By Tim Sommer
13th Oct, 2016
Deep in the heart of every rock musician, from the most credible to the most commercial, there lies someone whining, “Je suis un artiste! If only the world knew what a deep, tortured soul I am, and how complicated my record collection is!”
The more practical of these musicians merely peppers their catalog with maudlin and heartfelt ballads. Let’s call this the Bon Jovi method: “Perhaps you will forgive that Slippery When Wet stuff if I sing another song that is the musical equivalent of the page in the yearbook dedicated to that 11th grader who died.” Other artists make severe left or right turns, and produce albums dripping with uncharacteristic drama and musical complication; here I direct you to Music From ‘The Elder’ by Kiss, a histrionic, incomprehensible, and orchestra-laden concept album from 1981 that very nearly ended Kiss’ career (it’s actually a pretty good record, by the way, and features two songs co-written by Gene Simmons and Lou Reed).
Pop/rock history is absolutely strewn with such artifacts, from Pet Sounds to Bad Religion’s Into the Unknown (a fascinating pop/prog exercise from 1983 that was so offensive to the group’s fans that the band excised it from their catalog). In between these extremes, there’s Springsteen’s bold and courageous Nebraska, McCartney’s remarkable Firemen albums, Neil Young’s fascinating genre exercises (like Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’ and Arc), the Beastie Boys’ game changing Paul’s Boutique, and, of course, the great daddy of all of these sorts of records, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. There are also entire careers that are built on thwarting expectations, e.g. Scott Walker, Beck, Bowie and Prince.[i]
In the autumn of 1979 Fleetwood Mac, a wildly popular and influential band at the peak of their visibility and commercial prowess, released a much-anticipated double album that was interpreted by fans and media as radical, even experimental. Almost exactly a year later the Clash, a wildly popular and influential band at the peak of their visibility and credibility, released a much-anticipated triple album that was interpreted by fans and media as radical, even experimental.
Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is lean, effective and almost completely without waste or filler. It showcases a great band at their prime. Alternately precise and luxurious, Tusk is one of the most underrated albums of the era.
It is the anti-Sandinista!.
Sandinista! is a sprawling mess, resembling some kind of well-meaning dish that combines far too many under-cooked and over-thought ingredients (“I’m not sure yet if I’m making a soup, a stew, or a salad, but maybe we should we throw some cardamom and fenugreek in there!”). Sandinista! is like a perfect storm of mistakes, and it’s one of the most confounding and overrated albums of all time.
Respectfully, I “get” what the Clash were going for on Sandinista!—they wanted to present a travelogue of the sound of the disenfranchised classes of Jamaica, London and New York City. But it appears that no one was running the show or making sure takes were satisfactory; seemingly, nobody cared if overdubs made any sense, or if the mixes were coherent; and it certainly sounds like no one was insisting that a song be fully composed before the tape was rolling.
For 36 years, Sandinista! has been defined not by its content, but by the way it has been interpreted by an audience desperately eager to see genius where there was only confusion.
Sandinista! is a prime—perhaps the prime—example of what happens when a well known artist does something so contrarian and obscure that it gets mistaken for greatness; let’s call this “The Radiohead Effect.”
“This is so effed up, it must be good!” says the listener, who may also be the type of person who has spent far too much of his or her life listening to live recordings of “Dark Star”, owns a copy of Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters, and thinks liking Primus makes them really, really weird, maaan. Listen, pally, you want weird and good? Sit down with all four CDs of Tony Conrad’s Early Minimalism Volume One, and then talk to me about your uncle who taught you all about Captain Beefheart and the Talking Heads.[ii]
The standard line about Sandinista! is that there’s an album worth of good stuff here. Well, that’s not quite true. There may, indeed, be an album’s worth of good material, but barely an EP’s worth of good recordings.
Only a year earlier, the Clash had released one of the greatest albums ever made. On London Calling, the Clash also deviated from expectations; they crafted a near-perfect double album that accessed influences from all over the world, from all over their heart, from all over the 20th century. London Calling is an album about the conflicting public and private faces of the West, referencing the music that had touched the Clash and made them the band they had become, from Woody Guthrie to Mott the Hoople to Jacob Miller to Lonnie Donnegan.
The big difference, as far as I can tell, is that on London Calling, someone was in charge (specifically, producer Guy Stevens), and the Clash circa 1979 were a band who were seeking a form of perfection; but the band who made Sandinista! were, I believe, deliberately seeking a scattershot account of the 88 different types of music in their heads. However, I don’t think they anticipated the desultory effect an undisciplined writing, recording and mixing process would have on the finished product.
