I’ve realized two things recently: 1) I’ve been neglecting my sporadic countdown of the 29 best albums released in my lifetime. I’ll be 30 in a couple months, so I should probably wrap this up before then; 2) Combat Rock, the last real Clash album, is fucking awesome (I know, I know: Bernie Rhodes pushed through Cut the Crap after the band ousted Mick Jones, but if you think that’s a real Clash record, we’re gonna have words. Fighting words).
After being one of the first punk bands to actually say stuff with their music (I sometimes think “White Riot,” “Career Opportunities,” and “White Man at Hammersmith Palais” say it all), the Clash headed out into new territory, whipping up delightful mixtures of their influences (one such recipe became London Calling, the best album ever. Of course, one of them also became Sandanista!, an album that has its moments but is about three times longer than it needs to be. Yes, like Shakespeare before them, the Clash were capable of cranking out the rare bad work) and serving them up as piping hot records of rock, reggae, punk, and even early hip-hop. In the process, they went from Best Punk Band Ever to one of the best bands ever in any genre.
Even as Mick Jones’s ego and Topper Headon’s drug use (and, to be fair, the ego and drug use of the rest of the band too – to quote Joe Strummer, “We were always a drug band. Always.” If you read Return of the Last Gang in Town, you’ll find that he wasn’t too proud of that fact) began to tear the Clash apart, they managed to cobble together (not without some internal strife) Combat Rock, which would feature two of their biggest commercial hits (“Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which – I’ve read – Mick Jones wrote about Ellen Foley, a.k.a. the girl who sang on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Apparently, Mick enjoyed a romantic affair with Foley and even produced her solo debut, which tanked like a Kevin Costner movie with a score by Steven Seagall’s country band) and a host of other awesome songs. In fact, here’s a little history lesson for you kids who heard “Paper Planes” on the Slumdog Millionaire trailers last year: “Paper Planes” actually samples “Straight to Hell” from Combat Rock. So if you’re diving into M.I.A.’s catalog because of that song, do yourself a favor and listen to the Clash while you’re at it. In fact, I don’t care if you have no idea what I’m talking about right now – listen to the Clash.
Combat Rock is the Clash’s poppiest album, but that’s hardly a bad thing. In fact, it only proves that, had they stuck together longer (an impossibility which will discuss further in a minute), the Clash would’ve dominated the 80s with awesome pop goodness. Combat Rock also points to where Strummer and Jones would eventually end up post-Clash: “Overpowered by Funk” and “Red Angel Dragnet” point toward the work Mick Jones would do with Big Audio Dynamite, “Death is a Star,” and “Straight to Hell” indicate the direction that Joe Strummer would explore with the Mescaleros. Of course, Strummer’s death in 2002 (at the tender age of 50) means that we’ll never really know the impact he could’ve made with his second great band (have you heard Streetcore? It’s awesome). Jones is still running around producing various albums (including the first Libertines record, which owes a not-tiny debt to the Clash) and even recently collaborated with Topper Headon on a re-recording of “Jail Guitar Doors” for a prison charity in the U.K..
Originally titled Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, Combat Rock had a long struggle to even see the light of day. It was originally 15 tracks, 65 minutes, and growing. Mick Jones was happy with this situation, Joe Strummer was furious with it, and from there, you can see that this was a band not long for the world. In a 1984 interview with Creem, Joe Strummer pointed out, “I don’t believe anyone is that great they don’t write crap sometimes.” In Strummer’s opinion, the album that would be Combat Rock was in bad need of an editor and an outside producer – things I think would have benefited Sandanista!. When CBS heard the Rat Patrol tapes, they were not happy and suggested Glyn Johns to mix the record. Johns hacked the album down to twelve tracks with a decidedly pop bent (Strummer was on a mission to make a pop album that wasn’t all “Stuff ‘er on the bed and shove it to her” in an ambitious attempt to lure meat-heads away from the burgeoning hair metal scene), a move that led Jones to abandon the sessions, apart from re-recording his vocal on “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Clash biographer Marcus Gray (author of the aforementioned Return of the Last Gang in Town, a must-read for fans of the band) accuses Strummer of perhaps going too far toward a mainstream sound on Combat Rock, but Strummer biographer Chris Salewicz (whose Redemption Song is also a must-read; taken together, Gray’s book and Redemption Song paint portraits of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones as two very gifted men with strong wills, strong egos, and maybe an even stronger need to be loved by a wide audience) points out that Strummer kind of stuck his neck out, “having seized the reins” for the album, and was understandably nervous about how it would be received.
Combat Rock was, of course, adored both in the U.S. and in the U.K., but that would not be enough to keep the Clash together. Topper Headon was out of the band before they went on tour in 1982 and Jones was kicked out at the end of the tour. On its musical merits alone, Combat Rock is easily one of the best albums of the 1980s and it holds up well to this day. And, if we’re being honest, we must admit that its musical greatness is due to the talents of all four members of the Clash: from Give ‘Em Enough Rope to Combat Rock, Topper Headon, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones, and Joe Strummer matured together as musicians and made some of the best rock music ever recorded.
Incidentally, the “countdown” (it’s not really a countdown, since I do it in the order of my choosing whenever I feel like adding an album to the list) is not even half way over. If you want to catch up, you can find the entire list right here. I’ll try to update it more regularly, since I was supposed to have this all done by the end of 2009.