They sang the red flag
They wore the black one
But after they died
It was Mockingbird Hill
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When The Clash released their double album London Calling
in 1979, they served notice that "the only band that mattered" - as some true believers referred to the group - was more than just a quartet of snotty punk rockers. While The Sex Pistols were imploding from within and berating anything and everything in the outside world, The Clash were pushing the envelope and pressing forward.
"Spanish Bombs" wasn't even a punk rock song - at least not musically. Instead, it featured a stirring melody, Mick Jones harmonizing with lead vocalist on the song, Joe Strummer, and a shuffling beat featuring an organ part. It was melodic rock, instead.
Lyrically, this song acted as a preview to the group's follow-up album, Sandinista!
, which brought attention to revolutionary politics in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries. On it Strummer sings, "The hillsides ring with 'Free the people'/Or can I hear the echo from the days of '39?" Yes, the Spanish Civil War took its toll on Spain between 1936 and 1939, but when Strummer claims to hear the echo from the days of '39, he's clearly talking about other similar modern situations. He also says he's "hearing music from another time." Later, as Strummer sings how "Federico Lorca is dead and gone," he's referring to a famed Spanish poet that is believed to have been executed by an anti-communist death squad, in much the same manner Leftists were killed in the Santiago Stadium in '70s Chile. Lorca had gained international fame as a part of the Generation of '27. It is believed the Nationalist militia shot him to death in August of 1936.
Poet Federico Lorca
This song doesn't so much take sides as it details history, much as a TV news reporter might. "Spanish bombs shatter the hotels," Strummer notes, expressing himself similar to a reporter on the scene.
Strummer throws in bits and pieces from these times that strike a nerve with him, in a sort of cut-and-paste approach. He assumes, for example, that his listeners already know who poet Federico Lorca was, so he doesn't really tell us a lot about the man's life in the song.
Ultimately, The Clash are praising Spanish Republican heroism, a wide-ranging group of warriors fighting the Spanish Civil War, a collective that included anarchists, communists and centrists. These fighters ultimately lost the war, which led to the rise of Francisco Franco, a much-despised ruler that lorded over Spain for the next 36 years.
Spain, the nation, is the central focus of this song, but The Clash also name-drop a number of its cities during the song. These include Andalusia, just south of the Iberian Peninsula, which was one of the early regions to fall prey to the Fascists. Andalusia's name has Arabic roots. Its culture has been influenced by the Greeks, the Roman Empire and the Vandals. Much that we see as typically Spanish derives from this region, such as bullfighting.
Costa Brava, Spain
They also sing about Costa Brava, a Republican stronghold with strategic ports. Costa Brava may be a beautiful tourist stop now, but its name, Costa,
the Catalan and Spanish word for "coast," and Brava
, which means "rugged" or "wild," reminds us it was a tough environment once upon a time.
You may also notice the way The Clash sings some of these verses in Spanish. This is a trick they turned to again with great success for "Should I Stay or Should I Go," which utilized an English call and a Spanish response approach in one section. It echoed a familiar gospel music approach. Strummer's command of the Spanish language is not very strong, but his line, "yo te quiero y finito yo te querda o mi corazon
" most likely means, "I love you infinitely, I love you, oh my heart." This lingual artistic tactic contrasted with the oftentimes thuggish, anti-intellectual approach of some early punk bands. Singing bilingually certainly revealed a culturally diverse group of musicians.
Listening to The Clash's "Spanish Bombs" is a reminder that they just don't seem to make bands like that anymore. Unlike the recent emo trend in rock, along with all the bragging rappers, music appears to be getting more and more self-centered all the time. However, The Clash were able to look outside their own circumstances, reach back to a pivotal place and time in history, and think about those that struggled against the curse of fascism.
So if you take a Spanish vacation one day, think about The Clash's historical references to Andalusia and Costa Brava, as well as all the beautiful sights and sounds. History lessons through rock music: Now what could be more punk rock than that?
~ Dan MacIntosh
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