London Calling

Uncut, 2012

IT’S the greatest track one, side one, of all time, ever, no contest.

First, the lightning: the flashes and sparks of Mick Jones’ guitar, E minor to F and back again, and again, played yards up the fretboard in tightly clenched staccato barre chords, trebly and bright. Then, the thunder: that ominous, rumbling Ka-BOOM of Paul Simonon’s bass. A storm is brewing, a bad moon rising: little wonder that Don Letts decided that the appropriate backdrop for his video of the song in question was a rain-lashed Thames in the gloomy dusk of a winter’s afternoon, the opening shot of Big Ben time-stamping it at 4:08pm. As Topper Headon’s martial stomp urges the introduction towards the first verse, a one-note lead guitar riff grows gradually more insistent above the clatter, agitated and angry, an alarm, a siren, cueing Joe Strummer’s breathless dispatch from a dysfunctional dystopia seized by industrial decrepitude, plagued by zombies, menaced by meltdown, starved by failing crops, where the only things still swinging are the truncheons of marauding cops, and where the climate is ganging up from both directions, the sun scorching the earth bare even as a new ice age encroaches. Despite its anthemic tendencies, the title cut of “London Calling” is neither announcement nor boast: it’s a distress signal, a terrified Mayday. Not for nothing does the song fade to the three-dot-three-dash-three-dot Morse code for “SOS”.

“London Calling”, The Clash’s third album, was a masterpiece of many things, timing not least among them. In the United Kingdom, it was released in December 1979, seven months after the election of Margaret Thatcher. In the United States, it was released in January 1980, ten months before the election of Ronald Reagan. For people of The Clash’s socialist-ish sensibilities, war indeed had been declared, battle truly was come down. Following the blithe, decadent baby-boomer liberalism of the late 1970s, amid which punk rock had flourished, the 80s were to be a decade of ironclad conservative hegemon – and concomitant left-wing paranoia – on both sides of the Atlantic. Those whose desperation at this state of affairs was such that, as the decade progressed, they’d even contemplate voting for the hapless Walter Mondale or the hopeless Michael Foot, fell gratefully upon “London Calling” as a soundtrack.

“London Calling” is now routinely – and quite rightly – bruited as a resounding punk classic. Ironically and intriguingly, however, in many respects “London Calling” was a very un-punk album. Its presentation, though certainly brash, was wilfully ambiguous. The theft of the pink and green title typeface from Elvis Presley’s eponymous 1956 debut album could have been iconoclasm (on “1977”, the b-side of “White Riot”, The Clash had spat “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones”) but it could have been honest homage (the quiff Strummer was rocking in the “London Calling” video certainly suggested some measure of affection for the King). Pennie Smith’s glorious album cover image, of Paul Simonon piledriving his bass into the stage of New York City’s Palladium, might have been a harbinger of destruction, or an affectionate nod towards The Who’s Pete Townshend, whose ringing powerchords and fretful, inchoate politics are certainly an influence on “London Calling” (especially on “Clampdown” and “Train In Vain”.)

More crucially, “London Calling” represented a clear attempt to rise above the snotty sloganeering and sulky nihilism of The Clash’s peers (and, to a significant extent, of The Clash’s previous albums). The nineteen songs on “London Calling” flaunted such un-punky content as ideas, ideals, concerns – to say nothing of polished performances, exquisite melodies and choruses nobody’s postman would have difficulty humming. “London Calling” brooked no snobbery about embracing commercial imperatives – the group enlisted the production services of the legendarily volatile but radio-friendly Guy Stevens, previously a handler of such lumbering dinosaurs as Mott The Hoople, Spooky Tooth and Free (and a man given, by many accounts, to explaining himself through the medium of hurled furniture). The Clash were now an indubitably proper rock’n’roll band, flaunting an unabashedly preening frontman and a swaggering old-school guitar hero. It may not have been a comparison for which they would have thanked anybody, but The Clash of “London Calling” had more in common, at this point, with the budding U2 than with any of their original punk contemporaries. Not coincidentally, The Clash would stand alone among the class of ’77 in rivalling U2’s prowess in America, where “London Calling” reached Billboard’s Top 30 – better than U2 would do before “The Unforgettable Fire”.

The Clash who began work on “London Calling” in a Pimlico garage in the summer of 1979 had moved beyond – or grown out of – the apocalyptic year zero revisionism of punk (it is entirely possible that The Clash had always subscribed to this orthodoxy rather less enthusiastically than their flamboyant manager Bernie Rhodes, the Malcolm McLaren acolyte with whom they had recently parted company). Even if The Clash weren’t actually trying to make an album that would earn a plinth in the pantheon, they were punctilious about acknowledging the heritage of “London Calling”.

Punk cover versions were traditionally acts of petulant desecration – The Sex Pistols trashing Boyce & Hart’s “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, Ramones demolishing Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want To Dance?”, The Saints tearing up Phil Spector’s “River Deep Mountain High”. The three covers on “London Calling” were all exuberant, but they were also unmistakably reverent. Vince Taylor’s 1959 hit “Brand New Cadillac” is played straight, carried by a snaking Duane Eddy twang and decorated with a frenetic – and, by the standards of The Clash’s punk milieu, almost suspiciously accomplished – Mick Jones lead part. The reading of The Rulers’ elderly Jamaican rock steady classic “Wrong ’Em Boyo” shifts the original up several gears and soups it up further with a playful brass and saxophone arrangement – it is difficult to hear this as other than a wink towards The Clash’s fellow reggae-obsessed Londoners Madness.

