The Clash - London Calling (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Clash

London Calling (1979)

CBS Records/Epic1

                How does one write a review of London Calling, in 2016? The scope of its influence can be felt across multiple genres of rock, the vitality of the album to rock music as a whole and punk music specifically is immeasurable and yet it has been written about numerous times, and there have been numerous straight up reviews of the album written before. The only hope one can have, is to bring a fresh voice to these ideas, I hope I succeed in doing so.

The first thing The Clash got right with London Calling was the cover art. While I could make many a clichéd remark about not judging a book and or album by its cover, you can do that with this album. You can do that and most people wouldn’t feel they missed the mark by much once they’d listened to the album all the way through. While it could be argued, I’d happily defend this being amongst the most iconic album covers of all time. It did this by incorporating already famous album artwork, from Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut, with a picture of Paul Simonon smashing his bass. While smashing instruments was nothing new at this point, The Who did it so often in their early days promoters often expected it of them, this was different. The iconic shot came from the band’s Take the Fifth US Tour and occurred when Simonon became frustrated with security for not allowing fans to stand on chairs near the stage. Pennie Smith, the photographer who captured the now legendary moment, disliked the photo but was convinced to allow it to be used as the cover. It would go onto be voted to be the most iconic rock photo of all time by Q Magazine.

Aside from the cover, the band also deserves credit for the sequencing of the songs on this album. While any of the tracks on this album would have made a fine opener, the title track may be one of the strongest openers of all time. The song title itself is taken from the station identifier used by BBC World Service during WWII. While many of The Clash’s core listeners were too young to remember these broadcasts, it showed something that hadn’t taken place yet in punk rock, the intelligence to take cultural references and rework them in a manner that wasn’t simply just a middle finger to queen and country. The song itself touched on many world issues, among them the nuclear paranoia that arose from the Three Mile Island incident just months earlier in Pennsylvania. That topic is what made the opening guitar riff so perfect. Aside from instantly grabbing the listener’s attention, it also had an immediacy and sense of urgency that sounded more like an alarm than a guitar. It wasn’t an air raid siren, but at the height of the Cold War and the previously mentioned growing nuclear paranoia it served as a sonic equivalent. The song also touched on the topics of the Thames River flooding, police brutality, drug use, and concern over becoming a novelty. While many of these weren’t new topics to people in the punk community, Joe Stummer’s command of metaphor and ability to point out disparity between perception and reality were. Prior to this album, punk rock wasn’t seen as music with any regard for intellectualism. It was instead a genre based around raw emotion and desperation expressed through distorted guitars and vocals that focused on passion over a nuanced delivery. In the first three minutes and eighteen seconds of London Calling, this band had already changed everything most people associated with punk rock.

While not fitting in with the rest of the album’s topical cannon, the cover of Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” should be recognized for one thing. It serves as the most straight ahead rocker on the album. While the rest of the album is filled with what were highly experimental, for the time, song structures and genre fusions there’s just something about this song. It started out as a warm up tack for the band, and that raucousness carries over to the feel of the song. You don’t get the sense this was something the band had rehearsed time and time again and hashed out specifics like drum fills and other specifics for. This is just two minutes where the band let loose in the studio. And while pages and whole books could be written on the importance of any other track on this album, the sense of raw chemistry you get from the band on this track is why any of that experimentation was possible.

That experimentation resulted in The Clash writing perhaps the most diverse albums of their career that succeeded. Don’t take that the wrong way, Sandinista was a far more experimental album but where that album succeeded as an exploration of various genres and musical vignettes, while London Calling blended genres into functional pop and rock songs that supported one another from the first track to the final one. Songs like “Hateful” while topically dealing with drug use and its downfall had musical and vocal arrangements that wouldn’t have been out of place on a mid-era Beatles album. Even when the band stepped away from traditional punk and rock motifs to cover The Rulers “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” they did so fluidly as only a band that had not only studied reggae music could, but also in a manner that showed they held an understanding of the genre as well. This ability to operate seamlessly outside of what many expected from them musically is also likely what fueled the even more ambitious moments on later albums such as Combat Rock and Sandinista.

