The Clash – Combat Rock

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

In my first ever attempt at karaoke, back in 1992 (?), I sang “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” I chose it mostly because it was one of the few songs on offer that I actually knew. Of course, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” is a horrible choice for karaoke – there is not much of a vocal melody. You basically are just talking. If I had to do it again, though, I could sell it a lot better. I now have a stronger grasp of karaoke strategy. And all in all, this ranks pretty low on the list of humiliations I have endured, a statement which does not actually illuminate anything about the karaoke experience itself.

What I Think of This Album

For me, this is the difficult Clash album. Arguably more of a mess than Sandinista!, it is also relentlessly dark, with little of the exuberance or joy the Clash normally leavened their principled stance with. This is an overwhelmingly earnest album, and it makes it a tough listen.

“Know Your Rights” has a bracing off-beat guitar riff and some nice whammy bar work, but it’s mostly Joe Strummer’s sardonic recitation of “rights” and the gloss read into them that stands out. It is darkly humorous, but the bleakness dominates. The heavy-handed, syncopated drumming of “Car Jamming” belies the bizarre, impressionistic hellscape Strummer narrates – not for the first time on the album offering up a critique of the Vietnam War. Mick Jones brings some garage rock spirit to the simplistic but undeniably fun “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” The meaty riff is unstoppable, and the drumming is first-rate. The literal translation of the lyrics into Spanish is dumb; I approve of Strummer’s monkey screeches, though. I am fairly certain the band took lyrical inspiration for this from Big Star’s “Thirteen.”

“Rock the Casbah” was the other hit, and its story is much more interesting. Written by Topper Headon, the musically-inclined drummer laid down the drum, bass, and piano tracks all by himself one day. The rest of the band liked it so much they barely added anything else, though Strummer rewrote the lyrics. I don’t know . . . there is a lot about the song I like, but I hate the chorus. So. Much. And even this upbeat sounding song is disturbing, grounded in the idea of an autocratic ruler willing to bomb his own people for listening to music. From this point forward, the outlook only gets more dismal. “Red Angel Dragnet” quotes from Taxi Driver, which gives you an idea of how cheerful this song about the murder of a Guardian Angel is (the vigilante law enforcement group, not an actual, you know, angel).

The centerpiece of the album is the stunning “Straight To Hell,” resplendent in syncopated percussion, with a weird melange of Asain and reggae sounds, and a devastating indictment of American soldiers who fathered and abandoned children while serving in Vietnam. MIA built her wonderful “Paper Planes” around a sample of “Straight to Hell.”

The terrible “Overpowered By Funk,” a collaboration with, um, Futura 2000 (a well-respected graffiti artist), should never be played again, though the percussion is impressive. I am not sure what “Atom Tan” is about – it appears that Strummer is describing some post-apocalyptic future – but it doesn’t really work and it’s not enjoyable. The Vietnam War is the focus, again, of “Sean Flynn,” which concerns the disappearance of Errol Flynn’s son (seriously) while working as a photojournalist there. The spare Asiatic jazz of this song is vaguely unsettling.

Perhaps I lack perspective because I fucking hate the Beat poets, but “Ghetto Defendant” – a collaboration with Allen Ginsberg – is even worse than “Overpowered By Funk,” mostly because it is pretentious crap. Seriously. “Do the worm on the Acropolis / Slamdance the cosmopolis”? No thanks. The band recovers a bit on the brief “Inoculated City,” another sunny tune (just kidding) about war (not kidding). The album sputters to a close with “Death Is a Star,” a cocktail lounge number; I don’t know what this song is about, and I couldn’t give a shit. 

Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, Belly) produced; Gary Barnacle (sax), Joe Ely (vocals), Tymon Dogg (piano) and Ellen Foley (Meatloaf) contributed. This album sold at least two million copies in the U.S.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Straight To Hell” is evocative and haunting.

Release Date

May, 1982

The Cover Art

I dig it. Even though it is just a portrait shot. I also approve of the font and the stars. Paul Simonon had good hair, and I am all about Jones’s suspenders. Pennie Smith once again took the photo.  

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