Limited edition 12" vinyl EP/digital
(Review by Steve Shafer)
During The Clash's recording of Sandinista! in New York City at The Power Station and Electric Lady studios in 1980 and their extraordinary 17 show residency at Bond's in Times Square in 1981 (since an unhappy with this triple-LP album Epic wouldn't help finance a national tour, their only US gigs in support of Sandinista! with mind-blowing, Clash-selected opening acts like The Fall, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Slits, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Bush Tetras, ESG, and others opening, according to the book "The Clash FAQ" by Gary J. Jucha), they had become completely enamored, if not obsessed, with the funky, druggy decadent, definitely crumbling, and oftentimes dangerous concrete jungle that was New York City in the late '70s and early '80s ("Ford to City: Drop Dead"; "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning"). It was the greatest city in a nation still very much traumatized and disillusioned by the hubris, moral bankruptcy, deception, and madness of its leaders and failures of its institutions in the wake of the loss of the Vietnam War and the corruption/illegality at the highest levels of government in Watergate (as well as the more recent humiliations of the late '70s oil crisis, stagflation, America's "crisis of confidence," the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the agonizing Iranian hostage crisis).
While this societal breakdown and collective PTSD of sorts played out around The Clash during their exploits in New York City (whose ghettos they dubbed "an urban Vietnam" in "This Is Radio Clash"--this Don Letts directed music video features live footage from the Bond's residency, as well as fantastic shots of The Clash's somewhat real/somewhat romanticized version of NYC), it also was being reflected/reinforced in dozens of films in the 1970s, including Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, Hal Ashby's Coming Home, and most significantly in Martin Scorsese's lurid, NYC-based Taxi Driver (about a deeply disturbed Vietnam vet who almost assassinates a presidential candidate after being romantically rejected by one of his female campaign volunteers and in a botched murder spree-suicide attempt to rescue a child prostitute he was obsessed with saving is mistakenly hailed as some kind of hero by the media), which was one of Joe Strummer's favorite movies (and The Clash loved their movies--during the recording of Sandinista!, they stayed at the Iroquois Hotel, because they'd heard James Dean used to bunk there). As well, Francis Ford Coppola's surreal and hellish Vietnam War take on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Apocalypse Now had a huge impact on the band and was the inspiration, of course, for "Charlie Don't Surf" on Sandinista! It's interesting to note how Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle and Apocalypse Now's Captain Willard are clear descendants of the ultra-violent, loner American Wild West antiheroes depicted in 1960s spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone and others which influenced The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell's JA rude boy/outlaw fantasy--Jimmy Cliff's character Ivanhoe Martin even goes to the cinema to see Sergio Corbucchi's Django in one scene. (The Harder They Come was so beloved by the myth-loving and self-mythologizing Clash that they referenced it in two songs: "Safe European Home" and "Guns of Brixton.") To the dismay of their British fans and the London music press (who felt they were losing one of their own to the Yanks), The Clash's growing infatuation with American culture, music, and politics (quite evident on London Calling and Sandinista!) was about to go full bore.
Strummer's "Straight to Hell" is primarily about the estimated 50,000 sons and daughters of American GIs and Vietnamese women who were conceived during the war, but abandoned when the U.S. finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1975--though it also condemns Western imperialist nations' almost wholesale persecution/rejection of immigrants and refugees from their former colonies. These bi-racial children--who were so obviously fathered by white, black, and brown American soldiers--faced harsh discrimination and desperate poverty in Vietnam; many wound up in orphanages. To the Vietnamese, depending on your politics, they were children of the ally that failed/betrayed you or the offspring of your enemy; they stood out physically in a largely homogenous ethnic society; and a good number, but certainly not all, of their mothers had been sex workers. In 1980, a number of articles in U.S. newspapers and a documentary by Bill Kurtis titled "The American Faces" began to raise national awareness of the plight of the Amerasian children of the Vietnam War; clearly Strummer was paying attention. This was another (very real) example of the folly and failure of U.S. imperialist Cold War policy for Strummer to comment on (and it was an indirect swipe at Reagan, who--terrifyingly--was heating up things again with the Russians in the early 1980s). "Straight to Hell" went on to become a fan favorite, generated great critical acclaim (Jucha opines that it's the closest The Clash came to writing their own "Armagideon Time"), and has been covered, sampled, and versioned by other artists, including Skinnerbox, M.I.A., Elvis Costello, and Lily Allen and Mick Jones.
Several decades pass and Strummer ends up co-writing the title song for Horace Andy's great 1999 Living in the Flood album (released on Massive Attack's label after Andy came to widespread attention due to his work on Blue Lines, No Protection, and Mezzanine); at the time, when he'd come to town with the Mescaleros, Strummer mentions to Milwaukee reggae musician, producer, and Clash fanatic Eric Blowtorch that he thought "Straight to Hell" would be a perfect song for Andy to cover. Years later, when Blowtorch was corresponding with Andy, he asks if he has ever covered any Clash songs and Andy tells him that he has recorded a version of "Straight to Hell," but wasn't satisfied with the results. This sets Blowtorch on a mission--and this four-track EP is the spectacular result.