In order to underline my rather strong assessment of Sandinista!, I’ll point out some specifics.
In no particular order…“Junco Partner” is one of the more coherent recordings on the collection, but why didn’t someone ask violinist Tymon Dogg to tune up before recording? It’s precisely this sort of problem—stop the tape and tune the freaking violin—that consistently plagues Sandinista!
“Rebel Waltz” is painfully close to being a great song, but it’s about four mix passes away from a decent mix. Again, a track like this—which, if it had been more thoughtfully arranged and mixed, would have fit in well on London Calling—underlines why Sandinista! is such a troublesome album.
“The Sound of Sinners” also could have been a helluva song, if it had been produced or mixed by someone who wasn’t really, really high; and there’s almost something to “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, except, well, it’s dumb, and they made the standard stoner mistake of not being able to distinguish between the sound effects and the music (the video game sounds are mixed as high as anything else in the track).
Let’s keep on going! “Look Here”, like many of the album’s worst tracks, is an idea, not a song—“We’ll try to do a jazzy, swingy, kind of thing, um, I mean, let’s not spend too much time on it, and, uh, I have one melody line I can repeat a lot, and if it doesn’t sound quite right, we can just overdub some more stuff on it, and I think it will be, like, jazzy!”
“Up in Heaven” is a very solid riff and a fairly decent verse and…nothing else. Nada. No one bothered to write anything more. “Something About England” is a goddamn good song, but it sounds like it was mixed by someone who just drank a lot of Benadryl and Baileys and chases shiny objects without any sense whatsoever of an “overall” coherent mix—“Oh, that’s a cool guitar part! Let’s turn that up! Wow, I like the sound of that piano, let’s put that fader up for a while!”
And on and on.
Sandinista! is mortally faulty on every level, except for one: it’s not pretentious, and its fascination with various urban music styles is sincere. In this sense—the way in which it is genuine, and simultaneously under- and over-thought—Sandinista! is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait. But Dylan did something pretty brilliant on Self Portrait: he kept things small, and the performances and arrangements are on the minimalist side, as opposed to Sandinista!’s universal tendency to throw more and more crap into the gumbo.
Now, let’s extract a pretty solid EP from the album’s entire 144 (!) minutes.
“Magnificent 7” is a pioneering song with some style, effectively recorded. “The Call Up” is dynamic and strange, with a compelling lyric. And “Hitsville UK”, although drenched in the weed-friendly reverb haze that surrounds virtually all of Sandinista!’s non-mixes, is a very solid song, even if it smells a bit like a second-rate Jam or Elvis Costello composition. Sandinista!’s three unapologetically great tracks are “Somebody Got Murdered”, “Police on My Back” and “Lose This Skin” (though “The Call Up” comes preciously close); but I suspect it is no accident that two of these three were not written by the Clash.[iii]
There’s more: The thing that makes Sandinista! not just a curious, well-meaning face-plant but also a true catastrophe are the dub tracks. The half-dozen-plus dub tracks on the album are pretty sorry and confused examples of the genre. Generally, dub is the act of taking away elements, and effecting those that remain, to create a psychotronic, mesmerizing, hypnowoofer effect; however, the dub tracks on Sandinista! have more to do with “Revolution No. 9” or a bad sophomore year music concrete project. Whereas I can concede that most of Sandinista! is well intended, the dub tracks are just a disaster, a sign of what a misdirected and ill-conceived mess this whole thing is.
I’ll be honest, you can’t even compare these two albums, these extraordinary adventures. From hushed, flickering ballads to constricted, tightly wound pop built out of the closely arranged Legos of genius, Tusk is a masterpiece, or very goddamn close to it. It has to be one of the best—and most absolutely rewarding and consistent—double studio albums ever made, and it has dated exceedingly well.
To rediscover Tusk (or to investigate it for the first time!) is like stumbling upon a lost masterpiece by the Go Betweens, XTC, Nick Lowe, Kimberly Rew, the dBs, or any of the artists from the early 1980s who were trying to create a highly conceptualized yet non-indulgent uber-pop resonant with emotion and depth.
On Tusk, Fleetwood Mac distill the very best of their past (the uncluttered intensity of the Peter Green era, the gorgeous, sad restraint of the Danny Kirwan years, and the harmony-laden FM glow of Rumours and Fleetwood Mac) into one package, and present it in a detailed, fastidious fashion; every sighing and soaring note and iridescent guitar is placed with nearly mathematical intent. What results is an album that easily equals the best credible pop of the era.
