Depending on the source, the working title for what would become London Calling was either The New Testament or The Last Testament. The story works better if you believe Kosmo Vinyl’s argument for The Last Testament—that The Clash intended London Calling to be the last rock ‘n’ roll album, the paired bookend to Elvis’ first album, right down to the pink-and-green lettering. While some critics have expressed outrage that The Clash could have been so presumptuous to believe that they alone could unilaterally terminate a much-beloved genre, and so arrogant to think that only they were qualified to write and record the closing chapter in the history of rock’ n’ roll, their outrage is seriously misplaced.
Since The Clash continued to make rock music after London Calling, it’s silly to take the “last rock ‘n’ roll album” assertion literally or as evidence of a collective ego gone mad. I think it’s more accurate to say that The Clash approached London Calling from the perspective of “What if this were the last rock ‘n’ roll record—what would that sound like, feel like, be like?” Given their concern about impending world doom expressed so clearly in the title track, they may well have felt on a subconscious level that London Calling could very well be the last rock ‘n’ roll record. More to the point, they used the idea of the last rock ‘n’ roll record as an inspirational theme, a way to infuse their efforts with urgency and drive. If the essence of rock ‘n’ roll is freedom, the last rock ‘n’ roll album would have to be the ultimate statement of freedom, a vibrant display of unrestrained energy, a complete rejection of dogma and expectations, a ringing statement of rebellion and a passionate invitation to listeners to get their asses out of their seats and celebrate what D. H. Lawrence called “a revolution for fun.”
Playing the “if you were on a deserted island and you could only bring one album with you” game, I would choose London Calling without hesitation or a hint of a second thought. I can’t think of any other album that triggers as many different emotions, ignites so much passion and authenticates so many deeply held personal values. A work of tremendous energy, London Calling is also extraordinarily energizing. By the end of the record you may not be any clearer than Joe Strummer was about what we can do to change this fucked-up world of ours, but you leave with more confidence that somehow we’ll figure it out. More than any other record in my collection, London Calling can pick me up when I’m down, and give me hope whenever I feel all is hopeless. This may seem a strange reaction to an album peppered with predictions of doom and gloom and scenes of inhumanity, but I prefer truth to fiction and find idealism intensely depressing. The Clash refused to give the listener a false sense of hope, but the simple act of calling bullshit on bullshit makes it easier to deal with—and to hear another person say the thing you always believed but could never put into words is an uplifting experience.
Because London Calling came out about twenty months before I gracefully exited the vaginal canal, I didn’t discover The Clash until I was about fifteen. I had fallen in love with punk right around the time I started high school, attracted by the intensity of the music and the physicality of the mosh pit. The Bay Area was one of the epicenters of the 90’s punk revival in the USA, so most of the bands I followed were home-grown. One of those bands was Rancid, and in the process of learning more about their origins, I read somewhere that they were huge admirers of a band called The Clash. I may have heard the name but knew nothing about them, so I started asking around. The trail led to a guy named Brian, a card-carrying, anti-social introvert and proud of it. After he reluctantly admitted to owning the entire collection, he told me he wouldn’t let me borrow the records, but said I could come over and listen to them at his house. “Okay, I said, “But let’s be clear—I’m not going to fuck you. I just want to listen to the music.” Brian mumbled something, gave me his address and said he’d expect me at 10 a.m. Saturday.
My virgin experience with The Clash was like all virgin experiences: confusing. I loved the first album: gritty, raw, explosive, surprisingly diverse and sometimes very funny. The second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, had some songs I connected with immediately, but it sounded almost soft by comparison—a bit too contained. London Calling was too much too soon—I couldn’t get my head around the experience. About a quarter of the way through Sandinista, I asked Brian, “Are you sure this is the same band?” He looked down at his shoes and nodded. Combat Rock didn’t move me one way or another; either The Clash was tired or I was on overload. After the piano and pizzicato strings of “Death is a Star” faded into nothingness, Brian stood up and said, “There’s another one but you won’t like it. It’s not the real Clash.” He stood there staring at his shoes until I got the hint that he had essentially just told me to get the fuck out of his room and go home.
First impressions don’t mean dick, and you can’t begin to appreciate a band like The Clash unless you spend some time with them. They were a band of startling originality, unafraid to explore a variety of musical styles and entirely unpredictable. I bought the five core albums one at a time, listening to each thoroughly before buying the next. It took me about half a dozen spins through all four sides of London Calling to feel its impact, but when I did, the experience was unbelievably thrilling.
