There was a time when The Clash embodied all that was noble about punk. They understood the difference between apocalypse and mere antistyle and, as songwriters, singer-guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had the gift of grab. The reggae-rap-pop Esperanto of the band’s epic productions, London Calling and Sandinista!, was a blueprint for the Eighties black-white crossover to come; those records also anticipated the hard-core excursions of the Hüsker Dü generation.
Sadly, Cut the Crap sounds like the last nine years never happened. London’s still burning; so are Liverpool, Central America and the Middle East. But this album — the group’s first since Mick Jones’ unceremonious firing in 1983 on dubious political grounds — is the sound of the Clash just blowing smoke, thrashing in desperation under Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon’s uncertain leadership. In Jones’ absence, they have beat a retreat back to buzzsaw basics, abetted by controversial manager Bernard Rhodes, who boldly assumes coauthorship of the LP’s twelve songs with Strummer. The three new members featured here (who departed after the LP’s release, along with Rhodes) are little more than bit players, however, filling out the sound with dutiful bluster but rarely kicking it to life.
“We Are the Clash” is a typically empty gesture, an ordinary punk hurrah further cheapened by its hokey massed Oi! choir — a transparent gimmick used far too often throughout the album. “Dictator,” on the other hand, is Sandinista! gone haywire, opening with martial guitar-and-drum-rolls before collapsing into a frightful mess of “found sounds,” shotgun blasts of off-key synths and electronic percussion pushing hard against the band’s torpedo drive. When they concentrate on straight thump & roll, this otherwise listless Clash gets up a decent head of steam. “Dirty Punk” hearkens back to the brash Clash of “Capital Radio” and Sandinista!‘s “Police on My Back.” But too much of Cut the Crap is Strummer’s angst running on automatic, superficially ferocious but ultimately stiff and unconvincing.
If Cut the Crap is a cheat, then Mick Jones’ new band Big Audio Dynamite is an unexpected gamble. “That old time groove is really nowhere,” Jones shrugs in “The Bottom Line,” brusquely dismissing Strummer’s retropunk didacticism. Instead, he continues, “I’m gonna take you to part two,” which on This Is Big Audio Dynamite is an intoxicating subversion of Eighties dance-floor cool with Sandinista!‘s dub-funk turmoil. A chilling description of suburban kids duped by rock-star fantasies and angeldust dreams, “Sudden Impact” skips along in its black humor to a Eurodisco hop clouded by Jones’ deadpan vocal and Don Letts’ eerie tape effects. On “A Party,” a glib sketch of the apartheid explosion, bassist Leo “E-Zee Kill” Williams heats up the song’s reggae voodoo with an evil pulse distantly related to Public Image Ltd.’s “Death Disco.”
Jones and Letts don’t exactly write songs; “Sony” and “Bad” are dark skeletal grooves over which Jones catalogs in his brattish reedy voice “the things that make me crazy … the things that make me bad.” The result is a kind of ambient hard-core that works best, as in “E=MC2,” when the band adds a little ditty to the dread. This Is Big Audio Dynamite hardly transcends the Clash’s finest hours, but for Jones it is a new beginning. With Cut the Crap, one might well wonder if Joe Strummer’s at the end of the road.