Tom Carson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

Combat Rock—a misnomer; it ought to be Combat Fatigue, or maybe Burn Ward—really is every bit as chilling a portrait of the artist's failure in the midst of cultural hara-kiri as [Sly and the Family Stone's] There's a Riot Going On, with the difference that no one involved seems to have realized it. Maybe not just punk but everything it spawned has turned into a lurchingly ugly sick joke where the party favor everybody sits down on itsn't a fart-cushion but a junk needle; and maybe they themselves are so horror-gripped by the futility this engenders that one of their members has already been dragged down by it, and the rest are in a heartsick daze; but are they gonna admit any of that? Fuck no, they're the rockin' socialists—the agitprop must go on. So the album's formal content remains public gestures toward rebellion, let the good times roll, and educate-the-masses, while death seeps into the songs privately and uninvited—in the sad weariness of much of Joe Strummer's singing, in the weirdly figurative and near-incomprehensible imagery holding sway over supposedly straightforward protests songs, in the ceaseless junk requiems inserted appropriately or no, and in a continuously attenuating musical swansong that the sprightly production works to conceal—before becoming overt only as a wistful P.S. (p. 83)

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The final word for this record, though, is "sentimental"—the source of its not-infrequent affecting moments, as well as its ultimate shambles. Sandinista! expanded from (not on) rock and roll just as London Calling expanded from punk, but both albums were also symbolic retrenchments: the band quit playing punk because it couldn't be pure anymore, and they were looking for something undefiled—first delving into bohemia's romantic past and then scattering forward into folk internationalism, and thereby falling into the pathetic fallacy that all other cultures were more innocent than theirs even as they tried to graft Clash-consciousness onto same. Combat Rock, with its forced funk and well-meant but weak third worldisms turned willy-nilly into the soundtrack for irreducibly Anglo-Saxon attitudes, is where the collage falls apart: one of the most touchingly fucked-up cuts here is "Sean Flynn," which uses Vietnamese folk music to eulogize—not the Irish political prisoner the unwary title-reader might guess, but Errol Flynn's son, who with all due respect got his ass shot off in a war he went to for the glory hunting.

I thought he sounded pretty cool, too. But the truth is the Clash's romanticism isn't tenable anymore, not least because it's running out of real-life objects it can project itself on (the one value that punk still makes necessary). Disbelief can't be suspended over an abyss…. But if the Clash are still like the us they helped to create they find it very painful to face head-on a world where punk romanticism can't exist even as a possibility. Instead of doing anything about it, their current take on the grimmest subjects only turns peculiarly escapist, wishful even in its melancholy. I find "Ghetto Defendant's" heroin lament moving, but I'd find it more so if I didn't suspect that all the generalized rhetoric is there as much to salve the wound as lay it bare—if it didn't substitute a ghetto for an individual, maybe. "Straight to Hell" is the other ploy, the protest singer solving the problem that human nature makes him repeat himself by finding ever-less-known injustices—another reason this album feels like such a grab-bag. (pp. 83-4)

Tom Carson, "The Clash: Cowabunga!" in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 24, June 15, 1982, pp. 83-4.

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