Combat Rock remains The Clash‘s mainstream breakthrough into the mainstream. After having spent half a decade as England’s most ambitious and politically sharp punk act, a series of catchy singles finally vaulted the London four-piece from the underground clubs to stadium rock status. With major hits like ‘Rock the Casbah’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, on top of all-time classics like ‘Know Your Rights’ and ‘Straight to Hell’, it’s no wonder that Combat Rock was The Clash’s meal ticket to fame and fortune.
Unfortunately, global success came with a fair bit of compromise. Largely fueled by the insatiable eclectic tastes of guitarist and vocalist Mick Jones, the band’s albums had grown in length and variety since the relatively straightforward punk of the group’s self-titled debut in 1977. London Calling was a monumental double album, while the follow-up Sandinista! was a sprawling triple LP. Jones looked to continue the trend with Combat Rock but was met with hesitancy from his fellow band members, especially fellow guitarist and singer Joe Strummer.
In its original form, Combat Rock was reflective of the new trends that were popping up in music at the time: extended mixes inspired by 12-inch dance and disco tunes made songs like ‘Rock the Casbah’ and ‘Overpowered By Funk’ nearly double the length that they would eventually be whittled down to. Jones was pushing the band further into electronica, while Strummer wished to keep the punk rock roots of their origins. The seeds for Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite were sown, but so too were the seeds for his eventual departure in 1983.
Jones wasn’t the only one to find appreciation in the New York underground. Bassist Paul Simonon had been inspired by the shooting death of Frank Melvin, a member of the volunteer organisation, Guardian Angels, who helped protect citizens from violent crimes in the NYC subway system. The shooting got Simonon thinking about gun violence and the kind of person who would purposefully find themselves in the seedy underbelly of New York, and logically his mind went to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
Simonon decided to pay tribute to the Guardian Angels by pairing it with the dub music he was so fond of and a liberal amount of references to Taxi Driver on the song ‘Red Angel Dragnet’. Simonon brought in Kosmo Vinyl, the band’s friend and occasionally business manager, to recite some of the dialogue directly from Bickle’s thoughts in the movie.
With a sinister edge, Vinyl recites lines like: “Thank god for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk / Listen you screwheads / Here is a man who would not take it anymore / A man who stood up against the scum, the filth.” Simonon pieced together different views of vigilante justice, from the Angels peaceful means to Bickle’s violent tendencies, to construct the song’s narrative and make his final contribution to The Clash’s discography.