Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sandinista! Scrutinized

A few weeks ago, I caught Julien Temple's posthumous Joe Strummer documentary, The Future Is Unwritten. While it did little to discourage the Clash's status as one of the most deified bands in rock history, the film commendably contained a lot less sycophantic hero worship than you might assume. Strummer actually comes off like a bit of a jerk at times. Most shockingly, it also brought to light an unreleased post-Mick Jones Clash track that isn't completely awful. Maybe the pre-Bernie Rhoades mix of Cut the Crap isn't all that bad. In any case, seeing the doc sent me into one of my periodic immersions into listening to a hell of a lot of the Clash. While The Clash and London Calling are universally (and justifiably) lauded as the band's finest moments, the album that I continually return to, perhaps only to try and make some sense of it, is Sandinista!

A two and a half hour long triple album, Sandinista! is a fascinating mess of a record. Recorded in fits and starts throughout 1980 when the band was riding high due to the critical and (moderate) commercial success of London Calling, the songs of Sandinista! are the product of a period when the Clash were both extremely prolific in their songwriting and seemed to be content with making any idea that came to them into a track for their forthcoming album. Genres were hopped and blended. Some songs, including lyrics, were made up on the spot. An unencumbered muse isn't a misguided or invalid approach to making records but instead of jettisoning any ideas that weren't working they simply decided to include everything they had recorded. And then some. If you believe the accounts of Marcus Grey's Last Gang in Town, the band made Sandinista! a triple LP in order to aggravate their record label.

In 1979, the Clash's self-titled debut was released in the US with a reshuffled track order and a bonus 7 inch single of two songs from the recent Cost of Living EP. When finishing up London Calling, the band asked their label if they could include another bonus record with their forthcoming album, to which the label agreed. The band didn't tell their label that the bonus disk would be a 12 inch, play at 33 1/3 and contain 9 songs, which is how the Clash managed to sell London Calling for the cost of a single LP. CBS Records was not pleased. A year later, the band had more than enough material for a double album, but rather than edit it down they had decided to pad it out to a triple, an act that seemed designed to further irritate their label and see how far they could push their contract's "artistic freedom" clause.

Suffice to say, they probably would have been better off editing than expanding. The desire to have enough material for a triple LP resulted in the inclusion of throwaways like the backwards "Mensforth Hill," Timon Dogg's "Lose This Skin," the kiddie remake of "Career Opportunities" and a whole bunch of dub versions on Side 6. Even without the intentional padding, a number of the Clash's original songs were sub par and sometimes redundant of some of the album's stronger tracks. After "The Magnificent Seven," how could "Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice) seem anything but inferior? The result was a collection that's about 1/3 terrific, 1/3 decent to good and 1/3 disposable.

Riding the good will of London Calling, US critics gave Sandinista! overwhelming positive notices including a 5 star review in Rolling Stone and the top spot in the year end Pazz and Jop poll. It's also very likely that many of these stateside reviewers still considered grand, ambitious, artistic statements ala Sgt Pepper to be the vanguard. In the UK, where the short sharp shock of punk was still relatively fresh, the reviews were much chillier.

It admittedly takes a while to fully absorb the entire set but it's ultimately rewarding. There are not only many worthwhile individual moments but as whole Sandinista! is a compelling document of a single year of unfiltered creative output from an excellent band. It's almost like a reissue of "sessions" from a classic record with all the bonus tracks folded into the main body.

Nearly 30 years later, the ease of using the skip button and the playlist programming ability afforded by MP3s has made Sandinista! a much more digestible experience. Personally, I've reprogrammed the album into dozens of 20-or-so song configurations. What really perplexes me is how haphazardly the album has been anthologized. An album as uneven as this is ripe to have its best moments plucked for mass consumption but often selections from Sandinista! that end up on various Clash collections seem as random and peculiar as the album itself. Maybe that's the point. How else to explain the inclusion of the disco pisstake "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" and the "The Call Up" b-side "Stop the World" on The Essential Clash? Meanwhile, some of the album's finest moments remain buried as deep cuts: the weird folk-funk hybrid "Version City," the seething, passionate "Corner Soul," the soaring, majestic "Up in Heaven (Not Only Here), the nearly psychedelic "Charlie Don't Surf," and "One More Time" probably the best example of the heavy dub influence that permeates the entire album

Those tracks are included in the playlist below. There are many other fine tunes on Sandinista! but I'd encourage you to pick up the record and listen to it for yourself. If you already own it, maybe this will inspire you to give it a spin and post your own "best of" in the comments.

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