The Clash -- Complete Discography, Part 2
London Calling (1979)
"Before you meet your fate, be sure you do not forsake / Your lover may not be around anymore"
Best Song: The Card Cheat
Worst Song: Lover's Rock
For years, I've told anyone that would listen that this was the greatest album of all time. I've listened to it dozens and dozens of times, according to iTunes. I know every song by heart. Heck, I can play "The Card Cheat" on piano. But to truly summarize how important of an event this was in my music listening life, I must tell you the story of how I got this album. You see, this was the very first rock album that I ever bought simply on a whim. Before this, I had always had some steady ground to go on. I.E., "I love 'Fortunate Son', 'Proud Mary', and 'Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" whenever I hear them on the oldies station, so I think I'll buy Chronicle" or "I love everything I've heard by Rush, I've heard the "2112" suite and I enjoyed it, and 2112 is heralded by mainstream rock critics as the band's best album, so I think I'll buy 2112". I also purchased Diver Down and Boston on others recommendations.
I had also become imminently familiar with The Beatles around this time, purchasing Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, and The White Album in a span of about two months. Anyhow, after figuring out that all of these albums that I had heard of for so many years were actually of a great quality, I decided to take a look at some of those "greatest albums ever" lists that you always hear so much about. I started with the Rolling Stone list. I figured I needed to get something out of the top ten, so I looked around and decided: "Eh, Bob Dylan can't sing (heh, if only I had known what Joe Strummer sang like), I've never heard anything by Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys are mindless pop fluff, I own enough Stones stuff already (read: probably about 10 or so total tracks. I was so dumb), and I already have all of The Beatles' albums". So, it was clear I had only one choice..."hey, that's the band that did that catchy 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' song, isn't it? I'll give it a shot!" and thus, I blindly purchased London Calling.
The first time I listened to the album I thought "Hey, these are some decent songs but MAN, is that singer's voice horrible." I refused to stop listening though, as I had spent my hard-earned 15 bucks on this thing, and it was apparently heralded as one of the greatest albums of all time. And so I did. I listened and listened, and then I gradually thought...."Y'know, 'Train in Vain' is pretty darn enjoyable!" and then I thought "Wow, those horns in 'Rudie Can't Fail' sure are cool, aren't they?" and then it was "The Guns of Brixton", then it was "Brand New Cadillac", then it was "Death or Glory", then it was...and so on. Through forcing myself to expose my ears to the album, I gradually (very gradually) began to enjoy every song on here. Now, some songs take longer than others. For example, it was probably around my 15th listen when I finally enjoyed "Four Horsemen". And I still don't enjoy "Lover's Rock", but eh...I'm pretty sure that's just a plain-and-simple bad song.
So yes, it was this album that REALLY started my music addiction. No one else I knew had even heard OF it, let alone heard it, and it made me feel all cool and hipster-y inside that I was able to "crack" the metaphorical code. But listening to this album after listening to so many others demonstrates something quite interesting to me -- it's the ultimate example of an album as a collection of songs. If you were to shuffle the album, you would get the exact same response. Not a single song on here plays cleverly off of another one, in my opinion, and in all honesty, that sorta flies in the face of my general musical tastes. Heck, it doesn't even really have an epic feel like Exile on Main St. or Blonde on Blonde. It's just a bunch of songs.
But these are some SERIOUSLY good songs. Every vocal melody, every guitar solo, every instrumental choice -- they're all extremely awesome. Also of note is the INSANE amount of genre experimentation. Rockabilly, straight punk, jazz, lounge rock/funk, reggae, pop, Spector-esque piano ballads, acoustic ballads -- heck, it practically invented ska, to boot! That amount of genre-hopping is a major bonus, as you're never, ever bored when you're listening to this thing. Never. Okay, maybe during "Lover's Rock" and the last two minutes of "Revolution Rock", but other than that....
I can talk about songs, I suppose. "The Card Cheat" is my favorite thing here, for an especially notable reason -- it's the only thing on the album (bar maybe "Death or Glory" and "Lost in the Supermarket") that is emotionally resounding in any way. (That's my only main flaw with the album. It's extremely fun, and it's ridiculously catchy, but I don't really feel affected very often. Sort of the anti-Plastic Ono Band, if you will.) Mick's singing here just rips my heart out, throws it onto the floor, and stomps on it a couple of times. The "From the Hundred-Year-War to the Crimea" section really grabs me, in particular. Not to mention that the MASSIVE, Spector-y production is ridiculously affective. Apparently the band recorded everything twice -- choirs, pianos, orchestras, the works -- to produce that big, epic feel, and boy, did they ever succeed. Amazing, amazing song.
"Spanish Bombs" is probably the best sweet, acoustic pop song ever written about the Spanish Civil War, "London Calling" is a jaw-dropping call-to-arms, "Wrong 'Em Boyo" is an absolutely raging ska song, "The Right Profile" just EXUDES pure swagger, "Hateful" is a catchy, synth-driven pop song, "Lost in the Supermarket" is an extremely beautiful and melancholy ballad, and "The Guns of Brixton" is probably the toughest reggae song ever made. Awesome.
