David Fricke

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

[The] message of Combat Rock—the Clash's fifth album and a snarling, enraged, yet still musically ambitious collection of twelve tight tracks on a single disc—is pop hits and press accolades be damned. This record is a declaration of real-life emergency, a provocative, demanding document of classic punk anger, reflective questioning and nerve-wracking frustration. It is written in songwriter-guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones' now-familiar rock Esperanto, ranging from the locomotive disco steam of "Overpowered by Funk" and the frisky Bo Diddley strut of "Car Jamming" to the mutant-cabaret sway of the LP's chilling coda, "Death Is the Star." And like every Clash record from 1977's "White Riot" on, it carries the magnum force of the group's convictions in the bold rhythmic punch of bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon and the guitar-army bash of Strummer and Jones. Yet Combat Rock's overwhelming sense of impending doom suggests the Clash still have no pat answer to the age-old musical question: after sounding the alarm, what more can a rock & roll band do?

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That crisis of confidence only spurs the band on. A desperate spirit rings loud and clear in Strummer's asthmatic coyote howl, "This is a public service announcement … with guita-a-h!," which detonates the album's opening salvo, "Know Your Rights."… Strummer tries satiric outrage on for size. "You have the right," he spits, "to free speech / As long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it." The joke gets a little lighter in "Rock the Casbah," a smart-alecky, funk-inflected romp complete with snappy hook and spry party piano, about the banning of pop music by Moslem fundamentalists in Iran. But the meaning is clear. Having rights and exercising them are two different things. And replacing one oppressor with another does not a revolution make.

It's not surprising, then, that the Clash are so taken with outlaw ethics, marked here by "Sean Flynn" and "Red Angel Dragnet."… The Clash see in the [Guardian] Angels a mirror image, bucking the system in order to improve it.

For the most part, Combat Rock is short on practical solutions and long on the horror of the problems. "Straight to Hell" contrasts a bouncy neocalypso beat and an almost pastoral synthesizer whine with a bitter Strummer indictment of the raw deal handed the boat people and other human fallout from the Indo-Chinese wars. (pp. 42-3)

At the same time, Combat Rock is stirring, inspirational rock & roll, arranged with god pop sense and shot through in concentrated doses with the imagination and vigor that were spread throughout Sandinista! If the words don't carry you, then the manic dance fever of "Overpowered by Funk" … and Mick Jones' strident punch-up, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"… certainly will. Because above all else, Combat Rock is an album of fight songs. Whereas most of the false prophets and nonstop complainers washed up by the New Wave await a brave new world, the Clash are battling tooth, nail and guitar to salvage the one we've got, in the only way they know. Combat Rock may not have the answers, but it may be our last warning: sign up or shut up. (p. 43)

David Fricke, "The Clash Bash Back," in Rolling Stone, Issue 372, June 24, 1982, pp. 39, 42-3.

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