The Clash's "London Calling" is a punk album that was released on an establishment label exactly 30 years ago. An album that opened with an apocalyptic title track, but ended with a commercial pop hit, "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)." A double album, two for the price of one. An iconic album with a blurry cover photo. A punk album that's also reggae and rockabilly and even a little disco.
Three decades after it came out, "London Calling" remains a spring of musical and textual ideas that continues to flow. Because it was released in Britain in December 1979 and in the United States a month later, it appeared on the hit parades for two different decades, reaching No. 9 in Britain and No. 27 in the United States. In 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it the 1980s Album of the Decade, and No. 8 out of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The discerning music blog Pitchfork Media ranked it No. 2 on its Top 100 Albums of the '70s.
"It was punk's final breath, or rather fart," says Israeli music critic Yuval Levy, recalling the Clash concert he attended in 1979 in London, just before the album came out. "They removed the shoelaces from people's shoes at the entrance so they wouldn't strangle each other. They searched the audience carefully to make sure they didn't bring in brass knuckles, knives, things like that. In the upper rows of the hall, most of the people were high from sniffing glue. Some were jumping on each other and others were holding each other to keep them from falling down to the lower rows. It was like in Fellini's 'Satyricon.' Complete chaos.
"The Clash looked like four people who'd been shot out of a cannon. They leaped on stage and starting going wild. It was the most hysterical burst of energy I had seen in my life. They didn't stop for a moment. They clung to the mikes, jumped and stomped, and kicked the drums. They didn't skip a single trick in the rock 'n' roll playbook for that performance. My ears were ringing for four days afterward. I knew I was betting on the right kind of music."
Levy also went to see Pink Floyd, whose album "The Wall" was released that same month: "When I went to see Pink Floyd they'd already peaked; they did a wrap-up of the '70s. To see the Clash in 1979 was to witness the advent of the '80s. It showed such massive musical progress; I knew even then the band was going to be huge. 'London Calling' was an interesting launch that marked the moment punk became legitimate music."
Music critic Michael Rorberger says he rediscovers the album anew when listening to it today: "This is an album you have to listen to over and over. The Clash is no longer punk on it; it embodies the process that punk opposed. From the standpoint of the lyrics, however, it is still punk, because the album is incredibly political and 'anti.' This is punk connecting to something more musical. The band's real breakthrough, in my opinion, came on 'Sandinista!' which came out a year later. That can already be compared to the Beatles."
In 1975, British impresario, manager and visionary Malcolm McLaren returned to London from New York. He brought with him the experience he had amassed in the punk cellars of the city that never sleeps, where he had managed the New York Dolls, and met Richard Hell (Television, the Voidoids), from whom he borrowed - not to say stole - the grimy look, the torn clothes and safety pins that became the trademark of the Sex Pistols, the band for whose formation and image McLaren was responsible.
Joe Strummer, the Clash frontman, who at the time was a member of the pub rock group the 101's, invited the Pistols to open for one of their shows. Years later he recalled that that was the moment he decided to leave the 101ers. Ironically, the Clash's debut performance, in 1976, was as the opening band for the Pistols.
Strummer, born John Graham Mellor (he died in 2002), began his musical career playing the ukulele in London Underground stations. He was the son of a diplomat, but "reworked" his biography to fit the image he desired of a working-class guy. He was a fan of the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, and his role model was the same person who inspired Bob Dylan to pick up a guitar: Woody Guthrie.
Strummer dedicated the first song he wrote to Palmolive, the Andalusian girl who went on to become the drummer for the Slits. He was the last to join the lineup that the Clash guitarist Michael "Mick" Jones had put together: vocalist Paul Simonon, who was transformed into a bass guitarist, Terry Chimes - the Clash's first drummer - and guitarist Keith Levene.
The Clash's early gigs quickly established it as an inseparable part of London's punk scene. The year it was founded, the band supported the Pistols' formative 1976 "Anarchy Tour." It performed alongside the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others. A year after it was formed, the Clash signed a 100,000-pound contract with CBS Records - a step that provoked accusations that it was selling out. The folks at CBS came up with the slogan "The Only Band that Matters," which was quite successful, considering the damage such grandiose declarations could wreak. "White Riot," the first single from the band's eponymous debut album "The Clash" (1977), is still one of its best-known songs to this day. The second album, "Give 'Em Enough Rope," was released the following year.
Sandy Pearlman, Blue Oyster Cult's producer, was enlisted by CBS to check out the Clash's performances. Pearlman told Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore in 1979: "By a miracle of God, they looked like they believed in what they were doing. They were playing for the thrill of affecting their audience's consciousness, both musically and politically. Rock 'n' roll shouldn't be cute and adorable; it should be violent and anarchic. Based on that, I think they're the greatest rock 'n' roll group around."
Gilmore arranged to meet Strummer and Simonon at the Tate Gallery in London. Simonon took him on a tour of the museum before the interview, in which he confided that, "I like to get up early, paint me flat, practice me bass. I see these geezers going off to work and I feel more like one of them."
