Interrupting all programs, but we’re putting out this transmission…a review of the 40th anniversary reissue of The Clash’s Combat Rock. August 21st is Joe Strummer’s birthday. He would have been seventy years old. He died twenty years ago.
“It could be anywhere.
Most likely could be any frontier,
It’s No Man’s Land.
There ain’t no asylum here…
Go straight to hell, boy”
One of my recent gets is the 40th anniversary edition of Combat Rock by the only band that matters, or mattered, depending on your age and (sub)cultural orientations. This reissue is an expanded 3 LP set with demos and outtakes that either didn’t make it or were significantly altered into the tunes we know today. The added material is collected into what is called The People’s Hall, named after a building that was a former commune turned practice space in London’s Hammersmith borough, a practice space that has hosted several of punk and metal’s most important and provocative groups. In any case, a spot that is just a weird corner of the world where essential music was bashed into being. The Clash happening to be one of them.
Truth be told, despite my deep appreciation for The Clash and their music (they were the only group I got several tattoos of including some from my younger angrier punk bootboy life), I had never owned Combat Rock on vinyl. I have a cassette that has somehow survived 30 years despite its early life being played, rewound, fast forwarded, and played again and again and again. Maybe not a zillion plays, but kinda close. It lived in my various cars when cars had tape decks and was part of the soundtrack for my zooming around the continent. But for some reason, yeah, I never bought the vinyl.
So, this reissue fixes that and offers more to engage with and absorb. It also gives a deeper sense of the music and ideas of what the guys and their varying accomplices were wanting to make and project out to the world.
But it’s all a mixed bag.
Great and grand at times; disjointed and confusing at other times. Big hits for sure; but the lesser tracks may be the better ones in truth. But it seemed that forever, Combat Rock to me was just bits and pieces that seemed like tunes from the Sandinista sessions, but just didn’t make the cut. And, there is some legitimacy to that as the songs did grow from that period. But my failing was to keep thinking like that rather than seeing that Combat Rock was its own thing. A product of the band long gone from Garageland and through their own ambitions had reached, maybe not the limits of what was possible, but def had gone past perhaps what they even expected. Ambition can be a motivating force for creation, but it’s a force difficult to harness with destructive capacities and consequences. The figurative sword that cuts both ways.
But before I try to dig deeper into Combat Rock 40 years on and any relevance today, let me say a few more things on the album, some obvious but need saying nonetheless.
First, the reissue packaging is super nice. It really stays true to the spirit of the original. The jacket, three LPs (but only 5 sides. Do mental wrangling and figure that out why don’t ya), and like the 1982 original there’s’ a big foldout poster of the band (same photo that’s on the back of the, Know Your Rights single) looking even cooler than the look they give you on those Thai railroad tracks. That look. The look that any and all of us punks and rockers would try to adopt and emulate at some point, to some degree. I know I did. But it’s that poster. It gives you a look of weariness and the band at the edge of whatever, ready to tell you to either “sit with us and be part of this trip we’re still on”, or, to “just get the fuck outta here”.
The sound. Like on Sandinista, their variant of punk rock was deeply informed and shaped by afro riddims and world beats but was also now taking more pronounced cues from the new urban street sounds and culture of early hip hop (they’d already started to embrace it previously with The Magnificent 7, making it maybe the first rock-rap crossover ‘cos in reality it predates even Blondie’s Rapture). In part because the Clash had basically been living in NYC and trying to immerse themselves in what they found. Jamaica and its sound systems, selectors and toasters still provided a point of relation as it had from day one with the band, but now further away, the concrete sidewalk jams happening in the South Bronx, Queens, Harlem and Alphabet City were leaving their imprint.
Production was more refined and songs were edited down to get at their essentials. This was part of the emerging tensions in the group. Musically, Mick wanted more while Joe and Paul wanted trimmed down cuts; expansive, shifting and experimental up against shorter, sharper rockers. And rockers they were to become. Give the live recordings from this period a listen, either the Live at Shea Stadium or the 1999 live collection, From Here to Eternity, and these cuts are just straight up blazing and give a new, fresh sense of the material.
But this was the story, the fight, of the Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg vs Combat Rock; the Mick Jones version of the sessions vs the Joe and Paul conception. And in the end, it was too hard to bridge those musical tensions, which as we know, eventually helped split the band apart.
Add to this, beyond the growing musical fissures, the band was ceasing to function collectively. Topper was a junkie, Mick was in the studio, and Joe was obsessed with the movie, Apocalypse Now. Although physically in NYC he and Paul were now mentally upriver some 75 klicks above the Do Lung Bridge.
Let’s consider this a little more. The impact of Apocalypse Now can’t be understated. It’d come out in ’79 and was Coppola’s hallucinogenic nightmare exploration of the breakdown and fragmentation of U.S. military order in its impending defeat in Vietnam. But more broadly, it’s a meditation on the social disorientation that emerged post the war. The decisive victory over the U.S. in Vietnam called into question the dominance of super powers and all the thinking that props up that power and rule. That’s big. The U.S. military being overrun, brought down, pushed out became a trauma for the ruling classes’ mindset and hegemonic order: in effect, the American system was not invincible, it was not always gonna be the boss.
