Sandinista!

Fresh on the heels of their third album, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful London Calling, Joe Strummer (rhythm guitar and vocals), Mick Jones (lead guitar and vocals) and Topper Headon (drums) ensconced themselves in the Iroquois Hotel near Times Square on 44th Street in New York City. They had no songs in hand, but were about to make an album that would mystify some people and electrify others, ultimately pointing the way toward the future of popular music. These three men first booked some time at the Power Station studio, then moved to the house that Hendrix built, Electric Lady Studios, to begin work on some new music.

Paul Simonon (bass and vocals), the fourth and final member of the Clash, was otherwise engaged as an actor at the beginning of recording the album, so the aforementioned three initially forged ahead as a trio, with a musical openness that would astound mere mortals. The hip-hop style of music was currently blossoming in NYC, and this vibrant, new urban underground movement would infuse and give life to this new album. The result you can judge for yourselves, but in my opinion, this stunningly diverse, thoroughly enigmatic and ultimately groundbreaking 36-track album stands alone, as a signpost of the times and showing the way for those that would follow in creating the concept of world music.

This kaleidoscope of musical sounds is diverse because of the sheer number of musical styles represented on the album. Everything from hip-hop to rock to jazz to blues to gospel to calypso to roots to punk to reggae to dub is included on this enigmatic and groundbreaking record. Enigmatic because some of these songs don’t appear to have any resemblance to songs at all, and the reason may be that the band needed filler to make the album stretch out to cover six full album sides. And groundbreaking because by combining so many different musical styles on one album, by name-dropping places as far and wide as Asia, Africa, South and Central America, in addition to Europe and the U.S., the Clash managed to breathtakingly begin to forge the reality that is world music today.

Some might argue that this is not a great album. These folks might opine that the album would be great if you extracted the best songs and made it an album and a half rather than three. No matter; I say it is a great album, my favorite album of all time because it has managed to stay fresh over the twenty-seven years I have had the pleasure to experience this beautiful work of art. Come with me and have a listen.

The Clash — Sandinista!: Track-by-track review

1. “The Magnificent Seven”
It starts off with a drum riff, but it only takes a few seconds to realize we’re not in “Guns On The Roof” territory anymore. A whole new danceable space has opened up. Make no mistake, it’s the tight Clash rhythm section at work, only this is an immediately infectious danceable groove that drives the train full steam ahead out of the station and headed for spaces unknown. Beautiful really.

To remember the first time I heard it: Other than “Train In Vain” on the FM radio, this was the first Clash tune I’d ever heard. Picked the album up at the local used record store the summer of ’81. I’d read some kind of chatter that this music was praised by some critics but didn’t have a clue what to expect from this band. So as opposed to some of the old school Clash aficionados, this was my first taste, and I’m sure it colored my opinion as I explored their earlier and later work in the ensuing years. But I digress.

The Clash brought this beautiful beat and Joe laid down some of his inimitable rap over the top and the total effect is glorious. Socrates and Plato, Marx and Engels, MLK, and Gandhi are all alluded to in this song. Groundbreaking to say the least, it’s one of my favorite songs of all time by any band.

Word has it that the song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang provided the inspiration for Joe to write and rap this song. It’s interesting to note that the song was originally to be titled “The Magnificent Seven Rap-O-Clappers”.

2. “Hitsville U.K.”
Mick’s girlfriend at the time, Ellen Foley, sings lead on this tune and the effect may be slightly stunning to someone more familiar with the earlier Clash canon.

But oh, what a send-up! First there is the old time gospel-style organ to start this revival off, then you hear a bass riff straight from the old Motown “You Can’t Hurry Love” song, as the rest of the band jumps in to fill the space with the beat of a nice, mid-tempo pop number. The downbeat will get you hoppin’ and dancin’, and one lyric I’ve always loved:

The mutants, creeps and musclemen
Are shaking like a leaf
It blows a hole in the radio
When it hasn’t sounded good all week

3. “Junco Partner”
This reggae number was recorded at Channel One studios in Kingston, Jamaica before the band decided to leave early because of the unsafe conditions in the immediate neighborhood of the studio — unsafe especially for a band from another country presumed to have some money.

