On its first album in three years, "Cut the Crap" (Epic SE40017), Joe Strummer's revised version of the Clash sounds like a pale and ghostly facsimile of this once-great band. It is a sign of how much the rock world has changed in five years that this punk band, which once advertised itself as "the only band that matters," now seems hardly to matter at all.
So many of the songs here, especially "Dictator," "Dirty Punk" and "Life Is Wild," sound like desperate attempts by Strummer to recapture the passionate militancy that made for a glorious if tenuous solidarity between the Clash and a new rock subculture in the late '70s. In a way, these songs are the logical outcome of Strummer's dismissal of guitarist Mick Jones for aspiring to pop stardom. With Jones' pop sensibility and diverse musical touches gone, Strummer has forged the new band into a boisterous but single-minded vehicle for his political rants.
Part of the problem is that the martial rhythms, bone-crushing rhythm guitars and soccer-club choruses that animate sing-along anthems like "We Are the Clash" and "Movers and Shakers" just don't have the emotional power they once did. Not only do these garbled choruses get tiresome, but Strummer's attempt to enliven them with horn charts creates an ungainly mess of a sound.
There's no doubt that Strummer's radical stance, inherent in the album's title, has lost its bite too. Perhaps, in light of Live Aid and such, it's become more evident what rock culture can reasonably accomplish (e.g. fund- and consciousness-raising) and what it can't (e.g., fundamental changes in political structure). In "Dictator," it's hard to listen to Strummer cry out, "Yes, I am the dictator, I satisfy the U.S. team," and feel it's a meaningful insight or call to action. Likewise, in "Movers and Shakers," Strummer's notion that breakdancers, car-window cleaners and punk rockers are spiritual brethren seems mostly romantic.
It's symptomatic of the changes in the Clash that it now seems less "the Clash" than simply Strummer's band. The ambiguities and contradictions that enrich the Strummer-Jones song-writing collaborations of the past are resolved as Strummer now writes with the band's manager, the like-minded Bernard Rhodes. The new guitarists, Pete Howard and Vince White, seem to add nothing distinctive here, but simply play the old Clash sound.
What's new and refreshing on "Cut the Crap" sounds like the work of producer Jose Unidos. The album's best cut, "Finger Poppin'," cries for nothing more revolutionary than for the boys to get out on the dance floor and find a girl. But with an insistent dance rhythm composed of electronic drums and chattering synthesizers, the song cooks. The use of synthesizers on two ballads, "This Is England" and "North and South," underscores not only these songs' sweet melodies, but also the compassion that fortunately can still be heard in the back of Strummer's hoarse throat.
If Strummer seems determined to keep the new Clash sounding a lot like the old, ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones seems equally determined that his new band, Big Audio Dynamite, sound nothing like the Clash. On the group's debut album, "This Is Big Audio Dynamite" (Columbia BFC40220), Jones has tried to forge an international rock style using reggae, dub, rap and electronic dance devices. Unfortunately, Jones' sense of melody and song structure fail him, leaving eight colorful, but long and repetitive, dance tracks that go nowhere.
The best songs here, "Medicine Show" and "E = MC2," offer a hint of melody upon which all this electronic nonsense can hang. If songs like "Sudden Impact" remind one of any number of synth-pop bands, Jones has at least outfitted these pulsing arrangements with some provocative lyrics on subjects as diverse as suburban decadence, the AIDS scare and Japanese technology. But too often, Jones merely recites his words in his high, singsongy voice while the music unfolds with a circular life of its own.