You may wonder why it took me so long to write a review of what is obviously one of my favorite albums. Honest answer: total writer’s block. I must have started writing this review a dozen times over the past three years and folded every time. Part of it was my general reluctance to do punk reviews—it was the music of my teens, and everyone has fond and biased memories of the music that supported us through hormonal instability. I was also intimidated by the sheer scope of London Calling, because not only do The Clash employ a variety of musical styles, but the songs address a multitude of social and relational topics, from man-made apocalypse to the Spanish Civil War, from the neuroses generated by consumerism to the wanton self-destruction of a Hollywood actor.
Eighteen years after first hearing London Calling, I’m finally ready to rock. After having bashed the shit out of three albums by Oasis, I think I’ve escaped any lingering bias from my teenage years. While I haven’t done nearly as many punk reviews as I would have liked, I have covered The Sex Pistols, Rancid, $winging Utter$, Fugazi, The Evens, The Ramones and Offspring, so I have confidence I can stand up to any punk Stalinists in the reading audience. As for dealing with the sheer scope of London Calling, I know I have to finish it before the book is ready for publication, so I keep telling myself, “Missy, you’re just going to have to get the fuck on with it.”
Here goes with the onfuckgetting.
The first side of London Calling sets the stage by establishing a milieu of a world approaching collapse while demonstrating the astonishing versatility and musicianship of the band. Right from the start, The Clash break the stylistic boundaries imposed by punk purists while remaining true to the underlying ethic of punk: expose the bullshit with a heavy application of truth.
The sharp, insistent chords that open the title track sound the alarm that you’re about to be overwhelmed by breaking news, and you can be sure that all of it will be bad news since fear sells better than sunshine. Paul Simonon’s magnificent bass line intensifies the sense of foreboding, so when Joe Strummer enters with his high-anxiety vocal, you share the feeling of alarm while admiring how skillfully The Clash managed to duplicate the manipulative tricks of the newsroom. The power of the media to induce fear and create audience anxiety leads to a strange dependency. Since the only cure for anxiety is information, the more bad news we hear, the more likely we are to continue to tune in to get the fix we need to calm our nerves. The problem is that the media has no interest in alleviating your anxiety, so continuing to seek information from authoritative sources leads to a sick addiction (hence the term “news junkie.”) The fact that those authoritative sources are abstractions (“London Calling,” “The word from Washington today,” “CNN is reporting that”) leads to a feeling of utter powerlessness about the bad news pouring into our ears.
Joe Strummer’s vocal is a masterpiece, capturing the dread of cascading disasters and the impotence we feel when things seem completely out of control. The chorus describes the ultimate Catch-22, and Joe’s controlled hysteria perfectly captures the feeling of a person in a maze that leads only from one gotcha to another:
The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river
And when the newscast ends with a cheerful voice telling you, “And after all this, won’t you give me a smile?” you just want to fucking scream. On television, those cheerful voices are accompanied by cardboard cutouts with dental implants, making you want to scream and blow up the fucking telly.
Joe’s vocal is exceptional, but nearly everything on London Calling reflects superior collaboration and shared commitment. These guys spent several months in relative isolation, playing five-to-a-side football in the morning and writing, rehearsing and recording the rest of the time. The haunting background vocals, Topper Headon’s ability to shift from bash to swing with astonishing ease, Mick Jones’ fabulous guitar fills and Paul Simonon’s punctuating bass all combine to make “London Calling” a rich listening experience.
The next four songs on Side 1 demonstrate the band’s versatility and their willingness to defy expectations and boundaries. First, the Clash shift to classic rock with their let-it-all-out version of Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac.” Vince was one of the early British rockers, and his original combines a Gene Vincent attitude with Carl Perkins’ energy that was suitable for the pre-distortion era. The Clash amp up the power and ramp up the noise, driving this sucker home like a stud on fire. The rhythm section of Simonon and Headon is exceptionally tight and Mick Jones gets to rock out with a blistering solo. The climax in the last verse, with the band going full tilt and Topper beating the living shit out of those drums seems to infuse the already-energetic Joe Strummer with an extra jolt of adrenaline when he belts out the line, “JESUS CHRIST, WHERE’D YOU GET THAT CADILLAC?” Fuck yeah! Two minutes and eight seconds of rock ‘n’ roll bliss—and The Clash would do even better later in the album.