So is it the best album ever? I have no clue. Is it my favorite album? I really don't know. I can give it a perfect score without a second thought, but I've heard it so many times at this point that I'm sort of numb to it. Picture this -- there's this amazing restaurant that you absolutely adore. The food is really cheap, and the restaurant is a short, five-minute drive away from your house. You obviously go there extremely often. However, after several months of being a regular at this place, you eventually grow tired of it. You've tried everything on the menu, and while it's all EXCELLENT, you're just used to it now. You don't dislike it, but you don't really love it anymore. You'll recommend it to anyone that will listen, and you most certainly don't regret going if you eat there, but it's kind of interesting to try different restaurants every now and then, you know? Like the prog restaurant, or the electronica restaurant, or...
You get the idea. If you don't own it, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT'S GOOD AND HOLY, MAN, BUY! THIS! ALBUM! Seriously. It's a little hard to stomach at first, but it's allll worth it in the end. Give it a chance. And as for me...I'll still be checking out my favorite restaurant every now and then. Just not as much as I used to. I might get sick.
"I'll disappear and fade / And join the street parade"
Best Song: Rebel Waltz, maybe???
Worst Song: Living in Fame
Urghhhhg...so, after LC, the band went insane and decided that the only way to follow that up was to create a...urghmhg...triple album. Now, this in itself is not inherently evil. Jamey Johnson created a modern double album, which is about the length of a triple album on LP, and that one (The Guitar Song) had no filler at all! But this, yes, does indeed have filler. Lots of it. But some winners do indeed emerge from the swamp, so it all evens out. And even if I don't like it quite as much as the aforementioned Guitar Song (or London Calling, for that matter), it's still most certainly worth a listen.
My main problem (other than the filler, obviously) with this here album is the production. The band got Mikey Dread to be the producer for this one, as opposed to the previous album's Guy Stevens, and this, in my humble opinion, was a very, VERY bad decision. Every thing sounds loose and half-baked, as opposed to the tight, melodic precision of London Calling. Take "Somebody Got Murdered", for instance. The guitar just sounds weak, and Mick Jones' usually notable voice is barely audible. Sure, the song's still great, but it could have been SO MUCH better if it was given the LC treatment.
So yeah, highlights...okay, well, I adore "Police on My Back", which is probably the only thing here that could be stuck on LC, and the listener wouldn't think "Well, that sounds weird." It's a short blast of punky energy, and it's a welcome reprieve from all of the dark reggae on here. Speaking of dark reggae, "One More Time" is pretty awesome, "Junco Partner" is so whacked-out that it becomes quite entertaining, "The Call Up" rides a neat synth loop while still managing to sound like a reggae song, "Washington Bullets" rides a marimba riff while still managing to sound like a reggae song, and Paul Simonon's sole contribution, "The Crooked Beat" is also pretty enjoyable, albeit overlong. Oh, and if you think that's a lot of reggae, there's still plenty of the "-gae" that I didn't cover. Yikes.
The poor man's version of "The Card Cheat", "Something About England" is also quite enjoyable, even if it is the poor man's version of "The Card Cheat". "Rebel Waltz" is an EXTREMELY cool track almost reminiscent of something from Pet Sounds. Loads of cool noises, extremely interesting instrumentation (symphonic horns! glockenspiels!), a very nice delivery from Strummer -- cool stuff.
The two rap songs, "The Magnificent Seven" and "Lightning Strikes" are both fun (if only to hear Joe rap), albeit similar and slightly overlong. They're definitely enjoyable, though. "The Sound of Sinners" is a HILARIOUS gospel parody/genre exercise, "Midnight Log" and "The Leader" are fun rockabilly ditties, "Let's Go Crazy" in the band's insanely fun take on calypso, and "Version City" is an extremely catchy acoustic number with a very, very strange opening, featuring a fake DJ and a strange 50s song that is creepily sped up. Weird stuff, folks.
One of my very favorites is "The Street Parade" which sounds very odd the first few times you hear it, thanks to the jarring guitar clanking that occurs during the chorus, but after you get used to that...man, what a beautiful ballad. Just listen to that mournful saxophone! And Joe's incredibly passionate singing! And the fact that Strummer has passed away makes the lyrics about fading away as you age even more impactful.
Another one of my favorites is "Kingston Advice", if only because of the insanely memorable chorus. The "don't beg for your liiiiiife" hook is particularly catchy. Sure, the verses are pretty forgettable, and they don't repeat the chorus nearly as much as they could probably get away with (Just two times?!? Really?), but I still love the track. Also of note is the big band(!) "Look Here" which, by all means not a classic, is still quite fun.
