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"WBLS was blasting all over the city," recalled Strummer in the recent Clash documentary Westway to the World, referring to the NYC radio station and its pioneering broadcasts of breaking rap artists such as Kurtis Blow, The Funky Four + 1, and Grandmaster Flash. "We just hooked on to that vibe and made our own version of it." The result was Sandinista!, a sprawling three-album set recorded largely in New York City during a burst of post-tour energy. "As soon as they got a rough mix down, we'd be like: 'Fresh tape on the reel! Let's get the mikes out!'" Strummer gleefully explained in Westway. "We'd keep doing that day and night. That's why it had to be a triple album, even though it would have been better as a double or a single album, or an EP. We recorded all that music in one spot in one moment in one three-week blast, for better or worse. That's the document."
Released in late November of that year, Sandinista! received a savage drubbing from many of the same critics who only twelve months earlier had hailed the Clash's London Calling as proof that the band was indeed "the only band that matters." Fans, too, seemed confused, though the boos and jeers with which they greeted the Clash's handpicked concert openers of Grandmaster Flash and Jamaican reggae toaster Mikey Dread reveal the real reason behind that critical vilification. For rockists still on the "disco sucks" warpath, Sandinista!'s fusion of punk with dub reggae, rap, thick slabs of churning funk, and even West Indian steel drums stood as nothing less than an embrace of everything they hated. Moreover, it was a pointed reminder that the rock world itself was rapidly slipping into cultural irrelevancy -- a bitter pill to swallow for those who still saw themselves as rebels rather than die-hard reactionaries.
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Twenty years later, with orthodox punk now sounding just as stale as the orchestral prog-rockers it tried to wipe from the historical stage, Sandinista! endures, and in its newly reissued form with sterling sound, it remains fresh as ever. What emerges foremost is the crystallization of the band's at times inchoate rage into a political attack as nuanced as its newfound musical passions. It's a position brought home forcefully by the album's titular salute to the victorious 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and further laid out in "Washington Bullets." The band members aren't the well-meaning but foolishly short-sighted liberals they would later mock in "This Is Radio Clash"'s plea to "please save us, not the whales." Rather, they unambiguously embraced the guerrilla movements of the Latin-American revolutionary left.
For those either in denial over American actions on that continent or balking at picking up the gun as a valid response, Strummer sings: "As every cell in Chile will tell, the cry of the tortured men / Remember Allende, and the days before, before the army came / Please remember Victor Jara in the Santiago Stadium / Es Verdad -- those Washington bullets again."
It's a world view that takes equal aim at the Soviet Union ("If you can find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow bullets missed / Ask him what he thinks of voting communist") and Beijing ("Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet / How many monks did the Chinese get?"). "The Call Up" continues in that vein, begging both Soviet conscripts being shipped off to Afghanistan and young Americans swept up in the resurgent jingoistic frenzy surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis: "It's up to you not to heed the call-up / You must not act the way you were brought up."
Does all of Sandinista! work? Well, no. For every finger-snappingly sublime pop moment in a song like "Hitsville U.K." there's the backward tape loops of "Mensforth Hill" to wade through, a creation that may have seemed inventive in the studio, but on CD is simply annoying. Then again, the recorded snippet of addled Rastas torturously rambling their way through a bizarre late-night WBAI-FM talk show instantly captures a moment familiar to any insomniac who's flipped his way through Manhattan's noncommercial airwaves. As Strummer himself insists, one man's filler is another man's living document of a particular time and place, and Sandinista! evokes the avant-garde sounds and political vanguards percolating around New York City circa 1980 like few other recordings.
Cliché though it may be, "those were different times" is a notion that comes to mind here. The moral certainties that gripped the Clash during that Cold War period -- "the terror of the scientific sun" -- have given way to a more muddled social terrain. A socialist (albeit a self-neutered one) has returned to the helm of Chile, while Pinochet and the killers of Victor Jara face the imminent threat of an international tribunal. Even the FMLN guerrilleros of El Salvador (saluted on the Clash's final album with Mick Jones, 1982's Combat Rock) have traded in their all-or-nothing revolutionary purism for the more ambiguous parliamentary road to utopia. Still, those looking to score the soundtrack for the next round of World Trade Organization protests, whether they be hip-hoppers picking up the torch from fallen prophets Public Enemy or the Zapatista-feting Rage Against the Machine, could do a lot worse than look to Sandinista! for inspiration.
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