Shifting from pure rock to an electric jazz combo, “Jimmy Jazz” features obscure lyrics that seem to tell a story about a low-life hood caught somewhere between the cops and the mob. The curious phrase “Sattamassagana” is a Jamaican variant of an Amharic word meaning “give thanks,” and also the title of a roots reggae album by The Abyssinians. That doesn’t help much with interpretation, but I’ve always thought of the lyrics as more scat than substance, and that the primary purpose of “Jimmy Jazz” was to establish a break with punk traditions. For whatever reason, it feels right in the larger context of an album marked by stylistic diversity and Jamaican influence.
The first-person narrative approach combined with call-and-response vocals makes “Hateful” a much more credible anti-drug song than the Nancy Reagan-esque parental message in Paul Revere & The Raiders’ “Kicks.” While many listeners have connected the song to Sid Vicious’ heroin-induced death, the lyrics are powerful with or without that connection. The dehumanizing power of addiction is a terrible thing to behold:
This year I’ve lost some friends (Some friends?)
I dunno, I ain’t even noticed
You see, I gotta go out again (Again?)
My friend–I gotta see the main man
The music is ironically energetic, and The Clash execute the piece with the hold-nothing-back intensity that characterizes all the performances on London Calling.
“Rudie Can’t Fail” is a tribute to the rude boys of Jamaica, the authority-resistant youth who doffed pork pie hats and regularly defied their elders by refusing to follow the hopeless script of virtual servitude. “I know that my life make you nervous, but I tell you I can’t live in service” is a beautifully expressed rejection of tradition, as it expresses a vitally important personal truth without dissing the opposing beliefs. “Rudie Can’t Fail” is a reggae-driven delight, and one of the most joyous songs on London Calling.
Returning to our desert island for a moment . . . if I could only take one side of an album to that godforsaken place, it would be Side 2 of London Calling. These songs show The Clash at their best, covering a wide range of styles and subject matter with remarkable ingenuity and insight. Strummer and Jones were riding a hot streak on London Calling, often inspired by offhand suggestions that the average songwriter would never consider turning into music. In that sense, they were like improv actors at their best, saying “yes” to “offers,” and ignoring the voice of judgment in the brain that always responds with an automatic “no” to anything that doesn’t fit the known pattern. And while Paul Simonon didn’t have the songwriting credentials of his mates, his first shot went straight into the net.
The British obsession with holidays in Spain has provided material for artists as diverse as Procol Harum, The Bonzo Dog Band and Monty Python. “Spanish Bombs” contrasts the images of DC-10s crammed with happy-go-lucky tourists with the often violent history of Spain, particularly the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the contemporary bombings by the Basque separatist group ETA, the latter mirroring the concurrent IRA bombings in London. Most of the action described in the song takes place in Andalusia, home of the Costa Brava tourist mecca, and the town of Alfacar, where poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca was executed by monarchists for his socialist views. The core of the song focuses on the contrast between “innocent holiday fun” and getting your fucking body blown to bits by a random terrorist attack.
For the male holiday tourist, the perfect holiday simply must include getting down with one of those delectable Spanish babes, so you learn a few romantic phrases in Spanish, and like The Clash, pronounce them very badly. But as you’re enjoying the beaches and casinos, the ghosts of a violent past and the zombies of a violent present haunt you—perhaps you hear a BBC report about another IRA attack in London just as you’re ready to go for a swim. As you turn to walk back to the hotel, you hear a thunderous roar and the air is filled with smoke and screams, and your budding romance comes to a gruesome end:
Spanish weeks in my disco casino
The freedom fighters died upon the hill
They sang the red flag
They wore the black one
But after they died it was Mockingbird Hill
Back home the buses went up in flashes
The Irish tomb was drenched in blood
Spanish bombs shatter the hotels
My senorita’s rose was nipped in the bud
The rather frantic but somehow jolly music that accompanies “Spanish Bombs” supports the psyche of the song’s narrator—one half of his brain trying to enjoy himself, the other half dreading the next explosion. It’s a horrible state of existence, like having a permanent low-grade fever. I have to confess that since the attacks in Paris, whenever I go out to dinner or attend a concert in Nice, my mind always wanders to the 130 people who died while doing exactly the same thing . . . enjoying a good meal and a bottle of wine, listening to music.
