The Reissue Section: The Clash’s Videographer Don Letts Looks Back at Combat Rock

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The time has come to cut the crap and get your head right about Combat Rock.

Why this album — the amalgamation of pretty much everything that made The Clash cool — does not get its proper due in the same way the first album and London Calling do is beyond comprehension. Originally mapped out as a double LP called Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, the band’s label brought in producer Glyn Johns to whittle it down to a tight, taut 45-minute record that set the scene for their greatest commercial success. Combat was the biggest hit of their run, powered by two all-timers in “Rock The Casbah” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”

The 40th anniversary expanded edition adds a second disc and is likely the closest hardcore Clash fans will ever get to an official version of Rat Patrol. This People’s Hall version is so posh, we rang up The Clash’s longtime videographer and associate Don Letts to get his take on the new set and the era it represents.

(Credit: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
(Credit: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

SPIN: There seemed to be a lot of momentum pushing up against The Clash heading into 1982…
Don Letts: They had been on an amazing run of creativity that really sowed the seeds for all of it coming together in America in the early ‘80s. They’d done all the groundwork.

The reciprocal embrace between The Clash and the hip-hop community must have played a key role as well, as it seems.
You gotta remember how Black radio stations were picked up on tracks like “The Magnificent Seven” and “Overpowered By Funk.” In fact, [New York City hip-hop radio station] WBLS even had a remix of “Mag 7” they used to play called the “Dirty Harry” remix, where it had samples of the Clint Eastwood film throughout. It opened them up to a whole new Black and Hispanic audience who didn’t even know they were white guys from the UK, man.

You guys spent a lot of time in New York City as well during this time, right?
We all ended up in New York in 1980-81, and the whole hip-hop thing was bubbling in Queens and the Bronx. The Clash were instantly tuned into these things; we all were ’cause we were listening to WBLS and the rest of it. For a brief moment in time in New York, there was a punky hip-hop thing going on because we were interested in what they were doing and vice versa. There was a mutual admiration, and The Clash already had Grandmaster Flash and the Treacherous Three support them at Bonds. The Clash were just as active in hip-hop at the time as any other band back then. And going back to Futura, who is on the new version, he was one of the guys we originally hooked up with as well as Rammellzee, Fab 5 Freddy and Dondi. And little did we know, they were the ones making their mark on New York City. Through them, we got deeper into the culture. They’d take us to the clubs, bring us into the scene. They were our passports to hip-hop. They would have Futura spray painting on banners while they played for a brief while, but the fumes were fucking up everyone’s vocals.

Would you say Combat Rock was more of a Mick Jones album, given how it was largely demoed by him as Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg?
Well, it went in less of the direction that Mick was taking it in, and would be typified by what he did with Big Audio Dynamite. You know, what’s funny is that amidst all of the tensions in the band, amongst them they had very disparate musical differences. It was demonstrated by what Joe Strummer did as a solo artist and with the Mescaleros and Mick with B.A.D.—you could see they were going in different directions. And Mick was always absorbed in what was going on around him. Joe was more of an R&B and blues man. And that’s not a putdown because together the two synced up beautifully. But when Mick goes in, he goes all in. How else could Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg clock in at 75 minutes? That’s Mick Jones, man!

Combat Rock has been a part of our lives for 40 years, and it’s both astounding and excruciating that some of the global concerns the band were addressing in 1982 remain relevant today. Would you agree?
You gotta give credit to Joe and the content of his lyrics. There’s stuff in there that I’m still decoding to this day. I often say there are more ideas in one verse of a Joe Strummer song than most people have on their entire album. He engaged with the planet. He thought about what was going on around him and felt emotionally connected to his fellow man. And it all came out through the music.

Reflecting on Combat Rock now, I can’t help but notice how American-centric it is. Although I’ve come to realize that maybe Joe wasn’t so much talking about America as he was the human condition and the aspirations of the human race itself. And America epitomizes that.

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Rolling Stones Live at the El Mocambo '77
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