Album of the Week, September 1: London Calling by the Clash

The-Clash-London-Calling-The Clash were on the forefront of the punk revolution, helping create a musical form that had a lasting impact on rock and pop. Coming from a variety of lesser-known bands, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, and Terry “Tory Crimes” Chimes merged into a powerful unit that blended biting social and political observations with a one-two musical punch. The Clash is one of the most important albums of the 70s and one of a handful of pure punk masterpieces. Chimes, who had already quit the band but stuck around to record the album, left for good. The new drummer, Nick “Topper” Headon, is one of the most reliable rhythm setters in rock and helped the band reach their next level musically. After the minor stumble of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band began to question punk orthodoxy and look carefully at the decades of music that shaped them. Merging Strummer’s political voice and love of roots rock and R&B, Jones’ passion for musical excellence and experimentation (and fondness for well-crafted pop), Simonon’s love of reggae, and Headon’s flawless sense of timing, they opened up punk passion to a new level of excellence and crafted one of the most acclaimed albums of all time.

Title London Calling
Act The Clash
Label Epic Release Date Dec. 14, 1979
Producer Guy Stevens, Mick Jones
U.S. Chart  #27 U.K. Chart  #9
Tracks [U.S. Hot 100]

Disc One

  1. London Calling
  2. Brand New Cadillac
  3. Jimmy Jazz
  4. Hateful
  5. Rudie Can’t Fail
  6. Spanish Bombs
  7. The Right Profile
  8. Lost In the Supermarket
  9. Clampdown
  10. Guns of Brixton

Disc Two

  1. Wrong ‘Em Boyo
  2. Death or Glory
  3. Koka Kola
  4. The Card Cheat
  5. Lover’s Rock
  6. Four Horsemen
  7. I’m Not Down
  8. Revolution Rock
  9. Train In Vain (Stand By Me) [#23]

It all starts with the cover, the famous shot of Simonon smashing his bass, framed by lettering that echoes Elvis Presley’s debut. That blend is the only warning the listener gets that this album is something different, at once respectful, iconoclastic and irreverent. Brilliantly sequenced by Jones, the tracks flow in a powerful narrative. The title track is justifiably regarded as one of the best rock songs ever recorded. Mixing apocalyptic images with urgent vocals and rich, rough music, it serves as the call to action. Strummer turns in one of his best deliveries, adding chilling animal cries and breaking down as the song dissolves into Jones’ guitar calling an S.O.S. Welcome to London Calling.

The next track is one of three covers. Little-known British rocker Vince Taylor (the model for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character) recorded a handful of early minor hits. Brand New Cadillac makes it clear that the Clash intend to embrace their roots, a clear violation of early punk rules that helps to reinvent the form. It’s also a great song for the band, who rip through it with passion and joy. Jimmy Jazz blends the title form with a loose interpretation of reggae, making another statement of independence and providing a lyrically dark, musically fun blend that works surprisingly well. Hateful is an anti-drug song that borrows from the Velvet Underground as it stakes out its own distinct territory. It’s urgency and dark power continue the compelling energy of the first side. That wraps up with the brilliant Rudie Can’t Fail. It’s a powerful reggae song that builds on longstanding Jamaican (and West Indian British immigrant) traditions. The Rude Boy celebrated in the lyric is part of the problem and a catalyst for the solution, a nice punk image that lent itself to the name of a film starring the band right after the album’s release.

SIde two opens with the lovely Spanish Bombs. Strummer was famously averse to writing love songs, so he buried his touching thoughts about a breakup in lyrics about the Spanish revolution and 1970s terrorism. The result, anchored by stellar playing all around, is one of the finer moments on the album. It also features what he calls “Clash Spannish,” goofy but endearing pidgin romance, in the chorus. The Right Profile is an improbable tribute to Montgomery Clift, sensitively (in a punk way, of course) telling a tale of the perils of fame and addiction. The beautiful Lost In the Supermarket, sung by Jones, is one of the most affecting political statements on the disc despite being one of the quietest songs. After this trio, the band amps back up for the powerful (Working For the) Clampdown, a more straight-ahead punk testament. Side two wraps up with Simonon’s first (and finest) contribution, the dark, surging Guns of Brixton. It mirrors the themes of Rudie, anchoring the narrative of the album. The use of a Jamaican-style rhythm for the wonderful bass line anchors the lyric in the racial and cultural tensions that were part of the backdrop to the British Winter of Discontent.

Disc two is bracketed by reggae covers. The first, opening side three, is Wrong ‘Em Boyo, a version of an important Jamaican song that served as the riddim for many reggae hits. It’s a stunning presentation, with the band showing off their musical skill and diversity nicely. Death or Glory, which became a tag-line for the band, is an energetic meditation on political action and its (in)consequences. The whimsical Koka Kola is a snide — but effective — poke at America and consumer culture delivered with just the right blend of a wink and a snarl. Mick Jones shows off his pop chops on The Card Cheat, creating a stunning wall-of-sound backdrop for the simple but compelling story. Side three wraps up with death winning the hand, a warning that resonates throughout.

Side four opens with the goofy Lovers Rock, named for a musical style that was Jamaican in tradition but British in development. A confused send-up of pseudo-tantric sex advice, it’s a fun song but the closest the album comes to a throwaway. Four Horsemen picks up the energy, with the band mocking themselves and the rebel image of rocker while still managing to celebrate. They move into I’m Not Down, in many ways the antidote to most of the album. It’s a powerful ode to self-reliance and standing up to oppression, delivered with charm and spiky grace. On any other album, this would be THE track; on London Calling, it’s a nice reminder of how great the whole package is. Revolution Rock, originally stated to wrap up the album, is the final cover, another reggae song that builds on the themes of not letting the darker forces win. It’s a great choice and another loving tribute, tweaked just enough, by a band who clearly knows what they want.

At the last minute, Mick Jones rushed to the studio with Topper Headon and recorded Train In Vain. Subtitled Stand By Me, it’s a straight-ahead pop song delivered with punk intensity. The title(s) nicely reflect the roots of the Clash’s sound and Jones turns in his finest vocal. It provides a nice coda to the album and stands as a fine song in its own right. Music journalist Marcus Gray sums up London Calling perfectly in his book Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling.

…London Calling doesn’t continue to speak to people because it wallows in gloom and doom. The main reasons for its longevity are its defiant spirit, its power to uplift, and its determination to lead by example: it looks anger, fear, impotence and self-doubt in the eye, then pulls on its boots and goes out to face the day. That’s a good feeling to get from a record, or from any piece of art or entertainment.

For anyone who is interested in the deeper story of the album, I heartily recommend his lovingly researched, detailed, and honest account of this important band and their seminal album. You can buy it or borrow a copy from your library.

FURTHER LISTENING: The band’s eponymous debut is one of a handful of must-have punk discs. As a significant and talented band, their whole catalogue has something to offer. With that said, none of the post-London Calling albums are critical in themselves. Sandinista! is a sprawling mess with some wonderful highlights. Combat Rock is their most commercially successful album, a fairly cohesive disc with some powerful moments. After that, Headon was fired for his drug problems and Jones departed as his relationship with Strummer became untenable. The Clash ended with a whimper, the execrable Cut the Crap. For a great overview of the band’s music, including many important non-album singles, nothing beats the well-chosen The Essential Clash.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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