Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773
Confronting the Clash's epic monstrosity Sandinista! is like being a teacher … and having one of your favorite little buggers show up one day and say, "Gee, Mr. Gosse, you know that story we were s'posed to hand in today?" "Yeah kid I know your dog ate it." "No sir, I did this instead." And he hands you a three-volume memoir, in crayon. Thanks a lot, you say, resisting the urge to dismember. Tell them it's fab fingerpainting and next week they want to redo [Pablo Picasso's] Guernica….
The limitations of this immense product (36 tracks, they're not all songs) are the limitations of [Joe Strummer] talent, and when Sandinista! hits full stride, which is quite often, it's usually because Joe has blundered up the right tree and found a niche that suits him, instead of a Jamaican crooner's soapbox or the pulpit of a sixth-form poetry mag.
Joe's getting on a bit now. He started out busking in the London subways, but now he's reading Marx and displaying all the geopolitical profundity of a bag lady. What a shame. When he was young and dumb he was sharp as a whip writing about what he knew firsthand. Back underground, Joe! Now his teen-dream imagination gets all misty-eyed, and as it's unfortunately more cinematic than literary, turns out crap like "Rebel Waltz" with campfires, gallant defeats, and "rebels waltzing on air." Much worse is the Porgy and Bess style condescension of "The Equaliser," which starts out with "No! Gangboss No! We Don't Want The Whip!" (I kid you not) and rises to "Geneva, Wall St., who makes them so fat?" Who indeed, Joe? The height of this idiocy is the subtle anti-imperialist ballad "Washington Bullets," wherein Joe, after throwing Afghanis and Tibetans into his righteous stew, ends by invoking the happy Nicaraguans once more and then actually breaks into Mexican bandit yells, oles, general fake latino noisemaking. Fiesta time, amigos: eat the loco gringo.
Despite many such egregious violations of the First Law of Lyrics, which is that they not be too embarrassing to sing along with, the big problem is more strictly musical. A great song stylist can get away with singing "baby I love you oo-whoo baby" 300 times in a row. Not Joe. Unlike the rest of the Clash, he is still, will probably always be, an amateur. In fact, the further they depart from his natural propensity for full-voiced anthemic fervor, the more trouble Joe seems to have. He's been able to stretch in some genres, and when inspired to write lines that scan (music has a beat, so must the words), compose identifiable tunes, and control himself at the mike, it's our Joe of old, better than ever. Otherwise you get singsong declamation, disconnected melodramatic narratives, and a lot of whooping, wheezing, and hollering. One entire side—number six—is worthless, except for an old Clashsong sung by the two little sons of the keyboard player Blockhead Mickey Gallagher….
[There] are at least as many instances where Joe triumphs, precisely because he is in his milieu: snarly voodooey clashabilly ("Midnight Log"); hilarious gospel ("Sound of the Sinners" …); snappy disco parody ("Ivan Meets G.I. Joe," a thermonuclear mano a mano at Studio 54); even a brilliant, impromptu bit of Tom Waitsish babble, funk, and acoustic guitar ("Junkie Slip"). And there is "London Calling"'s sadder, grimmer child, "The Call Up," with that patented Clashmarch beat, eloquent anti-militarist message, and simple, haunting words that only Joe Strummer could phrase so well—"There is a rose that I want to live for, though God knows I may not have met her."
All this rational discourse does not hint at how strange Sandinista! is….
What's the verdict, Captain Hack? Well brother workers, I can only say this is surely value for money. It contains a wealth of new favorites, along with a few a mite peculiar, and a bit of plain dreck too. It seems less complete, more diffuse than London Calling, but is in fact a better record—more fire in the belly, tougher playing. Much as I deplore the current moronic fashion of comparing pop bands and movie directors, when the Clash do a (mediocre) song called "Charlie Don't Surf," the analogy is too blatant to ignore. Consider Sandinista! the Apocalypse Now of pop music: occasionally silly, awkward, and pretentious, but essentially powerful, a labor of love, of grandeur. Whoo-ee. See, in your mind's eye, fat Marlon [Brando] lisping T. S. Eliot amid the corpses, then hear, in your mind's ear, earnest Joe screaming "No! Gangboss No!"
Van Gosse, "The Clash's Red Elephant," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, January 14-20, 1981, p. 87.