So, whereas their previous album, Sandinista, juxtaposes imperialist violence to the struggles of the oppressed for freedom, Combat Rock is a much less optimistic output. Whatever critical assessments we may hold now – and should hold – of movements like the Sandinistas (or any other number of national liberation movements: ANC; Sinn Féin; MPLA; etc.), it’s without question that these struggles resonated on a mass level with millions around the world knowing that something better was possible. The Clash, always trying to side with those under the gun, picked this up. Strummer would repeatedly say that without the people you are nothing, and it was with the people that The Clash looked to, held up and saw as what was most important. So, any naiveté aside, this view of the positivity and necessity of people’s struggle permeates the songs on Sandinista: The Equaliser; The Call Up; Washington Bullets; The Street Parade.
All of that’s just absent on Combat Rock.
The opening of Combat Rock is this stripped down guitar driven rocker, a “public service announcement”, clanging with feedback and reverb, with no hope in its lyrics, just caution that rights within this system are illusionary. From there we get more trips into the fray of both the geo-political sort as well as personal indecision and anxiety.
In short, there doesn’t seem to be any liberatory horizons that the band as a collective look towards. We are left only with Capitalist Empire above and survival below.
In one of the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now, a tape recording of the mad renegade Col. Kurtz is played, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering… surviving.”
That’s fucking bleak.
But bleak was the news of the day then: legal erosion of people’s rights; war; urban violence and shootings; journalists going missing; official society not giving two shits about the lives of the marginalized and displaced. But The Clash were making noisy comments on all of this to a specific moment of decline as the U.S entered the 1980s. Now, today, a generalized misery and violence has become exclamation points on what can only be understood as a reckoning of the entirety of the global imperial system of rule.
Today, forty years on, those matters of corruption and murder have exploded a thousand-fold. Every day is a doom scroll: judicial attacks; war everywhere; mass shootings, often far-right and fascist, as well as an ever increasing anti-social sort; journalists facing repression and murder; migrants making desperate journeys and routinely dying in seas or deserts, or facing imprisonment in jails and modern internment camps.
In the 19th century, Cecil Rhodes, British architect of modern imperialism, white supremacist and founder of the former colony in southern Africa called Rhodesia, stated, “In order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, our colonial statesmen must acquire new lands for settling the surplus population of this country, to provide new markets”. A little bit further up the road, Malcolm X, on hearing of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, said off the cuff but in his ever sharp yet witty way, “Being an old farm boy, chickens coming home to roost never made me sad: they always made me glad”. Rhodes and Malcolm address two aspects of the imperial crisis, one from the ruling class viewpoint and one from the viewpoint of the oppressed. To stabilize the imperial core it would be necessary to export the crisis to the global periphery, but this crisis, its brutality, will no longer be contained to those margins.
There is now a growing erasure of the boundaries between the core and the periphery. Whereas Rhodes and his lot sought to export crisis to save their skins, the crisis is now coming home to roost. But without liberatory horizons, without a vision of collective movement and purpose, everywhere is a war zone and we are all caught in the combat.
So how do we understand Combat Rock today? Does it still contain relevance for the world were facing. There’s a coupla ways to maybe see this. On one hand it would have you feel that the world is the razor’s edge and we are the snails with survival as our agenda. It could also, through the music, show that possibilities for something new, fresh, are there to still be discovered, out on the street corners: new music, new vibes, new culture pushing up and against the old.
I think it’s both.
I’m of the solid mindset that all of us, the social “we”, are in a deepening game of survival that’s only getting rougher, more uncertain day by day, the 5 to midnight scenario. For sure. But it’s not a done deal if we are committed to stopping that clock.
One of the best, maybe arguably THE best song by The Clash of the Combat Rock era wasn’t even on the album. This is Radio Clash, released as a single, is the most hip hop influenced song they were to do, with its volley of aural ammunition against the ruling classes and their system, it’s got all the best elements of Combat Rock. It creates a sense of personal claustrophobia and dismay, “Forces have been looting my humanity. Curfews have been curbing the end of liberty. Hands of law have sorted through my identity”. But it also resonates with the notion, the desire, of being a free, unrestricted person, no longer abused by the powers that be and their anti-humanity agenda, “This sound does not subscribe to the international plan, in the psycho shadow of the white right hand… But now this sound is brave and wants to be free – anyway to be free”.
Listen to it.
Then, go watch the video. It was a cut made for visualization. The scenes of the NYC streets and subways. Futura 2000 shoplifting spray paint to graffiti the world. Stagediving punks in clubs, break dancers and parks filled with the people. It shows solidarity demos in support of the revolutionary Irish hunger strikers of ‘81. Scenes of the Russian military invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. backed violence in Central America. It shows police blatantly beating on people. In short, it shows the world.
But it roots itself in the life of everyday people and sets a beat and rhythm that may still help us get out of this mess.