Treble 100, No. 19: The Clash – London Calling

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The Clash London Calling

I don’t remember what aesthetic approaches the first wave of British punk deployed but I suppose it followed the pattern of other splinter genres. That’s my guess. Rules were implied but never dictated. The form was established, initial strictures were built, and opposing forces (prog, disco, manor houses) were identified and detained.

Many of the first impressions of early punk were filtered through one band: Sex Pistols. They weren’t quite the first punk band in the UK to put something out (that was The Damned), but they were the ones who seized the publicity handle. Whatever one thinks of their music, it’s irrefutable that once it was heard, everything theretofore was kinda pointless.

Joe Strummer realized that when he was the singer for the pub rock band The 101ers, whom the Pistols supported at their London gig on April 3, 1976. “As soon as I saw them, I knew that rhythm and blues was dead and that the future was here,” Strummer said to journalist Caroline Coon. “I just knew. It was something you knew without bothering to think about it. Punk rock is the music of the now.”

Within a few months, Strummer joined guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Topper Headon in The Clash. For a brief while their compositional (or spaghetti-throwing) style matched the basics of the Pistols, The Damned, The Vibrators, and other contemporaries. But just as punk was threatening to fade into factionalism and insularity, The Clash gave it something only a few could see coming: global engagement.

The first steps of that international outreach sounded on The Clash’s third album, one of the greatest rock and roll albums ever made. London Calling was released in the USA in January 1980, a few weeks after it was released in the UK. At that point, the Clash’s music had only been available domestically for around 14 months. The first Clash album to hit the non-import shelves in America was their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, in November 1978.

A few months later—after American critics like Lester Bangs begged CBS to make it available stateside—Epic repackaged their 1977 self-titled debut for American audiences, more than two years after its UK release. Within a few months, London Calling showed up.

The American timeframe is notable. Yankees who weren’t import-section hounds only had a little more than a year to acclimate themselves with The Clash before London Calling. To help matters along, the band insisted that the two-record set be sold for as close as possible to a single disc. If you’d nursed Enough Rope and The Clash before that point, you knew to expect a couple of stylistic inversions. But my guess is that those who did weren’t entirely prepared for the boundaries London Calling would shatter.

London Calling was the first album by a group that could logically be called a “punk” band to hit the American Top 40 album charts, reaching number 27 on the Billboard 200. The reason the preceding qualifier is so wordy is that it’s hard to call London Calling a punk album—“Clampdown,” “Death or Glory,” “Koka Kola” and “Four Horsemen” might be its only classic punk songs, depending on which hairs you wanna split.

Several factors may have been in play in The Clash’s acceptance from American audiences. They were on Epic Records, who could afford the Clash’s cost-cutting measures thanks to Michael Jackson. They had a Top 40 single in “Train in Vain,” sounding like a funk band attempting skiffle at soundcheck. The album cover marketed itself with Pennie Smith’s photo of Paul Simonon bashing his bass and the Elvis-recalling typography.

Listening more closely to London Calling than I have in a few years reveals something else: personality archetypes—many American, many masculine—in transition, if not decline. The Clash’s characters weren’t just angry or excitable like punk was stereotyped to be at the time. They were also scared, lonely, paranoid, and trapped. Change was imminent for both the US and the UK in 1979, and London Calling attempted to at least install a safety net.

Punk started as the most dramatic form of rock rebellion. For its first few years, British punk fashioned itself after primal urges and a dalliance with nihilism and seemed destined to be impermanent. There was an almost comic sense of burned-up transience about the rage it projected, some of it self-directed (“We just don’t care / We don’t give a damn” sang The Adverts in “One Chord Wonders”).

From the start, there was something different about The Clash’s brand of punk. They looked beyond their peers to soak up and espouse outlaw culture. Reggae musicians had taken to Wild West outlaws like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy — not necessarily as criminals, but as examples of the spirit of resistance. The Clash, who were direct about their debt to reggae, inherited the outlaw tradition in the same way.

But they also knew those icons wouldn’t last forever. Punk bands might have been perceived as immature crows who knew there was an expiration date stamped on their foreheads. Only a few bands considered where they were going to go next and how to steer the style to adulthood.

The Clash was one of those bands. On London Calling they pulled back the curtain on their outlaws and rebels, dwelling in the tension of punk’s transition to acceptance. Not all of them were turning out well.

There was something different about the outcasts on London Calling. They were neither deified nor castigated. They didn’t all have the moral convictions of their creators. They weren’t all dwelling on the margins—some of them lived next door and didn’t give off a whiff of insouciance or agitation. But they all know and agree on one thing: Something has to give.

The opening title track—one of the most effective overtures rock has ever seen—made it sound like the threat could be coming from anywhere. The nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island had affected Strummer, as did his fears that his apartment near the Thames could get flooded at any minute (“London is drowning and I live by the river”). Strummer portends everything from climate change to famine.

