Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Duff Review: The Clash featuring Ranking Roger - "Red Angel Dragnet" b/w "Rock the Casbah"!

Ska Boots Series
2013
Fuschia vinyl 7" record (with Go Feet paper label)
Available in the US through Jump Up Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

God, if these two tracks had seen the light of day back in 1982--say on a 12" single, which were all the rage in the 80s--my head probably would have exploded from the sheer euphoria of experiencing this union of The Clash and The English Beat (two of my favorite bands, both then and now). Truth be told, I didn't even know that these demos existed until I read about them in the Marco on the Bass blog last summer. But it makes complete sense that some sort of collaboration was inevitable between these bands, as they both loved and successfully mined similar musical territory in ska and reggae.

Whether due to some wonderful cosmic coincidence or a brilliant pairing concocted by an unusually savvy promoter, The Clash and The Beat shared the stage for seven shows in Paris at the Theatre Mogador in September 1981 and the bands got on so well that The Clash invited Ranking Roger to toast during their covers of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" for the duration of the Paris residency (and a few years later, Mick Jones joined Dave Wakeling's and Ranking Roger's post-Beat group, General Public, though he almost immediately departed to form Big Audio Dynamite with Don Letts). When it came time to record The Clash's follow-up to the extraordinary Sandinista, Strummer and Jones invited Ranking Roger to toast on two of their new cuts, "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah." Initially, the title for this post-Vietnam War-obsessed double album was Rat Patrol from Ft. Bragg and Mick Jones handled all of the producing and mixing. However, when the rest of the band heard the results, they were less than thrilled--and classic rock pro Glyn Johns, who had produced albums for The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Eagles, amongst others, was brought it to finish the job (with only Strummer at his side). In the process, the double album was culled down a single LP and retitled Combat Rock (and the Rat Patrol mixes were later repeatedly bootlegged and now can be found, of course, on the internet).

The unnamed Brits behind the Ska Boots series (which has released ska and reggae covers/tracks by Joe Strummer, Amy Winehouse, The Specials, Madness, Lily Allen, No Doubt, Billy Bragg, Ian Dury, The Pogues, Jools Holland, Eddie Vedder, and a pre-Madonna Madonna) have released Mick Jones' demo mixes of the sweet, dubby extended versions of "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah" with Ranking Roger toasting over these cuts. While the sound quality is what you would expect for a demo--and Roger's vocals aren't fully integrated into the mix of these songs, they're riding on top--I doubt most Clash/Beat fans will mind, since it's so cool to have these versions in such a nice, tangible package. (Cheeky of them to use the Go Feet paper label for this bootleg, but it works well and in plays out a crossover fantasy that I'm sure exists in many a fan's mind.)

Of the two cuts here, the "Taxi Driver"/Guardian Angels/Jack the Ripper mash up "Red Angel Dragnet" works better; there's more menace in Roger's chatting and vocal effects--and it's far more effective than Kosmo Vinyl's Travis Bickle imitation (though here I miss his recitation of "One of these days, I'm going to get myself organizized" that appears right before the end fade of the Combat Rock version of this song). Also, the loping song structure of "Red Angel Dragnet"--somewhere between reggae and rockabilly, courtesy of Paul Simonon's songwriting--lends itself better to a dub version and gives Roger the space to do his thing. I've always had a soft spot for this deep album cut, as it taps into and reflects the seamier, lawless, and dangerous side of New York City in the early 80s (and celebrates a movie that revels in it) that was very real to me. I was seeing Curtis Sliwa's red windbreaker and beret outfitted Guardian Angels (the police shooting of Guardian Angel Frank Melvin inspired Strummer's lyrics for this song) who were citizen patrolling the grimy and decrepit (but sometimes stunning) subways I had been riding alone since fifth grade beneath the burning South Bronx, back and forth between Manhattan and Yonkers, and I had survived my infrequent, but unpleasant and nerve-wracking trips through Times Square, which was packed with porno theaters and heavily populated with con artists, drug dealers, and pimps and prostitutes--all of whom were depicted pretty accurately in Martin Scorcese's vigilante movie "Taxi Driver."

Lyrically, Ranking Roger's toasting in "Red Angel Dragnet" makes reference to the horrifying January 14, 1983 London Metropolitan Police ambush and shooting of Stephen Waldorf, whom they thought was escaped prisoner David Martin (it should be noted that Combat Rock was released in May of 1982--so this track could not have been part of the pre-Glyn Johns Mick Jones mixes). Roger also refers to the very real threat of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation in the early 80s (a few years earlier, the UK government had disclosed that American cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were being stored on British air force bases and could be launched against the Soviets from British soil; this, of course, made England an obvious target for the Russians in the event of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers): "Di Russian, di American/Dem both have a plan/and if we no careful/They involve a England/So what's the worry?/It's the cruise missile/Cause if we not careful/We end up in a pile." Not surprisingly, Roger makes a plea for "love and unity" at the end of the song, which was a repeated (and very much worthwhile) theme during his tenure with The Beat (see "Stand Down Margaret").

Mega-hit "Rock the Casbah" (The Clash's only top 10 single in the USA)--music by Topper Headon, lyrics by Strummer that were inspired by Iran's new(ish) religious fundamentalism that severely cracked down on popular music, amongst many other things--is almost too tightly wound of a pop/dance song for Ranking Roger's toasting; the backing track is too busy and dense. Having said that, it's still a great version of this song that should have been further developed (like "Red Angel Dragnet") and released back in the day. The audience was there and eager for this kind of experimentation, though the band (Strummer, in particular) was more focused on making a more mainstream hit album that would generate the financial reward and true fame in the USA that had eluded them (see Tony Fletcher's "The Clash: The Music That Matters"). I cringed when I learned that they were opening for classic rock dinosaurs The Who at Shea Stadium in Queens on the Combat Rock tour and didn't even try to go see them because of it. It's too bad that The Clash couldn't split the difference between Strummer's rock star ambitions and Jones' desire to further explore musical avenues in hip hop and reggae (and that Topper Headon couldn't quit the drugs and rejoin the band). They should have realized both the hit pop album and released Jonesie's more experimental dub/alternate versions as related singles--and maybe this might even have kept the band together long enough to release one more great Clash album with (most of) the original band (instead, we had to settle for Big Audio Dynamite's good to great Strummer/Jones collaboration in No. 10, Upping St. in 1986).

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