Outside of the experimentation, there are also moments where the band uses fairly standard elements of rock and roll’s past in their sound. Which while still stepping outside of the band’s, then accepted, comfort zone did not expose fans of the band to genres they may not have been familiar with previously. In addition to the previously mentioned take on Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac”, another song where a deep appreciation for more traditional rock sounds pours through is on “Card Cheat” which utilizes major chord progressions on piano in a fashion that immediately brings to mind Bill Withers’ 1972 classic “Lean on Me.” The song’s lyrics utilize a game of cards to relate back to war and perhaps fate itself. While certainly not a new concept, in general discussion or musically, at that point. The music here keeps the ideas flowing and feeling fresh. Which stands as one of the true testaments of The Clash, even at their angriest and most political they always had pop sensibilities.

One of the best examples of the bands pop abilities can be found in “Lost in the Supermarket,” which may rank among the best Clash songs Mick Jones ever sang vocals on. You would be hard pressed to find any musical element of this song that allows you to draw a straight line to the band’s debut or even Give ‘Em Enough Rope. While I was unable to find anything that indicated when this song was written chronologically when this album was being composed, for a Clash fan listening to this album straight through for the first time in 1980 it was most likely the point when an already dropped jaw hit the floor. The guitars are subdued, the drums never rise above a whisper, and Mick Jones voice is at a near whisper throughout the song. Despite the song baring almost no musical resemblance to earlier Clash material it is topically in the same league as it deals with societal conformity and whether consumerism can actual provide a pathway to individualism. And while Joe Strummer wrote the lyrics based largely on Mick Jones upbringing, one can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t also a crafty examination of punk rock culture and the fashion elements demanded to be readily identified as a part of the scene.

While best exemplified by “Lost in the Supermarket,” the use of narratives to illustrate political ideas over pure sloganeering further bolstered the fully realized song writing abilities displayed on this album. While politics had played a role in punk, especially amongst European bands, many songs that fit into the mold of the traditional pop song were too bogged down by sloganeering in the lyrics to have broad crossover appeal. Even if songs like “Jimmy Jazz,” “Rudie Can’t Fail,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Spanish Bombs” didn’t approach the level of narrative song writing found on a Springsteen album from the same era, the loose narratives found on these songs allowed listeners to have a protagonist or group of protagonists to identify with. Which perhaps while not as direct as The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” or a Crass song like “System” the gave the politics of the songs room to resonate, where they would have previously been rejected by music fans not wanting to be beaten over the head with rigid ideology.

It wasn’t just the diversity and growth as artists that made this album work though, a large amount of thanks can be given to producer Guy Stevens. The ways he went about recording the album, and drawing inspiration from the band is also noteworthy, and was an initial reason why CBS Records wasn’t too fond of the producer choice. Aside from his then noted drug and alcohol issues, Stevens did not have a history of recording punk bands, his best known work was for Mott the Hoople’s earliest material. Stevens would do things like swing ladders around and overturn chairs in order to create an environment that band could create in. Stevens would die less than a year later; overdosing on prescription medication that’s intended purpose was to help him quit drinking.

To many punk purists within the era this album was released, London Calling was likely seen as a confirmation of the increasing gap between the underground punk culture and bands like The Clash or The Jam who’d begun building on their punk roots to create what was at its heart very subversive pop music. This change was likely less surprising to people who saw The Clash tour in the US prior to the release of this album, as they had a wide swath of opening acts. Bo Diddley, Sam & Dave, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and The Cramps were all openers for The Clash prior to the writing of London Calling. While one can certainly look back and see where the influences could have originated. For many young people of the era, digging into music that they likely identified with their parents’ generation wasn’t something they were willing to do yet. The band would never quit challenging their fan base on future tours though, sharing stages with everyone from rock and blues pioneers, to funk bands, to CBGB new wavers, and even hip-hop groups like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.

The importance of London Calling in regard to what came after it can be readily heard in bands like Rancid. You will find bands as far removed from one another as U2 and Gogol Bordello speak to how important this band and album were while they were figuring out their musical identity. You can even hear the long term effects of where this album went in Mick Jones’ solo project Big Audio Dynamite and Joe Strummer would take many of the concepts first nurtured on this album and develop them further during his solo career and later with The Mescaleros. I think the biggest change with London Calling though, was it was the first time a punk band thought about permanence. The Clash weren’t concerned with making the greatest punk album ever, which I’d argue they did, nor did they envision writing an album that would be ranked in the Top 10 on most “Greatest Albums of Rock” lists. They just wanted to write something that wasn’t just about destroying the predominant culture of the day, but building a new culture as well. And they succeeded.