Sandinista! – The Clash
By Tyler Mandell |Top Tracks: The Magnificent Seven, Police on My Back, Washington Bullets
The Clash are considered one of the defining bands of the 1970s punk rock scene and dad rock playlists everywhere. You still often hear all their major songs on classic rock radio and in period TV shows like Stranger Things. Despite their wide mainstream appeal, their fourth album Sandinista! is still often considered one of the most polarizing albums by a major well-known rock band. Not only due to its crushing length of nearly two-and-a-half hours across 36 songs, but because of its eclectic influences of reggae, dub, and genres entirely new to the band’s repertoire. While its infamous length is hard to justify, I think The Clash’s genre experimentation on the album is entirely justified. They had already been mixing assorted styles as back as their debut, with their punk-infused cover of the reggae song “Police and Thieves”. London Calling, their earlier album commonly considered “the best punk album of all time,” has more ska, reggae, and poppy new wave than traditional punk. If anything, The Clash were more punk in terms of their politics and ideologies rather than their music. Sandinista! is even named after a socialist political party in Nicaragua.
The opener, “The Magnificent Seven”, is my absolute favorite song by the band. It’s a disco rap rock epic with some of their most creative and politically charged lyrics. Everyone involved on the track is firing on all cylinders and I can’t recommend it enough. There are several more songs here that should’ve become larger hits, such as their cover of The Equals’ “Police on My Back” which has a wonderful driving punk energy that’s as good as anything on their debut. I love “Charlie Don’t Surf” which is like the best song that The Police never wrote, mixing new wave and reggae to a perfect summery rock blend. “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)” are also highlights from the more post-punk/rock side of the album, with the latter having a jangly quality that predates The Smiths.
In terms of the album’s reggae and Caribbean influences, it’s much more straightforward than London Calling, which mixed its reggae/ska influences with punk. It works well for the most part, mainly because it never seems like an imitation of authentic reggae or too far away from The Clash either. My favorites here are “One More Time” (another perfect mix of punk and reggae), the calypso tinged “Let’s Go Crazy”, the funky politically charged toast “Washington Bullets” (my favorite of these songs, with some of Joe Strummer’s best lyrics), and the surreal soundscape of “Silicone on Sapphire”. Admittedly, some of the reggae songs here are a bit weak, whether they may be questionably produced (“Version Pardner”, “The Crooked Beat”) or too lengthy for their own good (“Broadway”, “The Equalizer”, “If Music Could Talk”). Still, I’ll give them credit for trying to expand their sound, given they improved their skills at straight reggae on Combat Rock two years later.
The more experimental songs also work surprisingly a lot more than one would expect. “Lose This Skin”, a Celtic punk number, feels a bit out of place with guest vocalist Tymon Dogg, but the strings and vocals here are gorgeous and emotionally affecting. The oddball disco-punk tracks “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” and “The Call Up” really work despite their strangeness, as well as the infectious gospel inspired “The Sound of Sinners”. However, some of these songs you may have to suspend your disbelief for, considering how little they resemble anything The Clash had done prior. I adored the toe-tapping fun of vintage-R&B songs like “Look Here”, “The Leader”, and Motown nod “Hitsville UK”, yet they can be difficult to recommend for someone not as willing to hear The Clash try something new.
Not all the experimental songs work, such as the serene but underdeveloped “Rebel Waltz” and especially some of the songs towards the end of the record. The band likely saw the obvious similarities between this album and The Beatles’ white album, so they tried a “Revolution 9” in the song “Mensforth Hill” which, unlike the former, feels like weirdness for its own sake as opposed to having a real purpose. And if that song was “Revolution 9”, then “Junkie Slip” after it would be its “Wild Honey Pie”, which has lots of annoying mixing and effects that makes the song hard to stomach. And while cute as a novelty song, their cover of “Career Opportunities” from their first album with two children singing it feels like an in-joke only the band personnel would appreciate.
Despite a few disposable and forgettable songs in the album, it’s still worth a listen for anyone into quirky post-punk and new wave from the early 80s. It’s been often said that Sandinista! would’ve made a much better double or even single album, and while this is true, a large part of the album’s appeal is its overall sprawl and sense of adventurousness. In fact, it might be my favorite album by them alone based on how risky and unconventional it is. Though I understand why so many are polarized by it, especially considering it lacks a breakout radio song like “Train in Vain” or “Rock the Casbah”. Still, it has a large share of highlights, and it further shows why The Clash is one of the best rock bands of all time, even if this album can also have them at their worst.