Junco Partner,” see the band embracing the tradition of remixes popular in dub music.
The Clash also worked in tracks inspired by a newly forming genre: rap. Both “The Magnificent Seven,” an upbeat, dance-y tune reminiscent of Blondie’s “Rapture,” and “Lightning Strikes” work in a funky disco aesthetic to the album. At the same time, the album has a plethora of more bizarre tracks that are maybe more nonsense than anything else. There is the version of “Career Opportunities” sung by Ian Dury and the Blockhead’s keyboardist Mickey Gallagher’s two sons, Luke and Ben. Then there is the gospel inspired “Hitsville UK” and the collage-like “Mensforth Hill.”
Not only is this the most musically diverse Clash album, it is the most pointedly political. “Washington Bullets” pulls no punches when it embraces the messages of leftist movements in Nicaragua, Cuba, Afghanistan and confront the imperialist aims of the USSR and the UK. And songs like “Something About England” and “Charlie Don’t Surf” (a nod to Robert Duvall’s famous line from Apocalypse Now) are introspective, more general tunes on global imperialism and capitalism.
More than anything, Sandinista! jilts our conceptions of what a punk or rock n’ roll album should be. It’s full of grit and sincerity, jokes and expert musicianship. It serves as a perfect capstone to the band that changed everything in the world of punk, a band that redefined itself on every single record and didn’t kowtow to expectations. It is an album that represents the totality of the Clash. You find everything they were capable of as a group and an album, so ahead of its time, that would influence generations of musicians to come.