C'mon everyone, it isn't that bad…right?
[Room for an e-tumbleweed to blow across the screen]
Okay, it's bad. So bad in fact, that Joe Strummer himself began referring to this lineup as the Clash II after the album's release in hope of preserving the earlier lineups' legacies. So bad, even, that the album's lone great song, "This Is England," is often neglected a spot on Clash compilations for fear of simply drawing attention to this stinker. I am about as big a Clash/Strummer fan as they come, and it's so bad that even I have a hard time acknowledging this thing.
But before I get too far into the review, I want to clarify exactly why I am writing this. Two weeks ago it was brought up that Cut the Crap is the only proper Clash album yet to be reviewed here. I stated that I'd give someone else two weeks to write a review, and then I would carry the burden myself (surprise, surprise -- here I am two weeks later reviewing the album). I say 'burden' not because of the work involved -- if you would call it work -- but because Strummer has, through his music, virtually become a father-figure for me over the years, and nobody wants to focus on the one failure of someone they greatly admire. And I, a steadfast Sandinista! and even Walker admirer, do believe this to be the only weak project Strummer has ever headed (though there is the arguement that manager Bernie Rhodes was the "mastermind" here). I am writing this not to barrage Strummer for his great professional mishap, but because I believe that for better or worse, it is a piece of punk rock history that deserves to be recognized here simply because the name 'The Clash' is on it. I feel that addressing this album, despite its, well, crap, is more respectful than ignoring it -- the latter being the typical reaction.
So what went oh-so-wrong here? Topper Headon (drums) was asked to leave the group following Combat Rock after prolonged substance abuse problems. Next, Mick Jones (lead guitar/vocals) was asked to do the same following increasingly prevalent creative dissonance between himself and Strummer. With half of the Clash's creative force departed, Strummer didn't have the resources at the time to maintain the near-divine standards the Clash had, inadvertently or not, bestowed upon themselves. Much like the Beatles, the Clash was comprised of very talented individuals who formed a vastly superior whole. With the replacement of Jones and Headon, and the unfortunate gain of `80s overindulgence, Strummer finally succumbed to mediocrity with 1985's Cut the Crap.
The mid-`80s were a time when rock bands tended to trade in their lead guitars for over-the-top synthesizers, their rough and ragged rhythms for over-the-top synthesizers, and their better judgment for, you guessed it, over-the-top synthesizers. The Clash was no exception to this fad. A good number of songs here are bogged down by unnecessary synthesizer effects and superfluous overdubs, but it isn't just the `80s flair that drags this album down, it's everything -- songwriting, production, performance, you name it. The vocals are practically inaudible in some places, and though this does drown out the often poor lyrics, it's just plain annoying. The performance, while still decent, is deprived by Strummer standards, as it sounds almost as if he is contemplating the material's quality while the tape is rolling. Besides "This Is England," a slow and ambient tune accurately dubbed "the last great Clash song," there aren't any songs on here worth the time it takes to listen. A few tunes have decent verses only to fall flat during the chorus and vice versa. "This Is England" is the only song that gets both right. Other songs would have been strong, namely "Dictator" and "North and South," but are beaten into the ground with aforementioned `80s flair until they're just two more reasons to save your money.
If you want to hear more quality Strummer, there is plenty of material out there. Try any of the Mescaleros albums, his spaghetti western soundtrack to Walker, or his pre-Clash pub-rock band the 101ers' surprisingly solid, recently released Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited. Pick up Cut the Crap if you plan on creating some sort of elaborate and/or creepy Joe Strummer shrine containing all of his albums, or because you want to wave it in your friends' faces to prove you're a bigger Clash fan than they. But don't buy this album because you plan on listening to it -- you won't. Another option is, of course, to simply give London Calling a spin, remember why the Clash is The Only Band That Matters, and be thankful for Joe Strummer, mishaps and all.