I also like the incredibly random "Lose This Skin", which features absolutely no singing by any members of The Clash, and the lead instrument is a Celtic-sounding violin....wha-? That's right, all the singing is handled by none other than Tymon Dogg. That's right, Tymon Dogg. You don't know who Tymon Dogg is?!?!!?....Well, that's OK, because I don't think that anyone actually does. All that needs to be said is that he sounds like a British, slightly higher-pitched Geddy Lee...and he sounds about as bad as that description makes him out to sound. Not to worry, though, because the violin work and the melody are awesome, and this most certainly saves the song. Heck, it's a highlight, to my ears. And you'll get used to his voice...eventually.
And that's everything I actually DO like about the album. So that alone should tell you it's worth a purchase. Wanna hear the songs I don't like? Here goes: "The Equaliser", "One More Dub", "Corner Soul", "If Music Could Talk", and "Mensforth Hill". That's it. Sure, songs like "Shepherds Delight" and "Version Pardner" aren't exactly classics, but I couldn't really call them outright bad. They're just...alright. Of course, I could go into why I don't like those above 5 songs, but the reasons boil down to this: they're directionless, melody-less, and completely unmemorable. Oh, and I like the techno version of "Washington Bullets", "Silicone on Sapphire". Yep.
So there you go. It's not perfect, but it's two and a half hours, and it's about 70-80% perfect. And that's quite an accomplishment. So yes, this is NOTHING like LC, and I wouldn't get it first thing after that, but...it's still definitely worth a listen. Highly recommended...but don't rush headfirst into it.
Combar Rock (1982)
"No one mentions the neighboring war / No one knows what the fighting is for"
Best Song: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Worst Song: Red Angel Dragnet
Well, this is a weird one. The overall sound is much closer to Sandinista! than any of the other albums up to this point, but it still definitely has a style all its own. The main addition to this album that we haven't seen yet is...spoken word?!? That's right! Beat poetry, rap, recitations -- there's lots and lots of spoken word stuff here.
And unsurprisingly, not many of the spoken word tracks are very good. The main offender here is the completely unfocused "Red Angel Dragnet" which features random snippets of people reading off quotes from the film Taxi Driver with a repetitive backing. Nothing remotely listenable going on here at all. Not much better is "Ghetto Defendant", which has the famous poet Allen Ginsburg reading off his lines rather stoically as Joe comes in every now and then with a sung segment. The melody of the sung segment is actually rather good, and Allen's near-robotic delivery is somewhat interesting, but that still doesn't come close to holding the song up for nearly five minutes. If you cut about two of those five minutes, it'd probably be fine, but as it is....egh.
"Sean Flynn" is probably the absolute strangest thing here. It's got a near-ambient backing with some Eastern instrumentation (kinda similar to Bowie's "Moss Garden" from "Heroes") and some decent saxophone, and Joe just kinda yells out some random lines...it's not very good, but it's kind of hypnotic, so it doesn't hurt the album too bad. But again, it's 4:30, and that's just too long for something of this kind, ESPECIALLY on a Clash album. If it was by Eno, eh, it'd still be a little fishy, but at least it would make more sense in that context.
There's also "Death is a Star", which features Joe reading off a silly little poem with a very theatrical backing. There are also some brief, pleasant sung sections that sound almost French, to my ears. Again, not bad, but still nothing great. The same could be said of "Overpowered by Funk", a pretty cheesy little dance tune, featuring a guest rap by Futura 2000. Like I said, it's a little cheesy (it sounds like a mid-90s video game soundtrack at times), but it's still kinda fun, I suppose.
So yeah, those are the negatives. Of course, there must be some positives, right? I mean, I gave it a 10, didn't I?
Yup. So anyways, the punky opener, "Know Your Rights" is extremely catchy and loads of fun. There are also some very funny, clever lyrics about the rights that people supposedly have. For example, "You have the right to free speech, as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it!" Heh heh, very clever, Joe. "Inoculated City" is an happy, catchy pop song along the lines of "Hitsville U.K.", which I like quite a bit.
Of course, there's also the incredibly danceable and catchy "Rock the Casbah", featuring a great, rolling piano line (written by Topper, no less), and one of the band's best ever choruses, as well as the bouncy "Car Jamming" which I could totally see someone hating...but I think it's great. It's fun, it's got some really cool rhythms, it's got some nice backing vocals from Ellen Foley -- good stuff.
I'm sure you've all heard "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" a million times, but I can't help it -- it's still my favorite thing here. It's a way more commercial riff-rocker than you'd expect from these guys, but the melody is just too catchy for me to pass up. Fantastic.
The band members have all said throughout the years that "Straight to Hell" was the best thing they ever recorded. I'm not sure if I agree, but it is indeed a very pretty, mellow ballad about Vietnamese orphans that also holds the distinction of using an incredibly haunting electric violin. I personally think that the live version on From Here to Eternity is way better, but hey, it's still great in this form.
So yeah, some stuff is great, and some stuff is bad, but Combat Rock is still most certainly worth hearing, in my opinion. I'd definitely get some of their better albums first, though.