It’s a hard thing to swallow. Combat Rock is both a classic and the death knell for one of the most important bands…well…ever – The Clash.
While London Calling is without question the band’s most significant album, probably the most significant album in the punk genre, Combat Rock is no less impactful.
Combat Rock finds the band in the midst of turmoil, yet they are still able to conceive an album that, although at times hard to follow, remains a landmark for punk.
In general, what makes this album great is it’s range—it is fun, it is forceful, it is poignant. The album has been criticized for lacking uniformity, but The Clash departed with the idea of uniformity long before Combat Rock.
Before you go whining “I don’t get it,” recall the sprawling London Calling. The meandering Combat Rock is much harder to grasp, but in each song one can find traces of all that The Clash learned in their careers, both as musicians and world citizens.
“Know Your Rights,” with its straightforward declarations and sideways wit, reveals a band that is still dedicated to the aesthetics of its genre. The song basically sounds like a repeating car wreck, not that this is a bad thing. The smashing sounds juxtaposed against Strummer’s clear-headed lyrics create a sense of insanity the revolutionary-minded band saw in the world around them.
While the message of “Know Your Rights” is pretty blunt, the band also illustrates their ideas elsewhere in the album, and nowhere more poignantly on “Straight to Hell,” probably the album’s best track.
Headon’s light rhythms underneath Jones’ and Simonon’s liquid riffs create one of the most contemplative atmospheres in punk music. Strummer wisely substitutes his usual brash vocals for a much more melodious approach and the result is that never sounded better.
On “Straight to Hell,” Strummer proved that he didn’t have to snarl and scream at his audience to get the point across. The rest of the band proved they didn’t have to shove the music in your face to get you to listen.
Reaching towards the opposite end of the spectrum, the album is highly noted for its funk elements. The album’s most famous track “Rock the Casbah” rips its rhythms straight from funk.
The clamoring guitars, however, remain all-Clash. Most critics have pointed to this song as Exhibit A that Combat Rock is the band’s sellout album. Although the album sold mainly as a result of the downright catchiness of this song, the song is much more than a catchy tune.
Aside from “Straight to Hell,” “Rock the Casbah” features the album’s best lyrics. It remains one of the most effectual punk songs ever written for the fact that it is infectious and intelligent. It operates virtually the same way “London Calling” did, just in a more pop, less haunting way.
“Overpowered by Funk” is just as catchy, although not quite as intelligent. Its tongue in cheek tone really only works if you get the fact that it was The Clash’s way of saying “this music isn’t that hard for us to make, you know.”
The band’s ventures into the free verse/ beatnik realm are more obscure, and at first glance seem to derail the album’s projected consciousness-raising mission, even more so than the funk experiments do. Sonically “Red Angel Dragnet,” “Ghetto Defendant” and even “Death is a Star” are removed from the band’s typical aesthetic, thus rendering them somewhat inaccessible to Clash diehards and newcomers.
However, they are all essential to the album and the band’s catalogue. Although far removed from the band’s other work, these songs reveal the dedication to experimentation for which the band has become legendary. “Red Angel Dragnet” and “Ghetto Defendant” may be a far cry from the sonic identity of the band, but their topicality keeps them close to the core of the band’s ideology.
The band’s ability to create content that is so central to their identity, yet so different from their other material, even in the midst of turmoil is indeed a testament to their artistic power. “Death is a Star” on the other hand sounds as somewhat of an afterthought, revealing the turmoil that inevitably ruined the band.
In the end, Combat Rock is a testament to an ambitious band who are unafraid to venture into unfamiliar territory and who are able to do so while still staying true to their beliefs.
No doubt, The Clash are one of the most, if not the most, influential band of the punk genre. While London Calling has become something of a creed, Combat Rock is evidence of what The Clash set out to do—to turn punk into something less based in sound and more based in content.
The varying styles the band worked in on Combat Rock are more accurately depicted as levels in which the band communicated their punk ideology, rather than as flailing attempts to attract listeners.
Undoubtedly, the band succeeded more on some levels than others, but their willful, fearless maneuverability through sounds and their consistently insightful lyrics is what made them The Clash a great band, and it is these elements that make Combat Rock a classic.