Horace Andy and the Welders' roots reggae take on "Straight To Hell" takes on renewed meaning and relevance as millions of immigrants and refugees across the globe ("It could be anywhere/Most likely could be any frontier/Any hemisphere") flee war, violence, extreme poverty, and man-made or natural disaster in the hope of finding peace, stability, and opportunity for themselves and their families--all while America extinguishes Lady Liberty's beacon and rolls up the welcome mat through Trump's despicable (and un-American) white supremacist/nativist/xenophobic Tweets, utterances, and policies, which gives cover to ethno-nationalists throughout Europe ("No man's land/There ain't no asylum here/King Solomon, he never lived 'round here/Straight to hell, boy/Go straight to hell"). In this version, the violin-sounding synth and lead guitar lines are transformed into bright horn riffs and the rhythm section keeps the pace relatively brisk--but it's all sparse enough to leave space for Andy's plaintive vocals to deliver the devastating lyrics. Since The Clash purposefully shed much of their reggae sounds on Combat Rock with the explicit goal of reaching a broad American rock audience--which they found and then some--it's wonderful to hear this track in a full-on reggae setting with Andy's beautifully expressive voice (Joe, of course, was spot-on about him singing this song).
Back in 2007, Blowtorch spent a summer volunteering at the Alpha Boys' School in Kingston, JA (which fostered many of the island's greatest musicians, including Tommy McCook, Johnny Moore, Lester Sterling, Don Drummond, Rico Rodriguez, Theophilius Beckford, Headley Bennet, Cedric Brooks, Vin Gordon, Leroy Smart, Eddie Thornton, Yellowman, Horsemouth Wallace, and more!). While there, he met U-Roy (and later recorded and released the Groping in the Dark/Groping in the Park 10" in 2010), who eventually put Blowtorch in touch with Big Youth (though this collaboration has all been long-distance; they've never met). On the terrific deejay version "Pair of Dice," Big Youth serves up some wordplay on the "Straight To Hell" lyric "this is your paradise" and great commentary on the high stakes gamble immigrants and refugees are taking: "If you're seeking asylum/Then paradise is a pair of dice/ICE stands for immigration and custom enforcement/Minutemen...racists/Trouble on the borderline/You've got to sell your heart/Sell your soul/You have to sell your kidney sometimes."
"Asylum Seekers" (AKA "Reason Pan Babylonian Delusion") is an amazing mash-up (by Shane Olivo) of a version of Horace Andy's "Straight To Hell" vocal track with Big Youth's singjay performance (Andy: "Let me tell you about your blood family, kid/It's ain't Coca-Cola..." Youth: "...It's racist!"--though mostly Big Youth urges asylum seekers to "Do right/Be right/Live right/Live good"). This mix includes some choice electro-synth percussion reminiscent in what has to be a nod to M.I.A.'s "Straight To Hell"-sampling "Paper Planes" (which also is about the challenges of immigrating legally and the stereotyping of immigrants).
The EP is rounded out with Blowtorch's haunting "Christmas in Ladbroke Grove" (performed with Cecilio Negron, Jr.), who was inspired to write this very Clash-like reggae track when he learned the heartbreaking news of Joe Strummer's death as he was in London around Christmas in 2002 to perform at Gaz's Rockin' Blues with The Inflammables.
"Running from Ankara to Tehran
In the school cafeteria someone left the radio on
Older brother just 19 and gone, his only solace in a song
He only just stopped squatting, said something ‘bout a boy named Rotten
He used to sweep the factory floor, then he ran off to join the peace war
He led the charge into the terror zone then left us on our own
He used to make the breeze a blow
He used to be your hero
Where did that gravedigger from Tehran go?
Where is Woody? Where is John? Joe?
Christmas night so quiet on Ladbroke Grove
Not one soul in sight on Portobello Road
Someone turn the radio on
Give us solace, give us song – where he gone?"
It's quite affecting and one of the best songs about Strummer I've heard--and is perhaps a track to pull out every December 22nd (or whenever the feeling strikes) as you hoist a few in Joe's memory. I imagine he'd be very pleased with this EP and touched by the tribute.
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10% of each Straight To Hell purchase goes to Doctors Without Borders/Medicin Sans Frontiers, who provide medical care to human beings in dire circumstances in the most dangerous parts of the world.
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Postscript: It wasn't until 1987 that America finally recognized the Amerasian children in Vietnam--our own kids--and established refugee/immigration status for them through the American Homecoming Act. While it was in effect (from 1988-1990), approximately 23,000 Amerasian children and 67,000 of their next-of-kin were resettled in the United States.
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Update: Washington Post, 8/31/18: "Thousands of Vietnamese, including offspring of U.S. troops, could be deported under tough Trump policy"
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