Even in all this choking paranoia, inaction or ignorance isn’t an option. Strummer challenges listeners to actually work on these issues, not rely on any platitudes the band had to offer (“Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust”) or hide their heads in the sand (“While we were talking, I saw you nodding out”). This was a direct hit to one potential side effect of punk consumption: tired, stylized indifference. Governments used that too.

On London Calling’s politically-minded tracks—there aren’t that many—aloofness is just as much a threat as force and coercion. The singer of “Spanish Bombs” tries to reconcile the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and the rise and death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco with his escapist time in a Spanish “disco casino.” The rebel in “Clampdown” knows passivity is one component of casual racism, and he’s not going to let them push it through: “The judge said five to ten but I say double that again / I’m not workin’ for the clampdown / No man born with a livin’ soul / Can be workin’ for the clampdown.”

For many of the characters on London Calling, the rent came due. The Clash’s cover of “Brand New Cadillac” by early British rocker Vince Taylor updates romantic angst as the singer realizes his ex-girl’s indifference (“Balls to you, big daddy,” a line that was not in the 1959 original). She even got a better car than you, for Christ’s sake.

The Clash were tuned into the potential for downfalls. “The Right Profile” recalls the true story of actor Montgomery Clift, a chiseled American movie star known for his brooding, and the isolation and despair that his disfiguring 1956 auto accident ushered in. “Go out and get me my old movie stills! / Go out and get me another roll of pills! / There I go again shakin’, but I ain’t got the chills! / Uh-wahh do – dit – dit – BWAAAAAAAAHHHH!” Or words to that effect.

Time catches up to “The Card Cheat” as a disreputable gambler faces his descent or, even worse, his irrelevance. “He only wanted more time / Away from the darkest door / But his luck it gave in / As the dawn light crept in / And he lay on the floor,” Strummer sings over a piano-driven Wall Of Sound. The Card Cheat is a personification of the British Empire’s gradual dispersion and inconsequence. Instead of bashing the Imperial Crown, Strummer eulogizes what the Empire thought it could have been.

Then there’s the defeat of the rebels who never were. The subject of “Lost in the Supermarket” has no idea what the outside world beyond his suburb is really like, he just wants to be a part of it. He resorts to consumerism and avoidance: “I’m all tuned in, I see all the programs / I save coupons from packets of tea / I’ve got my giant hit discotheque album / I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free.” The song’s disco rhythm pushes Mick Jones forward until he admits his loneliness—then the guitars sputter down to near-dub levels and they all limp off together. It’s one of the saddest upbeat songs you’ll ever hear.

Speaking of consumerism, The Clash lays out the real intent behind advertising in “Koka Kola,” where Madison Avenue execs seduce, entrap, and eventually dispose of their target demos: “Your eyeballs feel like pinballs / And your tongue feels like a fish / You’re leaping from the windows, saying don’t give me none of this.” The Clash even cast themselves as opportunists at the end of “Revolution Rock,” a straight reggae track: “Playing requests now on the bandstand / El Clash combo / Paid fifteen dollars a day / Weddings, parties, anything / and bongo jazz a speciality [sic].” Fifteen bucks went a long way back then.

If you were already a Clash fan when you first heard “Train in Vain” on FM radio, you might have been shocked when the DJ said it was a Clash song. An R&B rhythm clip and an undeniable guitar hook and welded them to a song about… lost love? Seriously? Though the album closer is not London Calling’s centerpiece (at first it wasn’t even on the track list), “Train in Vain” was the clearest indication that The Clash were changing, and maybe punk was as well. Pop hits can do that to you.

The musical approach on London Calling is transitional and original. Even the punk-adjacent anthems “London Calling,” “Spanish Bombs” and “Death and Glory” had a sense of melodicism that punk hadn’t much cared about at the time. The reggae and dub influence was all over songs like “Rudie Can’t Fail,” “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” “Revolution Rock” and Paul Simonon’s “The Guns of Brixton.”

The compositional maturity of these songs set The Clash free. That’s what’s most impressive about London Calling. Punk was supposedly all about freedom until you wore the wrong shoes. Its authority came from its power, but it was jealously guarded when it came to style breakthroughs. London Calling changed that completely. The Clash were looking outside their declining empire’s squat houses, finding inspiration and musical cues from all over the globe. (If you thought London Calling was a shot across the bow, wait ’til you hear their 3-disc Sandinista! which the Clash released in the same year. And you thought Taylor Swift was prolific.)That musical frontierism remains London Calling’s legacy to this day. It cataloged the demise of its contrite anti-heroes and deflated icons, but the diversity of its styles pointed to a way out. The Clash had changed the course of rock and roll—not just punk—and, as Bob Dylan did with lyrics, gave the form a whole new musical vocabulary to work with.

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The Clash : London Calling

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View Comment (1)
  • mick jones sang in the card cheat, not joe! wonderful article otherwise, it really distills the essence of this record. one of my favorites in my teenage years, i still listen to it every few months.

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