Joe delivers utterly fantastically atmospheric vocals to complement a nice electric fiddle. The band proved they had mastered the reggae beat on London Calling, but this tune takes it a step further and the song really immerses itself into the island that is Jamaica by nibbling at the dub sound. Lyric snippet:

I was born In Angola
Serving 14 to 99

4. “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”
Most people would call this a disco tune, but to me it’s an up-tempo rocker with an irregular beat. No matter, the song has the familiar Clash rhythm section, and by now you might be wondering how one drummer can handle all of these different styles and types of music. Topper was truly a sensational drummer who in my opinion allowed the Clash to explore these different musical regions. He freed them up to explore and play these tunes with confidence and allow their Clash sensibility to shine through, the other musicians having refined their chops and matured as musicians since their first foray at recording.

This is the quintessential cold war tune. The idea of the song is Russia versus the U.S. in a video game/dance contest type of atmosphere with the sound effects to boot. Check out the lyrics.

5. “The Leader”
When I saw this band in early ’82 at the Grand Circus Theater in Detroit, this song was the second song they played after “London Calling”, and it fell in perfectly after the aforementioned anthem. This is the first hint of the old Clash on the album. It is a straightforward rockabilly rocker that would fit on any number of their albums. The key here is that this is the Sandinista! Clash.

There is just something about the sound of this album, maybe it has something to do with the fact that Mick Jones essentially produced the album. He’d learned enough tricks of the trade from their two previous producers, Sandy Pearlman on Give ‘Em Enough Rope and Guy Stevens on London Calling, to give this a shot. The sound on this album is different than on any other they recorded, and I attribute this to the fact that a Clash member was the producer of the music.

6. “Something About England”
This is a very powerful song. I can’t figure out what style of music this is, it might be a ballad, but it’s got the rhythm section that was the Clash in their prime.

My focus is on the lyrics of this song. Joe assumes the guise of an all-seeing veteran of all of England’s wars throughout history. The veterans return from the wars yet nothing ever changes. Very beautifully written and you may just learn a thing or two about history.

7. “Rebel Waltz”
A song that snuck up on me over the years, this is one of my favorite songs. It starts with a wonderfully mellow bass intro that segues into a harpsichord sound with percussion and then the trumpet. And it’s a waltz! Please don’t miss this one.

Again, the lyrics are of war — Joe delivers them with intellectual precision, and Topper is right there with every step. To me it evokes images of Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN rebels sitting in front of a campfire down in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. There is a very human element embodied here. But fundamentally to me, this is a beautiful tune, the kind of song very few artists could take on let alone accomplish with such verve. Lyric excerpt:

So we danced with a rifle, to the rhythm of the gun
In a glade through the trees, I saw my only one

8. “Look Here”
The Clash do justice to this jazzy jam song written by the legendary Mose Allison. Topper seems at home with this genre and some nice boogie piano complements the unmistakable sound of the beautiful Clash rhythm that Mick Jones was able to coax out of these studio sessions. A jammin’ song indeed.

9. “The Crooked Beat”
Paul takes the vocals on this one that some have described as a sequel to “Guns Of Brixton”. It is a slow tempo number, yet has a powerful rockin’ feel. The lyrics are about going to the clubs and the live music experience. There are some dub effects here; they fit nicely, and yet Topper keeps the song grounded in the Sandinista! sensibility. The horns and timely guitar whack lead smoothly into the next song. This song and the next one fit together like a glove.

10. “Somebody Got Murdered”
This Clash rocker and its lyrics meld into one of their best hit-type songs. The beginning slowly builds energy until it explodes with the first lyrics. Probably as close as they got in the studio to the historical references of the legendary energy they used to produce in particular live shows of the 70s.

I listened to this song for years, and I still don’t know the secret of how they get that power. This one is a song that is among their best rockers ever and not to be missed. Lyric excerpt:

It’s late, and my watch stopped
Some time ago
Sounds like murder!
Those screams!
Are they drunk down below?

11. “One More Time”
Mikey Dread from Dread at the Controls fame joins the band for this song. The apex of the Clash might just have been reached with this song. It’s got the train feel as some of the others, but this song is different. The lyrics are superb, and may be my favorite lyrics written by Strummer.

Not to mention that these are some of Joe’s most emotional and well-articulated vocals, and he delivers them with chutzpah. A great beat you can dance to and still hold the lyrics dear. Lyric excerpt:

You don’t need no silicone
To calculate poverty
Watch when Watts town burns again
The bus goes to Montgomery

12. “One More Dub”
This is the background music to the previous song, with a twist, because it is dubbed out. Extreme dubness. I’ve heard some folks say this tune is superfluous and shouldn’t have been included on the album. My opinion is that it is just an extension of the previous tune and adds to the song itself. My recommendation is to play the songs back to back and consider them one single tune.

There are other dub versions of songs later on the album, and the Clash chose this as a way to honor the reggae tradition of playing a song through once and then toasting the song by playing a different and unique version of the song in all of its dubbed out glory.

