by the Clash
Overall Rating = 12
Best Song: SAFE EUROPEAN HOME or TOMMY GUN
It didn’t take long for the Clash to move on from pure punk to punk-inspired rock and other genres. Fortunately the lyrics are still largely meaningful – and many of them focused on the topic of war in particular – and the melodies are largely still good, so only the punk purists should be offended here. It’s not like the change in sound is that dramatic. If anything, if you speed it up from 33 and 1/3 RPM to 45 RPM on your record player, you’d get something not unlike their debut (as ex-critic Mark Prindle famously proclaimed), and I recently tried it using Audacity, and sure enough, it kind of works. The change in sound of the album proper could be attributed to Joe Strummer and Mick Jones simply wanting to branch out a bit more stylistically, especially considering the extent to which they’d accomplish that on their next two albums, but I’d also like to think that their label insisting they take Sandy Pearlman as producer – the guy that made Blue Öyster Cult marketable –, as well as replacing drummer Terry Chimes with jazz-trained and prog-rock-rooted drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon had something to do with it. Much of the album sounds like heavy, loud classic rock, à la Rolling Stones or the Who, and it’s something that certainly might make the band’s regular fans and some neophytes see it as a sell-out, but personally, I see it as growth. Besides, as I mentioned, the melodies are largely as good as those to be found on their debut album, and the song’s being slightly slower and significantly longer (though not quite as long as “Police and Thieves”) certainly helps you appreciate them more. So, even though there aren’t nearly as many classics – my dad, who much prefers the non-punk Clash, knows and likes more songs from their debut, for instance –, this album is hardly a step down. In fact, there’s no point in waiting for the end for me to conclude that both this and their debut deserve a solid 12/15 rating as simply great albums.
That doesn’t mean I can’t go through a song-by-song breakdown. While most say Give ‘Em Enough Rope and their UK debut both suffer from a lopsided favoring of their respective first sides, I would say this LP is generally more consistent. Perhaps the general critical view has to do with the fact that the LP’s weakest tune, “Cheapskates”, is on side two, and side opener “Guns on the Roof” is anchored on an obvious “I Can’t Explain” riff rip-off. I’ll certainly concede to agreeing entirely with the former assessment: it’s not a bad song, but it’s a generic punk tune like “What’s My Name?” and “Deny” threatened to be, with lead guitar parts that try to sting but don’t and a refrain that’s mildly catchy but only because of the way they chant the title. And while perhaps the Who rip-off of “Guns on the Roof” should be offensive, the song itself isn’t too bad: it’s basically an anti-violence manifesto with a rather convincing Strummer vocal sung to a different enough melody (and catchy enough; I especially like the menacing “guns, guns” near whispers at the start of each verse line) for the riff’s origins to only be a bother when it’s left on its own. Think of it as the equivalent of Bob Dylan nicking an old blues lick for a tune off of Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde On Blonde, albeit with inferior lyrics (though more comprehensible). As for the two songs considered minor highlights here, I generally agree with the consensus. “All the Young Punks” is a good closer, a decent stab at something epic and anthemic, with a hint of pop hooks, in order to make a sequel to David Bowie’s/Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” for their generation; of course, aside from these vague characteristics that make it a decent conclusion, I can’t say it excites me that much. The other common minor highlight, one I consider to be a major highlight, is the delightful Mick Jones-sung “Stay Free”, an ode to a grade school friend of his who ended up in jail for robbing banks chock full of fun teenage rebellion references and teenage British slang. As one can expect from Jones, it’s not really a punk song, but a power pop song, with crisp electric guitars subtly complemented by organ and acoustic guitar (which pop out of the mix at the right times, like post-bridge for the former and in the outro for the latter) interrupted by an unfortunately short funky bassline topped with an adorable and memorable vocal melody. If it’s not “Train in Vain” status, it’s certainly headed in the right direction. But I also insist that the song preceding it, “Drug Stabbing Time”, is an underrated slice of boogie, with heavier than expected guitars for the genre playing a driving riff, and some excellent ripping yet melodic sax solos, and if my ears aren’t playing tricks on me, some cowbell in the background, which to me justifies it taking on the accolade of minor highlight with the promotion of “Stay Free” to major highlight status.
Besides, people – including me – are fine with considering side one’s whopping three boogie numbers as minor highlights. The best of these is “The Last Gang in Town”, mainly because instead of more “generic” boogie, it’s a Stones-influenced rocker, with terrific chugging Chuck Berry-esque guitars with snappy bass parts popping out of the mix and a mood shift in the refrain where the go for a moodier, funkier style. And it has Joe aggressively chanting something about Kentucky Fried Chicken right before the guitar solo. What else do you need for a major highlight? The other two remain minor highlights, but they’re always enjoyable while they’re on: “English Civil War” is actually a quasi-rewrite of the US civil war folk tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”, with the melody nearly intact (including the oh-so 19th century “hurrah” chants), and while the music is strict ‘70s-style boogie-rock otherwise, the combination is a worthy experiment much as the Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” could have been considered 14 years earlier. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” – which like side two’s boogie number is about drug busts, albeit this one referencing a specific historical example, a huge LSD bust in the UK at the time called Operation Julie – is slightly slower than the other boogies (which were already slower than “Drug Stabbing Time” to begin with), but the lyrics are still fun (especially the cheeky Beatles reference/parody in the opening line “it’s Lucy in the sky/with all kinds of apple pie”), the melody and Mick’s vocal interjections are cute (responding to Joe’s line about everyone being high by adding “hi there”) and the interplay between the barroom piano and twangier Chuck Berry-isms on guitar is tasteful. So while both sides seem pretty even at this point, I suppose it’s because the two best songs appear on side one that it has the better reputation. If anything comes close to being classics on here, it’s definitely the opening “Safe European Home” and the album’s leading single, “Tommy Gun”. The former just makes a terrific opener, rather deceptively recalling the pure punk heights of their debut, albeit with a somewhat more complex riff than anything on there and a thick, crunchy tone that only the like of Sandy Pearlman could achieve, and the transition to the catchy-as-hell punk-reggae coda – with Joe Strummer improvising scat-influenced lines that predict the title of London Calling's “Rudy Can’t Fail” – continues to betray the Clash’s true identity as being more punk in spirit than in form by rebelling against the rebels. “Tommy Gun”, inspired by Joe’s musing that terrorists must enjoy reading about their exploits in the news the way actors do about their films, could have just as easily fit on their debut as well – its stop-and-start rhythm baring some resemblance to “London’s Burning” –, but with Topper Headon’s superior drumming in the form of the explosive and appropriately machine gun-like snare drum rat-tat-tat beat, Pearlman’s improved production and the urgent siren-like lead guitar “beeping” sound betrays their improved arrangement skills. I like these two so much that I can’t really pick one or the other as the LP’s best song, so they get to share the title.
While my description of this album’s tracks might seem a bit less excited as the descriptions in my review of their debut, keep in mind that the latter has 14 songs with a string of classics whilst this one has only 10 songs and is generally much more consistent. So while both get a 12/15, they’re different kinds of 12/15s that might have different audiences. There’s a reason some people see this as a sophomore slump after a punk classic while others see it as a songwriting improvement over a rapid-fire display of great ideas mixed in with some more questionable ones; it all comes down to individual listeners’ peculiarities. One thing is for sure, though; regardless of the general critical opinion of their first two albums, their next studio album’s reputation is generally higher than almost any of their albums except amongst the hardcore punk fanbase that probably abandoned them with this LP anyways. And by “next studio album”, I sure as hell ain't talking about the US replacement for their UK debut either...