Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No. 404: Sandinista!

Band: The Clash
Album: Sandinista!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Sandinista!" is a great record, some of the 80-90 best minutes of the Clash's work...
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Unfortunately, the last disc is pretty crappy.
Best song: "The Magnificent Seven" is the best "punk band trying to rap" song and "The Call-Up" is a great political song.
Worst song: "Mensforth Hill" is not good.
Is it awesome?: The first two discs are great. The third is not so much.

I've touched on gutter punk politics, but my knowledge of South American politics is less than my knowledge of physics or chemistry. Basically, I know nothing.

So, I won't speak to the issue of the Clash naming their 1980 triple (!) album after a Nicaraguan opposition political party. I will, however, speak to the idea that people (including famed rock critic Kurt Loder) think "Sandinista!" is an album on par with classics of rock and roll.

I'm sorry, but that's just not true.

First, there's the double album problem. I have mentioned it many times, but double albums are almost always inherently flawed. It is incredibly difficult to produce 90 minutes of great music, so the band finds itself trying to fill the album. Sometimes, those songs are b-side-quality tracks. With concept albums, they are simple crap plot-forwarding songs. Other times, experiments and jokes dot the album.

"Sandinista!" isn't a concept album, so you can take out the plot-forwarding songs. However, being a triple (!) album, the record's final two sides are mostly made up of experiments and b-side quality tracks.

It's actually kind of funny. The album's first four sides are nearly unparalleled in their quality. "The Magnificent Seven" is great and the Ellen Foley/Mick Jones duet "Hitsville UK" is the band's best ballads. "Washington Bullets" is constructed out of some dumb lyrics, but it has an odd style, but one that the Clash embrace and pull off. Adding more percussion to the band's already great reggae/dub rock was a perfect fit.

"The Call-Up" is a great song that would fit perfectly today in the modern American landscape:

All the young people down the ages
They gladly marched off to die
Proud city fathers used to watch them
Tears in their eyes

Even "The Sound of the Sinners" -- a religious song that the band mostly pulls off -- is a good song. Like the rest of the first four sides of the record, it's a bold move, but one that the band pulls off.

But, the portions of the last two sides (the backward song, the dub versions of other songs, the children singing on "Career Opportunities," etc.) speak to experiments and b-sides that could easily have been left off. Sure, "Sandinista!" could be the best double album ever, but it's not a double. It's a triple.

To use the baseball analogy: I know Willie Mays is one of the top 10 players of all time. But, his career wasn't just the first 15 years; Those last few years spent stumbling around the Met outfield also count.

The first two discs are great, but the final one -- the disc with the Clash misjudging fly balls and falling down in the Met outfield -- is part of the conversation, too.


bob_vinyl said...

The artistic success of London Calling was probably enough to embolden anyone to try some crazy stuff. I agree that they misjudge on some of this and that it does hurt the big picture, but I have to wonder if that same mood of experimentation helped them to produce "Magnificent Seven," "Hitsville UK," "Rebel Waltz" and "Somebody Got Murdered."

padraig said...

I feel it'd be beneficial to quickly clarify the Sandinistas (Nicaragua is in Central America, btw) in order to place the album in its' proper context. Not to be a know-it-all dick, it just happens that I lived in southern Mexico for a long time (and would like to move there permanently some day) and I have an interest in Central American history/politics. they were socialists/marxists, orginally a student group (named after a famous rebel of 20s-30s who declared war on the US after Coolidge sent Marines in to enforce the US's will in the country) with the aim of overthrowing the brutal, corrupt, US-supported Somoza dictatorship. long story made very short, after nearly 20 years of organizing & armed struggle they overthrew the Somozas in 1979 and spent the 80s trying to simultaneously rebuild their country and fend off US-backed counter-revolutionary guerrillas, the infamous Contras of Iran-Contra. obviously that leaves a lot out - I just mention it b/c in the early 80s when "Sandinista!" Nicaragua was a cause celebre for American/European leftists like Joe Strummer.

as far as the actual album - yeah, a lot of great songs but given that nearly all double albums are weighed down with at least some filler it's impossible to envision a triple album that doesn't suffer from the same problem.

fft said...

Just having a triple album of original material is awesome in my book. The balls...