13. “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)”
This song starts with a DJ from radio station WBAI in New York talking. Then a caller is put on the air who says, “I’d just like to say, let’s have some music now, huh?”.

Cue Topper with a drum lead, then Paul with an extremely funky bass riff. It is one of the great Clash rockin’ songs. It is a celebration of NYC. Such an infectious groove beat with Joe rappin’ his lyrics. A superb bass riff from Paul dominates, and the sound exudes funk. It really swings. Give this song a whirl and you may find yourself dancing around the room.

14. “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)”
Mick takes the vocals on this one, another phenomenal song. Hard to categorize the music but it definitely rocks and has a catchy beat and some hard-hitting lyrics relating the plight of the poor living in the slums. A nice organ gives the song the backing atmosphere it needs and Mick on lead guitar, Paul on bass, and Topper on the drums are easy to discern and right on top of the beat. It has an anthemic quality from the guitar and lyrics in the chorus. Lyric excerpt:

Fear is just another commodity here
They sell us peeping holes to peek when we hear
A bang on the door resoundingly clear
Who would really want to move in here?

15. “Corner Soul”
This song has grown on me over the years. There are some cool female backing vocals and a nice accordion sound backing the Clash on this one. A medium-slow rocker, this music flows effortlessly into the next offering on the album.

16. “Lets Go Crazy”
How about a little calypso music?

Oh and what a song it is, calypso music with the Clash playing the backing track! The use of steel drum players adds to the Caribbean ambience. Just try and not get sucked into the good feelings this song creates. I dare you.

A stellar performance from a band ready and able to try any kind of music, and they pull it off with flair. A must listen.

17. “If Music Could Talk”
A reggae number with some prevalent saxophone throughout, some real soulful sax I might add. Mikey is back on board for this one, and the key here is that Joe delivers the vocals out of each channel separately, so in essence he’s alternating vocals with himself, and then he comes together with himself for the chorus — a very cool concept that works. The sax holds the song together and gives the reggae beat just that little extra ingredient, that little something that takes this song into unexplored territory. Well done.

18. “The Sound Of Sinners”
Joe Strummer sings gospel! Yes indeed. This song even has a kind of bluegrass feel to my ears as well. With the background singers singing “judgement day… judgement day” and to have Joe sing,

After all this time
To believe in Jesus
After all those drugs
I thought I was Him

Well there is not much that can be added to this concept that seems incongruous at first glance, but again, the Clash pull this off like they’d been playing gospel their whole lives.

My thinking is that the band had finally within the last year or so gotten proficient enough with their instruments that they could branch out comfortably. And their attitude of openness towards music in general may have been the key to unlock all of the divergently different styles of music that appear on this album.

19. “Police On My Back”
Mick starts off with a guitar lick that mimics a police siren and it’s off to Clash heaven we go. “Police On My Back” may just be the best rocker they ever created. It is a song written by Eddy Grant and originally performed by the Equals, yet the Clash made it their own.

Again, it’s got that train feel to it like so many other songs from this album. I’m beginning to think that the train feel of so many of these songs comes from the dexterity of Topper on the skins, Joe’s nonpareil rhythmic strumming and Paul’s sonic bass melding into a beat I’ve never heard from any other band. And don’t forget Mick, who handles the vocals on this one (as well as the stellar lead guitar duties) that include the plaintive cry,

What have I done?
What have I done?

20. “Midnight Log”
This tune keeps the rhythm flowing, a rockabilly ditty with a hard driving beat. It is a short number, with some haunting harmonica to provide a coda to each of the verses. These musicians would be hard pressed to ever come up with the amount of quality music being created in this brief period of time. We’re over halfway into the album and the great songs just keep comin’. Lyric excerpt:

I don’t believe in books
But I read all the time
For ciphers to the riddles
An’ reasons to the rhymes

21. “The Equaliser”
The original Rolling Stone review of this album called these next three songs the heart of the album. Even with all of the beautiful music already experienced on this release, I would be hard pressed to argue. “The Equaliser” is a sonic reggae dub song. Such a mellow beat that I could play it all day long and my speakers would thank me. Joe comes through with the perfect lyrics to evoke the concept of equalization. Yet the interplay between Mick’s magical guitar riffs and the electric violin steal the show on this one.

I’ve often wondered what it was about this song that caught me from the very first listen. As near as I can figure it is the guitar and violin working into and away from each other at every turn. Brilliantly done. Calling this song a masterpiece would not be an overstatement. A must listen that should be heard so as to appreciate the masterpiece of musical genius that they lay down in these five minutes and forty-seven seconds.

