Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
“The persistent paradox of the Clash has been that their punk standards demand defiance of the requirements and rewards of the music business, while their artistic standards demand that they work in that neighbourhood.” John Picarella declared in his 1980 Village Voice review of the Clash’s latest album, London Calling. He continued, “The persistent wonder of the Clash is how every release is a fresh attack on the complications, compromises, and frustrations of their impossible project, how they charge into rock mythology with their integrity intact.” In the more forty years since the album’s release, the legacy of the London Calling has reinforced Picarella’s assessment of the band.
London Calling has proven to be one of the most highly acclaimed albums of all time, created in a defining moment of rock history. The meteoric speed with which punk had emerged into mainstream consciousness in the late seventies was interrupted as its force seemed to self implode at the decade’s end. A leading figure in punk’s revolutionary wave from its onset, the Clash emerged from its fiery wake by charting their own path. With London Calling, the Clash challenged listeners to reimagine punk’s spirit, negotiating rock’s past and future through an aggressive and unapologetic spotlight on their present.
To many fans and critics in 1979, despite the movement away from a pure punk rock sound in their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the Clash were undoubtedly a punk band. So when they released London Calling, a massive double album incorporating a wide range of influences (including reggae, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and pop) before the year was over, not everyone knew what to make of it. “Give ‘em enough rope…and they’ll turn into the Rolling Stones” Garry Bushnell lamented in his review of the album for Sounds magazine. He continued…”When we needed them most, after the Pistols had split and the disintegration really set in, THEY blew it.” Certainly the breakup of the Sex Pistols in 1978 and Sid Vicious’s death in February of 1979 had put additional pressure on the band to continue the punk legacy. Bassist Paul Simonon reflected to Esquire in 2004: “Suddenly the mantle of English punk rock was handed to us”.
But the Clash were never really a punk band in the same way as the Sex Pistols. They came to punk, not as revolutionaries, but as musicians – Joe Strummer had steeped himself in the music Little Richard, the Beach Boys and Woody Guthrie, and had fronted a Rhythm and Blues band in his pre-Clash years, while Mick Jones had spent the early seventies in a glam rock band. The pair, along with Simonon, had all attended art school before creating the band. The last to join the group, Topper Headon, had even more musical experience, playing jazz, psychedelic rock and rhythm and blues (even performing in a band that opened for the Motown icons, The Temptations) before playing with the Clash. The Clash had forged their group identity in the fires of punk’s revolutionary spirit, but they had never lost their focus on the music and their enthusiasm for discovery.
This musical eclecticism would prove instrumental in 1979, when the band’s primary songwriters, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer, found themselves struggling with writer’s block – having not composed a song in over a year. The band, fueled by a sense of camaraderie developed over the course of their 1978 American tour, implemented a strict rehearsal regiment at Vanilla studios in London. The band set-up shop in the rehearsal space with their instruments, equipment and a portable TEAC 4-track studio, jamming cover songs in between writing and developing new material. Each afternoon the Clash would rehearse in the private environment, allowing no visitors to enter their oasis. They would then break for a two hour football game with crew and friends, along with a trip to the local pup, before returning to the studio for a late-night rehearsal.
Looking back, Jones explained in 2004: “We had a bunker mentality…It was a time of togetherness in the band. We kinda regrouped and we came back stronger. It felt like just us.” The space became a seedbed for the fusions of styles which the band mastered on London Calling. Simonon explained: “We all had tastes and interests and it was all coming to the fore…Because of that tight-knit situation everyone felt more comfortable about ‘I’ve got this song’, or ‘I’ve practiced this song’, or even just jamming.”
Some of the covers the band played in rehearsal would make their way onto the album. The band would often use Vince Taylor’s 1959 rockabilly song, “Brand New Cadillac” as a warmup in rehearsals, and it became the first track recorded for London Calling. Strummer later emphasized Taylors’ importance stating: “Vince Taylor was the beginning of British rock & roll. Before him there was nothing. He was a miracle.” Other cover songs include “Wrong ‘Em Boyos” a 1967 song, originally released by The Rulers and “Revolution Rock”, a 1976 reggae song by singer Danny Ray. Ray had actually developed it from a track called “Get Up” by the Jamaican musician Jackie Edwards (who is credited as a co-writer on “Revolution Rock”). Building on Ray’s reworking of Edward’s track, the Clash made their own changes, adding references to Mack the Knife (“Careful how you move Mac…”) and the common practice of smashing seats at punk shows (“Everybody smash up your seats, and rock to this brand new beat) to the lyrics.
