Reassessing an Iconic Band’s Most Maligned Album
This article originally appeared on Teleport City sometime in 2009.
When I was young, and my only option for buying records was Musicland at the mall, the Clash’s Cut the Crap fascinated me. At a time before the internet, and before I could drive and put the more diverse offerings of Louisville, Kentucky at my disposal, rides into the mall presented me with my only exposure to records, and thus punk records that made the cut for being stocked in a mall record store were all to which I had access. The first punk albums I ever bought were the Clash’s debut album and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, which are both pretty standard entry-level records for those of us who grew up isolated from centers of punk rock culture, as was Buckner, Kentucky.
Cut the Crap caught my eye for a few reasons. For one, it was a Clash record, and I discovered from my first purchase that I enjoyed the Clash very much. Second, it was called Cut the Crap. That in itself was pretty awesome. Plus, it had a picture of a dude with a mohawk on the front. That meant it was probably the most awesome punk record ever made—or so I assumed, having no access to music journalism or friends who could have told me otherwise.
So one day, after a few weeks of saving up my paychecks from a job as a soccer ref (that job is why I can explain “offsides” to you), I got a ride to the mall and went music shopping. I had to go with a friend, because an album called Cut the Crap was too confrontational and dangerous for me to buy in plain sight of my own parents—even though my parents probably could not have cared less if I owned an album called Cut the Crap. I’m pretty sure as children of the sixties who went to college in the early 1070s, they could handle the word “crap.” In my mind, though, I built it up as taboo, something I’d have to cleverly hide, like I did with that Sex Pistols cassette they also probably would not have cared about. When I got home, I unwrapped the small package excitedly and jammed the tape into my boom box. With near uncontrollable excitement, I pressed play, and proceeded to listen to side one of one of the worst albums I’d ever heard.
Granted, I hadn’t heard a lot of albums at that time. Other than that first Clash album and Never Mind the Bollocks, my music collection at the time consisted of the soundtracks to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Empire Strikes Back, Men At Work’s Business as Usual, Midnight Star’s No Parking on the Dance Floor, Herbie Hancock’s Futur Shock, and the Jeff Wayne Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. The rest of my listening options were limited to stuff my parents owned, and that was a few albums by Poco and Pure Prairie League, some Jimmy Buffet, and a Uriah Heep record or two. Honestly, pretty slim pickins. My interest in punk, which I’d found by way of the USA channel’s Night Flight programming block, was new and deep but almost utterly undeveloped.
But still, I didn’t need much more experience than I had to understand that Cut the Crap would have been better titled Cuts of Crap, which is a joke I’m certain is made by 90% of the people who bother to write about this album. It was just so…bad, and I didn’t understand why. So thin and weak and lacking the raw power of the first album or the big, catchy hooks of “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” both of which were mainstays on the radio and MTV. What the hell happened? I mean…the cover had a guy with a mohawk on it!
Decades after first exposure, I know the answer to why the album was so bad. Multiple documentaries have covered the grim final days of the Clash, how they went from local act to playing stadiums in the US to implosion, an d how that implosion birthed Cut the Crap. So, in a nutshell—the usual. Growing tensions, bad behavior, the dual pressure of superstardom and “selling out” caused rifts in the band. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the two most defining features of the band, were at each other’s throats, and manager Barry Rhodes was sort of throwing gasoline on the fire. It ended with Strummer “firing” Jones and bassist Paul Simonon (drummer Topper Headon was already out because of his heroin addiction) and replacing them with relative unknowns, guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard and drummer Pete Howard—all of whom must have been over the moon to suddenly get a call asking if they wanted to join the biggest punk band on the planet. Poor guys had no idea of the shitshow into which they were stepping.
All of this boiled over just as the band was to begin work on its sixth album. As a result, that album—Cut the Crap—had the misfortune of being produced and recorded as the band burned down. Strummer, without Mick to fight with, turned his fury on Barry Rhodes, who had assumed the role of producer and co-songwriter. He had experience in neither. The album was dashed off amid fraying sanity, with Rhodes hoping there was money yet to be squeezed from the Clash “brand.” Rhodes was a poor producer, and the new members of the band found their work largely replaced by drum machines, synths, and samples—which was ironic, given that one of the reasons Joe booted Mick from the band was Mick’s love of synths and drum machines and sampling (as would be evidenced by Jones’ new project, Big Audio Dynamite). By the time the album was dumped on the public, Joe Strummer had disowned the entire mess, and the Clash was well and truly dead.
It’s been decades since I last gave the album a listen, so I started wondering if time had rehabilitated the record any in my ears. The world is, after all, full of albums that were considered by everyone to be crap upon initial release but later became critical and fan darlings. The Clash’s own Sandinista! was a baffling experimental mess to me when I first heard it, but I love it now. Could we have missed something brilliant in Cut the Crap because we were too focused on how the tumultuous state of the band negatively impacted the production of the album? Is there anything in the album worth fighting for?
No, not really.
There are some tracks that hint at something good, and probably would have been good if the actual band had been on hand to work on them or if the recording hadn’t been botched. The track “This is The Clash” is not only bad, but it also encapsulates the “contractually obligated” desperation of this album getting made. Cut the Crap is most definitely not the Clash, and this song seems present purely to plead with fans to accept it even if Mick Jones was nowhere to be found. Fans and critics did not fall for it. The record sold poorly and was reviewed savagely. Only one song, “This is England” is genuinely good, the kind of anthemic sing-along that I could see getting adopted by, say, the English national football team and fans as their game chant, totally oblivious to the biting, negative lyrics the song actually contains (in America, we call that the “Born in the USA” Conundrum). Perhaps not surprisingly, “This is England” is the one track on which Strummer and the musicians wrenched control from Barry Rhodes.
On top of the mediocre songs, which sound less like the Clash and more like a band trying to imitate the Clash but with a cheap drum machine, the production is terrible. Strummer is lost in the mess, his signature wail drowned beneath a sea of studio effects and electronic drums is if Rhodes was intentionally trying to kill him off and claim the Clash as his own. The whole thing is like The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, the posthumous Sex Pistols album of outtakes, demos, and solo recordings cobbled together by manager Malcom Maclaren to wring one last dollar out of the name of a band that had already fallen apart. That mess has one good song—Sid Vicious’ nutty cover of Sinatra’s “My Way.” Like “This is England” it is the one bright star in an otherwise hopelessly murky night.
So no, no real misunderstood genius on Cut the Crap. Not much that would benefit from reconsideration. It was a crass, sloppy, crummy record when I bought it in 1987, and it’s still pretty bad. Take “This is England” and leave the rest.