The Clash had been called sellouts ever since they signed with CBS and made their 1977 debut, so the charge was pretty stale when certain critics lobbed it at their turn to disco-flavored new wave and “arena rock” in 1982’s popular Combat Rock. As Allmusic writes of the record, “if this album is, as it has often been claimed, the Clash’s sellout effort, it’s a very strange way to sell out.” Combat Rock’s hits—“Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”—are catchy and anthemic, respectively, but this hardly breaks new stylistic ground, though the sounds are cleaner and the influences more diffuse. But the true standouts for my money—“Straight to Hell” and “Ghetto Defendant”—perfect the strain of reggae-punk The Clash had made their career-long experiment.
The latter track, a midtempo dub take on the pathos of heroin addiction and underclass angst, features a cameo spoken-word vocal from Allen Ginsberg, who co-wrote the song with Joe Strummer. Far from simply lending the song Beat cred—as Burroughs would for a string of artists, to varying degrees of artistic success—the Ginsberg appearance feels positively essential, such that the poet joined the band on stage during the New York leg of their tour in support of the album. But before “Ghetto Defendant,” there was “Capitol Air,” a composition of Ginsberg’s own that he performed impromptu with the band in New York in 1981. As Ginsberg tells it, he joined the band backstage during one of their 17 shows at Bonds Club in Times Square during the Sandinista tour. Strummer invited the poet onstage to riff on Central American politics, and Ginsberg instead taught the band his very own punk song, which after 5 minutes of rehearsal, they took to the stage and played.
Just above, hear that onetime live performance of “Capitol Air,” one of those anti-authoritarian rants Ginsberg turned into an art form all its own—ripping capitalists, communists, bureaucrats, and the police state—as the band backs him up with a chugging three-chord jam. Ginsberg wrote the song, according to the Allen Ginsberg Project, in 1980, after returning from Yugoslavia and “realizing that police bureaucracies in America and in Eastern Europe were the same, mirror images of each other finally,” a feeling captured in the lines “No Hope Communism, No Hope Capitalism, Yeah. Everybody is lying on both sides.” Many of these same themes worked their way into “Ghetto Defendant,” written and recorded six months later.
Here you can hear the Combat Rock album version of “Ghetto Defendant.” (The track appeared in longer form on the record’s first, unreleased, incarnation, Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg). Ginsberg’s contributions to the track, which he intones as “the voice of God,” match his free-associative dark humor against Strummer’s narrative concreteness. Off the wall hipster lines like “Hooked on necropolis,” “Do the worm on the acropolis” and “Slamdance the cosmopolis” become elliptical references to Arthur Rimbaud, Salvadorian death squads, and Afghanistan before Ginsberg launches into the Buddhist heart sutra over Strummer’s final chorus. The effect is comic, hypnotic, and disorienting, reminiscent of the sample-based electronic collages groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle constructed around the same time. It’s such a perfect symbiosis that the song loses much of its impact without Ginsberg’s nutty offerings, I think, though you can judge for yourself in the live, Ginsberg-less version below.