A regular series discussing albums unearthed in Vinyl Exchange, Manchester’s legendary second hand music store.
Fans of The Clash may want to look away now, because I’m about to say something you may well not agree with:
Sandinista! is the band’s best album.
Let me qualify that. Sandinista! is the album on which The Clash’s wonderful spirit of experimentation comes to its most perfect fruition, the album on which the disparate influences that informed the band’s music from the very start are best realised. Don’t believe me? Then let us consider their oeuvre in more detail.
The Clash is an essential punk record, one of the key drivers behind a pivotal music scene. It boasts a fair few fantastic songs, but the UK version also has its share of skippable tracks, and standout moment “Police And Thieves” is a cover. The US version, which featured the likes of “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” and “Complete Control,” was essentially a compilation album, and thus doesn’t enter into the discussion.
Give ‘Em Enough Rope has more heart (see “Stay Free”), but nothing matches the incredible opening track “Safe European Home,” and you’d be hard pressed to describe it as a great album.
London Calling is undeniably superb. But the back half doesn’t quite match up to the front half. Upon release, “Guns Of Brixton” ended the first LP; before that, the listener was treated to “Spanish Bombs,” “Lost In The Supermarket,” “Clampdown,” the title track, and plenty more besides. On the second LP, “Death Or Glory” and “I’m Not Down” are almost-but-not-quite classics (and also kinda similar to one another), and whilst “The Card Cheat” and “Train In Vain” are excellent, not everything matches those high standards.
Combat Rock is in many ways a fantastic record. “Rock The Casbah” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” are a hell of a lot of fun, and “Straight To Hell” is quite possibly their greatest ever song. But compared to the two albums that preceded it, it remains a minor classic.
And finally, aside from “This Is England,” Cut The Crap is staggeringly awful.
Which leads us back to where we started. Whereas the album that preceded it was an essential document of seventies England, Sandinista! is American through and through, in terms of sound, themes, and the atmosphere it evokes. It opens with ”The Magnificent Seven,” which along with side three cut “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)” represents the first time a (mainstream) white rock band tried their hand at rap. The track also puts down a marker for what’s to follow: an exhilarating journey through musical history, with just about every genre represented. Reggae, dub, jazz, pop, gospel, and disco all inform the record, which plays like one of the greatest mixtapes ever compiled.
One of the album’s greatest strengths lies in just how evocative it is. The Apocalypse Now tribute “Charlie Don’t Surf” and another anti-war statement, “The Call Up,” call to mind battlefields past, present, and future; “Lets Go Crazy” is the sound of the carnival, and suggests that at least one member of the group was a fan of tropicalia; and “Broadway” is a magnificent piece of jazz-piano balladry that transports the listener to a seedy dive bar they’ve never even visited.
A cover of Eddy Grant’s “Police On My Back” is the perfect companion to the band’s version of “I Fought The Law,” all powerful guitars and desperate vocals, a short sharp shock of a song, with a simple hook and endless replay value. “Something About England” is a beautiful ode to the titular nation, proof that although their outlook had become more global, they were still in touch with their homeland. And “Somebody Got Murdered” is a forgotten classic, highlighting just how great The Clash were at unfolding compelling narratives.
Sandinista! was largely derided upon its release, but the passage of time makes it clear that The Clash were simply a long, long way ahead of the curve. Not every moment of the 145 minute running time is golden, but it’s also never dull; even the more unsuccessful songs are interesting at the very least. This was the sound of the best band in the world showing off the size of their ambition and the breadth of their musical knowledge, putting their peers to shame in the process. An absolutely essential album.