Strummer came up with “Spanish Bombs” after hearing a broadcast of an ETA bombing on the Costa Brava; his next source of inspiration would come from further out in the blue. Producer Guy Stevens handed him a copy of Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth, a competent if unimaginative biography of the troubled Hollywood star. When a songwriter is in the zone like Joe Strummer was during the London Calling period, there ain’t nothin’ you can’t do. Wait—let me calculate that triple negative—okay, it works.
“The Right Profile” is a wonderfully ingenious piece of songwriting that I never listen to it without feeling a sense of delighted awe. Despite its tragic story, there are times I want to break out in laughter; at other moments I want to scream in anguish; at still others I wish to fuck I could write one song half as good as this one.
The “Say, where did I see this guy?” opening line, such a common reaction to an actor we can’t place, immediately establishes the narrator’s perspective as your garden-variety movie fan. After Strummer recites some of Clift’s most famous films, he introduces us to the chorus, which consists of the trite phrases you hear when people talk about their movie stars and chat about the latest news from the gossip rags:
And everybody say, “Is he all right?”
And everybody say, “What’s he like?”
And everybody say, “He sure look funny”
That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!
In this first round of the chorus, “everybody” is wondering if Clift is a regular Joe and what he’s like in “real life,” expressing a vague sense of unease about his appearance. Those same lines will take on significantly different meanings at various points in the song, and the few variations to those lines will have added impact.
Skipping past Monty’s mother-dominated childhood, Strummer picks up Clift’s life narrative right around the time he starred with Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress in 1949, when he was arrested for soliciting homosexuals in Times Square. The news was hushed up by studio publicity departments working overtime, but certainly must have started the rumor mill flying:
New York, New York, 42nd Street
Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat
Monty Clift is recognized at dawn
He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn
Now the chorus takes on a different meaning: “Is he all right?” is now “Is he a fruit?” and “He sure looks funny” means “You know, I always thought there was something weird about this guy.” You can’t help but feel for the poor, horny bastard, standing there in the cold dawn with his shoes stolen and his clothes a frightful mess. For a moment, the star is transformed into a very human being: a man subject to human weakness.
Fast-forward to the car accident that nearly turned into Montgomery Clift’s final curtain. Here’s how Ms. Bosworth described the scene that his close friend Elizabeth Taylor encountered on her arrival:
When Elizabeth and the others reached Monty’s car at the foot of the hill, they saw the automobile crushed against a telephone pole. There was broken glass and blood everywhere. Blood spurted onto Elizabeth’s silk dress as she crawled over the front seat and cradled Monty’s head in her lap. She looked down into his face, which was a bloody unrecognizable pulp. He stirred in her arms and moaned. He was alive, but his nose was broken, his jaw shattered, his cheeks severely lacerated, and his upper lip split completely in half.
—Bosworth, Patricia. Montgomery Clift: A Biography (Kindle Locations 86-90). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
Joe Strummer’s version is more economic but even more impactful:
I see a car smashed at night
Cut the applause and dim the light
Monty’s face is broken on a wheel
Is he alive? Can he still feel?
The use of the phrase “broken on a wheel,” calling up images of the torture device called the Catherine Wheel used to break the alleged criminal’s bones or bludgeon him to death, was a brilliant poetic turn. Clift was a man who spent his life on the wheel, sometimes by personal choice. The version of the chorus following the accident features two variations, the meaning of each line amplified by Joe Strummer’s ambiguous tone of melodramatic grief expressing the added significance we attach to the tragedies of the rich and famous:
And everybody say, “Is he all right?”
And everybody say, “Shine a light”
And everybody say, “It’s not funny”
That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!
Immediately we hear the spoken word line “Shoot his right profile,” the technique directors would henceforth favor when capturing Clift on camera (a trick Clift himself resisted). The line feels like the response to the question, “Hey, we’ve got a lot of money invested in this guy—how do we get something out of what’s left of him?”
Strummer then recounts Clift’s agonizingly long descent into a drug-and-alcohol fueled existence; here the chorus seems to taunt Monty for his scarred face and inherently bad luck. The final verse is the pièce de résistance, as Strummer gives an Oscar-deserving performance of Monty’s death scene:
He said go out and get me my old movie stills
Go out and get me another roll of pills
There I go again shaking, but I ain’t got the chills
ARRRGHHHGORRA BUH BHUH DO ARRRRGGGGHHHHNNNN!!!!
