"It Ain't Coca-Cola, it's Rice": The Clash's Combat Rock

Combat Rock, released on May 14, 1982, was the record that monetarily put the Clash on the top of the punk heap. Even so, it has never been seen as a particularly good album, especially compared to their first self-titled album (both British and American versions) and London Calling. Even Give 'Em Enough Rope has more proponents. After the Clash released the double album London Calling, they released Sandinista to little fanfare. The triple LP felt bloated. Its predecessor had included experimentation and attempts to expand the band's repertoire, mostly as homage to the American roots forms that the band had consciously (or not) avoided on their first two albums. Sandinista was another beast entirely -- the band took an everything but the kitchen sink approach, experimenting with dub, hip hop, children choirs, and even took a hit on royalties so they could release it in this fashion.

Combat Rock continued some of this experimentation, also flirting with world music and purer pop forms. It, too, had originally been intended as a double album, Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, with the band's own Mick Jones mixing and producing. Glyn Johns' final production played an important role in helping the album become a monster seller. Cutting down the track list also probably played a part, yet the good songs that have been ringing in our ears for thirty years must be considered.

The singles are catchy and undeniably joyous, but the Clash are still wearing their politics on their sleeves, becoming more focused and knowledgeable about the issues they address. "Rock the Casbah" and Mick Jones' "Should I Stay or Should I Go" are two of the best and strangest hit singles of the decade. Joe Strummer's trilling and interesting pronunciations couple nicely with Jones' lighter vocals, especially on the "Should I Stay" with Strummer's Spanish backing vocals.

The album is sometimes a mixed bag because of its experimental and freewheeling nature. Most albums that have sold as well are not so scattered. Combat Rock is still an extraordinary record from a cultural and a musical standpoint. The Clash anticipate many later trends in music, but sometimes the album falls flat because of political weight, or failed attempts at trying new styles. Usually it is successful. Standout tracks include the overtly political "Straight To Hell," with its references to American pop culture and examination of American ideals through the eyes of Amerasian children in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, (Later it was sampled in M.I.A's less successful, at least from a political standpoint, "Paper Planes" alongside Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rumpshaker"), the reggae-inflected "Car Jamming," the funky "Overpowered by Funk," and  "Ghetto Defendant," which includes a spoken word section by beat icon, Allen Ginsberg.

Overall, the album has aged well, especially the tracks that must have seemed underwhelming at the time. "Red Angel Dragnet" is my personal favorite. Though not as caustic as "Straight to Hell" or "Know Your Rights," the track directly stems from the 1982 NYC shooting of Frank Melvin, a member of the unarmed Guardian Angels citizens patrol group. Strummer talk-sings-- channeling his old hero Woody Guthrie -- over a steady beat while Jones responds in a call and response chorus that calls to mind girl group classics, "who got shot tonight?" Strummer name checks Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle as one who prophesized the death of Melvin, and then Kosmo Vinyl, the band's long-time associate, quotes the film in a snarling accent. Samples and voices are all integrated in the call and response. The song captures the full power of the latter day Clash -- complex instrumentation, intricate word play, and a flair for examining and bringing forgotten news events back into the eyes of the public. If only 1985's Cut the Crap could have had a smidgen of this type of power.



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