When I was about 7 years old I used to sit at the closed door to my sister’s room, straining to hear the only source of music ever playing in the house, her shitty little radio. I wasn’t eavesdropping on her and her girlfriends, I couldn’t have cared less about girls at that stage; I was simply fascinated by the music. But she didn’t believe that, and by my next birthday she had convinced my parents to get me a CD Radio of my own so I wouldn’t have an excuse to plant myself at the door of her exclusive room.
A lot of trash came and went into that CD player over the next few years as I discovered pop, hip hop, rock and really whatever I could get my hands on. Yet the first album to come into my life that spoke to me honestly and intellectually, that would exert a real impact over my childhood, angst-filled teenage years and early adulthood, and most importantly, that I could have a serious jive to, was The Clash’s third studio album, London Calling.
The 1979 (or 1980, depending on your location) double album was a shatteringly inclusive bending of the punk genre, with influence felt from the likes of rockabilly, swing, ska and R&B. It’s iconic album cover, with bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision (which he would later admit to regretting, it being his favourite bass) is so perfectly encompassing of punk that to say a picture is worth 1000 words is a slap in the face to its photographer, Pennie Smith. The Clash took the values that punk holds dear and gave them rationalisation. They were anti-establishment not just for the sake of it, but because they had seen the pitfalls of commercialism and ‘playing by the rules’. They were also anti-heavy drugs, as they knew first hand the devastating outcomes of addiction. The Clash gave punk a sense of purpose.
Starting with London Calling, the titular track sees Joe Strummer making a mockery of sensationalism in the media, calling down all manner of destruction, from an ice age to a mass technological breakdown. He also challenges the role of music as a form of escapism, singing:
London calling, now don’t look to us
All that phoney Beatle-mania has bitten the dust.
This, to me, epitomises what The Clash are all about. It feels like they’re saying, ‘if you want to feel warm and fuzzy, fuck off, we’re here with a conscience and a message.’
Brand New Cadillac is an homage to the rockabilly music that The Clash witnessed on their first North American tour, which wrapped up just prior to the recording of London Calling. The influence of the likes of Elvis Presley is evident enough if you take a look at the cover of Elvis’ self-titled first studio album.
Jimmy Jazz is another departure from the punk blueprint, with Mick Jones (who wrote the music to match Strummer’s lyrics throughout most of the album) drawing from rude boy and other forms of reggae. Strummer seems to reference this with the lyric:
What a relief!
I feel like a soldier,
Look like a thief!
As if to say, we’re in this almost militaristic punk scene, yet what we are compiling is an appropriation of so much more then just that. Topper Headon, the band’s drummer, was undoubtedly influential in the song’s development, despite not being credited, as he owed a lot to a jazz background. Strummer references The Abyssinians’ 1976 roots reggae album Satta Massagana in the song, which was evidently a large influence. Here is the title track:
We then arrive at Hateful, where the upbeat tempo belies the song’s portrayal of addiction. Strummer refers to the loss of his good friend Sid Vicious, bassist for The Sex Pistols, following a heroin overdose. The song is a damning rejection of the obsessive nature of drug addiction.
Rudie Can’t Fail is one of the many highlights of the album. It is a celebration of rude boys: first generation English born to Jamaican emigrants. Rude boys were regarded as irresponsible and lazy, although The Clash observed something else in the rude boys: a rebellious expression of freedom that was closely akin to the punk mentality. The song borrows from Ska, with Mick Jones employing a choppy rhythm guitar reminiscent of Bo Diddley, whom the band had recently toured the US with, added to a Ska bassline and rim-shot beat. It is also the first song, alongside The Right Profile and Revolution Rock to prominently include The Irish Horns.
Lost in the Supermarket stands alongside Koka Kola as tracks in defiance of commercialism and corporate interference in everyday decisions through advertising that embraces and champions materialism. Jones cries out in that scathing indictment that is as relevant today as it was 36 years ago:
I’m all lost in the Supermarket,
I can no longer shop happily,
I came in here for that special offer
A Guaranteed Personality.
Koka Kola ironically resembles the advertising jingles that it condemns, as it also attacks the ‘executives’ walking in ‘the corridors of power’. The Clash had good reason to be so disgruntled with major corporations, having spent their entire contract in direct conflict with their label, CBS Records. They had signed a huge deal to CBS before releasing anything and so had to deal with dissatisfaction from outside and inside the band about whether they had ‘sold out’. The deal certainly reduced their punk credibility. This is how Joe Strummer justified it:
Signing that contract did bother me a lot. I’ve been turning it over in my mind, but now I’ve come to terms with it. I’ve realised that all it boils down to is perhaps two-year’s security…. Before, all I could think about was my stomach…. Now I feel free to think—and free to write down what I’m thinking about…. And look—I’ve been fucked about for so long I’m not going to suddenly turn into Rod Stewart just because I get £25.00 a week. I’m much too far gone for that, I tell you.
The band then had to win over alienated fans and also deal with the over-involvement of CBS in its creative process. The self-titled first album was not given a US release and CBS asked that the second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope be cleaner in sound if they wanted a US release. The group were supposedly very bored of the mainstream sound they were forced to come up with. They also released a single, Complete Control, addressing the resentment they had for CBS. By the time The Clash came to working on London Calling, they insisted that it be an LP including a free single to effectively give fans greater bang for their buck. CBS agreed, but were deceived by the band, as the free single played at 33rpm and contained nine songs, making the album into a double.
In a similar manner to Koka Kola and Supermarket, Working for the Clampdown and Death or Glory uphold similar punk ideals of refusing to conform to convention and both bemoan that youthful vigour and idealism is replaced by this conformism in adulthood. Clampdown laments that idealistic future revolutionaries get reduced to ‘normal’ rule abiders:
When we’re working for the Clampdown
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers.
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers.
And in one of the greatest and most insightful lines you’re ever likely to hear, Strummer sings:
I believe in this- and it’s been tested by research
That he who fucks nuns, will later join the church.
Strummer later said of the impact of his father: ‘Once I got out on my own, I realised I was right. I saw how the rules worked and I didn’t like them’. These songs almost serve as a reminder to himself to not become the person he once lived in defiance of. They were also a message to the band collectively to remain true to their leftist convictions in the face of popularity and self-importance.
An interesting aside: unconventional producer Guy Stevens threw chairs around the studio to add energy to the recording of Death or Glory.
A final pairing is the two Mick Jones tracks, I’m Not Down and Train in Vain. Both were written shortly after Jones’ breakup with Viv Albertine, then guitarist of The Slits. I’m Not Down is an optimistic, if not entirely convincing, attempt to pick one’s self up from a downward spiral, while Train in Vain is far less hopeful in its outlook. The track’s name stems from Jones’ regular train rides to visit Albertine, only to leave in a miserable state. It was the first top 40 hit for The Clash in the US, owing largely to its R&B slant.
As The Clash blended punk with just about every other genre they were exposed to, so did they blend themes such as love, trepidation towards conformity and anti-establishmentarianism into one outstanding album. London Calling became a soundtrack to much of my life and doubtless to many others. It wasn’t punk because that was the thing to do at the time, it was punk because it had something to say and a platform by which to appeal to the revolutionaries that refused to give in.