Reggae and rock — at first the combination of the two must have seemed promising. Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” retained the original song’s spirit even though it had clearly morphed into an arena rocker. The Police added a jazz polish to the Caribbean genre and gave it a new-wavey beat. Heck, even Blue Öyster Cult was able to blend its bland brand of caffeine-free metal with reggae on “Burnin’ for You.”
But no band in that late ’70s and ’80s was able to co-opt the music of Tosh and Toots quite like the Clash. The Clash (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Nicky “Topper” Headon) got it right, dropping such classic punk-reggae hybrids as “Police & Thieves,” “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” and “The Guns of Brixton,” among others.
And it’s been downhill ever since they broke up — as one corn-fed band from middle America after another has decided that singing in a fake Jamaican accent and rapping about Zion is the thing for them. Ugh. The question is why?
Chris Oplinger just may have the answer. And he should know. Oplinger is a member of the Sandinistas!, a Charleston-based Clash cover band. “They didn’t try to play it just like the Jamaicans. They took the songs, but played them like the Clash,” says Oplinger, who handles both guitar playing and singing duties for the Sandinistas! “In London at that time, reggae music was everywhere. I think it was just natural for them to play it.”
The Sandinistas!, named after the Clash’s eclectic 1980 three-disc LP of the same name, first came together in November 2007. They’ve undergone a few lineup changes since then — Henry Fishburne (drums), Eric Atwood (bass), and Kevin McCrary (vocals, guitar) round out the band — but over the past year and some change, they’ve played at least 20 shows in the Carolinas and Georgia. Oplinger had previously worked with Atwood and McCary; they were three-quarters of the band 5foot6. Fishburne was formerly a member of the Library Fire and Johnny Prophet.
Oplinger, for one, thinks the Clash is just as relevant today as they were in the Thatcher era. “Not much has changed with political and social issues since then. We’re still dealing with the same demons,” Oplinger says. “Most of the Clash’s songs could have been written yesterday and still be just as relevant. The lyrics of ‘Hate & War’ could be describing Iraq or Afghanistan today.”
But while Oplinger believes that Clash’s favorite lyrical subjects — corporatism, militarism, and the struggle against oppression — still resonate, the music of the punk pioneers is still just as ground-breaking. “They didn’t put any limitations on the music they played. Anything could be a Clash song,” Oplinger says. “The Clash saw the future of music as a blend of everything from all over the planet, and this is exactly what it has become today with file sharing and MP3 players.”
He adds, “I think they were always just trying to play the stuff they liked to listen to. They had no desire to let the ‘punk rock’ label limit what they could play.”
As tribute-worthy as the Clash are, Oplinger says that the Sandinistas! were never supposed to be a permanent outfit. “Originally, it was going to be just one show — play the first album, and then a second set of Clash stuff. After the first show, we realized we were onto something. The music was not only lots of fun to play, it also got a great response from the audience,” the guitarist-singer says. “Plus, they have such a diverse catalog, it doesn’t feel like we’re playing the same band’s music all night.”
Which is why the Sandinistas!’s plan to play the Clash’s masterpiece London Calling in its entirety at an upcoming gig is such a challenge. “For London Calling, we felt we couldn’t really do it justice without a horn section, a keyboard player, and a larger venue,” Oplinger says of the “Charleston Calling” show. “So we’ve got the Magic Bronson Horns and Barton Beckham of Columbia’s Tough Mama to help us out, and it’s looking like it will be early summer at the Music Farm. We’re going to try to get some guest singers involved as well. More challenging than the music has been the logistics of getting everyone together. We’re going to get very few rehearsals as a full band, so I think that may be a challenge as well, but that’s always when we play best.”
The band hopes to finalize plans for the Charleston Calling show soon. We’ll keep you posted.