"London Calling" was recorded in August and September 1979; the Clash's members at the time were Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simono and Nick "Topper" Headon. Jones told The Observer in 2004: "In the months leading up to the recording we were in intensive rehearsals. We worked up half a dozen songs at a time, and by the time we went into Wessex Studios, we had most of the tracks written. I'd love to say there was a master plan, but we were pretty instinctive guys and just did what we thought was right ... We could tell during recording it was going to be massive, and a lot of that was down to [the album's producer] Guy Stevens, who drove us on. CBS weren't keen on putting out a double album at the same price as a single, but we managed it. I think the album kinda reflected us, and we reflected our times ... It was a once in a generation."
"London Calling" contains two striking cover tracks: "Wrong 'Em Boyo," originally by the Jamaican band the Rulers, and "Brand New Cadillac," originally by the rockabilly singer Vince Taylor. The Clash may be labeled first and foremost a punk band, but the ceaseless genre-crossing of its music expanded the boundaries of its influence. For example, its deep connection to the Jamaican subculture in Britain had an impact not only on subsequent political-punk bands, such as Bad Brains, but also on groups like No Doubt, and it laid the foundations for the punk-funk of LCD Soundsystem. The social realism the Clash infused in its songs continues to resonate up to the albums of contemporary singer M.I.A. "The Right Profile," with its reference to Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift, sounds like a demo for Blur's album "Parklife." "London Calling" is such a rich album that it still has the power to inspire more and more songs, albums - even entire bands.
Israeli music producer Gil Bonstein, one of the pillars of the local reggae scene, recalls seeing the Clash three times in concert during their final tour, "Combat Rock."
"They took the connection between punk and reggae the furthest," he says, noting that Jamaican producer Mikey Dread worked on their fourth album, "Sandinista!"
"The Clash lived in London's ghettos. Its members would socialize with Jamaicans. Reggae was the most radical underground culture in London at that time. For whites to go to a sound system in some basement, to hear the bass sounds and feel the ganja vibe - that was the ultimate connection," Bonstein says.
"London Calling" is replete with cultural references, the most conspicuous of them on the cover, which is directly influenced by Elvis Presley's eponymous debut album. The lettering in pink and green is identical, but in place of a picture of "the King" in his youth, there is a photo of Paul Simonon, bent over, both hands clutching the neck of his bass guitar, perpendicular to the floor. The next frame, if it had appeared, would be of the guitar being smashed against the floor. The photographer, Pennie Smith, initially rejected the picture for the cover, because it is out of focus. Inside the album, an entire world awaits: atom bombs, Spanish civil wars, supermarkets. Strummer and Jones described their lives in West London and aimed their barbs at the political and social problems that preoccupied them.
"From the start they didn't go for the nihilism thing of the Sex Pistols or the freshness and youth of X-Ray Spex," Levy explains. "Their objective was to make a statement - it's something that you may or may not identify with, but a statement. There's a reason that their song 'The Guns of Brixton' is associated with the Brixton riots of 1977. What's important about the Clash is that they turned punk into 'important' music, as [music expert Yoav] Kutner would say."
Nitzan Horesh, frontman for the Israeli band Electra, says it would not be an exaggeration to say that "London Calling" changed his life.
"At first what stood out for me was the barbarity of the album, the hunger. And the delivery by Strummer and Jones. You feel that they mean well - their heart's in the right place, they're not merely nihilists; they care. There is raucous fun in this album, a sort of wake-up call for cutting loose. And also mystery, particularly in the title track, behind which were hidden layers that I discovered later.
"The album was a means for me to get to know the world: the anarchists in Andalusia from 'Spanish Bombs'; immigrants' issues on 'The Guns of Brixton'; the consumer world of 'Lost in the Supermarket'; a key to Jamaican music. I have been discovering new things in it ever since and it still fascinates me. The melodies and guitars of Mick Jones, who is under-appreciated. Today I listen to the way the album was produced, to the use made of piano, and am impressed by the fact that shattering rock songs can also be loose and feel like a spontaneous jam."
What in the band's attitude or delivery has influenced you?
Horesh: "I stole Strummer's wolf howl ... but other than that, the understanding that attitude and instinct are all that truly matter to me in art. The Clash was 100 percent attitude. The understanding that music has to have an intention, that it is waging a battle over consciousness. Strummer always sounds as though his life depended on every word coming out of his mouth. The Clash taught me that everything has political significance."
What makes the album relevant today?
"The Sex Pistols seems to me now like a postcard from yesteryear. The Clash's songs always dealt with the concrete present, but had a dimension to them that remains a relevant and powerful model. With the world still in a panic over issues of immigration and national identity, and white youth still seeking salvation through consumer culture, the ideas and drive of the Clash are still relevant."
William Faulkner once told The Paris Review: "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that 100 years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life." A hundred years may not have elapsed yet, but "London Calling" lives up to Faulkner's criterion with dignity.
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