For The Record #8 – Straight To Hell / Police and Thieves / Ice Cream For Crow LP

The first ever review of reggae on the blog (if you discount Costello’s ‘Watching The Detectives’, which isn’t real reggae to me, but anyway). The Clash return, while we also have the first appearance of an artist who I’ve come to adore recently, having never listened to them in great depth at all.

Straight To Hell B/W Should I Stay Or Should I Go – The Clash

‘This really sounds like M.I.A!’ is the most frequent greeting this song receives from those who I share it with, which is fair enough to be honest.

‘Straight To Hell’ is one of The Clash’s lesser known singles by those who aren’t avid listeners, which is probably down to the fact it was released as a double A-side with ‘Should I Stay’, which obviously trumps it for accessibility and popularity.

Though I think this is an absolute shame. Since I was around 14 I’ve had a huge obsession with this song, resulting in the purchase and receipt of various ‘Straight To Hell’ themed items (which can be seen below).

A song lamenting the loss of British industry, anti-immigration rhetoric and the legacy of the Vietnam War, this is quite simply one of the greatest songs ever written, both lyrically and musically. Chris Salewicz (Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer) calls it an ‘epic ballad … one of the archetypal Clash tunes’, and probably one of the only songs ever to use an R-Whites lemonade bottle to play the bass drum with.

Starting with a quiet, descending chord sequence, it grows wonderfully before being led by a stunning Topper Headon groove. In comes Strummer – his voice is strained, mourning, sometimes running out of emotional energy to get through words properly. Each verse holds a different story, the first commentating on the bleak plight of British industry, the second on children born in Vietnam to now absent American fathers, and the third covers the dour remains of the American dream

‘There ain’t no need for ya’ is one of the most underrated lines in punk history, and its repetition just hits home the message in such a desperate tone. Who needs the subjects of these stories, those left voiceless by inhumane political and economic decisions?

The second verse holds another fantastic couple of lines:

Let me tell me ’bout your blood, bamboo kid / It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice’ 

You don’t need me to explain the lines or the literary prowess of them, but it is so stark and miserable, particularly with the previous lines from the child’s perspective, seeing pictures of their now separated parents in search of where one has left without them.

Listening to it on repeat, it’s honestly making me feel quite sorry for the state of affairs that Strummer so vividly illustrates with his words. I think it’s a lot easier to empathise with the message of the song if you’re of the same political persuasion of The Clash (of which I generally am), but I think even this goliath of a song could win over anybody, whether left or right, active or apathetic.

There ain’t no asylum here’ announces Strummer slowly, before the final line alludes back to the fatherless child of the Vietnam war: ‘Oh papa-san, please take me home’.

I imagine those who listened to the other A-side in 1982 must’ve hoped for something as upbeat and punchy as ‘Should I Stay’, but to be welcomed by this must’ve been quite a sobering few minutes, a reminder that The Clash, no matter what some thought by 1982, hadn’t sold out their political principles.

This is a song of a hopeless man, angry at the injustices served to so many who are unable to take control of the situations they find themselves languishing in, as if any scattering of belief had been all but eradicated. For an even more sombre rendition, take a look at the live version below during Joe’s post-Clash years.

In all, a marvellous piece of work.

‘Should I Stay’ isn’t a song by The Clash which I’ve never particularly devoted much time to, mainly because of my preference to live in my hive of obscurity which has consistently featured, from The Clash, the whole of Sandinista! (which is basically untouched by many Clash fans my age). Total musical snobbery from me, really.

I think it’s been played so much that nothing really surprises me or jumps out as me as special or memorable. It’s a very good pop song, but doesn’t feel like The Clash sometimes. I don’t feel the need to run through it or particulalry review it. I’m just generally quite indifferent to it.

Still, as singles go, I don’t think there are many as influential as this. ‘Straight To Hell’ (the real A-side) stands high above its companion on the grooves, however.

A-Side: 5/5   A-Side 2: 3/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Police and Thieves B/W Soldier And Police War – Junior Murvin / Jah Lion

The king of falsetto dub in his most glorious outing.

I first listened to Junior Murvin a day or two after he passed away – I had no idea who he was, though my only point of reference was The Clash’s cover of his song which I hadn’t even listened to. My hearing of Murvin’s brand of dub was recevied with general indifference and a kind of ‘how can anyone seriously listen to this?’ appraisal.

Something must’ve grabbed my attention though, as within about a week I’d bought the Police And Thieves album on CD and was playing it on a daily basis. I now credit Junior Murvin with starting my love for dub; not many have ventured further into his discography, but his album Badman Posse is also a stunning record which I recommend to anyone reading.

Anyway, ‘Police And Thieves’ will forever be a timeless classic which I don’t feel needs much analysis. It’s one of Joe Strummer’s favourite records (and I’ll speculate many other punks rank it highly too) and is a take on police brutality that could be applied to practically every society at some point. Lee Perry’s production, as ever, is sublime, and Murvin’s voice is in a total league of its own.

I would have to concede, however, that repeated listens over the years have taken the pleasure of listening off somewhat, but it’s still a wonderful track nonetheless.

Now there are two releases with different B-sides, and I appear to not have the original version. This contained a song I know from the Grand Theft Auto games called ‘Grumblin’ Dub’, found on a reggae radio station called Blue Ark DJed by Lee Perry (I wish I’d discovered it some other way).

