CBS – 1980
Among the most divisive and misunderstood albums ever released by a major act, The Clash’s 1980 triple-disc epic is also one of the most generous and joyously freewheeling; it’s time that the narrative shifted from its perceived shortcomings to its many virtues.
When The Clash released London Calling in December of 1979, it was intended as a major statement. With nineteen songs, spanning almost as many sub-genres, it stood as a culminating exclamation point on a decade of musical innovation, and provided a tantalizing glimpse of a band, a genre, and a social movement at a vital crossroads.
The subtext of London Calling was essentially that The Clash were no longer a mere punk band. From their beginnings, the London quartet had dabbled in reggae – and even before then, Joe Strummer had led the pub/rockabilly group, The 101ers. And don’t forget that Mark Perry – of the Sniffin’ Glue zine – famously wrote, “punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS.”
If London Calling had represented punk’s death, then its follow-up was the New Orleans funeral. Released almost exactly a year later, Sandinista took the template of its predecessor and put it through a 10x magnifying glass. Spanning three discs, thirty-six tracks, and clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, Sandinista – and its boundless musical exploration – made London Calling look positively quaint by comparison.
Predictably, contemporary critics had no idea what to make of The Clash’s latest opus. Even if they had possessed the patience to wade through Sandinista‘s colossal run-time enough to absorb it, they might have lacked the bandwidth to properly process it; after all, John Lennon had been murdered just four days before Sandinista‘s arrival, which left the music press on both sides of the Atlantic understandably preoccupied.
Ultimately, Sandinista would largely (and quickly) be defined by what we would today characterize as “hot takes” – and if any album begs to be pored over, it’s this one. Despite the fact that many have tried to rescue its reputation in the four-plus decades since its release, the initial reception of Sandinista as a flop has largely stuck. What’s more, in our present-day, hyper-accelerated consumption of media, Sandinista has been labeled as everything from a spectacular failure, to a cautionary tale, to utterly impenetrable.
I decided to take a different approach with this review, framing it around the arguments used by Sandinista‘s many detractors (and a couple from its supporters). Specifically, I’m focusing on thirty-six different online reviews/comments – one for each track on the album. These arguments weren’t hard to find. In fact, all but one of them appeared on RateYourMusic. In the interest of fairness to the authors of these comments, I have opted to remove their usernames. Essentially, I think the time has come to reframe the conversation around this most misunderstood of albums:
- (RYM User – Aug. 2017)
“’Length 144:09’ Yeah thats gonna be a no from me dog”
At least two-thirds of the complaints leveled against Sandinista focus on its length. Long albums exist. Long films exist. Long books exist. Many of them are masterpieces. Are we not going to engage with them either?
- (RYM User – Nov. 2018)
“This album is way too fucking LONG. Also most the songs aren’t very good so this album feels more like a chore.”
Okay, this person presumably listened to the album at least once. Probably exactly once. I’ll counter by saying that someone coming at Sandinista directly by way of London Calling may find it tough to penetrate at first. It might take some work. Mick Jones once described Sandinista as “a record for people who were on oil rigs or Arctic stations…who weren’t able to get to record shops regularly.” It helps if you approach it with that in mind.
- (RYM User – July 2021)
“honestly is this supposed to grow on you or something? Everything except the first track is just plodding, sing-songy like an obnoxious song at the supermarket, and devoid of hooks. I can no longer shop happily.”
Yes, most albums are supposed to grow on you; but this one seems particularly built for growth through repeat exposure. There’s just so much going on that it’s hard to take it all in – even after several listens. With that said, if nothing stuck with you the first time through, that probably says more about you than it does about Sandinista.
- (RYM User – Aug. 2011)
“From small samples of this album I think I would like this but I whine about albums being 40 minutes long and this checks in over 2 hours. I don’t know if I could listen to the Beatles for 2 hours straight.”
If you can’t listen to The Beatles for two hours straight, perhaps music just isn’t your thing.
- (RYM User – June 2006)
“Some great songs but holy fuck it drags on and on and a lot of the production sounds dated.”
Yep, it’s long. Yes, it has some great songs. ‘Dated’ production? Sure, it sounds like an album that was made in the early eighties, but not in that instantly overwhelming and heavy-handed manner that would soon become de rigueur.
- (RYM User – Jan. 2021)
“You’d think this record would be disappointing because of it’s length, but no, it mostly is because of the unflattering production and how every song sounds like a B-side.”
Another vague critique of the production. Though it defies easy categorization, at its core, Sandinista is a new wave record. Its production is perfectly in line with contemporaneous, widely-beloved releases from the likes of Talking Heads, Blondie, Elvis Costello, and plenty of others.
- (RYM User – June 2021)
“good album but christ did it really need to be THIS long??”
