he thirty-six tracks assembled on the Clash’s Sandinista! are a thoroughly chaotic barrage of pop, punk, and dub, a scattershot set rife with what sound like demos and studded with found-sound snippets like hip-hop skits, united by little more than the central fact that it was recorded by the Clash. It is a monstrous beast, two and a half hours end to end, defying a conventional listening experience. That it works—if it does—is a tribute to the amply persuasive power of the Clash.
So why mess with such a gloriously messed-up album? Why do anything but listen to it lovingly? Or, more pertinently, what’s the bloody point of The Sandinista! Project?
I’m no hidebound traditionalist. I have no objection to covers. I quite liked the Beatles tribute This Bird Has Flown, even didn’t grit my teeth through some bits of I Am Sam, though not many.
Like the aforementioned projects, the intent of the Project was perhaps to remind the wayward of the significance of the Clash and their most expansive album. The Sandinista! Project successfully reacquaints us with the band’s English inhalation of the heady whiff of reggae and dub that gave rise to the Police and English Beat, but amply reminds us that most of those successors sucked something awful, unable to match or reproduce the organic assimilationist madness of their models.
And like the Beatles covers albums, The Sandinista! Project suffers from the equal parts blessing and curse of such rich source material—any approach much like the original is cast thoroughly in the shade by it, while any experimentalism risks tampering with what made the song worth including on a double album in the first place.
Thus, Ethan Lipton’s appropriately guttural treatment of “Corner Soul,” with jazzy minimalist accompaniment, isn’t bad. But “Charlie Don’t Surf” sounds daft sung in an American accent (and yes, I’m aware of the quotation’s provenance) and the second-string U2 stylings of “Somebody Got Murdered” whinge rather than declaim. Even Steve Wynn sounds subdued by the prospect of fitting into Strummer’s shoes, playing it mellow and safe.
A lot of the album isn’t even all that awful, merely charmless. Exactly how grim does an album have to be for the best track to be by a cover band? Because, despite an unimaginative and grammatically-suspect moniker, London Calling of Chicago get a lot very right, or at least accurate, down to the particular vocal collision of Strummer and Jones, singing something like harmonies and barking in the chorus. The Moral: It’s a cover album; leave it to the pros.
The pointless experimentation is even heavier on the second disc, presumably because that’s where the Clash stored most of their real oddities. Camper Van Beethoven, possibly the biggest name on the whole caboodle, get all experimental, tripping up the beat for pointlessly confusing effect. “Silicone on Sapphire” has a pleasant enough dub-pop feel, like hotboxed dancehall. But “Broadway” is rendered as brassy electro-soul, like Jamie Lidell suffering elephantiasis of the gonads in the presence of a banjo.
Where you could hear the Clash making deliberate decisions to go pop on tracks like “Police on My Back”—surely one of the better songs to ever open the second half of a double album—here you just hear people playing very dated-sounding pop. If Sandinista! wasn’t so bloody good, the Project would put you off the original.
Rather than reappraising Sandinista! itself, the Project ends up reflecting most on the Clash themselves. The songs still sound simple—the Clash never really abandoned that particular punk criterion—but it turns out that playing simple requires genuine inspiration.