The Clash - London Calling (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Clash

London Calling (1979)


After over three years of writing for this site, I finally get the chance to review my number one, all-time, absolute favorite album ever. No pressure! Plus, the album has already been reviewed four different times on this site, so I have the added pressure of trying to find something to say that hasn’t been said about it before, all without reading the other four reviews, of course, because I’m lazy. So, for my review, I’m going to expand on the editorial I wrote three years ago for Clash Week “What the Clash Mean to Me” and talk about how London Calling’s eclecticism was the blueprint for all punk music to come. Because, I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that London Calling is the primordial DNA that gave birth to all future punk, punk sub genres, and offshoot genres of punk, including new wave, alternative rock, and indie rock, through present day.

While it’s true that London Calling’s greatest achievement was incorporating other musical genres into punk, it would be inaccurate to say that nobody else was experimenting with merging other genres with punk before London Calling. In New York in 1977, Suicide’s self-titled debut album was already seriously challenging people’s conceptions of what punk even was. The Jam were incorporating elements of British Invasion style rock into their punk rock sound. Blondie had already started experimenting with disco, to the absolute disgust of much of their fan base. The burgeoning New Wave movement, a poppier offshoot of punk, was experimenting with instrumentations that punk artists would never dream of. What it was about London Calling that set it apart from all of these other experiments going on in the 70’s is that The Clash were already established as one of the biggest and most influential punk bands of their time when they took the monumental leap of London Calling. Already on a major label and charting high, London Calling was a massive risk on a very big and very visual stage.

On a personal level, The Clash had just fired their manager, Bernie Rhodes. Rhodes is sort of the hero and the villain of The Clash’s story at the same time. Formerly Malcolm McLauren’s assistant working on The Sex Pistols, when McLauren left for America to manage The New York Dolls, Rhodes temporally took over managing The Pistols. When McLauren returned, Rhodes hoped to be honored as a full partner to McLauren because of all the changes he made, most notably his introduction of Sid Vicious into the band. When McLauren refused to give Rhodes equal credit for his work, Rhodes struck off on his own, intending to put together a punk band that would outdo The Pistols at their own game. That band was The Clash, and he absolutely put them through the ringer in their early days, making them live together and practice almost all day as if under some sort of military regimen. But by the time the band started making London Calling, their relationship with Rhodes had started to erode. As I talked about in my Give Em Enough Rope… review last year, Rhodes had refused to front the bail to get Paul Simonon out of jail for a misunderstanding that occurred during recording, which led the band to start to pull away from Rhodes, leading to the first elements of eclectic experimentation on Give Em Enough Rope. With Rhodes ousted right before London Calling the band took advantage of the opportunity to do a lot of things Rhodes would never have allowed them to do, most notably releasing a double album. (After the overblown triple album, Sandinista, Rhodes was brought back in to reign in the band’s excesses, hence why Combat Rock was only a single album. But bringing Rhodes back opened up a whole other can of worms that ultimately brought about the end of the band.)

London Calling is a veritable smorgasbord of different musical styles, but the most common styles used are ska and reggae. Still, the band manages to find ways to make these styles all their own, such as the opening title track which is essentially playing a ska/reggae guitar part but down-strummed instead of up-strummed. Similarly, “Hateful” fuses a tight and fast ska sound with a rock beat, foreshadowing the ska-punk movement that would take off a decade later. “Guns of Brixton,” the first of only three songs ever written for the band by bassist Paul Simonon who grew up in the heavily Jamaican Brixton district of South London, is a heavily reggae inspired tune with a foreboding and darkness that’s not often found in reggae music. But the album features so many other styles of music, such as on the song “Jimmy Jazz” which is just a very basic blues progression. “Lost in the Supermarket,” written by Joe Strummer in an attempt to write a song from Mick Jones’s point of view that Jones could sing, takes on an extremely mellow post-punk style that would inspire many of the offshoots of punk to come in the future. With three covers appearing on the album, the second record (on the vinyl version) kicks off with the rambunctious piano-driven cover of The Rulers “Wrong ‘Em Boyo.” They don’t exactly put that piano away right away, though, as three tracks later they serve up the last thing anybody expected to hear on a punk album in 1979: a piano ballad. And what a piano ballad “The Card Cheat” is, with its epic lyrics that tell the story of a gambler who is murdered for cheating at a card game. The whole double album was originally set to end on the cover of Danny Ray and The Revolutionaries’ “Revolution Rock,” but the funk-infused “Train in Vain,” one of the band’s very few love songs, was added to the album so late that it effectively became the album’s secret track since they didn’t have time to add the song to the track listing for the album’s first pressing.

With so many things going on on this album, The Clash made a very big and bold statement about what a punk band was capable of doing. (For the sake of time I won’t get into the argument over whether or not London Calling is “truly” a punk album. It just is.) Punk would go in so many directions over the next few decades. As punk is now over 40 years old, it’s important to remember that the genre wouldn’t have survived if every band played the same two-minute-long three-chord songs, and therefore the only reason that punk survives to this day is because London Calling laid out for us how infinite the possibilities are of what punk can be. While punk continued to thrive as its own genre, genres derived from punk, like new wave and alternative, became the basis for mainstream rock music because of the shining example London Calling gave of what you can do with punk rock as your base. The entire landscape of rock music in general was shaped by this album for the foreseeable future. Even the bands that have never listened to London Calling (the new groups that are not concerned with what there is to be learned) have an undeniable indirect influence from London Calling because the album’s influence is everywhere. This is why I always try to emphasize in my reviews that punk is a big tent with lots of different and diverse styles and it has to be that for the genre to continue to evolve and thrive. It’s the most important lesson that The Clash taught us.