ALBUM (1980)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

The Clash

Within a four-minute song on the fourth side of their fourth album, British punk band The Clash switched gears and transformed themselves from urban guerillas into a worldwide political phenomenon.

Washington Bullets, one of the key tracks on the Sandinista! album, marked the moment when the London band, notorious for spewing scorn and bile on injustice at home, grew up and turned their guns on the evils of world politics.

Mao Zedong, Augusto Pinochet, Fidel Castro and, most controversially, the White House, were caught in the crosshairs of frontman Joe Strummer's incendiary lyrics. From the atrocity of the failed Bay of Pigs assault, the US-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and the oppression of Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union, it was a tour-de-force snapshot of a world run by despots.

And to emphasise the point, the blood and fire sentiment was juxtaposed against a lilting calypso rhythm and melody more redolent of the lapping seas on a Caribbean beach than a laundry list of dictatorial abuse.

Washington Bullets is a pivotal track on a pivotal album, the band's magnum opus that broke them onto a wider, global audience and almost broke them financially in the process. While Sandinista! is essentially a six-sided political manifesto, it is Washington Bullets that best captures the tension and angst of the times.

Recorded in 1980, in the darkest days of the cold war, Sandinista! is a portrait of a world ill at ease, an unease forged predominantly by the conflicted involvement of the US in, and its reluctance to condemn, the activities of the world's dictators.

The album was released in December 1980 US troops were meddling in the Middle East and Soviet forces were trying to take control of Afghanistan; when Washington was making diplomatic inroads into the then pariah state of China; and South America was in turmoil under a succession of brutal regimes.

Its release also came as right-wing president-elect Ronald Reagan was about to enter the White House and 18 months after his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, had begun her assault on the values of the British establishment.

Sandinista! was also something of a musical watershed for The Clash. Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bass player Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon had hitherto been known for their spiky and abrasive punk rock. While their previous album, London Calling, had seen them move towards a more eclectic sound, they were still regarded as a rock band.

But with Sandinista! the band embraced a huge range of musical styles, from reggae and other Caribbean forms to jazz, rockabilly, gospel and blues, a move that broadened their appeal beyond the leather and ripped jeans punk clubs, and ensured their jaundiced view of the world sent ripples through a global music-listening audience.

As if to illustrate the band had reached a peak with their fourth album, The Clash released Sandinista! in a lavish package of three discs to be sold at less than cost price as a thank you to their fans. When record company bosses baulked at the suggestion, the band decided to part-pay the cost.