Ira Robbins

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112

From the start, the Clash has made a religion out of being non-conformists—either by rarely doing what would appear to be in thier best interests, or by refusing to fulfill people's expectations of them. The secret to all this, of course, is that they themselves don't know what's next on the agenda; their unpredictability isn't so much a smokescreen as a blank screen. As a result, a lot of speculative writing constantly dogs them. Every new record runs into the same futile argument: Are they true musical revolutionaries, discarding any style that has become uncomfortable, or are they merely dilettantes, easily bored and petulantly moving on to new toys?…

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London Calling, all four sides of it, took in so much more musical territory than its predecessor, the hard-rocking, love-it-or-leave-it Give 'Em Enough Rope, that it left some listeners ummoved and uncertain about the Clash's new direction. Yet there were enough comforting noises to satisfy most fans who were able to hear the Clash building on and expanding, not denying their prior work.

Sandinista! was decidedly more troublesome, No matter how much you loved the Clash there was no way to wholeheartedly endorse the whole thing. They had failed to edit themselves, and the great moments were diluted by the chaff, to a varying degree depending on who was listening. No one could convincingly deny its excellence or relevance but, again, a lot of people had trouble reconciling this new version of the Clash with their prior understanding of the group.

In the great tradition of David Bowie and (now) Elvis Costello, the Clash had become chameleons, shedding some of their past each time they entered the studio. They have always been defiantly unconcerned about losing old fans on new terrain—and some fans found that no amount of slavish loyalty could make the music meaningful any longer. For many, I gather, Sandinista! did the trick. Hardier Clash followers will find Combat Rock presenting them with a whole new set of challenges.

For a group once so down-to-earth that even their concessions had integrity, the notion of an "arty" Clash album was unthinkable. regardless of an artistic ethos that embraced reggae, rockabilly, blues and more, the notion of Allen Ginsberg reciting poetry on a Clash album would have been too ridiculous. That collaboration, "Ghetto Defendant," works to good effect, but the relationship between this record and the unpretentious Clash of yore is tenuous. If you like "I'm So Bored with the USA" or "Train in Vain," Combat Rock might just as well be by the Osmond family for all its guarantees of Clashitude.

Before all this gets totally misread, I want to clarify two points. First, this is an almost great album. Second, the Clash has every right to make whatever kind of music it wants, but the band's audience has an equal right not to follow them on their adventures. At this stage, every Clash record must be considered by itself. Comparisons to the previous work of a band with the same name hardly matter anymore.

Okay, so here's the album. It's called Combat Rock and it's by a group called the Clash. I understand that the drummer who played on the record has left the band for political reasons. That means this must be pretty serious stuff. And from the first song on the first side, "Know Your Rights," it is. This street-corner polemic, powered by a one-note rhythm track, is intellectually interesting but hardly a song. Thus the first challenge: a song that is actually a speech ("public service announcement," Strummer calls it) with guitar. No pretense here, but not really what you expect on an album either. "Car Jamming" is a rap-influenced song…. An emphasis on percussive sounds … make it rather tedious.

Although the Clash has never been obsessed with scoring hit singles, their prior attempts in that direction have been pretty amusing. "Should I Stay or Should I Go?," probably the simplest thing they've ever recorded, may be raw and raucous but it sounds like a chart-topper…. For a group that tries so damn hard to be serious, this reveals an almost exuberant sense of fun….

"Rock the Casbah" moves and grooves, proving that style changes can't suppress the Clash's unique noise. "Red Angel Dragnet" throws in a weird counterpoint between Taxi Driver's protagonist, Travis Bickle, and Paul Simonon's spoken vocals. The band's perennial fixation with American cinema and the urban nightmare—blended perfectly in the movie that's now taking the rap for John Hinckley—are brought together for a powerful number. "Straight to Hell" shows that the Clash hasn't lost its ability to sound tender and sensitive. It's one of the album's most beautiful tracks….

If Combat Rock had stopped there, with one side of excellence, it would have been half a great album. Side two is where all the confusing stuff starts. "Overpowered by Funk" includes spoken graffiti propaganda from Futura 2000 and a repetitive, "I wanna be black" riff sound…. [Sticking] one track that can be played on what is euphemistically called "urban" radio in the midst of an album not likely to appeal otherwise to that audience seems more of a calculated move than if they covered [Kim Carnes's] "Bette Davis Eyes." Should the Clash try a little opera and some country/western as well?

My "rockist" prejudice considers the non-rock of "Sean Flynn" a flop…. [This] track (ostensibly about Errol's son) makes neither sense nor a clear impression, even after numerous playings. "Ghetto Defendant," the most pretentious item here, creates a great dark mood, even if Ginsberg's words make no sense and sound quite foolish. "Innoculated City" trods some traditional ground but even Mick Jones's multi-tracked vocal can't improve a basically tepid song, and the montage with a TV commercial for toilet bowl cleaner is so clichéd and obvious that it's embarrassing. The final track is a Strummer campfire tale ("Death Is a Star") set to a waltz-like shuffle with Tymon Dogg's cocktail lounge piano and Topper Headon's brushes(!). It's attractive and almost likable, but naggingly pretentious all the same.

The Clash has built a career on innovation and activism. Their fight for acceptance has been hard but successful. The challenge of consistently battling consistency has made their job much harder than it might have been had they been willing to settle for the easy way out. No one can fault them for their sincerity or musical integrity, but no one has to like their records either. Combat Rock is a near-great album, but the budding artsiness it evidences suggests that the old Clash is gone and nearly forgotten.

Ira Robbins, "Entering the Combat Zone," in Trouser Press, Vol. 9, No. 7, September, 1982, p. 32.

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