I’m sorry, but every time I hear Joe Strummer break into convulsions I shake with laughter. I feel like a bitch afterward, but the pathos of the scene is so absurd that I can’t fucking help it. I doubt that I’m alone—the sassy, horn-driven arrangement featuring The Irish Horns feels more like stripper music than funeral music, and really, Joe Strummer sounds like he was having the time of his life. “The Right Profile” is pure genius, a product of a blessed moment of creative freedom.
“Lost in the Supermarket” is no less powerful, and much more touching. The narrator is a bloke searching for an identity in a world where identity is what you buy. Back home in the USA I always heard people classified by the kind of car they drove, the clothes they wore, the food they ate—all of which communicate class and status differences that inherently deny our common humanity. For most of the song, Mick Jones sings the lines in an almost timid voice, reflecting the narrator’s inner uncertainty. After the narrator introduces himself as a person shopping for a “guaranteed personality,” we hear his back story, where Joe Strummer, displaying empathy far beyond the capability of most mortals, translates Mick Jones’ childhood experience into music:
I wasn’t born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see
I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That’s how it’s been all around me
Mick departs from his low-key vocal on the line, “Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling” with intense and obviously genuine feeling. The truth is “the people who lived on the ceiling” were Jones’ parents: he huddled in the basement with his gran while they fought it out upstairs. Even without the back story, his delivery of that line is deeply moving.
The continuing story describes a terribly lonely existence in a consumer-driven universe, where despite the narrator being “all tuned in” and fully engaged in the consumer society, his only regular human contact comes when “The kids in the halls and the pipes in the walls/Make me noises for company.” The final rendition of the chorus expresses the deep sense of existential isolation that often results in self-blame:
I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
And it’s not here
I’m all lost
Before I leave “Lost in the Supermarket,” I do want to point out the little things that matter—I love the fuck out of Paul Simonon’s counterpoint bass in this song. The guy could hardly hold a bass only a few years before London Calling, and through hard work and commitment, transformed himself into one of the best bassists ever. Sorry for the sidetrack on what is already a very long review, but fuck it, Paul Simonon deserves it!
We now arrive at my favorite song on London Calling, one that always elicits the same immediate reaction the moment I hear the opening feedback: I turn it up. I like my music loud, but no matter how high the volume, I always turn it up a notch for “Clampdown.” This sucker explodes with power, thanks to the disciplined intensity of the band and an arrangement designed to maximize tension and release.
The extended introduction driven by sustained power chords and Paul Simonon’s pulsating bass is made all the more intriguing by a spoken word sequence that is buried in the mix. While a Clash fan named Ade Marks managed to make the unintelligible intelligible for Q magazine, the mysterious, hidden message actually raises the listener’s attention level (the words describe the return or escape of a corrupt dictator, foreshadowing the “evil presidentes” of the last verse). The true opening line of “Clampdown” is a cry of soul-level frustration with the system.
What are we gonna do now?
That question is the key to understanding “Clampdown.” The lyrics to “Clampdown” are not so much an attack directed at the system but a passionate plea to the rest of us to wake up and realize the extent to which we participate in our own oppression by allowing those in power to manipulate us through fear and insecurity.
The first verse presents the threat. While the lyrics deal specifically with the myth of white supremacy as championed by the neo-Nazi National Front, the greater meaning has to do with how those seeking power have often used economic hard times to demonize the outsider and ignite fear in the masses:
Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?
‘Cause they’re working for the clampdown
They put up a poster saying we earn more than you!
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
The approach worked for Hitler, and the primary reason it failed to work for the National Front is that a more accomplished politician by the name of Thatcher capitalized on the same fears by presenting a more subtle and deceptively civilized argument for institutional racism.
Having established the context, the lyrics shift to our role in allowing the clampdown to thrive. In the second verse, Joe Strummer asks us point-blank to take a hard look at what the fuck we’re doing with our lives: “No man born with a living soul/Can be working for the clampdown.” As revealed more clearly in the bridge and third verse, working for the clampdown is not limited to jobs that provide security for the state, but any job that supports the system, from the office to the factory floor. While such an attitude may seem unworkable in a world where there are very few ways to avoid the system short of complete disconnection, the line that closes the bridge, “It’s the best years of your life you they want to steal” defines just how much is at stake.
