It’s the end of the month and I’ve decided to do something special. It’ll be twice the fun as we look back at a double album! It’s London Calling, the third album by The Clash, the finest punk album ever recorded. Rolling Stone magazine listed it as the 8th greatest album of all time, so it may very well end up be the highest rated album that I’ll recap for this blog.
Written and recorded in 1979, The Clash worked with the harrowing backdrop of a city gripped by social tensions and drug violence. As advertised, The Clash play the role of the conscience of the underground movement; writing songs addressing drug use, political instability, nationalist terrorism, social alienation, and corporate greed. You know, all the good stuff. What puts this album far beyond any other record of the era is the varied array of music on display. The Clash were a punk band and with that title came the expectation of 3 minute songs with distorted guitar and angry screaming. Like every truly great band, The Clash went beyond this narrow role assigned to them and made a work of art drawing not only from punk rock, but reggae, ska, jazz, R&B, and old style rock and roll.
The album starts off with a bang, the title track gets things going with immediate, gripping riffs and lyrics. Joe Strummer’s vocal performance captures a London in crisis and a society on the brink of collapse. It’s a full band effort, Stummer and lead guitarist Mick Jones blast through the expectations of polite society. Topper Headon’s sharp drum beats drive the song with a funky pace unheard of in punk outside The Clash, and Paul Simonon’s bass pulses the song along. The song was the lead single for the album.
Following London Calling is a cover of Vince Taylor’s old school rocker Brand New Cadillac. A short two minutes of furious riffing, surf rock sounding guitars. Joe Strummer really belts it out on this number.
The third track on the album is Jimmy Jazz, one of The Clash’s signature punk-reggae infusions. The song features Mick Jones on acoustic guitar and a backing brass section that saunters along with Simonon’s rolling bass lines. The song, like many others The Clash would write, center around a fictitious punk icon on a quest to survive the decaying world around him.
Hateful is a fast paced and catchy tune about drugs and drug dealing. The song has more acoustic and electric guitar interplay from Strummer and Jones and has friend of the band Micky Gallagher on organ, a post he would serve on many songs on the album.
The last number on the first side of the album is the reggae track Rudie Can’t Fail. Like Jimmy Jazz, the song is an ode to a man, this time a Jamaican ‘Rude Boy,’ who does not fit in with society’s expectations of him. The song incorporates elements of soul music with its powerful soul section. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones sing in duet on this fun-loving and playful song.
The second side of the album starts off in similar fashion to the first, but instead of the distorted and harsh opening like London Calling, Spanish Bombs is a melodic and melancholy track. Another Strummer/Jones duet, the song focuses on the modern day Spanish experience. The nation had previously just came out of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and was experiencing major social change. The song also features, a bit hilariously, The Clash singing a chorus in Spanish. This feat would be repeated in their later hit Should I Stay or Should I Go.
The Right Profile is a song about the late stage and screen actor Montgomery Clift. The Irish Horns on brass get a featuring treatment on this track, including a horn solo (very rare on a punk album to say the least). Joe Strummer belts out his tribute to the dead actor with fervor enough to lose himself for a moment in the song.
Lost in the Supermarket is one of the more underrated Clash songs in the band’s catalog. It was written by Joe Strummer but sung by Mick Jones, whose childhood the song is allegedly about. The record is a look at the alienation of adolescence, a depressed child looking for real and genuine affection in a world of impersonal slogans and uncaring people.
The fourth track on the B-side is Clampdown: a mid-tempo rocker decrying the evils of corporatism and capitalism in general. Another Strummer-Jones duet, Strummer’s socialist leanings are on full display as he encourages the youth of the world to rebel against the system that mistreats and uses them. Clampdown would be the second single released for the album.
The final track on the first album is Paul Simonon’s first authored Clash record, the heavily reggae-influenced The Guns of Brixton. The song is full of the paranoia and angst that pervaded the Brixton region of London where Simonon grew up. The track ended up being prophetic, as less than a year later riots broke out all over Brixton in response to police pressure in the neighborhood. Allegedly, when Simonon was recording vocals to the track, a CBS record executive stopped by to see the band’s progress on the album and Simonon directed his vocal performance at him to get the full vitriolic performance heard on the album.
The second disc starts out with another cover track: Wrong ‘Em Boyo (written by Clive Alphonso) is a funky dub track based on the old American tune Stagger Lee. So in actuality the song is a cover of a song derived from a traditional American song about a bet gone bad. The song is a very danceable number featuring a swinging horn section and organ. Paul Simonon’s bass line throbs in time with Headon’s lively and snapping drums.
Death or Glory is a song about the aging generation of rockers who glorified dying before they got old. A very catchy tune, it is one of the more accessible songs on the album. It is also the first song since Lost in the Supermarket with The Clash performing alone as a four piece band without any backing instruments.
The same is true for Koka Kola, a fast and short (less than 2 minutes) song about drugs and the advertising industry. Another supremely catchy tune that way under stays its welcome.
The final track on the third side is the sweeping epic The Card Cheat. Sung by Mick Jones, the song is one of the most powerful songs The Clash ever wrote. A tribute of sorts to the men of previous generations that lived and died in the heyday of the British Empire. Explorers, adventurers, scoundrels, and soldiers alike who fought the good fight for king and country.
The final side of the album starts with Lover’s Rock, an R&B influenced track that is a welcome respite from all of the tension on the rest of the album. Love songs were one thing that The Clash rarely wrote and it is a refreshing change of pace for an album.
Four Horsemen is a mid-tempo rock song that features melodic guitar and bass lines but as the song progresses becomes more distorted with effects pedals.
I’m Not Down starts right out from the end of Four Horsemen. Another catchy and melodic track featuring Mick Jones on vocals. The song alternates between Strummer and Jones’ driving guitar riffs and Topper Headon’s intricate and snapping drum patterns. It is an ode to the rock spirit of not accepting what has been presented to you.
Revolution Rock is another reggae influenced song derived from The Clash’s infatuation with Jamaican music. The longest song on the album, clocking in at 5:37 (which was long for many punk tastes). The song is a feel-good track about how music can change people’s attitudes and unify them behind a new vision. It is the third and last cover on the album, first recorded by Danny Ray and The Revolutionaries. The song features all the elements of London Calling: The Clash’s four piece playing tight and loud, a lively and raucous horn section, and jamming organ.
The last song on the album started as merely an afterthought, but it would turn out to be one of The Clash’s most enduring and popular songs. Train in Vain (Stand by Me) was written so close to the album being released that it didn’t appear on the track listing of the first pressings of the album. Sung by Mick Jones, it was the first single The Clash released to crack the top 30 of the US charts. Also very important to the song is Topper Headon’s danceable drum beat that reminded the band members of a train, giving the track its name. It is a sincere and catchy love song about the aftermath of a breakup, so simple in its message and structure, and unlike anything the band wrote before or after.
It is easy to say that London Calling is one of the best albums of all time. The record is a great fusion of ideas and themes held together by a unified sound and Joe Strummer’s lyrical vision. At different points, the work is a scathing and brutally honest criticism of the status quo, an epitaph to punk heroes real and fictitious, and a sincere look at people’s emotions as they cope with a changing world around them, wondering if everything is for the best. The album codified the feelings of a world in flux, and sought out to carry the torch for a better connected, free, and harmonious world. The Clash were called the conscience of the punk rock movement. When the people of the streets were mad enough to fight, The Clash told them why they felt it and why it was worth changing.