ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Released in December 1979 in the UK and January 1980 in the US, London Calling was voted Album Of The 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine. Containing a staggering 19 tracks, it documented the creative output of The Clash’s two chief songwriters and singers/guitarists, Mick Jones, and Joe Strummer.
The opening song, ’London Calling’, was an obvious segue from their previous outing, ’Give ’Em Enough Rope’ (1978). Rhythmically upbeat, the song declared that “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust...”. However, the songs to follow showcase one of the most artistically diverse departures in musical style ever to be heard on one album.
British rockabilly’s own Vince Taylor’s ’Brand New Cadillac’ is given a dirty, right royal treatment, so much so that Clash drummer Topper Headon initially insisted they perform a second take because the song sped up towards the end. Thankfully, producer (the late) Guy Stevens kept it as it was. Not wanting to take away from the manic sessions at Essex Studios in London, he replied “all rock & roll speeds up.“ As legend has it, his other studio antics for those very sessions included throwing chairs around and pouring beer into the piano.
The album progresses through various musical outings from Euro disco (’Lost In The Supermarket’), R & B (’Train In Vain’), Ska (’Wrong ’Em Boyo’), Reggae (‘The Guns Of Brixton’), punk rock (’Clampdown’) to the Phil Spector-like Wall Of Sound musings on ’The Card Cheat’. From the inspiring ’l’m Not Down’ to the affirming ’Revolution Rock’ (“everybody smash up your seats and rock to this brand new beat”), the album covered every mood.
‘The Right Profile’ gives the listener an account of Montgomery Clift’s famous 1956 car accident which left him seriously disfigured. Narrated by Strummer, the song has a quirky comical feel with brass supplied by the Irish Horns. The musical highlight is Headon’s drum roll fill which comes in at around 2:27, and demonstrates his flair for jazz and soul. He was in later years to be praised by Strummer as a large musical contributor to the band, having penned one of their largest hits, ‘Rock The Casbah’ (from Combat Rock, 1982).
An often ignored point in the band’s history is the writing partnership of Strummer/Jones. A typical method used was Jones would write the music and hand it to Strummer who would literally knock out the lyrics on a typewriter. In terms of the band’s early incarnation, Mick Jones recalls ...
“I suppose my main influences are Mott The Hoople, The Kinks and The Stones, but l just stopped believing. Now what’s out there (pointing out the window to the freight yards) ... that’s my influence.”
Prior to The Clash, Strummer was working with a relatively successful group called The 101’ers when one night his group was supported by The Sex Pistols.
“Yesterday I thought I was crud, then I saw the Sex Pistols and I became a king and decided to move into the future. As soon as I saw them I knew that rhythm and blues was dead , that the future was here somehow. Every other group was riffing through The Black Sabbath catalogue. But hearing The Pistols I knew. I just knew!”
Punk was the foundation on which The Clash was formed and it can’t be heard more clearly than on their self-titled debut release in 1977. But punk soon began running out of ideas and The Clash was by then looking for new territory. Punk no longer represented who they were as writers and as a band. ”We don’t walk around with green hair and bondage trousers anymore. We just want to look, sort of, flash these days,” recalls Strummer. Jones had similar comments - “Punk’s now become ’Oh yeah, he’s got zips all over him sewed on by his mother and he’s shouting in Cockney, making no attempt to sing from the heart and the guitarist is deliberately playing monotonously, and they’re all playing as fast as possible, so this is punk, so yeah, I can dig this!’ There are some people who are becoming snobs.”
Their first US tour in 1979 saw them touring with the legendary Bo Diddley. One can’t help but feel that this tour was the turning point for the band. ”On the bus, Bo sits up front slugging Rock’n’Rye and pouring out anecdotes from his 23 years on the road...Topper sits with his feet up showing off his new spurs...Mick and Paul (Simonon, the bass player) sit up the back plugged into some jumping rockabilly, watching the endless truck stops slide by...” writes Strummer.
The album was the crossroads that would lay the groundwork for the upcoming triple album, Sandinista! (1980) and later, Combat Rock. The richness in the songs and the homage paid to another time and place in music were apparent. With its musical dexterity, social conscience, and punk urgency, London Calling sold modestly at a time when the group was suffering internal problems and had management issues. Jones was sacked after 1982’s Combat Rock’ and subsequently the band had some major lineup changes and finished up for 1985’s Cut The Crap.
Strummer went on to play with and produce The Pogues, released one studio album with the Latino Rockabilly War, and released three albums with The Mescaleros (one of them posthumously). Mick Jones was the founder of Big Audio Dynamite and along with Paul Simonon, helped compile the 1999 live Clash release, From Here To Eternity. Simonon went on to be involved in Havana 3 am and more recently was in the supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen and he also played with Damon Albarn (Blur) in Gorillaz.
Stone Roses, The Manic Street preachers, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg, U2, Green Day - all have name-checked The Clash as an influence at some point or another. For anyone that’s ever picked up a guitar and dreamed of starting a band, London Calling is the reference point. London Calling is a two-LP record set and is available on one compact disc. Sony remastered and repackaged the album in recent years.
Quotes were taken from The Clash - The New Visual Documentary by Omnibus Press.