The Clash – London Calling

The Clash – London Calling
Released December, 1979

This is a mighty behemoth of a double album that sprawls across many genres. Despite moving from punk to ska to pop to rockabilly to hard rock to reggae and back again, the record has an unusual cohesiveness. The different styles seem to link the songs together, rather than isolating them as separate pieces. “London Calling” recently came in eighth place in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, and only just scrapes into our seventies list with its 14th December 1979 UK release date.

The Clash performed their first gigs in London, when they supported The Sex Pistols on their 1976 Anarchy Tour. This notoriety landed them a record contract with British CBS in February 1977. Singer/guitarist/songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones along with bassist Paul  Simonon and drummer Torry Chimes recorded their debut album over three weekends. Chimes left the group shortly before “The Clash” was released, and was replaced by Topper Headon. On the strength of their first single ‘White Riot’, the record became a modest hit in the UK, while the US division of their record label refused to issue it.

Throughout 1977, all of the band members had brushes with the law for minor crimes of vandalism, stealing or shooting pigeons(?) which only added to their outlaw image. Intent on breaking into the American market, their second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” was produced by Sandy Pearlman from New York based band Blue Öyster Cult. Released in November 1978 the record debuted at No.2 on the UK albums chart, but peaked at just No.128 in the US.

Unperturbed, The Clash toured the US twice in 1979, with a diverse range of support acts including R&B greats Sam & Dave, legendary bluesman Bo Diddley and country rocker Joe Ely. The group’s
fascination with other musical styles filtered into their own songs when the time came to record “London Calling”. They enlisted Guy Stevens to produce the record which worried CBS, as his dependence on alcohol made him difficult to work with. Thankfully he got along well with the band and drew fantastic performances out of them with some songs only requiring one or two takes.

The themes of the tracks on “London Calling” are as diverse as their styles. Setting the scene with the classic title track we are lead through a bleak world of racial tension, unemployment, nuclear
disaster and drug abuse. The notion of rebelling against the establishment which dominated their early albums reoccurs in rocker ‘Clampdown’ and Simonon’s first recorded composition ‘The Guns of
Brixton’, which features one of the best bass grooves you’ll ever hear. They also offer up tales of isolation (the disco-themed ‘Lost In The Supermarket’), civil war (‘Spanish Bombs’), Hollywood legend
Montgomery Clift (‘The Right Profile’) and adults refusing to grow up (the excellent reggae-infused ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’). Covers of Vince Taylor’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’ and The Ruler’s ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’ are great fun, with the latter’s false start of ‘Stagger Lee’ giving way to an excellent burst of ska. Closing track ‘Train In Vain’ finally gave The Clash their first US hit after hitting No.23 on the Billboard
Hot 100 in early 1980. Added at the last minute, initial pressings of the album’s artwork omitted the song from the running order.

I am always flawed by the scope of this album. All of these songs are full of energy, and if you can get past Strummer’s abrasive vocal style, endlessly enjoyable. I love how the production of ‘The Card
Cheat’ was made to sound big by recording every instrument part twice, creating an almost Phil Spector-esque sound. The poppy ‘Hateful’ has a chorus that sticks in your head for days and the horns on ‘Revolution Rock’ matched with Strummer’s hilarious ad libs make for yet another album highlight. I believe this is one of best albums ever recorded, made all the more astonishing by the band’s previous work. To this day, I skip the first half of The Clash’s “The Singles” collection; I don’t dig their early stuff at all. “London Calling” is one of those rare records where every track is a winner and stands up well on its own, without the whole record’s context. It has arguably the most iconic album cover ever as well. Love it!

For “London Calling”, The Clash’s third album, members of the band were all around their mid-20s. There is something about being that age that has a certain energy about it. You are no longer an adolescent but you are only just figuring out who you are and how you fit in the world. These sorts of questions are directly explored within “London Calling”. Not only are the band playing around with these ideas and concepts in their lyrics, but also do so in their music, with a variety of genres being tackled head on. It’s obvious that the time of writing this album was a tough one, not only for the band but for society as a whole. Strummer delves deep into this psyche within his lyrics, focusing on subjects such as drug use, unemployment, politics and racial conflict. Despite the varying genres explored within, “London Calling” is at its heart a rock n roll album, and it wears that heart on its sleeve. There is a palpable energy between the band, particularly Strummer and Jones. At times it feels like the whole thing is going to fall apart at any moment, which I imagine is quite close to the feelings the guys where having in general. I understand why this album has affected so many people in many different ways. It’s not often we get an album like this that comes along at just the right time that sums up exactly how we are all feeling and what we are all thinking. Bruce Springsteen did it in the 80s with “Born in the USA”, Nirvana did it in the 90s with “Nevermind” and Radiohead did it in the 00s with “Kid A”. Whether or not you like the music within, every decade needs an album like this. An album that tells our stories.

I get excited when we listen to a Top 10 album from Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Though I must admit, with my limited knowledge of The Clash, extending to ‘London Calling’ (song), ‘Rock’ The Casbah’ and ‘I Fought The Law’, I couldn’t believe that an average punk band could come in at number eight on this list full of names like The Beatles and Bob Dylan. How wrong I was. “London Calling” opened my eyes to The Clash, and how they are much, much more than a crash and thrash punk band. It shows huge versatility that spans punk, rock, reggae, ska, blues and funk. Which is great, but also sucks when I’ve gotta write a mini review! I’ve had a soft spot for ska music for a long while, so discovering at a track like ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ in what I assumed was all punk was excellent. I loved the horn section. ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ is much more of a typical late 70s/early 80s pop rock track and it’s quite refreshing, hiding out in the middle of the album. There’s some interesting percussive sounds going on in there. There are two things that stay constant over the whole album. One good, one less good. The good: Paul Simonon’s bass is brilliant. It always stands out no matter what noise is going on around it. It’s crisp and clean and he covers a lot of the neck. The less good: Mick Jones’s voice. It’s perfect if all you’re going to sing is punk. The unrefined edge doesn’t sit well when you’re playing something a little less frantic and messy. “London Calling” was a real eye opener for me. I’m definitely going to give it some more airtime. The Clash were more than one dimensional punk.

There’s no denying that “London Calling” has left its mark in the annals of Punk Rock history, but boy, was I surprised to find that this album also contained jazz and soul, amongst the other genres of rockabilly and ska too! I must admit that this was a bit of a relief, as I’m not really into punk rock at the best of times.  Despite the variety of styles that were showcased, The Clash worked within the thematic confines of Punk, and therefore political and social themes abound throughout the album, including references to civil war, unemployment, drug abuse and crime. Snore.  Due to the album having such a cross-section of sounds and themes, I found it really hard to listen to, as I felt there was no continuity, it just felt like it was disjointed. Not only that, but the album is way too lengthy for this listener, clocking in at just over 65 minutes. I’m not going to comment on the musicianship other than to say it’s satisfactory but didn’t really grab me.  I can understand that at the time it was highly regarded and won much acclaim over its lifetime. The themes covered in the album were current at the time it was released and therefore it was relatable for most listeners. I guess it’s pretty obvious that this album wasn’t up my alley, and I feel all sorts of frustration and confusion because of my dislike; I feel like there was something maybe I missed, but seriously, it just didn’t float my boat.

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