22. “The Call Up”
My college roommate, a Navy veteran of four years, used to wake me up with this song on full blast whenever he didn’t want me to miss my early morning class. I’m sure he just liked the atmosphere that it evokes, and probably didn’t pay any attention to the actual lyrics of the song. The lyrics are telling the youth not to sign up for the draft and to refuse war.

It has a military cadence feel, and there are light percussive sounds similar to “The Magnificent Seven” to be found here. It begins with hup two three four, hup two three four, hup two three four, hup two three four. Well, you get the picture. This is one of the key songs of the album.

23. “Washington Bullets”
This calypso-tinged work of art was the song whose lyrics spawned the name of the album. A very laid-back musical vibe that is countered by uncompromising lyrics lamenting Joe’s disdain of the negative consequences of US, British and even China’s influence around the world. Chile, Cuba and Tibet are all mentioned in the lyrics as well as these lines:

In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary
Check the British bullets in his armory
Sandinista!

On the subsequent tour for this album, this song was played as an encore and Joe would bring out a real life Sandinista rebel who would speak to the crowd while the band played the music of this song. The man would say things like, “Reagan is gonna send you to Nicaragua, but you are not gonna let him, you are not gonna let him”.

24. “Broadway”
This song is one of the best they ever created. It has a slow, smoky kind of beat and Joe assumes the guise of a downtrodden bum on the street and delivers the emotional lyrics as if he himself is the bum. The atmosphere of the musical accompaniment paints the picture of the streets of NYC after a night on the town. Nice piano work that joins in well with Mick’s spacey guitar sound.

The song ends with a solo vocal rendition, by a child, of “Guns Of Brixton”, vocals with piano accompaniment. At the end the child says, “that’s enough now, I’m tired of singing”. Guaranteed to make you smile, although I’m not sure that the ending fits with the song itself. I’ve always chalked it up to the quirkiness that is the album.

Lyric excerpt:

Suddenly I noticed that it weren’t quite the same
Feel different one morning maybe it was the rain

25. “Lose This Skin”
This is an interesting song from Joe’s old busking mate and future Mescalero band member, Tymon Dogg, with the Clash as the backing band. Tymon plays electric violin and has an odd vocal styling to say the least, but the song rocks. Keep an ear out for the drums on this one, as Topper again delivers a topnotch performance that drives this song forward.

26. “Charlie Don’t Surf”
Very slow atmospheric buildup on this song, one that I enjoyed from the first time played. A piano gives this an Asian type of vibe and the guitar goes into a helicopter sound that has an Apocalypse Now feel to it. Then it all comes together into a straightforward medium-slow tempo rocker. Simonon does some great bass work on this one, with Mick back at the spacey guitar riffs. There’s a false ending and then back to another chorus. Lyric excerpt:

It’s a one way street in a one horse town
One way people starting to brag around
You can laugh, put them down
These one way people gonna blow us down

27. “Mensforth Hill”
Purportedly, this “song” is just the song “Somewhere In England” played backwards. But there seems to be a lot more going on here than just playing a song backwards. Not that I’m an expert at backwards music, but to my ears there are most definitely additional sound effects that have been added. It resembles a song that might’ve fit comfortably on side four of the Beatles’ White Album. I’m not sure this is music, but there are times that it might resemble music.

28. “Junkie Slip”
The beat fades in and we have the bass and drum that drive this ditty that, in hindsight, is most important to the album. Not only does it help bridge the heart of the album with the last few great songs contained therein, but the lyrics most likely speak to Joe’s take on Topper’s increasingly disruptive (to himself and the band) heroin addiction.

Topper was such an amazing drummer who ranks up there with the best rock ‘n’ roll drummers of all time, whose mastery of so many different musical genres gave the Clash the freedom to experiment. Yet during the recording of this album he was falling further and further into the grip of heroin addiction.

29. “Kingston Advice”
This is one of the great Clash rockin’ songs. Its sequence on the album is critical in that it brings the band and the album back to the rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. The beginning is a precursor to the song “Know Your Rights” on the next album to follow, Combat Rock. A uniquely Clash way of getting you to pay attention to the song you are about to hear, and I love it.

The lyrics probably refer to the band’s time in the violent neighborhoods of Kingston whilst beginning to record the album. My understanding is that when foreign bands went to Kingston to record music, the local gangs and hoodlums would constantly demand money. Keith Richards, for one, was known to spread the money around and for this reason didn’t experience some of the violent confrontations afforded the Clash. For all I know, the Clash most likely were not aware of this “local knowledge” and if they were, may not even have had enough cash to spread around to appease the locals.

