Even in bootleg form, the Clash's Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg stands as one of the most daring, fearless, idiosyncratic recordings ever put on tape by a major recording artist.
Combat Rock (1982) gave the Clash the commercial success in America that their rabid fanbase felt they deserved and critics had expected from them since their landmark record London Calling was universally heralded as the last great record of the '70s. (Depending on which side of the Atlantic you were on, it could have also been the first great record of the '80s.). Combat Rock’s first two singles, the funky new-wave boogie of “Rock the Casbah” and the sloppy power pop of “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, were performing exceptionally well, getting them plenty of airtime on MTV, a booking on Saturday Night Live, and a gig as the opening act on the Who’s 1982 comeback tour in arenas across the United States.
The runaway success of Combat Rock was born out of the most tense and perhaps the least commercially viable recording sessions the Clash would ever be involved in, which is no small feat, given that the group is notorious for studio in-fighting and excess. But even before there was a Combat Rock, there was an album tentatively titled Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg, the initial draft of which was conceived almost entirely by Clash guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones. The bootleg recordings of the Rat Patrol sessions that would eventually surface years later reveal the proposed album to be not only superior to the actual release, but one of the greatest “lost” albums in pop music history, perhaps rivaled only by Prince’s Black Album and the Beach Boy’s SMiLE. Even in bootleg form, Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg stands as one of the most daring, fearless, and idiosyncratic recordings ever put on tape by a major recording artist.
Fresh off of the release of the defiantly stoned and sprawling triple album Sandinsta!, the Clash embarked on a short tour. Then it was back to the studio in New York to complete their fifth LP; unfortunately, they were not in good shape. Drumming prodigy Topper Headon was drawing ever-nearer to the rock bottom of his nasty heroin habit, while lyricist Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon had re-hired their old manager as a means to wrangle the group’s increasingly unwieldy sound and image. Mick, the band's only real and functioning musician, was both at odds with Joe’s desire to get back to basics and at odds with the manager’s desire to wrestle creative control from him. But instead of a compromise, Mick decided to go all in on his idea for a new Clash record. As the only one with producing and engineering know-how, there wasn’t anyone around to stop him -- yet. Rat Patrol would essentially be Mick’s ultimate statement, a highly mechanized and expansive hybridization of New York funk/hip-hop and the jungly, reggae-inflected new wave of their Sandinista! days.
The resulting album, which Mick recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios from November 1981 to January 1982, is truly something to behold. With a running time somewhere around 75 minutes, depending on the version, it would have been the Clash’s third release in a row as an expanded 2LP set, sometimes more. (The band cut publishing deals on Calling and Sandinista! to reduce the retail price of each record to be about that of a single LP, much to their label’s dismay). But of course, it’s in the grooves where Rat Patrol’s impact can be felt.
Here’s where my job gets a little tricky. As a music writer I feel obliged to lump this album neat and tidily into a genre or two. The trouble is that there is no genre for Rat Patrol: it is the genre. Mick Jones manages to distill every element and influence the Clash used as pastiche for their previous two albums into a singular beast of it’s own. Nowhere is this more immediately present than on the opener “The Beautiful People Are Ugly Too”, where a skittering, funky reggae rhythm lays the foundation for washes of synths, gurgling electronics, and surf-guitar licks while Strummer and Jones trade verses that rip apart American celebrity culture with exacting venom. “Admit it, you thought you were the hero”, Strummer smirks midway through the song’s slinking bridge. “Kill Time” is spooky calypso-hip-hop with pulsing bass, funky steel drums, and cryptic lyrics. Full of atomic, cold war imagery, Strummer’s cynical and violent lyrics are at their most effective throughout the entirety of Rat Patrol, fully inhabiting the psyches of the junkies, war vets, dope dealers, and other creatures of the underworld that have appeared previously in so many of their songs.
The band’s road manager plays a cockney Travis Bickle in the apocalyptic dub of “Red Angel Dragnet”. Allen Ginsberg makes an appearance on the propulsive post-punk track “Ghetto Defendant” spitting dystopian spoken word passages while Strummer warns with a powerful rallying cry, “It is heroin pity, not tear gas, nor baton charge, that stops you from taking the city”. The hypnotic “Sean Flynn” is the album’s centerpiece, where spacey synthesizers and spiraling saxophone riffs square off over tribal drums with Strummer’s weary lyric wandering among a sea of echo and reverb, a lot like one can imagine the real Sean Flynn wandering in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam. It’s in “Flynn”'s symbiosis of Strummer’s visceral gutter-poetry and Jones’ druggy production that the experience of listening to Rat Patrol becomes unnervingly effective. Even future Combat Rock singles “Casbah” and “Should I Stay...” make an appearance here, albeit in nearly unrecognizable forms, buried beneath layers of overdubbed studio chatter and samples. The album’s sequencing exudes a thick, cinematic haze, frontloaded with relatively lucid tunes that become increasingly more twisted and bizarre towards the middle and end. It almost plays like a fictional soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, if it had been directed by Scorsese. Jones rolls out all the stops with his futuristic production, utilizing electronic drone, gobs of digital echo, and sampling.
So, the band recorded this mind-blowing album and released it to universal acclaim and platinum sales right? Well, as you probably guessed, not quite. Jones’ presented the “finished” product to the rest of the Clash and their label, and the reception was almost unanimously negative. Joe Strummer and manager Bernie Rhodes balked at the extended running times of several of the tracks, “Does everything have to be a bloody raga?!” Rhodes would famously say. CBS execs saw the album’s bizarre hybrid of underground genres as a threat to its marketability. Jones was outnumbered, and CBS hired former Who producer Glyn Johns to remix the album to a single LP.
Jones was inconsolable. So upset that the rest of his band had so thoroughly rejected his work, he could hardly bother to show up to the remixing sessions hosted by Johns, often arriving hours late after several of Jones’ tracks had already been remixed. Several of Rat Patrol’s best tracks were removed outright, other tracks' lengths were cut in half, verses were changed or left out, and samples and effects stripped away, the result of which is the final product Combat Rock.
Was Glyn Johns’ remix the reason why these sessions were able to be salvaged into something commercially palatable? Probably so, but so much of the original album’s life had been removed in the process, leaving Combat Rock sounding tepid and uneven. Was the record buying public even ready for Rat Patrol’s Vietnamese-reggae/narcotic-funk or whatever-the-hell-kind-of-music? I highly doubt it; it might not even fly today, if you ask me. But even if it wasn’t ever officially released, Mick Jones still succeeded in creating the absolute distillation of styles and sounds his band had strived to do on all four of their previous albums and Joe Strummer delivered his best and sharpest lyrics. Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg exists today only as a bootleg, dubbed from old cassette copies, but beneath the layers of wear and age on the tape one can hear the white-hot brilliance of Jones and Strummer’s musical vision finally reaching its purest form.