Over the coming weeks the NLP blog will be hosting a range of short articles on the theme of political music. First up is music journalist and activist Alexander Billet on the the Clash's 1980 album, Sandinista!
It's nothing out of the ordinary for a left-wing writer to declare the Clash their favorite band of all time. Almost a quarter-century after imploding, the group has undeniably entered into the pantheon of musical legend--no doubt a point of pride for many who were swayed by Strummer and company's rebel call.
Naming Sandinista! your favorite album is a different matter. Upon its release in the winter of 1980 it instantly divided fans and critics alike. Little wonder why. With 36 tracks running almost two and a half hours total, and with a musical palette that veers from rockabilly to backwards tape-loops at a moment’s notice, the album can sometimes test the patience of even the most open-minded.
It’s also an album revolutionary in all senses--politically, socially, artistically. No album did more to shake the very foundations of pop music since Sergeant Pepper. It was a work profoundly shaped by its time and continues to have resonance today. Few albums can claim such a feat.
Of course there’s the obvious: naming an album after a leftist guerrilla movement that had come to power right on the cusp of the Reagan-Thatcher years was a defiant statement of solidarity. However, that radical internationalism expanded well beyond the title.
The Clash were no strangers to injecting reggae, soul and jazz into their sound. It was on Sandinista!, though, that this penchant burst forth with calypso, dub, gospel. All anticipated the rise of “world music” by almost a decade. Likewise for the group’s fascination with hip-hop. Rap was barely known outside the confines of New York City, but Strummer, Jones, Headon and Simonon knew they were hearing something earth-shattering. “Magnificent Seven,” a song that squared its rap-influenced lyrics against everything from consumerism to big media, was front-loaded on the album.
Sandinista! is also, appropriately, where we hear the group’s rebel politics at their sharpest. The world-sweeping beats play a dense, intricate soundtrack to denunciations of American imperialism in “Washington Bullets.” A steady, creeping funk runs beneath a call to resist the military in “The Call Up.” And few groups could manage to turn an R&B surfing song into one about napalm in Vietnam like the Clash did in “Charlie Don’t Surf.”
And, it should be remembered, this was a triple album sold at single album price! It was a move that cost the group untold sums of money and put them at further odds with their record label. Well before Radiohead began giving away their music for free on the Internet, and even as they tried to negotiate the treacherous waters of fame, the Clash were experimenting with ways to make music a right, not a privilege.
Listening to Sandinista! today, it’s amazing how fresh it sounds. Some of this may be the simple gears of history turning--the upsurge in Latin America, the discredit of US imperialism. But beyond that, the sounds the Clash were inspired by have in turn inspired a whole new generation of musicians grappling with what it means to be artists in a world of burgeoning struggle. It’s what makes Sandinista! not just another album by “the only band that mattered,” but a work that stands on its own today.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies, and writes a column of the same title for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His work has also appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics and others. You can read his thirty-year retrospective on Sandinista! here.