Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sandinista!: Side One

No expensive accounts, or lunch discounts, or hyping in the charts
The band went in and knocked 'em dead, in 2 minutes 59.

1. The Magnificent Seven
Beginning with what could reasonably be called the best three-second opening to an album ever (sorry Loveless), "The Magnificent Seven" doesn't just serve the function of being Sandinista!'s lead single and bounciest number--it also announces the recalibrated political and musical intentions of what had become, in the aftermath of London Calling, a band repurposed. The litany of societal complaints that Strummer spits over that most limber of bass lines (important to point out that it was not Paul Simonon playing on this track, and you can tell--he was a great player in his own way, but never that fast or precise) is more specifically political and more ranged than something vaguely apocalyptic like "London Calling," sounding at once like a cross between the domestic protestations of "Career Opportunities" and the globalist critique of "Koka Kola" and "Lost In The Supermarket." Sandinista! was the album where the Clash started to get really personal and political simultaneously, as the added length of a triple album allowed them to expound upon those issues at sometimes absurd lengths. It also helped, having absorbed the sounds and styles of early hip-hop, that Strummer found perhaps the most suitable vehicle for rattling off lists of grievances at a breezy pace.

2. Hitsville UK
You are unlikely to find a more unlikely sequencing contrast on the record between this and "The Magnificent Seven," as this collaboration between Mick Jones and his then-girlfriend (as well as--and this is important--former Meat Loaf collaborator) Ellen Foley begins with some unexpectedly lush synths before transforming into a propulsive yet simplistic pop number. Lots of unexpected chimes and motown guitars can be heard bouncing in the ether surrounding Jones and Foley's harmonies, and automatically you're thinking: this doesn't sound like a Clash number. The lyrics, however, ironically stake territory similar to early Clash single "Complete Control," in that it unceremoniously upbraids the record industry for its emphasis on non-musical brand packaging. But whereas "Complete Control" was an angry, vituperative J'Accuse moment, "Hitsville UK" gets by on its easy listening vibes due to the hopefulness of Jones' tenor as he alludes to the independent labels he loves and hopes for: "It's Fast Rough Factory Trade." This song is one of many on the album that gets significantly better upon repeated listens--if you don't trust me, trust the litany of individuals on the song's page who write "Yes, it did in fact grow on me!"

3. Junco Partner
The first of many, many reggae numbers on the album, "Junco Partner" belongs more or less in the "Revolution Rock" department of mid-tempo punky reggae feel-goodness, or something (it's a cover of an old New Orleans standard but demonstrates more of a debt to popular late 70s reggae artists in my eyes). Moreso than "Hitsville UK," this seems like the first significantly slight track on the album, and it's probably the first side's weakest. Nevertheless, there are hooks to enjoy, if you look--some crazy woozy violin filling in some of the sound gaps, and a bright vocal performance from Strummer, clearly steeped in the lyricisms as well as the aural space offered by the structure of this oft-covered song. At its best, "Junco Partner" is a bright reimagining, and at its worst it's listenable and engaging.

4. Ivan Meets G.I. Joe
Even before he wrote the piano line to "Rock The Casbah," Topper Headon had established himself as perhaps the band's best and most necessary player, despite his lack of songwriting cred (not unusual among punk drummers, although we all know the exceptions). This track, which I think was his first solo credit, is as awesome an opening shot as "The Guns Of Brixton" was, for Paul Simonon. Headon was dubbed "The Human Drum Machine" by Sandy Pearlman due to the drummer's metronomic virtuosity, and that ease with which he juggled rhythm and structure translate smoothly enough into the writing of this tough yet economic disco track. Lyrically, it's pretty good, too--the title is equal parts comic book imagery and cold war commentary, and like Elvis Costello before him, Headon posits some interesting parallels between dance music and globalized fascism. This is also one of Headon's best drumming performances on an album that contains a lot of sampled drum tracks and auxiliary session players.

5. The Leader
Some songs on Sandinista! sound more like incomplete snippets of longer tracks than full-blown verse-chorus type satisfaction engines. "The Leader" is another fascinating example of a song that, while feeling abridged and unnecessary, also comes off perhaps too pleasantly, and even more surprisingly, it finds an unexpected hook through the strange refrain "The people must have something to read/on Sunday!" It's a low-key rockabilly-surf number for sure, equal parts the Cramps and "Brand New Cadillac," and there isn't enough momentum to even sustain two minutes, but contained within the retro instrumentation lies a pretty sharp explanation of the social currents undergirding the Profumo Affair, where in 1963 a British war secretary was caught sleeping with the mistress of a Russian spy. Historical exegesis in rockabilly form doesn't get better than this.

6. Something About England
"Something About England" starts out as the kind of tinkly piano-rock that might best be compared to 70s radio stalwarts like Elton John, but I don't imagine Sir Elton ever singing about English anti-immigrant sentiment, especially with such loose-flying bile. One of the great things about Sandinista! is that it isn't reflective of one of those band situations where someone writes the "political songs" and someone else writes the "love songs" or one gets the reputation of being the John and the other, by elimination, is therefore Paul. In this case, Strummer and Jones each have their own pet political projects (as does Simonon, although he tends to be even more blunt), and by combining their concerns you get one of the most politically dense rock albums in the history of the genre. The tune, though ablated and somewhat empty-sounding, still makes its case in a rousing fashion as the tinkly pianos build. Great horn parts too.

Strummer carries on the King Tubby tradition of immediately following a reggae song with a dub version of that same song, Paul Simonon half-asses his one solo shot, and a rare number in 3/4 time. Those of you waiting for some traditional '77-sounding punk will have to continue to wait. This will take a while.

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