While the covers helped the band overcome their writer’s block and expanded the range of their musical talents, the album’s original tracks also showcased a wide variety of influences. Reggae sounds can be heard on “Guns of Brixton”, written by Simonon (who also provided the lead vocal). Lyrically the song depicts the growing state of unrest with English youth angered by economic uncertainty and police brutality – issues that would later come to a head in the Brixton riots of the eighties. It also relies on references to the Jamaican outlaw Ivanhoe Martin, as portrayed by Jimmy Cliff in the 1972 film The Harder they Come.
The album’s opening track “London Calling” also addressed serious contemporary issues, calling out the “nuclear error” at Three Mile Island, heavy-handed policing (“truncheon thing” refers to police batons), nascent concerns of climate change, as well economic and energy crises, and local anxiety about flooding of the Thames river. It maintains the aggression of a punk rock attitude, while directly contending with the most pressing issues of the day.
Recording the album’s nineteen tracks brought the Clash to Wessex studios in August of 1979, where they worked over a period of five to six weeks. Many of the tracks were recorded in just one or two takes. While the band seemed to be running at its smoothest during this time, they chose to inject some punk chaos into their production by hiring the controversial producer Guy Stevens. Stevens was known for his aggressive behavior in the studio, throwing furniture across the room or pouring wine into a piano as it was being played – all to inspire a rock and roll, rebellious attitude from the group. Simonon recalled:
“It was a point where everybody felt very comfortable being in the studio and recording. But to add to that, we had somebody called Guy Stevens. He was really important, and he helped create a very positive atmosphere, even though he was a little crazy. But he was like a conductor. He brought out the best in everybody, and he was the crazy one that let us not be crazy and get on with the job. I think if you put us all in the room together you’d look at Guy and you’d say, ‘Yeah, he’s the crazy one. Those other guys, they’re the normal ones.’”
By the end of the chaotic, but productive, sessions, the band had enough material for a double album – although CBS originally rejected the request. Even when everything had been cleared and the album’s cover art was in production, the Clash managed to slip in yet another track. “Train in Vain (Stand By Me)” is not listed in the cover art due to its late addition, but it proved to be the album’s most successful single. Tying it all together, the cover art provided a visual depiction of an album that rock and roll’s future through a poignant awareness of its past. The cover displays a direct reference to Elvis’ first album cover, retaining the coloring and typography but replacing Elvis’ guitar photo with one of Simonon smashing his Fender precision bass. It was a powerful reference. Simonon reflected: “When that Elvis record came out, rock’n’roll was pretty dangerous. And I suppose when we brought out our record, it was pretty dangerous stuff too.”
London Calling was released on December 14, 1979 in the UK and in the US in January, 1980. Despite some reservations from a few critics like Bushnell, the album received, overall, widespread acclaim. Michael Goldberg wrote in his review for Downbeat that the Clash had created “a classic rock album which, literally, defines the state of rock and roll and against which the very best of [the 1980s] will have to be judged.” Rolling Stone agreed, naming it the best album of the 80s. Since then, its legacy has only grown, with the magazine further declaring it number eight on their 2004 list of the “greatest 500 albums of all time”.
In 1978, Greil Marcus presciently observed: “The wars the Clash are turning into music—wars of class, race, and identity—are all too real But the war the Clash are actually fighting is, for better or for worse, mostly a rock ‘n’ roll war: a struggle to define and seize the essence of the music, to take over its history, to refashion its past” Over four decades later, London Calling reveals a defining moment of rock history, when the Clash charted a new musical course for rock – through the spirit of its past into a new revolution for its future.
SEE ALSO: RC-20 RETRO COLOR REVIEW
SEE ALSO: Spotify Playlist Placement | Have Your Music Heard
SEE ALSO: Secrets to Mixing Rap Vocals