Fans were perplexed when in 1980 the Clash announced they were releasing a triple album. The format seemed decidedly Old Wave, a flashback to the hubris and indulgence of prog rockers like Yes. Even those diehards loyal enough to drag it back from the record shop that December must have struggled to make it through all six sides of the original vinyl. The disparateness of the styles on offer — reggae, rap, the jaunty steel-drum rhythms of calypso, rockabilly, ’60s soul, even jazz — added to the sense of a band who had lost their way.
Reviews were brutal in the U.K. (NME’s Nick Kent compared it to the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun) but warmer in America, where London Calling had elevated the Clash to saviors-of-rock stature. John Piccarella’s five-star Rolling Stone review identified the record’s guiding principle as “to hell with Clash style, there’s a world out there,” while the Village Voice’s annual poll of American rock writers anointed it the year’s No. 1 album. Partly this was leftover love for London Calling, which had topped the previous Voice poll, and partly Left-liberal approval of the geopolitical stances proclaimed in songs like “Washington Bullets” and “Charlie Don’t Surf.” The album title itself nodded to the Sandinista National Liberation Front, overthrowers of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the Nicaraguan dictator who’d almost literally sucked the blood of his own impoverished people as the part-owner of a company that collected plasma and sold it to America and elsewhere.
Despite the positive critical reception, Sandinista! was a flop compared to its Platinum-selling predecessor and spawned no hit singles. Wry in retrospect, Mick Jones claimed he “always saw it as a record for people who were on oil rigs or Arctic stations that weren’t able to get to the record shops regularly.” Not exactly a huge market.
With the possible exception of their dire 1985 swan song Cut the Crap, Sandinista! is the Clash’s least-listened-to album. Yet for modern ears, it’s surprisingly listenable. The sheer sprawl — 36 tracks, six per LP side — suits the age of streaming, when artists routinely deposit huge splats of material and leave it to fans to sort through, while iconic albums get rereleased in ultra-expanded versions spilling over with outtakes and alt-takes. (There will probably never be a Super Deluxe Sandinista! because it was always Super Deluxe.) Streaming removes the chore of changing the disk and flipping sides. You can let Sandinista! unfurl ambiently, your attention dipping in and out of focus. You can skip past the duds or simply boil its profusion into a playlist of best bits. The open-to-the-world eclecticism of the Clash circa 1980 also aligns with today’s nomadic taste patterns: Sandinista! is like a playlist of different styles and sounds that all happen to be the Clash.
Two cities shaped the album’s vibe. Much of Sandinista! was recorded at the New York studios the Power Station and Electric Lady during the Clash’s American spring tour of 1980, a stint that exposed them to the emerging sound of rap and resulted in the raw funk of “The Magnificent Seven” and its close cousin “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice).” Other parts were recorded either in Kingston, Jamaica, or in London and Manchester, generally with reggae producer Mikey Dread in close attendance. He had helped the band achieve their first really convincing roots facsimile in “Bankrobber,” the single that preceded Sandinista!, and that thick, bubbling, electronically enhanced groove recurred on the album with tracks like “Junco Partner,” “One More Time” and “Kingston Advice.” The record’s sixth side was given over largely to Dread’s dub versions of songs from earlier in the record, the most extreme being “Silicone on Sapphire,” whose stereo-panning gurgles and outer-space FX recall Creation Rebel’s Adrian Sherwood-produced Starship Africa.
Sandinista! is an odd blend of glum and goofy. There’s a surprising amount of comedy here. Strummer’s hoarsely rapped stream-of-consciousness on “The Magnificent Seven” signs off with an absurdist headline: “News Flash: Vacuum Cleaner Sucks Up Budgie.” The jaunty, gospel-tinged “The Sound of Sinners” ends with the well-spoken tones of an Anglican vicar inviting the congregation to leave money in the collection box. The Clash take the piss out of themselves and their already mythologized history: Maria, toddler-age daughter of guest keyboard player Mick Gallagher, squeaks out a version of “The Guns of Brixton” to close “Broadway,” and her slightly older brothers, Luke and Ben, similarly transform “Career Opportunities” into bouncy innocence. Parts of Sandinista! are plain silly, such as the psychedelic folly “Mensforth Hill” (which is “Something About England” played backwards, with additional overdubs) and “Shepherds Delight,” which could be an outtake from Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma.
On a more serious tip, “Broadway” starts as a weary ballad-of-sorts, oddly redolent of Joe Jackson’s similarly Manhattan-inspired “Steppin’ Out,” but dejected and footsore, before Strummer rallies with a 6-a.m. burst of piano-vamping energy. The album’s aching heart is “The Call Up,” a panoramic lament for boy soldiers all across the world heading off to an early grave. “There is a rose that I want to live for/Although, God knows, I may not have met her,” Strummer rasps. “There is a town unlike any other.” The song’s hard-to-tag cross-culture groove — Balinese skank? — looks ahead to the desolate pacifism of “Straight to Hell,” the band’s single most inventive piece of music.
That “Straight to Hell” appeared on an album titled Combat Rock, and that the count-in to “The Call Up” is “hup 2-3-4/I love the Marine Corps” chanted with evident enjoyment, highlights the contradiction at the heart of the Clash, an anti-war band helplessly attracted to military heroics and death-or-glory bravado. Original Clash fans who were there in 1977 always go on about “the spirit” of the debut album — how if you were in the audience at their riotous gig at the Rainbow Theatre in London that year, you would have followed Joe and the boys in storming the Houses of Parliament if they’d issued the rally cry. On Sandinista!, despite the title’s salute to the guerrillas of Central America, the band sounds comparatively dispirited, but all the better for it. The Clash seem slightly bemused by their success, drifting along and drifting apart. It’s the kind of album a group makes just before they split up.
Instead the Clash gathered renewed purpose and hastened to embrace their inevitable fate of rock stardom. Combat Rock, released in 1982, was a single album and contained a couple of surefire hits, “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” It involved a much smaller squad of guest musicians than the 23 corralled for Sandinista! The mix was tighter and brighter (it’s the Clash’s best-recorded recording) and it went Top 10 in many countries around the world while eventually racking up double-Platinum sales in America.