Lyric excerpts:

In these days don’t beg for life
Wanna take Kingston advice?
Oh please don’t beg for your life…

In these days with no love to give
The world will turn with no one left to live…

In these days I don’t know what to sing
The more I know the less my tune can swing

30. “The Street Parade”
Phenomenal song, there’s no other way to view it. This one has staying power and sounds as good or better now than it did on my first listen. Suffice to say, this is my favorite Clash tune, as it embodies all that I hold dear of their music (apologies to the wonderful song that is “White Man In Hammersmith Palais” from their first album).

If there was ever a must listen from this album, “The Street Parade” is the one. Categorization of the song has befuddled me for years, kind of like some of the songs from the Band or even the Beatles — songs where you can’t quite describe what is happening, but you know that there is some magic at work.

In this case (as with so many other great bands) it was a magic that would come to a premature end because during the recording of this album, Joe and Mick would grow increasingly apart as collaborators and friends. This situation would ultimately lead to the firing of Mick from the band. A very sad day indeed, and one that I’m sure Joe regretted until his dying day.

One of my favorite lyrics ever:

I was in this place
By the first church of the city
I saw tears on the face
The face of a visionary

Though I will disappear
To join the street parade
Disappear and fade
Into the street parade

I heard a live version of this song and it absolutely blew me away. This band was already miles ahead of the studio version I held so near to my heart. It was so beautiful to hear them bring this most wonderful of songs to life in a live setting that I’m not sure I have recovered my senses to this day.

31. “Version City”
This stellar performance is another of the songs on this album that have the train feel. To borrow a lyric from the Grateful Dead, “like a steam locomotive, rollin’ down the track”. This song exemplifies that thought, and happens to be the last song on the album that is worthy of the accolades that I’ve been spouting during this review. Keep an ear out for a “Magnificent Seven” riff toward the end of the song.

There’s an old-time revival type of feel to the song as well as certain drumming sounds and rolls that help to keep the listener from becoming bored with this train of a song that is moving down the tracks. There also are hints of sound effects that would resurface on “Rock The Casbah” from the next Clash album.

32. “Living In Fame”
This is the dub version of “If Music Could Talk”, with Mikey Dread complementing the band and taking over the vocals. The soulful sax from the original version makes a return. Enough said, and well worth the listen. Lyric snippet:

This is the game of life
We no wa’ no strife

33. “Silicone On Sapphire”
This track is the dub version of “Washington Bullets” from earlier in the album. It has a kind of extraterrestrial atmosphere, with some far out sound effects. It is another song where one lyric is out of the right channel and the other from the left channel. In essence, it’s a robotic treatment of the original song.

34. “Version Pardner”
As if the song “Junco Partner” wasn’t dubbed out enough, this is the dub version itself. Let the toasting begin! They pulled all kinds of weird sounds out of the studio for this one — one particularly sounds like a train whistle and another sounds like a train engine. These sounds might’ve been the twisting and distorting of a harmonica sound. Your guess is as good as mine.

35. “Career Opportunities”
This is a remake of the song from the the Clash’s first album. Except for this version, we have two children handling the vocal duties. If you’re familiar with the original version, this one can sound a bit strange. And if you’re not familiar with the original, hearing children sing about career opportunities that never knock might sound a bit strange as well.

36. “Shepherds Delight”
Mikey returns once again to lend the band a hand in closing the album. Nice acoustic guitar work on this one, and a periodic quacking duck type of sound, that begins to sound like a cat after a while. And there you have it.

Sandinista! by The Clash

“The Magnificent Seven”

“Hitsville U.K.”

“Junco Partner”

“Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”

“The Leader”

“Something About England”

“Rebel Waltz”

“Look Here”

“The Crooked Beat”

“Somebody Got Murdered”

“One More Time”

“One More Dub”

“Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)”

“Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)”

“Corner Soul”

“Lets Go Crazy”

“If Music Could Talk”

“The Sound Of Sinners”

“Police On My Back”

“Midnight Log”

“The Equaliser”

“The Call Up”

“Washington Bullets”

“Broadway”

“Lose This Skin”

“Charlie Don’t Surf”

“Mensforth Hill”

“Junkie Slip”

“Kingston Advice”

“The Street Parade”

“Version City”

“Living In Fame”

“Silicone On Sapphire”

“Version Pardner”

“Career Opportunities”

“Shepherds Delight”

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