Nothing could have helped get me through the unreal mass depression—the mourning ten years too late for the death of the Sixties and the Beatles that grew out of the grief over John Lennon's murder—than the release of the Clash's Sandinista! a few days later. Its three records—thirty-six tracks to get lost in—ask and answer some of the right questions about violence and nonviolence, history and the future, crime and the law, revolution and fascism, worldwide angst and hope.
If the Clash, by insisting on their own heroism, continue their willingness to gamble it all away and still keep winning, they may yet inspire a viable rock-culture politics. Last year's standard-setting—and standard-bearing—London Calling was a bold show of strength that doubled the stakes in bravado…. Sandinista! is an everywhere-you-turn guerrilla raid of vision and virtuosity…. [The] new LP is a sprawling, scattered smoke screen of styles, with an expanded range that's at once encyclopedic and supplemental…. (pp. 57-8)
In the initial critical confusion over their postpunk leap of faith, the Clash embraced both reggae-dub and mainstream moves for a combination of rhythmic immediacy (which they already had) and studio sophistication (which they didn't). London Calling achieved the champion status its grand gestures aimed at by Clash-ifying the extremes of white-black, popular-obscure rock history and bringing them to a common higher ground. Without London Calling's machismo, Sandinista! tries harder and goes further. While London Calling was a flexing of muscle that claimed Clash style could pull off anything, Sandinista! says to hell with Clash style, there's a world out there. By featuring odd instrumentation (violins, steel drums, bagpipes), different production values in different studios, and guest musicians, Sandinista! gives the unsettling impression that this isn't necessarily the band you expected to hear when you bought the album….
Sandinista! is the first LP since some of the psychedelic productions of the Sixties that keeps growing by virtue of density and bulk alone, slowly revealing its constantly changing layers of substance over several listenings. Sequencing and structure definitely work to its advantage. The set builds its collection of styles through sides one and two, finally arriving at a real Clash rocker about the time most discs are drawing to a close. Sandinista! peaks with sides three and four (the most solid) and winds down with side five. Side six acts as a kind of unnecessary coda. Throughout, there are great segues—not just great songs but combinations that contrast and amplify each other (side two is a perfect example). Catch the shifts from the calypso-like "Let's Go Crazy" to the cocktail jazz of "If Music Could Talk" to "The Sound of the Sinners" gospel romp that ends side three. Or the heart of the album, the complementary political statements of "The Equaliser," "The Call Up" and "Washington Bullets." Just when you've begun to settle in, there are some surprise vocals at the finish of side four and the start of side five.
London Calling was the Clash's Exile on Main Street, and Sandinista! is their White Album. Both Sandinista! and The White Album share a deliberate, diverse, postmasterpiece fragmentation, plus the fusion of whimsy and urgency that going-for-broke aesthetics create. And, like The White Album, Sandinista!'s forward- and backward-gazing experiments could signal the end of group solidarity. The street-chant vocal unison of Clash choruses that generally provides the political metaphors (as well as most of the hooks) is essential to the band's strength….
If the ambition of London Calling was to recast the whole of (largely American) rock & roll history, then Sandinista! wants a place in the cultural traditions of the world. Its lyrics—and its melodies and rhythms—make reference not only to the U.S. and the U.K. but to the U.S.S.R. and places in Europe, Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean. And the inclusion of lead vocals by women, children, friends and taped voices, as well as by every member of the band (the songs are now credited to the Clash, not Strummer-Jones), all reinforce the global reach…. [We're] offered music and dance as antidote—not only as release but as positive community spirit.
This counterculture rallying goes beyond the already established reggae connections to include other cultural identifications. There are a variety of exploited-class anthems with styles to match, and many of the LP's seeming throwaways—the raps, the jazz, the blues and rockabilly and gospel ditties—serve to broaden Sandinista!'s cross-cultural base. The album's title comes from the calypsolike "Washington Bullets," a tune about American support of fascist Third World regimes and how the Somozas' Nicaraguan government finally fell to the Sandinistas without it. The future of such revolutionary movements with [Ronald] Reagan as president, given his secretary-of-state appointment and stated intentions to reform the diplomatic corps, looks grim. The Clash's attempted marriage of grass-roots American and Third World musics becomes almost visionary politics in this light. And that's why the Clash are vital. They exemplify an awareness that offers hope to their fans. Like the Beatles (largely by accident), the Clash (largely by intent) have the potential to organize a rock & roll audience into an optimistic political body, or at least to provide the right information.
But before we get carried away, it must be said that rock culture might be a pretty naive place to galvanize consciousness—and that being the greatest rock & roll band of our time is something like being the greatest serious composer or the greatest baseball player, with the same limited political impact on the real world. Though I don't anticipate Clashmania any more than I expect youth culture to riot over Pierre Boulez' latest score or Reggie Jackson's batting average, I do think that having little kids sing "Career Opportunities" on side six is more than a cute joke. If this is the Clash offering one of their old hits as a future childhood favorite, it's also putting an anthem about economic deprivation into the mouths it was meant to help feed.
We can still use that stubborn Sixties morality, and we would do well to remember the missed opportunity of punk—the revolution that wasn't—without the simple postures of either of those under-achieved countercultures. But we also need these postmovement, postideological, private and public "count me out—and in" complications of identification and distance, of participation in and respite from the varieties of violence in the world and the inequalities that cause them. If I were younger, I'd write something on a bathroom wall. It'd be a lot shorter and more to the point. Maybe LENNON LIVES, CLASH RULE and ROCK AGAINST REAGAN. And I wouldn't worry about the improbabilities. (p. 58)
John Piccarella, "Red-Hot Rock & Roll, a Joyful Noise and Politics That Live," in Rolling Stone, Issue 338, March 5, 1981, pp. 57-8.