Contrary to the hype that usually accompanies Tusk, this isn’t just Lindsey Buckingham’s album; in fact, if you remove his tracks, you’re still left with a goddamn terrific record.
Christine McVie’s exquisite “Brown Eyes” is a cool, shimmering, dusk-purple spray of hooded-eyed sadness; the bass-chord-driven “Never Make Me Cry” is such a great example of late-night low-volume electric melancholy that it is reminiscent of Mazzy Star or Malcolm Burn-era Chris Whitley (and despite Buckingham’s more deliberate efforts, it might be the most successfully arty track on the album).
As for Buckingham’s much noted achievements on Tusk, they are artful and meticulous, and like the work of Mitch Easter-era R.E.M., endlessly fascinating, with new production quirks and onion-skin-like overdubs revealing themselves on every new listen.
When you combine Buckingham’s precisely tweaked pop gifts with McVie and Nicks’ luxurious, poignant sigh-pop, and then paint the whole megalith in the intimate tones that Tusk is bravely produced in, the result is rare magic. I think the album most comparable to Tusk is the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, which also balanced Brunelleschi-like brilliance with Gropius-like simplicity, creating a pastoral yet ecstatic album.[iv]
Listen, I can’t say enough about Tusk, but it’s really stunning how this emotional yet disciplined album, so richly composed and edited and mixed to masterpiece-like effect, is virtually the opposite of Sandinista!.
Let’s put it this way: Sandinista! absolutely insists you call it brilliant, because if you refuse to, you’ll see what a true piece of crap it is. At some point in high school, some friend of yours—possibly someone you wanted to hook up with—showed you one of their poems. It was pretentious nonsense full of typos, and combined the worst aspects of Kahlil Gibran, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut. But you had invested so much in your friendship with this person that not only did you say you liked it, you actually convinced yourself that it was brilliant.
Generationally, we had so much invested in believing the Clash were The Only Band That Matters (especially after the Everest-like triumph of London Calling) and so much invested in believing that they were our Beatles, our Stones, that we not only tolerated the babbling, incomplete and indecipherable nonsense that was Sandinista!, we actually convinced ourselves that it was as good as the band thought it was when they were really high and recording it.[v]
I shall end this anecdotally.
One day in 1981, in my role as teenage journalist and correspondent for the U.K. music weekly Sounds, I found myself talking to Christine McVie. I told her I had heard that the Clash wanted to make sure that their new triple album, Sandinista!, would sell in stores for a lower price than Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. McVie arched an eyebrow and said, “Ah…the Clash…I believe that’s one of those bands Lindsey likes.”
One day in 1981, in my role as NYU student who lived in Weinstein Dormitory and made virtually daily pilgrimages to a record store on St. Marks Place called Sounds, I ran into Joe Strummer. He was walking on the north side of 8th Street between University and Broadway. He was holding a small brown paper bag full of cherries. Being a strident but generally amiable 18-year-old asshole, I felt compelled to tell him all the things I didn’t like about his latest album, Sandinista! I also told him how very much I liked the just-released album from his pre-Clash band, the 101ers.
Strummer listened politely, never losing eye contact. When he saw that I was done, he smiled and said, “Want a cherry?”
[i] Into the Unknown is actually a pretty good record, and the two Firemen albums (Paul McCartney’s collaboration with producer/former Killing Joke bassist Youth) are probably McCartney’s most interesting work of the last 25 years. Neil Young’s Arc, like Metal Machine Music, is much better described than heard.
[ii] Seriously, though, listen to Early Minimalism Volume One; it is a deeply important and fascinating document, and a fundamental part of understanding the birth of the Velvet Underground, Krautrock and Sonic Youth.
[iii] “Police on My Back” is a first-rate cover of an even better recording by the vastly underrated Equals, a terrific and pioneering mod/blue beat band from the 1960s led by Eddy Grant; and “Lose This Skin” is written and sung by violinist Tymon Dogg.
[iv] Two architects mentioned in one sentence! I knew those NYU classes in urban design would pay off!
[v] Regardless, I’ll still take Sandinista! over the worst multi-LP album ever made, ELP’s triple-disc Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends. If I ever get Doctor Who-like powers to travel through space and time, the very first thing I will do is destroy the master tapes to this unforgivable atrocity; only then will I consider preventing Hitler’s birth or telling a young Robert De Niro that he should never, under any circumstances, make any movies with Ben Stiller.