The Clash offer no solutions, but instead remind us that ” . . . anger can be power/D’you know that you can use it?” While anger can burn a hole in your soul, anesthetizing yourself to the outrages perpetrated by the system only leads to acquiescent collaboration with those who don’t give a rat’s ass about your miserable existence:
You grow up and you calm down
You’re working for the clampdown
You start wearing blue and brown
You’re working for the clampdown
Full assimilation into the system occurs when you buy into the deprivation mindset of capitalism and start to believe that your survival depends on becoming the top dog in the pack. Shifting your priorities to the empty pursuit of higher status and income, you unwittingly become an active participant in the dehumanization and oppression that keeps the system alive:
So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
Make your first kill now
“Clampdown” amplifies the message of “Career Opportunities” with a more passionate call to action, but the “what” remains elusive to this day. Even in the absence of a plan—or especially because the choice is left up to us—“Clampdown” is a unique, exhilarating experience, and the righteous anger that fuels the song is reflected in every note and every beat. The power chord riff that forms the baseline is played with brutal precision, Topper Headon wreaks disciplined havoc on the kit, Joe Strummer’s vocal is imbued with urgency and desperation, Mick Jones’ superb spot harmonies add flash and flair, and Paul Simonon gives this rocket of a song the grounding it needs. A rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece.
Side 2 ends with Paul Simonon’s contribution to the proceedings, the mesmerizing “The Guns of Brixton.” Based on the reggae gangster film The Harder They Come, the song paints a vivid picture of life within an oppressed culture beset by high crime, unemployment rates and complete indifference on the part of the authorities unless the residents start acting up. It’s a place where the “game is called survivin’,” where your choices as a young black man are getting “shot down in the street” or wind up “waiting on death row.” Paul Simonon grew up in Brixton and embraced its diverse Afro-Caribbean culture, so whether or not he really needed the presence of a suit from CBS to give him proper motivation for the vocal is a matter of debate—Brixton and its people were a part of him. However he got there, he gives a gritty performance with a tone of bitter inevitability—he could see the neighborhood was primed to explode, which it did a mere eighteen months later. When I hear the song today, I think of the people in Paris who live beyond the périphérique, the ring road that cuts off wealthy Paris from its poorer suburbs. In those suburbs live hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of them Muslim, facing the same conditions that led to the Brixton riots—high youth unemployment, high crime, a sense of utter hopelessness, complete alienation. Is it any wonder that some of those people became radicalized? What the fuck did they have to lose? The song demonstrates the timelessness of London Calling, for while the names and locations cited in the songs may have changed, the underlying issues The Clash chose to deal with have never been addressed in any effective manner by the powers that be.
Side 3 opens with “Stagger Lee” . . . no, wait . . . they’ve stopped. Okay, here we go! What? Is that the horn riff to Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise?” The playful introduction eventually brings us to the lighter, bouncier “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” a Caribbean-tinged tune that does in fact manage to integrate the “Stagger Lee” myth into its street-wise moral message. “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” is one of those tunes that can stick in your head for days, so be forewarned.
The more substantial rocker “Death or Glory” comes next. If you want to hear what a drummer in full command of his faculties sounds like, listen to Topper’s contribution to the intro to “Death or Glory.” His command of every piece of the kit is breathtaking and achieves what any great intro should achieve: drive the listener’s anticipation level through the roof. The lyrics tell the story of a cheap hood with a Robert Mitchum fetish who sells out—essentially, he goes straight, in the timeless pursuit of a good piece of ass—then compare and contrast his experience to the experience of wannabe rock stars attempting to capitalize on opportunities in the music scene by peddling the anti-capitalist “We’re no sellouts” story. With blunt precision, The Clash expose the pitch for what it is:
‘N’ every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll
Grabs the mike to tell us he’ll die before he’s sold
But I believe in this and it’s been tested by research
He who fucks nuns will later join the church
The song is a hoot, and the punctuated syncopation in the rhythmic pattern makes “Death or Glory” a certified ass-shaker.
