With the remastered reissues of all the albums in the Clash catalog (all with original sleeve artwork, plus the EP Black Market Clash reconfigured as a long-player, a singles collection, and a long overdue live album) the silence is broken. Perhaps the biggest surprise revisiting the Clash vault is that 1980's Sandinista!, the grandfather of all jokes about "three-album punk rock records" and the most misunderstood and underheard record in the catalog, is the keeper.
It's deep, the band's boldest stroke, and an epic piece of resistance rock. Naming the album after the Front for National Liberation From Nicaragua (FSLN, or Sandinistas), Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had not only found their individual voices and causes, but a way to piece their songs together into an artful whole. The band's cautionary tales of war, racism, media manipulation, dirty business deals, filthy politics, U.S. government intervention, and foreign dictatorships caused it to be pilloried by some fans and critics, yet the songs' form and approach now seem prescient. Few outside the fringe folk and punk realm sing about these subjects anymore, much less put them to a beat of rebel music borrowed from reggae, dub, hip hop, gospel, jazz, three-chord rock, rockabilly, and R&B. A host of musician friends like Mikey Dread and Ellen Foley joined the tightknit camp for Sandinista!; musician-activist Phil Ochs was quoted, Spanish was spoken, and biblical references abounded. Somehow, engineer Bill Price negotiated the mess.
The album contains 36 songs, some better than others, but what sounded like a potential disaster was a success on its own unwieldy terms. "The Magnificent Seven" and "Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)" are slices of city life told in the then-burgeoning and exciting rap form, "The Leader" and "The Sound of Sinners" are old-time chants, while "Rebel Waltz" is ambitious yet, paradoxically, works through its subtlety -- not a quality with which the Clash was always blessed. Eddy Grant's "Police on My Back" sirens po-lease harassment years before NWA. Mose Allison's "Look Here" and "Junkie Slip" build on jazz riffs. Timon Dogg's "Lose This Skin" is a fiddle and bagpipe reel, yet the monster Paul Simonon/ Topper Headon rhythm section is unmistakable -- their contribution to the Clash sound remains grossly underrated. Even the dub experiment "Mensforth Hill," a track previously mentioned only to excoriate it, sounds more alive in today's cut-and-paste sonic landscape. The closest thing to a title track, "Washington Bullets," is a "U.S. Out of [fill-in-your-country-here]" lyric set to a light calypso melody. And finally, "Somebody Got Murdered," "Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)," and "The Call Up" are heels-tapping-in-unison Clash-o-ramas.
The band insisted the triple album be sold for less than the price of a double -- a huge risk, especially considering the Clash was infamous for not getting along with its label. But when the band played some U.S. dates to support the record, it sold out a Times Square nightclub five times over, ultimately adding dates -- at the group's own cost -- to satisfy all ticket holders. As one of those rare punk bands that walked the walk (though sometimes its members wore leather pants), whenever the Clash lost, its fans gained. It was only when the band gave up that it finally won; its reputation remains unsullied, and Sandinista! is still the final word in revolution rock.