Joe Sparrow : The Sandinista! Problem

Classic LPs without context can be excruciatingly hard to “get into.” When I first listened to Exile on Main Street, I found, to my astonishment, that I just couldn’t get into it. This inability was, frankly, a bit befuddling: it’s Exile On Main Street! What am I doing wrong?

I’d listen again and again, but find myself quickly lost in the sheer density of the smoke-and-booze-soaked tracks, and give up. I only persisted because I’d read enough articles which spilt superlatives over Exile on Main Street like blood in a slaughterhouse.

This isn’t the only album where I’ve experienced this feeling: like being the French exchange student in a room of hard-accented English-speaking school-kids. You kind-of understand what’s going on, but all the in-jokes are meaningless. And why are they wearing their ties that way? And why do they prefer Miss Knowles over Mr Brown?

Here are some other LPs that are hard to get into:

  • Sandinista!
  • Brian Eno’s Ambient series
  • Wu-Tang Forever
  • Loveless
  • Duck Rock
  • Metal Machine Music

The key to unlocking these dense, focussed, complex experiences is context: internal and external.

Internal — the question of how the transcendent moments of the album relate to the LP as a whole — is less bothersome: it’s something that comes with time and patience.

External context is more important in terms of access: how the album came to exist, and how the band reached a point where they made it. This part is the story, and it’s this part that stirs people into giving the album a chance in the first place.

In the end, it all clicked. Out of frustration, I’d listen to Beggar’s Banquet immediately prior to Exile… again, and gradually, it began to make sense, albeit without being able to fully enjoy it.

And then one day — appropriately half-way through Shine a Light — it all became stunningly clear how perfect the album was, and what every song meant within the context of all the others, and I sensed how the album came to be, at that point in time, by those people. It felt slightly magical as phrases, riffs and choruses started to fall, Tetris-like, correctly into place.

The thing is that Exile on Main Street isn’t really designed to be an easy LP to get into,  and this is especially true 40-odd years later. It’s a double album, for a start, and double albums are by definition obtuse and overwhelming.

This bothers me even more today, when the playlist is king, and the focus is almost entirely on individual songs. Who has the time or inclination to listen to a 20-track LP, in a world where every song should be a stand-alone hit?

Initially — and for many fruitless years — Sandinista! felt like a complicated mess. With perseverance, I started to see Sandinista! as the technicolour cousin to the Clash’s previous work. Where their prior LPs were relatively straightforward and black and white (and brilliant), Sandinista! is ultra-confident, lithe, experimental and funky. It’s a better album, and it’s more difficult because of it.

This experience is paralleled in a comparison between Beggars’ Banquet and Exile on Main Street: both brilliant, both stuffed with perfect songs, but where the first is essentially an album full of pop songs (albeit dirty, gritty ones), the second is imbued with a soulfulness that sets it apart.

Individual songs might be automatically timeless, but albums — especially challenging or exceptional ones — are not. And yet albums offer the richer listening experience. They need work and patience and understanding. What is the best way to embed context into music for a new generation of listeners?