Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Clash

  • Give 'Em Enough Rope [Epic, 1978] A
  • The Clash [Epic, 1979] A
  • London Calling [Epic, 1980] A+
  • Black Market Clash [Epic, 1980] A-
  • Sandinista! [Epic, 1981] A-
  • Combat Rock [Epic, 1982] B+
  • Cut the Crap [Epic, 1985] B+
  • The Story of the Clash [Epic, 1988] C+
  • Live: From Here to Eternity [Sony, 1999] ***
  • Live at Shea Stadium: October 13, 1982 [Columbia/Legacy, 2008] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Give 'Em Enough Rope [Epic, 1978]
Although in the end I find that Sandy Pearlman's production does as much justice to the power of this band as the debut does to their rough intensity, I know why some are disappointed. The band's recent strategy has been to cram their dense, hard sound so full of growls and licks and offhand remarks that it never stops exploding. Here that approach occasionally seems overworked, and so does the vision--this major (and privileged) pop group sounds as wearied by the failure of punk solidarity, the persistence of racial conflict, the facelessness of violence, and the ineluctability of capital as a bunch of tenured Marxists. But these familiar contradictions follow upon the invigorating gutter truths of the first album for a reason--they're truths as well, truths that couldn't be stated more forcefully with any other music. Great exception: "Stay Free," Mick Jones's greeting to a mate fresh out of jail that translates the band's new political wariness into personal warmth. A

The Clash [Epic, 1979]
Cut for cut, this may be the greatest rock and roll album (plus limited-edition bonus single) ever manufactured in the U.S. It offers ten of the fourteen titles on the band's British debut as well as seven of the thirteen available only on forty-five. And the sequencing is anything but haphazard; the eight songs on side one divide into self-contained pairs that function as extended oxymorons on careerism, corporate power, race, and anomie. Yet the package feels misbegotten. The U.K. version of The Clash is the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere partly because its innocence is of a piece--it never stops snarling, it's always threatening to blow up in your face. I'm still mad the real thing wasn't released two years ago, and I know for certain (I made a tape) that the singles would have made a dandy album by themselves. Nevertheless, a great introduction and a hell of a bargain. A

London Calling [Epic, 1980]
Here's where they start showing off. If "Lost in the Supermarket," for instance, is just another alienated-consumption song, it leaps instantly to the head of the genre on the empathy of Mick Jones's vocal. And so it goes. Complaints about "slick" production are absurd--Guy Stevens slick?--and insofar as the purity of the guitar attack is impinged upon by brass, pianner, and shuffle, this is an expansion, not a compromise. A gratifyingly loose Joe Strummer makes virtuoso use of his four-note range, and Paul Simonon has obviously been studying his reggae records. Warm, angry, and thoughtful, confident, melodic, and hard-rocking, this is the best double-LP since Exile on Main Street. And it's selling for about $7.50. A+

Black Market Clash [Epic, 1980]
CBS's transparent attempt to class up a dumb new line of ten-inch LPs that some marketeer thinks will make collectors of us all, this hodgepodge makes more sense than Elvis the C's long-awaited full-sized hodgepodge nevertheless. First side combines B's and a U.K.-only album cut from '77-'78, when everything they did was touched with the desperate euphoria of revolutionary holdouts, with two garageland covers, the Toots appropriate and the Booker T. a stroke. Second is spacy Clash dub plus hooks, with the yearning "Bankrobber" more lyrical than anything else they've committed to plastic. Yet. A-

Sandinista! [Epic, 1981]
At $9.99 discounted, figure sides five and six as a near-freebie sweetened by great cuts from Timon Dogg and a grade-school duo. Compare "Apple Jam" (you know, on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass triple, now there was a prophetic title) invidiously to the run of their dub ramble. Listen to Sandinista Now!, the promo-only one-disc digest Epic has thoughtfully provided busy radio personnel, and note that you miss (in my case) "Rebel Waltz" and "Let's Go Crazy" and "Something About England" (and who knows what in yours). Note that you also miss the filler and assorted weirdnesses which provide that heady pace and/or texture. Then note as well that the many good songs aren't as consistently compelling as on previous Clash albums, though God knows "The Sound of Sinners" is a long-overdue Christer spoof and words about reading are always apt and the romanticization of revolution is an inevitable theme. And conclude that if this is their worst--which it is, I think--they must be, er, the world's greatest rock and roll band. A-

Combat Rock [Epic, 1982]
Those who (claim to) expect them to improve on Gramsci maintain that this is where they turn bozo once and for all. I counter that they're well ahead of a lot of respectable competition--the babble surrounding Robert De Niro on "Red Angel Dragnet," for instance, may well be the first evidence ever that Taxi Driver has something real to say about urban oppression. Neither their funk nor their tone-poem dub has gained much pizzazz since Sandinista!, where both were easier to avoid. But I guarantee that they're not sinking into the pop slime--they're evolving, and here's hoping that someday they write songs as terse and clear as "Janie Jones" at this higher level of verbal, musical, and political density. B+

Cut the Crap [Epic, 1985]
Since I play the much-maligned Combat Rock as much as any Clash I own, the advance badmouth didn't faze me. The orchestral (synthesized?) horns on the lead cut did put me off, but most of this kicks in, stubborn and jolly and elegiac and together. In the aural fact, it isn't pathetic that Joe strums and chants as if there's no yesterday, it's brave. Convincer: "We Are the Clash." B+

The Story of the Clash [Epic, 1988]
For as long as they hung in there, their compromises, false moves, and fuck-ups were their own. The U.S.-only shuffle of the incomparable U.K. debut, the ridiculous ten-inch compilation, the vagaries of Sandinista!, the disco remixes--all listened tough and made sense because all engaged the outside world the band never forgot was there. Though a few mediocrities are eliminated and there's a vague chronological rationale (start with the pop stuff kinda and then backtrack kinda), this two-disc repackage could have been programmed by a random-play button. It tells only one "story"--they fought the corporation and the corporation won. C+

Live: From Here to Eternity [Sony, 1999]
"I'd like to hear 'Wooly Bully,' by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs--yes, not Sham 69, but Sam the Sham" ("Capital Radio," "Know Your Rights"). ***

Live at Shea Stadium: October 13, 1982 [Columbia/Legacy, 2008]
Arena-rock focused them punker than hit-making did ("Rock the Casbah," "Clampdown"). ***

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