They're Rockin' the Casbah (And Then Some...)

Devin Grant

Sex Pistols from Punk News


I missed the apex of the original punk rock scene by about a decade. When it was at its height in the late 70s, I was still in the single digits. By the time I was old enough to start listening to music independently, I tended to gravitate toward new wave—punk's younger, gentler, synthesizer-leaden cousin. Still, once I learned about bands like The RamonesThe Sex Pistols, and The Buzzcocks, I dove in as much as the local record stores in my area would allow. In the 80s, Wal-Mart was where I did most of my music shopping, but occasionally I did get out to Prism Records, which was run by this albino guy who kept live rats in a pen in the middle of the store. Not surprisingly, this was the best place to buy punk rock records in town. I didn't delve too deep, but I sampled enough to understand the genre. 


The Clash from Metrolyrics


One of my favorite punk bands back then was The Clash. Sure, nowadays they are punk rock legends, but back in the weird musical world of the 80s, the snotty English band had done something pretty amazing; they'd cracked the Top 10 on the American charts with "Rock the Casbah," a song from the album Combat Rock. I like to think that even the band's leader, the late great Joe Strummer, was kind of scratching his head at that. I bought Combat Rock for "Rock the Casbah," and soon fell in love with the sound of The Clash. That led me to their masterpiece, "London Calling." Yeah, I can hear all you punk purists groaning at the prospect of me beginning my Clash odyssey with anything other than "London Calling," but please remember I was a 12-year-old kid with a 10-speed and a big box department store to supply most of my music, so I had to take what I could get. 



Just last week Legacy Records released a couple of great Clash packages. For the super fan there is Sound System, a spectacularly opulent box set that collects the band's first five albums on eight CDs (The Clash, Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling, Sandinista! and Combat Rock), then throws in an additional three CDs of extras. We're talking demos, singles that weren't on the albums, rarities, and b-sides. There's also a DVD chock full of even more goodies including live footage and promotional videos. Add in posters, dog tags, stickers, badges, and fanzines, then pack it all up in a container that looks like a 1980s cassette boombox, and this is one of the cooler box sets I've seen in awhile. 



For the more budget-minded there is Hits Back, which collects 33 classic Clash tracks on two CDs. Rather than being just your run of the mill greatest hits package, the double album takes its track listing from an actual Clash setlist compiled by Strummer from a 1982 performance at Brixton Fairdeal. While there are some glaring omissions from the set, namely "Lost in the Supermarket" and "Spanish Bombs," you do get some great material that normally doesn't show up on hits sets. 



To get a local perspective on the releases, I talked to Chris Oplinger, who plays guitar in the local Clash tribute band Sandinistas!, and who I have known since high school. Chris was the kid in our high school class who bought a guitar, like so many teenage boys do. However, instead of setting it down after a couple of weeks Chris kept playing, and now he and his band perform a pretty amazing set of songs by Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Nicky "Topper" Headon. The rest of Sandinistas! consists of guitarist and singer Kevin McCrary, bassist and singer Eric Atwood, and drummer and singer Mike Watson


Oplinger knows far more about The Clash than I ever will, so his reaction to the Hits Back package was particularly interesting.


"As far as the sequence goes, I don't really understand using a live setlist, especially when one song is out of place and they add extras," said Oplinger. "The album could have been sequenced much better in my humble opinion if they had freed themselves from that restriction. It makes (the set) kind of disjointed. The show they picked wasn't any kind of landmark gig either, and it was Terry Chimes drumming, as was the case on the Shea Stadium release a coupe of years ago. It's kind of a dis to Topper who, when on his game, was much better than Chimes. I think the gig was chosen just for its setlist. What would have been nice is an unreleased live show from their heyday. There are good live recordings out there from which only a few songs have been released. How about a remastered Bonds Casino show or something?"


You see? I told you Chris knows his stuff. 


I was also curious as to what made the Clash so important to Oplinger that he actually went out and got together a tribute band.


"What The Clash means to me is a harder question to answer," said Oplinger. "They kind of defined punk rock with their first two albums, then went on to prove that there were no boundaries to what punk rock could be with the next two." 


I have to agree with Oplinger there. To me, that second part was what really drew me to The Clash. The band's willingness to experiment with other styles like dub, funk, reggae and such made the albums more than just punk rock records. Strummer was fearless when it came to mixing styles, and it you didn't like it you could sod off. 


Anyway, Oplinger continued: "By "Combat Rock" they were in complete disarray as a band, but that album had some of their best and most original songs. What song before it ever sounded anything like 'Straight to Hell?' Just when they could have become huge, they self-destructed. Their post-Clash stuff proves they were more than just a sum of their parts. Joe (Strummer) was one of the best lyricists out there too. His songs have a real sense of urgency, and his words conjure up vivid images and emotions. To me though, The Clash was more about their live performances than their studio work. I never got a chance to see them, but I've listened to a ton of their live recordings. They were fearless live, never afraid to crash and burn or to completely change the arrangement or the words mid-song. Joe would taunt the audience, trying to get any kind of reaction. The show was more about having a unique experience than playing the songs well. Sandinistas! have tried to learn from this. Rather than aim for a perfect performance, we keep each other just enough off-balance to make the show interesting and spontaneous. When we screw up, we laugh it off or use the screw up to do something new with the song." 


If that description of Sandinistas! has you ready to go check them out live, your next chance will be on September 28th at Art's Bar & Grill in Mt. Pleasant. Definitely check them out if you can. The live show is a lot of fun.