Combat Rock / The People’s Hall [Special Edition]
Punk was never supposed to be about excess. And yet, with the two-LP London Calling and the three-LP Sandinista, The Clash had pulled out all of its stops and inspirations and loaded its third and fourth albums with experiments in dub, ska, funk, hip-hop, chamber pop, reggae, ABBA, and R&B to go with their hard, socio-politicized punk screeds. Both were brilliant, but obviously frustrating to their label looking to maximize the band’s rock hitmaking potential amidst its wealth of free-flowing, test-pattern creations. With that came the 1982 album Combat Rock—the bluntest of all their albums since Give ’Em Enough Rope, and the final recording from the band to feature Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon, and Mick Jones, the latter being Strummer’s Clash co-founder who would leave, soon after, to form Big Audio Dynamite.
Because no Clash album could come without its rich overachievements, developing further opportunities in which to experiment, the quartet—after its famed 17-show residency at NYC’s Bond’s Casino in 1981 (I was there, proudly)—tried out new tracks at London’s squalid People’s Hall. That some of these tracks made the Combat Rock cut (with rock-god producer Glyn Johns behind the board) while others didn’t is what makes this new reissue essential, as it ties together most of what The Clash recorded in studio and demo sessions after the rapping “Radio Clash” 12-inch—plus their collaboration with late toaster Ranking Roger (from The Beat) on a separate EP.
The wry potency of Combat Rock stays heartily intact with Strummer’s pummeling “Straight to Hell” and crankily protesting “Know Your Rights” and “Atom Tan.” Here, Johns’ mix is mastered freshly enough for crisp currency without sounding altogether too clean. The same goes for the swinging pop of Jones’ “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Inoculated City,” as well as the vocal pair’s rhythmic romps “Rock the Casbah” and “Car Jamming.” The effervescent experimentalism devised across London Calling and Sandinista is more of a tired test on Combat Rock, leaving the soul-lite likes of “Overpowered by Funk” (no, graffiti artist Futura 2000 should never rap), “Ghetto Defendant” (neither should Allen Ginsberg), and the muzzy dub of “Sean Flynn” to sound messy and dated.
The People’s Hall LP and the Ranking Roger tracks offer further—even gentler—tests into ska-punk and pop with happily mesmerizing versions of “Red Angel Dragnet” and “Casbah” featuring Roger’s throaty, fluid toasts, while the People’s Hall versions of “Sean Flynn” and “Know Your Rights” are both looser and lighter than they appear on Combat Rock’s finale. “Beautiful People Are Ugly Too” and “Kill Time” get their time in the sun with the shambolic sketchbook, discoid demos of “The Fulham Connection” and “Idle in Kangaroo Court.” The murky “Midnight to Stevens” is a lovely tribute to their one-time mad-hatter producer Guy Stevens (the man behind Mott the Hoople’s ruckus).
And oddball instrumentals such as “He Who Dares or Is Tired” and the found-sound collage “Outside Bonds” dedicate themselves to The Clash’s run through Manhattan’s boroughs in 1981, and prove to be more happy-to-hear curiosities than essential installments to the canon. Then again, what made—and still makes—The Clash’s legend is that the canon was always a mess, and yet they managed to make some of the most pertinent and poignant sounds while restlessly experimenting with the form. Rock that casbah.