For rock’s last angry band, life at the top has not exactly been a left-wing luau. In Britain, where their only real crime has been falling out of fashion, the Clash is scorned by a cynical press drunk on funk and futurism, and by their own punk progeny, the Oi! bands, for selling out to Yankee commercial interests. At least that is how the group’s foes perceive the panmusical daring, global political concerns and mature thrash of the 1980 double album London Calling and last year’s six-sided Sandinista!
Here in Reagan country, the Clash has had immortality thrust upon them. American critics hail them as rock’s articulate revolutionary conscience, while converted heavy-metal youngbloods see in the band’s maverick social stance and awesome stage firepower the Rolling Stones they never had. In short, the Clash is caught between their best intentions and a very hard place.
But the message of Combat Rock — the Clash’s fifth album and a snarling, enraged, yet still musically ambitious collection of twelve tight tracks on a single disc — is pop hits and press accolades be damned. This record is a declaration of real-life emergency, a provocative, demanding document of classic punk anger, reflective questioning and nerve-wracking frustration. It is written in songwriter-guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ now-familiar rock Esperanto, ranging from the locomotive disco steam of “Overpowered by Funk” and the frisky Bo Diddley strut of “Car Jamming” to the mutant-cabaret sway of the LP’s chilling coda, “Death Is the Star.” And like every Clash record from 1977’s “White Riot” on, it carries the magnum force of the group’s convictions in the bold rhythmic punch of bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon and the guitar-army bash of Strummer and Jones. Yet Combat Rock‘s overwhelming sense of impending doom suggests the Clash still have no pat answer to the age-old musical question: after sounding the alarm, what more can a rock & roll band do?
That crisis of confidence only spurs the band on. A desperate spirit rings loud and clear in Strummer’s asthmatic coyote howl, “This is a public service announcement … with guita-a-h!,” which detonates the album’s opening salvo, “Know Your Rights.” Over Simonon and Headon’s martial crunch, and punctuated by Jones’ rubbery Duane Eddy-in-hell guitar break, Strummer tries satiric outrage on for size. “You have the right,” he spits, “to free speech/As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.” The joke gets a little lighter in “Rock the Casbah,” a smart-alecky, funk-inflected romp complete with snappy hook and spry party piano, about the banning of pop music by Moslem fundamentalists in Iran. But the meaning is clear. Having rights and exercising them are two different things. And replacing one oppressor with another does not a revolution make.
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It’s not surprising, then, that the Clash are so taken with outlaw ethics, marked here by “Sean Flynn” and “Red Angel Dragnet.” The former is an ambient jungle-rhythm exercise with a resonant Strummer vocal about the Vietnam War photographer and son of actor Errol Flynn who disappeared while riding his motorbike toward the DMZ. The latter celebrates New York subway vigilantes the Guardian Angels, with Headon and Simonon locking into a harrowing groove not unlike that of the Number Two IRT train (known in New York as “the Beast”) rumbling through the gutted South Bronx at four a.m. Then a voice steps in, praising the Angels’ underground crime watch. The Clash see in the Angels a mirror image, bucking the system in order to improve it.
For the most part, Combat Rock is short on practical solutions and long on the horror of the problems. “Straight to Hell” contrasts a bouncy neocalypso beat and an almost pastoral synthesizer whine with a bitter Strummer indictment of the raw deal handed the boat people and other human fallout from the Indo-Chinese wars. In “Ghetto Defendant,” Strummer duets with Beat bard Allen Ginsberg over a spooky reggae dub track, trading images of apocalypse and drug addiction — “It is heroin pity/Not tear gas nor baton charge/That stops you from taking the city.”
At the same-time, Combat Rock is stirring, inspirational rock & roll, arranged with good pop sense and shot through in concentrated doses with the imagination and vigor that were spread throughout Sandinista! If the words don’t carry you, then the manic dance fever of “Overpowered by Funk” (a rap by graffiti artist Futura 2000) and Mick Jones’ strident punch-up, “Should I Stay or Go Now” (a guitar-driven raver à la “Train in Vain”) certainly will. Because above all else, Combat Rock is an album of fight songs. Whereas most of the false prophets and nonstop complainers washed up by the New Wave await a brave new world, the Clash are battling tooth, nail and guitar to salvage the one we’ve got, in the only way they know. Combat Rock may not have the answers, but it may be our last warning: sign up or shut up.