My single instead has another dub version of ‘Police And Thieves’, entitled ‘Soldier and Police War’, recorded by Jah Lion. I’ll admit, it is absolutely brilliant. A much more dreamy and hazy take musically, it features much louder and up front vocals with extra effects and sounds to create a fantastic rendition of Murvin’s classic.

Another brilliant discovery on the B-side (one to add to the multitude this series has brought) to go with a dub masterpiece.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side: 4.5/5

Ice Cream For Crow – Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

This is an extremely recent discovery. I first heard Captain Beefheart on an Old Grey Whistle Test compilation, and I have to say that they blew my mind completely. Van Vliet (singer) looks totally, totally possessed by some invisible musical phantom, and it’s such an emphatic performance by all on stage.

However, I didn’t feel obliged to look any further, which I find a completely absurd decision on my half.

Then, around aged 15, I heard Magazine’s punchy cover of ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’, B-side to ‘Give Me Everything’ (which I think is an absolutely perfect song). ‘I Love You’ appeared in several playlists of mine and was one of my favourite of Magazine’s songs. I knew it was a cover of Beefheart after a bit of research, so surely I was to look further into their discography?

Nope – instead I went into Magazine’s third album, and Beefheart was off the agenda.

So surely, surely, there’d be another encounter. And whaddya know? Watching a music documentary with Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order, the 1982 video for the ‘Ice Cream For Crow’ single comes on, with Morris explaining that for some Beefheart was utter rubbish, and for others a total genius. Watching this bouncy, bluesy beat played in the middle of a desert with Van Vliet letting out these croaky yelps was simply spellbinding. And that was the moment I finally got onto listening to the Ice Cream For Crow LP, and subsequently purchasing the 12″ album for myself.

(For those wondering, the white rectangle on the cover says the record had been property of Granada TV – does this mean that the album has been in the hands of one Tony Wilson? I like to think so…)

And the album kicks off with the same track, a jaunty tune which is in a total league of its own. The lyrics are so odd and can’t really be explained, but it’s what makes the listening so special. A fantastic song.

‘The Host The Ghost The Most Holy O’ is another brilliant, dark and sinister song, with great lines such as ‘The sky is dark in daytime / and still the black birds beauty lyrics clean’. I’m not big on the chanty closing lines, but a very strong song nonetheless.

Now, ‘Semi Multicoloured Caucasian’ is the standout track in my opinion. You can’t ask for more from an instrumental track. It’s one to nod your head to, an uplifting showcase of utter class which never outstays it’s welcome; if anything, it doesn’t stay for long enough. The guitar riffs are fantastic in their minimalism, and the choppy chords along side them compliment them fittingly. Even the drumming, which I’m sure is half improvised, is simply divine. Have a listen below…

‘Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat’ is by far the best song name I have ever seen, and it’s a perfectly decent song. Organised disjoint is the only way I can describe it, and Van Vliet’s voice compliments the backing beautifully. This is followed by ‘Evening Bell’, which is a less memorable instrumental, solely featuring the lead guitar. It’s nice enough, though nothing particularly to shout about.

Side one closes with ‘Cardboard Cutout Sundown’, which is an another excellent song name, and is a totally glorious mess – one of those ‘it’s either rubbish or amazing’ songs which characterises much of the album, to be honest. Side two then opens with ‘The Past Sure Is Tense’, which is actually quite a pleasant track as they go. Nicely crafted, classic absurdities from Van Vliet and an all round strong outing.

‘Ink Mathematics’ starts a little more traditional in terms of the structure and form of songwriting, but slowly descends into another typically Beefheart song thrown together by random sounds liberated from any idea of time signatures or rhythm. Vliet’s high-pitched belch of the song’s title is also oddly endearing too, and it’s just one of those tunes you can’t really explain to other people. A bit like trying to explain why The Fall are so good to others.

‘The Witch Doctor Life’ is a wonderful swinging song, an original take on the blues sound which matches perfectly with what are basically screams from Van Vliet at this stage of the album. The solos are soft, masterful and frankly quite beautiful. A top performance from all.

Now, I adore solo spoken word songs, particularly with a peculiar or distinct voice. ’81 Poop Hatch’ is utterly stunning. Van Vliet’s voice is brilliant, and his spoken word is even better. There are four standout lines for me:

Neighbours laugh through sandwiches / Harlem babies, their stomachs explode into roars / Their eyes shiny with starvation / Speckled hula dance on my phonograph’

It’s completely perfect, in my opinion, though I can see why a lot of people are turned off by the spoken word kind of stuff.

I will say that the last two songs suffer as the ideas for the organised mess sound become a little tired and a bit repetitive, especially as the tone of the instruments don’t seem to change too much. But for what they’re worth, they’re still good songs. I do prefer the closer ‘Skeleton Makes Good’, which just makes me laugh to be honest. I could never really put it on and seriously listen to it, however.

All in all however, this is certainly a discovery that I won’t forget for a while, and I can’t believe I put Beefheart off for so long having had so many chances to access their many wonders. And it’s also a shame I’ve managed to listen to their last studio album before any others, but I can’t wait to delve further.

A strong showing from Beefheart overall.

Side One: 4.5/5   Side Two: 3.5/5   Sleeve (minus Granada sticker!): 4.5/5

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