I WAS on an exchange visit to my Spanish penpal in Getafe, just south of Madrid. It wasn’t my first trip alone or abroad but it was an odd kind of holiday, not speaking the language. While Jose’s English was a million times better than my Spanish it was still pretty rudimentary and I couldn’t help feeling a little isolated and homesick at times.
Jose was a very sweet and considerate guy – much more than I was when he made the return trip to the UK, let’s put it that way – and probably noticing I was looking a bit miserable, he took me to see a subtitled version of The Life of Brian at a cinema in the centre of the town.
Unfortunately, everyone else in the cinema was reacting to the subtitles rather than what the characters were actually saying with the result that most of the dialogue was drowned out by what I remember as gales of slightly nervous laughter – the Church was an integral part of Franco’s dictatorship afterall, and he was not long dead. Not long enough, obviously. Either way, Spain was (and remains) a very religious country.
At the time, I think the place was just getting more liberal in general. Jose also took us – him, his girlfriend, and one of her mates from school with another exchange student from the UK – to a community hall in the middle of a big estate to see some Spanish art-house movie. It got progressively more erotically-charged before an excrutiating, crazily explicit scene that forced Jose, after much nudging from his mortified girlfriend, to lead us out of the hall to hoots of derision from those seated behind us.
Travel may broaden the mind and all that but the mind broadening can sometimes be a fraught process. The main evening meal, as is usual in and around Madrid, was usually about 11pm and not having eaten since the afternoon, in a rare display of good manners, I ate everything that Jose’s mum put in front of me, from black pudding to squid soup – including little tentacles with tiny suckers on them and what I think might have been an eyeball. An EYEBALL! The horror.
That was it for me. I’d had enough. I stopped eating meat altogether soon after returning to the UK.
I bought Combat Rock – probably as much as anything else to hear some English – from the music department of El Corte Inglés in Madrid. I also bought a seven-inch of I’ve Seen That Face Before Libertango (Esta Cara Me Es Conocida) and Demolition Man (El Demoledor) by Grace Jones, which I have to this very day. It was the first of many feverish rummagings through the racks of European record shops over the years.
I used to play it on the record player in the living room of Jose’s family’s apartment in the afternoon when he was in classes, much to the amusement of his mum, who thought I should be outside, doing stuff. If I was anything like the other lads on the trip, this would likely involve buying vast amounts of porn, flick-knives and cheap cigarettes.
Pennie Smith’s awkwardly-posed cover photo finds the band similarly out of place – on a railway track outside Bangkok on their Far East tour in early 1982, looking like they’re contemplating what to spend their PDs on. Paul Simonon stares into the middle distance, fag in hand and fag behind his ear, Mick Jones looks like he’s seriously thinking about getting tooled up, and Joe Strummer is covering up his eyes, images from the exotic bang-bang Betamax he bought down the market scorched into his retinas forever.
Meanwhile, Topper Headon just looks a bit off it.
It contained a black inner sleeve with lyrics written out by Futura 2000 in a manner which influenced my calligraphic style for years afterwards.
The album had a working title of Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, which was wisely ditched, as was the idea that it should be another yet another double album but this time recorded on the road.
The Clash always did great singles but every other album was distinctly hit and miss, and Combat Rock holds true to the rule that only odd numbered Clash albums are worth listening to. It finds the band exercising a little self-restraint after a brace of sprawling multi-record sets.
And even though, as ever, much of the singing is divided up between the two guitarists, it’s Paul Simonon’s bass that does most of the talking.
“This is a public service announcement,” yells Strummer like some kind of demented town-crier “.. with guitar!” and the band slams into the album’s opener, the strident, indignant Know Your Rights (“All three of ’em ..”), characterised by an unstoppable mutant rockabilly and a very much on-form Strummer.
Strummer wasn’t ever my favourite singer – he wasn’t even my favourite singer in the Clash – but this is Strummer at his rabble-rousing best and his ragged, desperate howl has never sounded better.
And in truth, Know Your Rights is as accurate and compelling an assessment of the state of free speech in the UK as anything that came out on Crass Records, which is not bad considering how much time the Clash spent swanning around the world being an internationally successful rock’n’roll band.
But that was partly the point. They had a global audience and they had begun to address global concerns. No matter how clumsy and cack-handed that might turn out to be.
The loping funk of Car Jamming, with some excellent tom work by Topper Headon, reveals a band who have taken a big bite out of the Big Apple and swallowed the lot, pips and all. “Hey fellas!” yells Strummer, delighted. “Lauren Baccall! In a car jam!”
“Yeah, postively, absolutely,” replies Mick Jones.
