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The Future Was Re-Written: How “Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg” became “Combat Rock”

By late 1981 into early 1982, The Clash were writing and recording material for their next record. Their last LP, “Sandinista!” was a sprawling three record affair. Released to near universal praise, the record was yet another example of the band’s steadfast determination to do things their way, even if those decisions ended up costing them money. Despite it’s immense content, “Sandinista!” was sold at a low budget retail price, just like it’s predecessor, “London Calling”.  Even an extended play mini record, called “Black Market Clash” was sold at a discounted rate despite having almost enough material in length to be sold as a regular LP at a much higher list price.


The band’s label, Epic Records was eager to buck this trend. The band’s stock was at an all time high, coming off the positive publicity generated during their extended residency at NYC’s Bond Club. In addition to almost daily news coverage by the Gotham media, songs like “The Magnificent Seven” and “This Is Radio Clash” were crossing over into dance clubs, urban-themed radio stations and perhaps more importantly , Suburbia USA.


Epic needed to look no further than the band’s own manager for a sympathetic ear. Bernie Rhodes, recently re-hired by the group, was faced with the initial task of getting the band out of debt. So it was no surprise that both he and the band’s publicist, Kosmo Vinyl aligned themselves with the record company as being against another two record low list price, budget busting affair.


They would gain an unlikely ally in Joe Strummer. Facts get somewhat hard to come by at this point, but it seems clear that after five plus years of hard work, Joe wanted a mega selling hit record. Something that would stand toe to toe with CBS Records’ most established artists(Springsteen, Boston, Foreigner) and match it on a sales level, but far exceeding those records on a socially conscious scale.


Mick Jones had other ideas. Seemingly unaware of the growing sentiment, the band’s de-facto producer had pieced together these most recent recordings and had enough material for another double LP. With the working title of “Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg”, the original mix featured longer song versions, two (perhaps three) other songs that remain unreleased to this day, and a looser overall feel that was similar to “Sandinista!” in approach, but a giant leap forward artistically.


Bernie Rhodes was among the first to state his case. It was in fact he, who inspired the opening lyric to “Rock The Casbah”, complaining that every track the band were recording was reggae flavored, and way too long. (Joe as legend has it went home that night and wrote, “Now the king told the boogie men, you have to let that raga drop…”). It soon became clear to Mick Jones that not just the record company, but his own band wanted to scrap his mix in favor of something leaner, punchier and radio friendly.  He did not take the news very well.


It was then decided that record producer Glyn Johns would be called upon to edit the mix down to a single LP. Johns was no stranger to being recruited to salvage miles of tape into something commercially palatable. His experience in this regard starts off when he was brought in by The Beatles to try and make some sense of the ill fated “Get Back” project. Although his work was eventually rejected because it exposed too many of the band’s warts, it’s a highly respected version among collectors and bootleggers. Johns also was the one responsible for turning Pete Townshend’s “Lifehouse” project into “Who’s Next”, one of the most famous and best selling records of all time.


A session date was arranged for re-mixing the album with both Strummer and Jones to be present. A start time of 11:00 am was determined, but Jones had a habit of keeping people waiting, and did not show up on time. Strummer on the other hand was prompt, and both he and Johns had completed work on three separate tracks before Mick finally turned up around 7:30 that evening.


Mick Jones made it very clear that he was not receptive to the changes. Glyn Johns’s response was basically “too bad”. He reasoned that if he had come in on time, his opinions would have been considered. Since he instead turned up late, they would only go forward at this point. Jones was absolutely fuming and the tensions were so thick that at one point Johns turned to Strummer and indicated that he had no intention of working in that atmosphere.


The apparent power shift within the band went into full overdrive at that point, and one can only imagine the temerity of an apparent late night meeting with Strummer, Jones and Bernie Rhodes. The next day Jones turned up for work on time, behaved cordially, and more often than not, bit his tongue as Glyn Johns carved up his child into little pieces.


Both “Know Your Rights” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”  were identified as potential singles, but Johns wanted the vocals redone.  After hearing the original versions of both, it’s confusing as to why. The original vocal track of “Know Your Rights” is one of Strummer’s finest recorded moments, inexplicably abandoned and left on the cutting room floor. The ending was chopped off in favor of a slow fade out.  The original mix of “Should I Stay…” has more Spanish lyrics and a more casual feel. Sure, the Glyn Johns version was a massive hit record, but when listening to both of them side by side it’s painfully obvious that the original one is clearly better.


A funky bongo drum intro to “Rock The Casbah” was cast aside. Drums and Guitars were pushed up in the mix to make them more palatable for radio. Entire verses and codas were deleted from “Straight To Hell”, “Red Angel Dragnet”, and “Ghetto Defendant”. Entire songs were omitted. Lyrics that were considered too overtly sexual for radio were replaced and re-recorded. When the dust settled,  a 77 minute artistic statement was hacked and whacked into a 46 minute radio ready $9.98 list price single LP.


The relationship between Mick and Joe was wrecked beyond repair. Between Jones’s increasingly isolationist attitude and his belief  that Strummer “ruined his music” combined with drummer Topper Headon’s  escalating drug problem, Joe was more than happy to oblige when manager Bernie Rhodes suggested that it might be a good idea if he disappeared for a while as a type of publicity stunt. Of course the story goes that Strummer really did disappear because he was genuinely despondent over the band’s future or lack there of. He would of course turn up just in time to meet the band’s touring obligations both in the UK and the US, and Combat Rock was a huge million seller..


Even Glyn Johns has stated in print that when he first heard the “Rat Patrol” tapes, he described them as “enormously impressive and clever with an overriding sense of humor, but too self indulgent, long and drawn out.”  Unfortunately, the sales figures of “Combat Rock” confirm his assessment. It seemed that EVERYBODY had this album. The Clash finally had the type of mega seller that would put them right up there with Howard Jones and Phil Collins. This is obviously a sarcastic dig, but all one has to do is listen to the original mix to realize that the artistic integrity of The Clash was cast aside in favor of the pursuit of a hit record. It also turned out to be what would tear them apart for good.

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