At the time of its release, Columbia were reportedly unhappy to be putting out a triple album at the price of a single album, upon which The Clash apparently insisted. Had the price been higher it's quite possible I would have been unable to afford it without first obtaining clearance from my bank manager. Times were tough. The Clash PR machine at least, to be cynical, gave you a band you wanted a band to be like.
One of the reviews for the album suggested it was "overproduced". The accusation reflected expectation: weren't The Clash a punk band? Wasn't this supposed to be the follow up to the most celebrated "punk" album of all time?
It's true that the sounds contained were miles away from the two minutes thirty seconds thrashes which made up the band's eponymous debut. But even there, in Police And Thieves, was the road sign which indicated the exit route from simple categorisation. The signs in the rear view from Give Em Enough Rope onwards confirmed a successful exodus.
It's not just the heavy presence of dub-inflected tracks that makes this a non-punk punk album. Notwithstanding the previous comment regarding Police And Thieves, reggae was always the punkster's fall back position, after all, and The Clash were possibly the best white exponents of the genre, although it's difficult not to give a bit of a nod towards The Ruts and their Jah Wars. It's the amazing diversity of styles, not just the reggae, that stands out.
The reggae influence is evident immediately in The Magnificent Seven, combining also a rock sensibility with funk and some flamenco-style clapping (Strummer spent a lot of time in Andalucía). But then, within a few tracks, we get breezy pop (Hitsville UK), rockabilly (The Leader), a brass band (Something About England), country (Rebel Waltz) and Jazz-Blues (Mose Allison's Look Here). There's also some house/electro pop in Ivan Meets GI Joe, which probably provoked the "overproduced" comment.
Further on there's a pure funk song (Lightning Strikes), carnival with steel drums (Let's Go Crazy) and revivalist gospel (The Sound Of Sinners), which closes the first CD.
En route there's the one punk-flavoured track on the first CD, Somebody Got Murdered, where the lyric "I've been very hungry" conjours up another piece of Clash mythology - that they once were reduced to eating the flour paste they were using to fly-post - and the reggae sound of Simonon's The Crooked Beat, a reminder of Paul's mastery of the genre, that he couldn't sing, and that it didn't matter! The track also features Mikey Dread, a Clash regular who also guested with them on stage, and who also contributes to One More Time, one of the band's best reggae songs (probably only matched by Armagideon Time - yep, Mikey's on that, too), which, when I listened to it for the first time in twenty years or so, had me skanking like I was back in the reggae club I used to frequent back in Derby around the time this record was released. Generously, the high is sustained by the addition of One More Dub immediately after, sealing the band's place in the pantheon of great exponents of reggae.
The second disc opens with, for me, the high point of the collection, a rendition of Eddy Grant's Police On My Back. This also more-or-less completes the "punk" component of the collection, though the link is tenuous. The only other track which comes close is the track which, on vinyl, opened side five, Lose This Skin, fronted on vocals by Timon Dogg. But in reality this would not sound out of place in a more recent set of eclecticism - Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's Raising Sand - due to the excellent fiddle.
Other high points include Charlie Don't Surf, with its sly reference, in the title, to cult movie Apocalypse Now and the words of Colonel Kilgore, and Washington Bullets, which gives the album its title, being about the Sandinista overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, led by Daniel Ortega, once a hero of the left, now pretty well persona non grata in such circles due to his pandering to the catholic church.
Quite intentionally, the songs provoke these kinds of musings, interlaced as they are with references to political and social issues of the day (which are the same, just with some of the names changed, today). That was one of the things that gave The Clash their significance beyond music.
Towards the end the collection loses some of its momentum and focus, with a couple of novelty tracks featuring the kids of one of the guest musicians (Guns Of Brixton and Career Opportunities) and another of studio trickery (Mensforth Hill), but still manages to slip in a couple of pearls - Kingston Advice and The Street Parade.
The only thing I can't believe is - it's three decades old!