Friday, May 24, 2013

Progressive Music Classics: "Corner Soul" by The Clash

By Marc McDonald 

(Ed. note: Here's another installment of Marc's ongoing series. For the full series, check out his site. Our last two were The Unacceptable Face of Freedom by Test Dept. and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Shriekback. -- MJWS)


Few albums have ever been more highly anticipated than Sandinista!, the 1980 release by The Clash. The band's previous album, London Calling had been a all-conquering masterpiece that had music writers, particularly in the U.S., swooning.

I recall how, in 1979, The Clash was hailed by many music writers as "the only band that matters." For a brief time, at least, The Clash were clearly the best band in the world.

But when Sandinista! landed in the record shops, a mere four days after John Lennon's murder, it left many fans and writers baffled. Anyone who was expecting a sequel to London Calling was likely disappointed. The massive, triple-album Sandinista! frankly seemed bloated and full of a lot of strange music that had many people scratching their heads in confusion.

At the time, I recall there was two divergent opinions about Sandinista! in the U.S. and the U.K.

Music writers in Britain had failed to embrace London Calling as enthusiastically as their enraptured U.S. counterparts had. And upon first listen, Sandinista! seemed to confirm their worst suspicions about the band.

In Britain, the band was seen as having "sold out" to punk principles. The very fact that Sandinista! was a triple album worked against it. It seemed to embrace many of the bloated excesses of the 1970s progressive rock of ELP, Jethro Tull, and Yes. It was that very sort of thing that punk had rebelled against in the first place in Britain.

I still recall the scathing review in Britain's top music paper, New Musical Express, that savaged Sandinista! as inferior and "ridiculously self-indulgent."

However, in the U.S., it was a different story. Rolling Stone hailed Sandinista! as a five-star masterpiece.

Three decades later, we can look back and ask the question: which side of the Atlantic was right? Was Sandinista! indeed a failure and a "ridiculously self-indulgent" record? Or was it a five-star masterpiece?

The answer: both sides were right. Sandinista! was "ridiculously self-indulgent." It was also a masterpiece.

Whether you love Sandinista! or hate it, one thing The Clash could never be accused of is selling out. This was a massive record, full of strange, exotic, and often baffling sounds -- but with absolutely no considerations made for commercial appeal.

Additionally, The Clash, in order to give value for money to their fans, had insisted on selling the three-record set for the price of a single record. Amazingly, the band agreed to let their record company take the price difference out of their own pockets.

Between the fiercely anti-commercial nature of the record, and The Clash's insistence on "value for money" for their fans, Sandinista! represented a sort of idealism that simply doesn't exist in today's music scene. After all, most of today's musicians don't have much ambition beyond simply selling as much product as possible.

But despite the band's good intentions, Sandinista! was a commercial flop for The Clash. And the initial hostile reviews in England meant that the band couldn't even win favor among the powerful music press for their idealism.

Band leader Joe Strummer had poured his heart into the creation of Sandinista!. But what did it bring him? Nothing but hostile reviews and financial insecurity. The latter was made plain at the time, when Strummer and his girlfriend were turned down for a house loan. Nearing the age of 30, Strummer was beginning to get weary of his nomadic existence of living in squats, tiny flats, and borrowed apartments.

Three decades later, Sandinista! is still an often baffling, sometimes infuriating listen. But if you give it a chance, it's one of the most fascinating albums ever released. Strummer is at the top of his game with his intriguing lyrics, which for my money rival anything Dylan ever wrote. 

Sandinista! addresses a head-spinning variety of topics that have rarely been heard in a rock context: Third World rebellions and wars. The corrupt and decadent leadership that has sold out countries like Britain and America. Out-of-control multi-national corporations raping and pillaging the planet.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The fact is, in today's world, Sandinista! is as relevant as ever. CIA goons are still prowling the planet. And corporate mercenaries are still raping and pillaging the Third World.

Upon first listen, the songs on Sandinista! often seem ragged around the edges. There is an "unfinished" quality to the record. It's almost as if the band was furiously working to crank out songs at light-speed while the inspiration was still hot.

At the time, Sandinista! production was criticized as "sloppy." But with the hindsight of years, it's clear that the often low-fi, ragged production perfectly suited the music. Indeed, a dose of Sandinista! is a perfect antidote to anyone who is sick to death of today's glossy, over-produced, sterile pop music.

Over the course of its 36 tracks, Sandinista! races from topic to topic and musical genre to musical genre.

One minute, the band is playing a bizarre form of dub. The next, they're doing a twisted take on gospel. The next, they're doing an unlike cover song by jazz pianist Mose Allison. The next, they're doing straight-ahead classic Clash rock. The experience of listening to Sandinista! is somewhat akin to listening to a wandering radio dial randomly tuning into various intriguing parts of the Third World. Only a band as talented and visionary as The Clash could have ever pulled this off.

The song "Corner Soul" (featured in the video above) has long been a favorite of mine from the album. It's a strange little song that conjures up the image of some sinister goings-on in a Third World nation, where rebels are battling an unknown enemy.

But who are they fighting? CIA-funded goons? A corrupt right-wing dictatorship? Mercenaries funded by Exxon Mobil or the United Fruit Company?

Who knows? But the fact is, battles like this have been raging in the Third World for decades now (often funded with U.S. tax dollars).

Strummer is wise enough not to turn the song into a hectoring rant against First World imperialism. Rather than spoon-feeding us a leftist rant, Strummer (as he so often does) keeps things ambiguous and leaves it up to our imaginations as to exactly what is going on. 

"Is the music calling for a river of blood?" Strummer sings in a bizarre, distorted production that is as surreal as anything ever cranked out by Lee "Scratch" Perry's legendary Black Ark studio.

There has never been another record made like Sandinista!. It was an album that engaged the real world (unlike the apolitical pap that comprises today's music). Sandinista! challenged us. And it got us to thinking about what was being done in our name by CIA goons and corporate mercenaries across the Third World.

As a risk-taking record with heart and soul, Sandinista! is the sort of record that today's cowardly, corporate-whore music artists simply don't make anymore.

(Cross-posted at BeggarsCanBeChoosers.)

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3 Comments:

  • This was and still is one of my fave vinyls evah. A sprawling epic, all over the place, and you nailed it's intent. In particular, "Somebody Got Murdered'... 'The Magnificent 7'... and my fave cut from the thing, 'Washington Bullets'. I especially loved the liner art, al the cartoons, the whole damned thing. Thanks!

    By Blogger Oblio, at 2:12 PM  

  • Hi Oblio, thanks for your comment. Yes, "Washington Bullets" has often been my favorite song from the album. But there's so many great songs to choose from, it's hard to pick a favorite. I still have the import vinyl I bought in Seattle back in the day (I couldn't wait for the domestic release). It still includes the cartoon/lyric sheet by the great Steve Bell.

    By Blogger Marc McDonald, at 4:19 AM  

  • Oh man! This album is beyond words. 'Corner soul' , 'washington bullets', and the way that 'if music could talk' (ironically)talks to me deep down in my soul like no other music quite manages to, make life worth living in my opinion.

    By Blogger alan leach, at 7:12 AM  

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