The Clash called it Sandinista!, but my friends and I simply referred to it as the Bible. It contained all music and all politics – at least that’s how it appeared when I was 16 years old.
Google any article about this triple LP and the term “sprawling” is invariably attached, a generic putdown implying it is bloated and largely a wasted effort. The album clocks in at a mere two hours and 40 minutes, less than a Harry Potter movie. The Bible itself is 1,200 pages, while even Adam Curtis’s recent political history of the planet, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, is six episodes long, totalling more than nine hours. It takes time to develop ideas. As Stokely Carmichael says in a rousing public speech in one of those Curtis episodes, the guerrilla studies, dammit!
Musically, the album opened doors at a time when the punk mind was closing (Napalm Death, anyone?) as the height of a Mohican appeared to be a virtue-signaller of greater importance than any anti-racist awareness. On Sandinista! I heard jazz, gospel, blues, dub and rap and knew enough to go looking for the original sounds that had inspired them.
The notion that music can change our world is discussed and dismissed, but this album packed my bags and delivered me to a revolution in real time
In one song alone, Washington Bullets, The Clash covered left-right imperialism with a brevity worthy of a Haiku. “As every cell in Chile will tell/ The cries of the tortured men, please remember Victor Jara/ In the Santiago Stadium.” It took time back then but, in the months that followed, I found out who Victor Jara was and why the reference to the Santiago stadium.
But it didn’t end there – gringo-bashing is easy. “If you can find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow bullets missed/ Ask him what he thinks of voting communist/ Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet/ How nay monks did the Chinese get?”
And who were the Sandinistas anyway?
This was an equal opportunity history lesson. Two years later I was out on the streets of Dublin with a petition against Ronald Reagan’s visit, pestered by passers-by wondering what political party I belonged to. None. I turned 21 and took off to Managua, Nicaragua, a volunteer checking out the ultimate Clash lesson – the Sandinistas themselves. A week later I was sitting in a building in San Juan del Sur, transcribing taped testimonies of Guatemalan refugees, survivors of the genocide under way in the neighbouring country.
There were two empty barrels outside the building with a petrol can beside them. If the anti-Sandinista rebels attacked from nearby Costa Rica, the order was to take all the tapes and throw them into the barrels, adding petrol and matches.
This dreamworld of exotic rebellion suddenly turned deadly serious.
Joe Strummer foresaw the great sellout. The Clash died but the spirit lives on in Fugazi, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, PJ Harvey and many others
The notion that music can change our world is discussed and dismissed, but this album packed my bags and delivered me to a revolution in real time. Decades later, Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution is over, its leader Daniel Ortega clinging to power to avoid prosecution for alleged sexual abuse of his stepdaughter, alongside more recent charges of cold-blooded murder of peaceful protesters.
A lot of road has been travelled, but the existence of a real revolution in which people seized an opportunity to remake society offered a lifetime lesson in hope and perseverance.
Joe Strummer, chief songwriter of The Clash, foresaw the great sellout. The Clash died but the spirit lives on in Fugazi, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, PJ Harvey and many others.
Last month I slipped the Sandinista! CD into the car stereo as I drove my two-year-old son to the Burren. This child owns the car stereo, and we’re on an implacable diet of Gugalaí Gug, Rabhlaí Rabhlaí and John Spillane as we sing along to Gaelic rhymes and rhythms.
There was a brief nap, during which I fast-forwarded to the last track on this, eh, sprawling triple album, landing on Shepherds Delight, a playful instrumental featuring a chorus of animal sounds. Féile was delighted and has demanded “the caora song” on heavy rotation ever since.
This went well until I rewound two songs back by accident and happened on a bunch of kids singing Career Opportunities, a rerecording of an early Clash song. Now Féile wants that on repeat also and, as we enter the playground in Crusheen, Co Clare, he’s already singing along: “Do you wanna make tea at the BBC/ Do you want to be, do you really want to be, a cop?”
It’s all out of my hands now.