Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Clash: Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978)



Establishing their lateral movement of punk as filtered through western movies, war mythology and male camaraderie, Give 'Em Enough Rope is by no means the earth-rattling revelation of their debut album or the act of mastery that is London Calling. The Clash's second album tends to be buried now in their discography but was an extremely important moment at the time, having been their first official release in America. (The Clash was initially only available by import.) Now, it's hard not to see it in light of their other records but it remains a pleasurable listen from a band that was seminal in so many ways. Certainly the arrival on record of canonical member Topper Headon -- a more technically accomplished drummer than any other punk group could claim -- represents a leap forward of some fashion, but in general the brief and muddy collection uncovers the hard truth about a confusing moment in the group's life.

At a time when they remained unconvinced of the Clash's marketplace validity outside the UK (and even within it), CBS set them up with producer Sandy Pearlman, known well for a slew of Blue Öyster Cult albums and for -- by some accounts -- turning around the fortunes of the Dictators. Pearlman is a strange choice for the Clash, whose ruthless invention doesn't bend well to the imposition of a uniform sound. Rope contains a good number of songs that would eventually become as famous as any of the unmistakable classics from the band's debut record, but they seem forced here. It's a looser, freer record compositionally but almost oppressively tight in terms of the performances and production.

For instance, a song like "Tommy Gun" that is such a titanic thing on stage, borne out by an enormous number of bootlegs, falls flat here because Pearlman weighs it down with painstakingly overdubbed guitars and an oddly maximized drum sound (supposedly because he hated Joe Strummer's hoarse, histrionic singing). You can hear a great song somewhere in it, but it's overwrought to the point of seeming rather staid, like applying the techniques of a Cars or Raspberries record to an act that never demanded such treatment. The awkwardness is more noticeable yet on the second half, with the spontaneity of "Drug-Stabbing Time" overrun by detail and plod, with the epic aspirations of "Last Gang in Town" buried in self-conscious rockism and the inexplicable hiding of the vocals.

The Clash do their part too, however, to make this the weakest of their first four records by far with a few repetitive and uninspired selections. Having generated an astounding quantity of music in 1977, including an absolutely classic LP and one of the best runs of singles ever managed by anybody, they now dredge up some of the rust: the half-assed "English Civil War," as weird a choice for a single as "Remote Control" had been, just sounds like some external party's idea of what a new Clash single should sound like (a criticism that would later apply to their two biggest hits, lamentably). "Guns on the Roof" is a rerun of "Clash City Rockers," with the city rockers now getting themselves thrown in jail over petty nonsense. And "All the Young Punks" suffers the same fate as "Last Gang in Town": an anthem squandered by Pearlman, except in this case the anthem isn't terribly strong anyway.

The overproduction occasionally has its benefits: the most essential Clash tune here is "Safe European Home," which widens the scope of the first album's coy lashing-out music into what sounds like the end credits theme for some modernist take on The Battle of Algiers, and the usual bitterly funny lyrics to boot. It has a sprawl and enormity that points ahead to the next two albums, and nearly justifies the collapse of the could-have-been-phenomenal "Cheapskates" under the weight of all Sandy Pearlman's emphatic "heaviness."

The other bit of foreshadowing comes in the shades here of the band's later extreme eclecticism. Already more skilled and varied than a lot of their peers, they begin here to prove themselves capable of more than even their greatest champions might have imagined. "Julie's in the Drug Squad" is still a left-field delight after all these years, a rockabilly chronicle of an LSD-ring bust that's overflowing with jokes and, inevitably, more gung-ho enthusiasm than a band like the Sex Pistols or the Damned would ever have permitted. There's that perfectly-timed "hi, man!" after the line "everybody's high-yi-yi"; there is Strummer's "Cruella DeVille"-worthy jibe "she'll even look you in the eye"; and there is, best of all, the line "they arrested every drug that had ever been made." And through it all, the Clash seem to know their way around this wildly unexpected stylistic turnaround like old-world professionals. The song's nearly peppy.

However, the strongest legacy of Give 'Em Enough Rope will probably always be its housing of "Stay Free," the first in a series of Mick Jones-led ballads that would become populist highlights of the records to come. Though it can't quite claim the actual ache of "Train in Vain," this might contain his most moving vocal. Pearlman hangs back and avoids interfering in the forceful, tough-as-nails arrangement that conceals the song's central vulnerability. It's a tribute to a friend who's hopped in and out of jail since his time in Mick's orbit. The intense sentimentality and nostalgia from the very first lines -- "We met when we were at school / never took no shit from no one, we weren't fools" -- is enough to choke you up, and as Jones memorializes more and more about his childhood and his and his pal's divergent directions, it only grows a more moving and deeply felt display. By the time Jones sends out a toast to his buddy in the crowd, even he seems gone, and you can't criticize the song for being goopy because it's so damned obvious that Jones means and feels every word of it. It's as beautiful a ballad about childhood and loss as we were given in this era.

If "Stay Free" and "Safe European Home" were all this album had to offer us, it would be enough, and it is an absolutely crucial purchase for anyone who even casually enjoys the Clash. With or without Pearlman, it's an indispensable building block in their maturity, and even in its false moments, the righteousness and dedication of the band remains a marvel. Sure, buy it after Sandinista!, which you should buy after The Clash and London Calling. We're all lucky this remarkable band made so much music for us to hear; to skip any of it because it isn't London Calling would be a sham and a slur onto oneself.

The Clash (1977)

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