The Clash’s take on Danny Ray & The Revolutioneers’ late-70s reggae obscurity “Revolution Rock” was an obvious acknowledgement of another kindred spirit. Laudably, at the beginning of a decade which would be blighted by many well-meaning white artists affecting toe-curling approximations of Caribbean accents, Strummer sounded resolutely West London, not West Indies. Prior to the last-minute inclusion of “Train In Vain”, shoehorned in so late its title didn’t appear on the original sleeve, “Revolution Rock” would have been the climax of “London Calling”, Strummer signing The Clash’s ambitious epic off with a chortle of “El Clash combo – weddings, parties, anything, and bongo jams a specialty.” It’s an endearing moment of self-deprecating whimsy, but it doesn’t dilute the album’s insurrectionary ardour.

Which begs the question of what, throughout “London Calling”, The Clash believed they were rebelling against. While it wasn’t quite as vague as “What have you got?” nor was “London Calling” the most detailed and cogently argued of manifestos ever disseminated. The Clash had dealt in vainglorious fist-pumping rhetoric before, and would again, but throughout “London Calling” the focus was almost always kept tight, picking out the little stories that tell the big ones. Whether or not this was a deliberate, over-arching plan, this hard line against delusions of grandeur worked massively to the long-term advantage of “London Calling”, sparing it the indignity of many protest records, of becoming a period piece, tied inextricably to the fleeting causes that inspired it. The Clash focused principally on the everyday desperations of life on the urban margins – aspects of existence which have remained pretty constant, in the city for which they named the album, for centuries.

“Hateful”, deceptively upbeat, replete with daffy handclaps, was The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man” relocated from Lexington and 125th to Ladbroke Grove, for an assignation with an apparition who supplies what it takes to reach the addict’s entranced state of detached self-loathing (“It’s hateful/And it’s paid for/And I’m so grateful to be nowhere”). “Koka Kola” was a sledgehammer-subtle satire of the anomie of consumer culture, bearing what might have been a coincidental lyrical and musical similarity to The Saints’ 1978 single “Know Your Product”. The skanking “Rudie Can’t Fail” was a semi-sympathetic portrait of the wilfully unemployable hedonist, the protagonist of which was surely delivered to The Clash via The Specials’ 1979 tweaking of Dandy Livingstone’s “Rudy, A Message To You.” The audaciously pretty “Lost In The Supermarket” was a wringing of existential drama from workaday mundanity that sounds, at this distance, like an ancestor of Pulp’s “Common People” (“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 could never see”). The closest “London Calling” came to an old-school Statement was The Clash’s homage to Catalonia “Spanish Bombs”, a confused conflation of the Republican militias of the Spanish Civil War with the modern terrorists of ETA and the IRA: mercifully, the breezy melody was so completely irresistible that it mattered barely a jot that the song’s politics made as much sense as the maladroitly rendered Spanish that decorated the choruses.

“London Calling” wisely concentrated The Clash’s tendencies towards broad-brush pomp on the music, rather than the words. The leap forward from the tinny tantrums of The Clash’s first two albums was as impressively long as it was gracefully executed. Paul Simonon’s “Guns Of Brixton” was an audacious, sinuous prophecy of doom delivered in time to soundtrack the riots which would convulse South London a little over a year later (it is certain, also, that “Guns Of Brixton” caught the ear of The Specials, whose subsequent “Ghost Town” sounds a companion piece). “The Right Profile” was a horn-drenched whoop of Philly soul that predated Dexy’s Midnight Runners (and which remains one of two remarkable rock’n’roll homages to Montgomery Clift, the other being REM’s “Monty Got A Raw Deal”). “The Card Cheat” was pure roof-off, foot-down American radio rock, buoyed by a ringing piano: it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “Born To Run” (nor, on that score, has it sounded especially incongruent when Bruce Springsteen has opened recent London shows with “London Calling”).

Like all canonical records, “London Calling” has been unable to entirely escape the ossifying grip of the heritage industry. The cover adorns t-shirts hanging from West End souvenir stalls, as solid a fixture of London’s tourist tat as Princess Diana postcards and Beefeater teddy bears. Fender, risibly, issued a Joe Strummer Telecaster, decorated to replicate the wearing and tearing engendered by Strummer’s merciless thrashing of his long-suffering guitar. “London Calling” has also had its collar constricted by the long arm of the law of unintended consequence. It is inevitable that as London’s Olympics draw closer, the album’s title track will be recast from anguished declamation to all-join-hands singalong. It is hard to know, when listening to a foppish Old Etonian Conservative Mayor of London eulogising The Clash as “unquestionably the most important band ever” (Boris Johnson, BBC6, May 20th 2011), whether The Clash, and all that they and “London Calling” attempted to stand for, have won a pulverising victory or suffered a calamitous defeat.

“I believe in this,” snarled Strummer on “Death Or Glory”, one of his cleverest and funniest lyrics, “and it’s been tested by research/That he who fucks nuns will later join the church.” Strummer, and the band he led, were smart enough to realise that that the fate of most rebels is defeat or co-option. There’s a furious urgency about “London Calling”, which in retrospect sounds like four men determined to say it this straight and play it this loud while they were still young enough to believe in all of it (the chorus of the title track, after all, balefully regards the Thames, historic fount of London’s prosperity, as the inevitable, if not imminent, deliverer of the city’s doom). “London Calling” is angry, enraged, excited and exhilarating – the riot of their own The Clash had been dreaming of since their first single. It’s the best album The Clash ever made. It’s one of the best albums anybody ever made.

It lives, by the river.