Up next is the primal rawk’n’skiffle of Should I Stay Or Should I Go, which majors on massive guitar licks and repeating each line of the chorus in Spanish – it’s as cheesey as fuck but it works like a charm and of course, there was an added frisson because I actually was in Spain when I first heard it .. I was a very young man, alright?
Three or four years down the line, one bemused, exasperated girlfriend actually got the DJ at some shit-hole club to play Should I Stay Or Should I Go for me. Truly horrified at my behaviour, I did the decent thing and got the fuck out of Dodge as soon as possible, while the poor girl still had a shred of dignity left.
Rock The Casbah, the album’s undoubted highpoint, was inspired by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s edict prohibiting decadent western musical forms like disco. Lyrically it’s absolute nonsense from start to finish but it was to become the band’s biggest hit. This is pretty ironic given that it was composed by Topper Headon – he even played the delicious boogie-woogie piano, as well as the bassline on the track – who would soon be booted out of the band over his long-term smack problem.
Red Angel Dragnet is one of my favourite tracks on the entire album, despite its slightly dodgy right-wing viewpoint. Based on the real story of a New York Guardian Angel named Frank Melvin who was shot and killed by the NYPD, it finds band ‘associate’ Kosmo Vinyl doing his best Travis Bickle impression, growling lines like “All the animals come out at night. Queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick. Venal. Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets ..”
It seems an odd choice for a band who were supposedly so ‘of the people’ as the Clash. But propelled by Simonon’s typically militant B-line, Red Angel Dragnet never fails to get the blood pumping around the old ticker. They just don’t make them like this anymore.
An impressive first half performance ends with Straight To Hell (sampled by MIA to terrific effect on Paper Planes years later). It’s tender, it’s compassionate and it addresses a serious issue and everything – it appears to ask why Amer-Asian children of GIs who served in Viet Nam would want to step out of the frying pan into the fire by joining their fathers in the US – but some truly cringe-inducing lyrics (“Lemme tell ya ‘bout your blood bamboo-kid, It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice ..”) surely prevents anyone from taking it too seriously.
Side two opens with a tribute to the incredible music coming out of urban Black America at the time, with the electro-tinged, thumping extended groove of Overpowered By Funk, featuring Futura 2000 talking about “livening up the culture” with a spraycan and a little bit of imagination. “Don’t you love our Western ways?” breezes Jones.
One of the album’s weaker tracks, and one of the most conventionally rock’n’roll, is Atom Tan, with a lyric based around some nonsense about living and loving when you’ve got the Bomb in the background all of the time. Yeah, whatever. It’s no Big A Little A, that’s for sure.
A more radical kind of musical experimentation comes with Sean Flynn, the story of the talented Vietnam war photographer, adrenaline junkie and son of matinee heart-throb Errol, who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. It sees them get all atmospheric and moody, with some trippy dub stylings and vaguely ethnic instrumentation.
Ghetto Defendant is another big favourite at the Undeleted Kunstakademie. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, no less, this particular beat happening makes the valid point that when it comes to keeping poor and desperate people in their place, all the pigs, soft-cops, soldier-boys and hired security goons in the world don’t do half as good a job as cheap smack – and that was just as much the case back home in London as it was in New York or LA.
“Do the worm in the Acropolis, Slamdance the Cosmopolis, Enlighten the populace ..” solemnly intones Ginsberg, like some barking ancient soothsayer.
All this is underpinned by a righteous, harmonica-infused reggae thump which occasionally cranks up a gear into a thrilling steppas anthem.
The breezy singalong Innoculated City, complete with unauthorised sample from a US TV commercial for the 2000 Flushes toilet cleaner, is the album’s penultimate track. It addresses the obscene spectacle of life just carrying on back home while our boys continue to kill and be killed thousands of miles away, largely out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a lovely driving little number but then again, the Clash were always as much about melody and tunes as they were power chords and slogans.
The album closes with the half-baked musical hall stylings of Death Is A Star, a truly disappointing and crappy end to an album touched with genius. It sounds like something Pete Doherty would reject as too messy and unfocussed. It’s just dreadful shite. I don’t really know why they bothered. Maybe they were thinking about doing a musical based on the story of Jack the Ripper or something.
Combat Rock was the last album to feature the original Clash line-up Mk II – Mick Jones left and Topper Headon was booted out soon after its release – and it was the last Clash album I bothered buying.
Having lost it years ago during my decade-long rave-haze I picked up Combat Rock once again from King Bee a couple of months back, for a fiver. The good news is that it has the 2000 Flushes commercial (it was removed from later pressings), the bad news is that the inner sleeve is missing.
What does it sound like now? Well, I can only echo the words of the esteemed Robert Christgau when he sez “I play the much maligned Combat Rock as much as any Clash record I own.”
Estoy muy feliz.