Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
"Combat Rock" is a fairly logical successor to "Sandinista!"…, but it's leaner and more concentrated—still eclectic, not very electric. Lots of layers.
Because of their sloppiness, The Clash frequently manage to persuade the listener that they can't write tunes any more and don't give a toss. This isn't true—the music here is varied and mostly works. Their attitude and subject matter remains ambiguous, though, often delivering attractive imagery but leaving you with doubts about its motivation….
The Clash wish they'd been born ten years earlier. They're steeped in a Sixties "radical" sensibility, preoccupied with Vietnam veterans, street poetry, guerilla struggles, death-as-film noir.
So, you have Allen Ginsberg delivering a few lines about urban angst as a preface to "Ghetto Defendant" a song which could easily have been written in Chicago in 1968….
It's strange that the blood and broken heads and napalmed children can seem so romantic now. There's a darkness here, yes, but it's distanced, a zoom shot from a low-flying helicopter. Like editors of old documentary film, The Clash reprocess imagery through the shifting lenses of their music—reggae, some funk, hints of salsa, jungle-line scene painting, a bit of rock.
But is voyeurism valid? You could argue that "Guns Of Brixton" was prophetic, but you didn't even have to go there to know that. It's all on TV, innit? Similarly, "Red Angel Dragnet" here finds Paul Simenon changing the scenario but singing the same song, this time about New York's Guardian Angel vigilante subway patrols….
[This song is] intercut with quotes from Paul Schrader's script for "Taxi Driver"—"Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk". The subject is serious, but the inspiration is someone else's. The song isn't really about the people's fight against street violence, it's about a Martin Scorsese movie.
With "Sean Flynn", same again. It's ostensibly inspired by the Vietnam journalist and son of [actor Errol Flynn], but doubtless The Clash have nicked the idea from Michael Herr's "Dispatches" or "Apocalypse Now"….
Seen this way, "Combat Rock" is merely showbiz, a demonstration of the boundaries rock 'n' roll (or whatever it is) can never cross. But it's a record, not a book, and the music is increasingly effective the more you listen to it. The Clash have always been able to throw in a few surprises to keep you guessing, though here the hard, dry mix means you have to work at it.
But anyway, the tough, ragged dance beat of "Overpowered By Funk" is swiftly effective. "Car Jamming" has a persuasive jerking motion fired up with hard rhythm guitar, and "Rock The Casbah" is a seductive Latin shuffle driven by chunky piano chords. "Straight To Hell" is plaintive, quietly desperate….
Result: I like the record, hate the title. I have doubts about the more exploitative aspects of The Clash and the way they milk death and repression until they become meaningless, but I'll be listening to "Combat Rock" for a while yet.
Adam Sweeting, "Celluloid Heroes," in Melody Maker, May 15, 1982, p. 17.