Still on the length thing? And yes. Yes it did. Where do you go after releasing a genre-defying double album? A genre-defying triple album that pushes even further outward. Unless you’re boring…
- (RYM User – July 2021)
“none of the brilliance of their previous record”
Really? None? At all?
- (RYM User – April 2016)
“Pero si… The Clash sabe como experimentar, y nos entrega uno de los discos mas variados del Punk Rock. El problema: Por Dios que se hace largo este album!”
¡La experimentación y la duración son realmente el objetivo de Sandinista!
- (RYM User – Sep. 2010)
“In my opinion there’s one good song on it, and that’s ‘Police on my back’”
Ah, the one that sounds closest to the band’s earlier work. Got it.
- (RYM User – May 2019)
“A triple album with about an EP’s worth of memorable songs on it. And did you know that ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is arguably the world’s first white rap song? The Clash have a lot to answer for.”
Okay, the “trim it down” argument appears in its most dismissive form. We’ll expand on that one in time. First though, why exactly do The Clash have to answer for white rap? Do The Beatles have to answer for every terrible band that they influenced?
- (RYM User – Jan. 2008)
“There is a great single album lurking in here.”
There is. And there’s an even better triple album in here.
- (RYM User – Oct. 2016)
“Even if you distill this down to one LP it still kind of sucks.”
Dumb argument, but I’ll play along:
A1: “The Magnificent Seven”
A2: “Hitsville U.K.”
A3: “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”
A4: “Something About England”
A5: “Somebody Got Murdered”
A6: “One More Time”
B1: “Police on My Back”
B2: “The Call Up”
B3: “Washington Bullets”
B4: “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)”
B5: “Charlie Don’t Surf”
B6: “One More Dub”
Yeah, what a piece of shit…
- (RYM User – April 2017)
“the first two CDs are great but the last one brings it down a lot.”
Does the last disc of All Things Must Pass disqualify it as a classic? That doesn’t even have “Charlie Don’t Surf” on it.
- (RYM User – Aug. 2018)
“Side F is pretty much worthless.”
Not worthless, but it’s certainly the least direct. I think that’s kind of the point though.
- (RYM User – Oct. 2018)
“Ignore the last side and you’re golden”
It’s an option, I suppose.
- (RYM User – Jan. 2020)
“The third disc is the pleb filter”
It’s mildly experimental, and throws a few curveballs at the listener, but it’s not that far out there.
- (RYM User – Nov. 2009)
“And it was on this here triple album that I finally stopped listening to the Clash. I can not get into any of this, at all. But I haven’t heard this since the early eighties. This record actually made me go and listen to hard rock again like Ten Years After and Uriah Heep. So maybe I should give it another listen after a few decades……Not!”
Cool story, bro.
- (RYM User – Oct. 2019)
“This is what happens, when you seriously try to experiment, but you lack songwriting and instrumental skills, and your listening experience outside your home genre is drastically limited. Moreover, most of the music that you know outside punk is reggae/dub and some generic folk from your childhood.”
Things I learned here:
a. The Clash lacked both songwriting and instrumental skills.
b. A band who ‘only’ played punk, reggae, dub, and folk was “drastically limited” in their musical knowledge.
c. The Clash had an assigned “home genre.”
- (RYM User – Feb. 2018)
“Boy, do I love albums that are obnoxiously long! Oh wait, no I don’t. But I sure do it when these really long albums have the music to back up their length. And can you take a guess what this album doesn’t have? That’s right, it’s the music to back up it’s length! I was dying by the time we hit the hour and a half mark. But the album was barely halfway over at that point!”
Boy, do I love comments that say absolutely nothing. Oh wait, no I don’t. But seriously, I’m just gonna keep writing babble, asking questions that no one is supposed to respond to, throw in a little bit of dramatic hyperbole – and excessive exclamation points for good measure – and spend close to 100 words complaining about an album that I didn’t like, while offering zero substantive criticism of it.
- (RYM User – Jan. 2018)
“For an album as eclectic as this, it’s pretty damn underwhelming”
We’re now entering the “unnecessarily confusingly contradictory” portion of our program.
- (RYM User – April 2018)
“this is simultaneously a lot worse and a lot better than i thought it would be”
- (RYM User – Nov. 2020)
“Might just be my favorite Clash album, even tho half the album is pretty terrible.”
- (RYM User – Dec. 2020)
“even the terrible songs are good”
- (RYM User – Aug. 2018)
“the epitome of a great band overreaching. but there’s so much fantastic material here, no other band could have conceivably pulled this off”
That last part is 100% right…
- (RYM User – March 2021)
“An absolutely beautiful mess”
Okay, this one kind of tracks…
- (RYM User – Feb. 2022)
“A terrible album with tons of great songs on it… If they’d trimmed the fat off this album, it could’ve been great, but as it stands, it’s their worst album.”