“Koka Kola” targets the ubiquity of advertising in our lives, a trend that has intensified in our times with the capitalization of the Internet. I won’t share the brutal fantasies I conjure up while being forced to watch toilet paper commercials while screening videos on YouTube, but I will tell you that they do involve the application of sharp objects to the area intended for soft, fluffy Charmin. The Clash likens advertising to an all-out assault on the human psyche, which is exactly what it is. Side 3 ends with “The Card Cheat,” where the wall-of-sound effect was accomplished by simply playing all the parts twice—they overdubbed the whole damned thing. The bigness is a bit off-putting at first, but I found when I turned the volume down a notch, the strong motif comes through more clearly and pulls you in. The lyrics seem rather bleak and brutal but go well with the sheer drama of the arrangement.
Side 4 opens with “Lover’s Rock,” which satirizes the sexual behavior of the late 1970s, best described as a combination of “let’s try this position, honey,” the overemphasis on male satisfaction via the blow job and the complete disconnection of sex and love through the obsession with technique. The male half of the species is gently reminded that they generally only get one shot on goal and to target that shot for the girlfriend’s throat is not likely to result in female orgasm unless the broad in question happens to be Linda Lovelace. The music is pure disco-influenced romance number, enhancing the feeling of disgust that The Clash intended you to feel.
“Four Horsemen” features The Clash poking fun at themselves, a very healthy thing to do indeed. But what really grabs my attention on this track is Topper’s drumming, one of the best rock drum performances on record. “I’m Not Down” is another uptempo number, a defiant attempt to ward off depression after a down period in Mick Jones’ life when had his stuff ripped off and lost his girlfriend. Having gone through a bout of depression when I was about the same age, I completely agree with Mick’s prescription: nobody’s going to pull you out of the darkness except y-o-u. Consider “I’m Not Down” the self-help counterpart to Bjork’s I’ve-fucking-had-it-with-your-poor-me-act in “Army of Me.”
Joe Strummer took Danny Ray’s dub piece “Revolution Rock” and moved the lyrical scene from the warm breezes of Kingston to the raging fires of London during the punk revolution. “A heavy, heavy rock” becomes a “bad, bad rock,” and “Careful how you smoke, man, you burn off my clothes” becomes “Careful how you slide, Clyde, all you did was glide/And you poured beer in me hat,” and I don’t think they were smashing seats in Jamaica. The integration of Jamaican genres and subgenres (reggae, ska, dub) and straight punk was a remarkable development in music, a compatibility facilitated by a shared lyrical approach heavy on social protest. The willingness of The Clash to explore that music—and the fact that they proved to be quite competent in those genres—would influence many punk artists who followed their footsteps, up to and including Rancid and Offspring. What you also hear on “Revolution Rock” is just how much they enjoyed playing Jamaican—Topper Headon had no problem handling the uneven rhythms and Paul Simonon mastered the strong bass groove that is at the core of reggae and its variants.
London Calling comes to a close with Mick Jones’ remarkable “Train in Vain.” I usually despise break-up songs, but the sheer emotional honesty of this song smashes right through my resistance. While Mick certainly doesn’t let the girl off the hook and has no problem calling her on her bullshit, the song is primarily about his reaction to a communication nightmare—what she’s telling him simply doesn’t compute, fit the narrative or reflect the values he thought they shared. The music is not your typical overproduced torch song nonsense, but based on a firm, steady beat (“like a train rhythm,” Mick said) that mirrors his emotional firmness while allowing him room to express everything in his heart and mind. Mick’s vocal is one of his best, and despite the bitterness, “Train in Vain” is the perfect closing number to an album characterized by a complete commitment to truth, in all its forms.
Over thirty-plus years after its release, London Calling remains one of rock’s greatest achievements, a record that explores the role of the human being in society with a depth that few other works can match, a double-sided tribute to artistic freedom and a celebration of the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. Though recorded in 1979, the relevance of London Calling persists. We live in a world where serious problems are “managed” but never solved, where information is distorted and often used to manipulate, and where terrorism, war, looming environmental disaster and threats to the world’s food supply are all part of the picture. While it may be somewhat depressing to realize that the human race has made little progress since this record was released, such an attitude only leads to hopelessness and helplessness—the indulgences we can least afford. I prefer to think of London Calling as a timeless argument for common sense, for placing the needs of human beings above the needs of the system, and for overcoming the prejudice we attach to differences so that we can learn to cherish those differences.
In essence, London Calling begins and ends with a question—a question we desperately need to answer before this world of ours falls apart.
What are we gonna do now?