Friday, January 16, 2009

My Rebuttal To AMG Review of "Sandinista" By The Clash




I recently stumbled upon Stephen Thomas Erlewine's review of The Clash's 1980 album, Sandinista, at All Music Guide. While he rightly says Sandinista includes "a number of classic Clash songs" this is as far as his praise goes. The rest of the review laments Sandinista's "messy, confused jumble" of styles and musical ideas that "weren't even worth pursuing."
I don't just disagree. I take this personally. Sandinista is not only one of my favorite albums. It is, probably*, the only album I can say changed my life.
I don't like it when people say an album, song, film or book "changed their life." Typically I don't believe them. The phrase sets off my hyperbole alarm. Yet, I'm going to stand by my own use of it in this case. I believe music would not be such a big part of my life today if I had not purchased Sandinista when I did.

Here is how it happened.
In the early 80's my sister left home to go to boarding school, leaving behind her collection of Rolling Stone magazines. When I was 12 or thirteen I started reading them. I discovered FM radio a couple of years before but found it didn't satisfy my rapidly growing obsession with rock and roll. It supplied neither the variety nor the contextual information I wanted. I devoured my sister's Rolling Stones with the hunger of a frustrated predator.
The era these issues were from, mostly 1979 through '81, featured a star system for the record reviews. Sandinista got the highest rating, five stars. John Piccarella's review described(s) the album as being uneven in quality and too long yet overwhelmingly excellent--The Clash's fin
est work to date. What I did not understand was why why I had never heard a single track from it. "Radio friendly" and "accessible" weren't concepts I understood at
thirteen.
I owned and liked The Clash and I had heard the singles from London Calling and Combat Rock on the radio. Based on this and the five star review Sandinista became the first album I ever spent my scarce dollars on without hearing any of the music.

When I got it home and put it on I was dismayed. Whereas most of The Clash and all of the radio singles made immediate sense to me I didn't get this music at all...and there was so much of it. If you have read this far you probably already know that Sandinista is a three record (later, two CD) set with 36 full length tracks. If this music was so
good why was it lost on me?

In an uncharacteristic surge of maturity I decided that I wanted to get it. I wanted to understand and appreciate this music. I resolved to listen to Sandinista until I liked it or knew why I didn't.

Over the coming weeks I listened to the entire album multiple times, read the lyrics and liner notes, reread the Rolling Stone review and gave it all a lot of thought. There were (and are) tracks among the 36 not to my liking but what I found was that many of the songs were not just meaningful in a way much radio fare of the day was not, they were moving, clever, funny, insightful and hugely substantial. All in all, Sandinista provided a satisfying musical experience like I had never known before...and rarely known since.

Sandinista taught me a life changing lesson about music; some music powerfully rewards patience and even effort in listening. Put another way, accessibility is not synonymous with quality and failure to "get" a song may say more about the listener than the music.

This experience leveraged my love of and appetite for music into a huge intellectual curiosity about music. I didn't just want to hear and enjoy songs anymore. I also wanted to hear and wrap my brain around the widest possible range of sounds. I'm still hard at it and have never looked back.

Devotees of classical or difficult music may think only a real lightweight would gain this insight from a rock record, but as I said before, I was thirteen years old and raised on Disney movie soundtracks and pop radio. Songs about growing up in crumbling housing projects and the international arms trade were pretty heavy stuff.

*There are other records that made big impressions on me about what music can be and do. There are certainly records that were gateways to styles and bodies of music I would not have known about otherwise. Sandinista fundamentally changed the way I listened to music. If my memory serves me, that makes it unique in my life.

1 comment:

I Write About said...

One other thing about Sandinista. The last ten minutes of side two; Somebody Got Murdered, One More Time, One More Dub; foretell the LA riots of '92 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_riots).

"Watch when Watts Town burns again..."