We end the “unnecessarily confusingly contradictory” segment with this gem. Don’t forget that a Mick Jones-less Clash dropped Cut the Crap in 1985: an album that may be the most reviled record ever released by a great band.
- (RYM User – Jan. 2008)
“Really bloody awful. Certainly THE worst release by The Clash, even Cut The Crap is better, and that’s not even by The Clash.”
- (RYM User – April 2006)
“Baggy, boring and trite. The children of very wealthy parents The Clash thought it ‘cool’ to play the part of rebels, slumming it in squats in West London, and like such kids everywhere they were attracted to the radical left. Yawn.”
Very wealthy parents, you say? Joe Strummer was the son of a middle class civil servant, and Mick Jones was essentially abandoned by his parents – growing up with his grandmother in public housing. Yawn.
- (RYM User – Aug. 2010)
“I was there and hell this sort of self-indulgent exercise was what the punk movement was rebelling against in the first place. Thirty years later I’m still wondering ‘wtf were they thinking?’”
Perhaps some punks were rebelling against self-indulgence, but there was a lot more to it than that. Besides, maybe it’s time we stop thinking of The Clash solely as a punk band. If you go into Sandinista – or even London Calling – expecting a typical punk record, you will be disappointed.
- (RYM User – Oct. 2009)
“Proof of the sham that is the myth of British Punk. Having sworn to sweep away the ‘dinosaurs’ who were ruining music with their bloated, indulgent approach, the Clash then proceed to make a triple album. Nice. A whole disc longer than ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, not nearly as maligned and not nearly as good. The British music press are still obsessed with the myth of ‘1977: Year Zero and the ensuing genius of Strummer et al’. Needless to say, this album is barely mentioned by these historical revisionists and, if at all, it is characterised as, at worst, a forgivable aberration that is at least adventurous.”
Again, I don’t think it was ‘album length’ that the punks were rebelling against. The excess of a band like Yes was not solely in track/album lengths, but in the distance placed between creator and audience. The Clash were authentic, genuine music lovers, and Sandinista is their purest example of bringing “the people’s music” to the kind of audience afforded for a band of their stature. They play reggae, dub, hip-hop, rockabilly, Motown, gospel, folk, disco, new wave, jazz, funk, and rock here, not to show off their instrumental dexterity, but to show their genuine affection for all of these genres. Doing so in the face of a scene that now wanted to impose the kind of rules that it claimed to despise – while only charging a single LP price for three discs – was punk as fuck. Even (or especially) when the music didn’t fit into the box that it was expected to.
- (RYM User – April 2005)
I used to called this album Sandinasuea because it made me sick to think that my beloved Clash were turning into rock stars. A triple album? How much more Peter Frampton could you get especially since the album before it was a double one. Being prolific is one thing, but this is ridiculous. Well now its more than 20 years later and we can all settle back and relax. Whereas they band tried everything on London Calling and it stuck, here the band tries everything and most of it doesnt stick, therein lies the problem. This would’ve been a 5 star single album easily, but we as listeners have to suffer through the excess. The great stuff is in there if youre willing to go find it. Thank god for CD’s because the skip button is just a finger tip away.
Yeah, I rolled my eyes at “Sandinausea” too, but I’ll bite. If there’s a five-star single record in here, couldn’t the discovery of that album be the beauty of Sandinista? Surely, no two people will come up with the same “perfect” version, so The Clash give you thirty-six tracks to choose from. Why complain about the extras – especially if they put it all out for the price of a single LP?
- (RYM User – Oct. 2019)
“I’d take this album over The Wall any day and probably even The White Album on a bad day.”
Sandinista over The Wall? Yes. Any fucking day. The “White Album”? No, but Sandinista is the closest thing that it has to a spiritual successor.
- (RYM User – July 2010)
“One of the absolute worst albums I’ve ever heard.”
No, it’s definitively not. I just scanned your profile to make sure.
- (RYM User – Jan. 2020)
“Sometimes I forget, but every time I listen to this I’m reminded that it is, without question, the greatest album ever made”
It’s not that either, but you’re a lot closer to the truth than the last guy was.
- Anonymous (2001)
“It would’ve been better as a double album, or a single album, or as an EP. Who knows?”
Okay, this one is actually Joe Strummer, from the Westway to the World documentary. I’ll just counter it with another quote, also from Strummer, from just a few minutes later in the same film. Taken with the previous one, they seem sufficient in summing up this expansive, overstuffed, and brilliant album:
“It’s a magnificent thing, and I wouldn’t change it, even if I could. And that’s after some soul searching. Just from the fact that it was all thrown down in one go, it’s like, outrageous. And then released like that, it’s doubly outrageous; it’s triply outrageous.”