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Relive The Album: The Clash’s best-selling record Combat Rock is a concise offering with no aversion to controversy

It’s difficult to talk about a band as extensively covered as The Clash. Everyone has their own ideas about what makes them the definitive face of British punk, whether it be the leftist political ideologies that dominated their lyrics, their bold mixture of hard-rock, reggae and dub, or the dog-eyed spirit of disregard and unpolished production that defined their earlier years. It seems superfluous to try and venerate what they did over the course of their career – their success speaks for itself – still, if not at least to indulge in what is now a largely bygone genre, looking back on The Clash’s music will always evoke a sense of the energy and bold musicality they had to offer.

Combat Rock, the band’s fifth studio album, released in 1982, is their best-selling record to date. It went double-platinum in the US, and includes two of their biggest hit singles, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock The Casbah”. Many criticized the record upon its release, labelling it an unbefitting commercial sound for a band that was otherwise outrageously anti-convention. I reiterate, everyone had and still has their own ideas about this album, but its legacy is one of immense proportions, a now gritty reminder of just how audacious The Clash were as songwriters.

Opener “Know Your Rights” declares itself a “public service announcement” before reminding listeners, “you have the right not to be killed”. Joe Strummer shows no aversion to controversy, often citing the Vietnam War and Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war-drama Apocalypse Now as influences on his writing. “Straight To Hell” talks about the abandoned children fathered by American soldiers to Vietnamese mothers, while “Innoculated City” mocks American morality with the repeated phrase, “I was just following orders.”  

Listening back to these tracks forty years later, Strummer’s enduring presence over contemporary music is palpable – I’m reminded of bands like Idles, Fontaines D.C. and Slaves, each of whom are led by a charismatic front man unafraid to stick it to the man. But whilst having a level of social consciousness almost seems a pre-requisite to making music nowadays, that wasn’t always the case for rock bands in the 80’s and 90’s. For The Clash to make a so-called ‘commercial’ album that simultaneously challenged world politics as severely as it did is no small detail, and is in fact what makes this album so bizarrely profound.

Behind the popular glam rock of “Should I Stay” and “Atom Tan”, the Beatles-esque acoustics of “Death Is A Star”, or even the new romantic swigs of somber synth on “Straight To Hell”, Combat Rock displays a sensitive evolution in the band’s approach to music-making. London Calling might be considered their best record, and maybe it is, but no other record in their discography feels as complex, nor as understated.

Strummer admits that he had felt the band drifting apart creatively, and had invited founding member Bernie Rhodes to rejoin them for the recording of Combat Rock, in attempt to restore the chaotic dynamic of their early days. Ironically, the result didn’t match the anarchy they were looking for, but the album is better off for it.

Steered by linear melodies and simple rhythms, Combat Rock is a concise attack on the senses. It might seem marketable for these same reasons, but that doesn’t make it any less commendable. Subtleties of a younger band pervade tracks with caution, constantly leaning away from obscurity. By album number five, The Clash had invented their own language, their own way of speaking, and when Combat Rock opened its mouth for the first time, everyone could understand what it was saying.