Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#664 in the Series) is The Clash, Combat Rock
We music fans love to hear stories about how classic songs were recorded, and how some almost never happened. There’s a great part in the Joe Strummer documentary The Future Is Unwritten where drummer Topper Headon talks about how the Clash single ‘Rock the Casbah’ came into being.
It was 1982 and the Clash were coming apart at the seams; torn apart by egos, infighting, drug addiction, and the strain of such a heavy touring schedule. Musically, the band had long since left behind their band-of-the-people persona, and were now filling stadiums. Their last two albums London Calling and Sandinista had seen them branch out into reggae, rockabilly, soul, jazz, funk, and ska with mixed results.
Headon, a talented prog and jazz drummer before the Clash picked him up, was the only one who had shown up to Wessex Studios in London for recording, despite his growing heroin habit. He had an idea for a song in his head, and as he was alone and bored, he recorded the drum part, ready to show the rest of the band when they arrived. Some time passed and they still hadn’t shown, so he recorded the bass part, followed by the piano. He didn’t think much of it at the time, but what he had done was laid down the bare bones of arguably one of the best things the Clash ever did.
Strummer eventually heard what Headon had done and loved it. He had just taken a verbal bashing from firebrand manager Bernie Rhodes, who challenged their diverging musical directions, demanding to know why everything “had to sound like a raga.” Lyricist Strummer wrote down the first line of the song, “Now the king told the boogiemen, you have to let that raga drop,” before completing it with a fabricated tale of a middle-eastern king banning his subjects from playing rock music.
The song went on to be the Clash’s highest charting single worldwide, but not before Strummer fired Headon for his drug use. You can’t help but feel bad for him; it must have been devastating to see the band playing his song on TV with new drummer Terry Chimes, who could never replicate Headon’s beats and groove to the same standard.
The Clash were never the same without Headon, a fact later admitted by Strummer himself, making Combat Rock the last great Clash album. It starts off in fairly-typical Clash fashion with ‘Know Your Rights;’ three and half minutes of simple guitar/bass/drum noise and a lyric rebuking the illusion of freedom.
“Car Jamming’ is next. Heavily influenced by reggae, it is perhaps one of the Clash’s attempts to branch out musically that didn’t work so well. Still, for an album that many fans and sections of the music press supposedly accused the Clash of ‘selling out’ by recording, it is an interesting addition as one of the most non-commercial tracks the band ever did.
Next up is probably the most well-known song from the Clash’s catalogue, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go,’ sung by guitarist Mick Jones. A tune destined to be spewed out by every cover band, sung badly at every karaoke bar, and used in jeans adverts until the end of days; it was in Jones’ words, “our attempt at writing a classic.” Strummer disagreed with Jones’ lofty intentions and could see that the Clash were moving too far from their original punk DIY beginnings, and didn’t like it. It would only be a year until Jones was also fired from the band.
Possibly the second best song on the album is ‘Straight to Hell.’ It is all Joe Strummer, pure and simple. Just listen to it; what other song sounds like it? (Except of course ‘Paper Planes’ by M.I.A., which nabs the riff.)
‘Overpowered by Funk’ is an interesting song for the Clash to write, in that it is heavily influenced by funk and rap bands of the day, and sounds like the first two Red Hot Chili Peppers albums, before they even existed. ‘Atom Tan’ is poor by Clash standards, and mercifully finishes in just over two minutes.
‘Sean Flynn’ goes as far as including jungle-style rhythms and a sparse lyric concerning the vanished Vietnam War photographer, while ‘Ghetto Defendant’ has another first for the Clash; a spoken word section by beat poet Allen Ginsberg, his darkly rich, relaxed tones nicely complementing Strummer’s more urgent outbursts. Closer ‘Death is a Star’ sounds like a children’s story or something the Beatles might have done in their more psychedelic moments.
All in all, Combat Rock is a mixed bag of an album; yet fascinating as a snapshot of a great band falling apart, going in different directions, and ultimately, imploding. The fact that they managed to make it even half-listenable is a testament to the power of the Clash. The Hold Steady said it right in their song ‘Constructive Summer;’ “Raise a toast to saint Joe Strummer, I think he might have been our only decent teacher.” Amen to that.
– Paul McBride, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
- Know Your Rights (Jones, Strummer) 3:40
- Car Jamming (Clash) 4:00
- Should I Stay or Should I Go (Clash) 3:09
- Rock the Casbah (Clash) 3:43
- Red Angel Dragnet (Clash) 3:45
- Straight to Hell (Clash) 5:32
- Overpowered by Funk (Clash) 4:52
- Atom Tan (Clash) 2:30
- Sean Flynn (Clash) 4:32
- Ghetto Defendant (Clash) 4:44
- Inoculated City (Clash) 2:41
- Death Is a Star (Clash) 3:13
- Joe Strummer – guitars, lead vocals
- Mick Jones – guitars, vocals,
- Paul Simonon – bass, vocals
- Topper Headon – drums, piano and bass on “Rock the Casbah”
- Allen Ginsberg – guest vocals on “Ghetto Defendant”
- Futura 2000 – guest vocals on “Overpowered by Funk”
- Ellen Foley – backing vocals on “Car Jamming”
- Joe Ely – backing vocals on “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
- Tymon Dogg – piano on “Death Is a Star”
- Poly Mandell – keyboards on “Overpowered by Funk” (Really Tommy Mandel)
- Gary Barnacle – saxophone on “Sean Flynn”
- Official Website of The Clash
- See our piece on London Calling
- See more from 1982
- Back to the Cool Album Home Page
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