How to write about London Calling? It’s an enormous album, an enormous experience, really, one that feels different to me practically every time I listen. It would take a book to write comprehensively about this album, not a blog post. So I’m not going to even try to make some kind of definitive statement. Instead, I’ll just pluck a few of the threads that felt especially vivid to me during this week’s encounter with one of the all-time greatest double albums in rock.
The passion: With only one exception (the meandering “Jimmy Jazz”), every single song on this album has an incredible energy, a driving power which just charges me up. It makes me sit up straighter, head thrown back, fist clenched, muscles tight, arms akimbo, foot banging out the beat. It makes me want to dance, it makes me want to shout. There’s a lot that goes into this power. The rhythm section plays a big part – Paul Simonon’s bass and Topper Headon’s drums are always charging forward, just a tiny bit ahead of the beat, making you feel like the song is blasting headlong into the beyond. The vocals, too, are just so intense and deeply felt. Joe Strummer has the greatest yawp in every tune he sing-shouts, and Mick Jones brings this desperate quality to his leads — we really feel his abandonment in “Train In Vain”, his despair in “Lost In The Supermarket.” Those vocals work perfectly with the lyrics, which are often tremendously powerful poems in themselves, and get embodied with incredible emotion when married with those singers. All these factors come together in a song like “Death Or Glory”, probably my favorite from this time around. Fantastic riff, electrifying chord progression, propulsive beat, excellent singing, and just mind-blowing lyrics. I know I’m spending superlatives like a hyperbole millionaire, but man, it’s just an amazing song on an album that absolutely fucking ROCKS.
The humor: Leavening that passion, though, is the fact that The Clash very frequently has a sense of humor about itself, and about its subjects. Even amidst the intensity of “Death Or Glory”, there’s a lyric like “But I believe in this and it’s been tested by research / He who fucks nuns will later join the church.” I love the irreverent way that image gets across the song’s message of everybody’s eventual capitulation. Then there’s “Koka Kola,” which smirkingly declares, “I get good advice from the advertising world,” for example, “Your snakeskin suit and your alligator boot / You won’t need a laundrette, you can take it to the vet!” We get the audacious rhyming of “reckless”, “feckless”, “speckless”, and “breakfast” in “Rudie Can’t Fail,” not to mention that the breakfast consists of beer. Finally, probably the funniest song is “Revolution Rock,” in which Strummer declares “I’m so pilled up that I rattle,” remarks “There’s that old cheese grater, rubbing me down” over the scraping sound of (something like) a cabasa, and extols the availability of “El Clash Combo”, paid fifteen dollars a day for “weddings, parties, anything / and bongo jazz a speciality.”
The rebellion: As great as they are when they’re funny, I love The Clash best when they’re fierce, and god damn do they get fierce on this album. For as funny as “Koka Kola” is, its barbed heart is a sharp satire of reckless capitalism, with reptilian ad executives stalking the corridors of power, buzzing on cocaine and dreaming up new ways to “add life where there isn’t any” by creating a sense of need where there wasn’t any. Amid the insouciance of “Rudie Can’t Fail” is the line “I went to the market to realize my soul,” a theme that gets fully developed in the devastating “Lost In The Supermarket,” a brilliant and biting rock commentary on consumer culture. In its story of a boy from the suburbs, ignored all his life, surrounded by chaos and desperately shopping for a personality, the song perfectly captures the whirling dance of postmodern alienation with ubiquitous pop culture and products. We create identities out of what we choose to buy, what we choose to listen to, what we choose to watch, what we choose to wear, and hope that those purchases are enough to constitute a connection with other human beings in this lonely and fragmented world. How much for that Clash t-shirt?
The fury reaches its peak on “Clampdown”, which absolutely eviscerates both the seduction and the destruction of human power structures. The pleasure afforded by having “someone to boss around / It makes you feel big now” makes itself manifest through institutionalized racism, violence, brainwashing, oppression. The singer would rather go to jail than join that structure, and stubbornly declares that “no man born with a living soul” could join it either. That clampdown might be a government, it might be a church, but more broadly it is a system, in which some class of people brutally rules another class of people with a spectrum of powers ranging from economic to political to social to cultural to violent suppression. In shining a light on that evil, The Clash urges us to let fury have the hour, so we can kick over that wall.
The broader palette: It’s an utterly punk rock attitude that’s on display in “Clampdown,” but the song’s music differs significantly from traditional punk rock. It is urgent, but not frenetic. It is angry, but it isn’t screaming or spitting. Compare it to something like “White Riot” or “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” from the debut Clash album, and the difference is clear. That difference becomes even more stark throughout London Calling, as it skates into reggae, ska, rockabilly, R&B, and beyond. Clearly, at this point The Clash had granted themselves permission to journey far beyond a narrowly defined punk aesthetic, and the result is an embarrassment of musical riches. Hell, there’s even a frickin’ horn section all over this album, played with expert musicianship that’s light years away from the bang ‘n’ grind DIY 1977 sound. What a difference three years makes.
In subject matter, too, this album embraces topics like the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (“Spanish Bombs”), 50’s fast cars (“Brand New Cadillac”), a movie star’s career tailspin (“The Right Profile”), and police brutality in a depressed London district (“The Guns of Brixton”). There’s a noir portrait of a failed gambler shot by his creditors, elevated to epic, tragic grandeur by by echoing horns, piano, and poetry (“The Card Cheat”). We even get a contraception anthem with “Lover’s Rock” and a fantastic frustrated love song with “Train In Vain.” Essentially, The Clash decided that punk means freedom, not conformity, so why the hell should they have to conform to what the London punk scene said and how it sounded? The choice on London Calling to embrace a huge panorama of styles and subjects is just about the most punk rock choice the band could have made, and I love them for it.
The broader perspective: “The Right Profile” isn’t just daring subject matter for a punk band, it’s a clear-eyed look at what can happen at the end of the celebrity ride. Montgomery Clift was a huge movie star in the 1950s, a peer to Marlon Brando and James Dean. But after a few brilliant performances, he was badly injured in a car accident from which he never fully recovered, either physically or emotionally. The next 10 years traced a long, painful decline into alcohol and painkiller abuse, until he finally died from prolonged ill health. The Clash’s compassionate (albeit unsparing) portrait of this human wreck shows a point of view that looks beyond the peaks and well into the valleys of human lives. You grow up, and you calm down, and if you’re not careful, things can really go wrong. But at the same time, decline is an inevitable part of our lives, and one with which we must make our peace. That could be the decline of a neighborhood, as in “The Guns Of Brixton,” personal destruction as in “Hateful” and “The Card Cheat”, or even the end of the world as we know it, as in “London Calling.” I have to return to “Death Or Glory”, the perfect summation of this thesis. The most militant battle cry must eventually be softened, either by the crier’s fatigue or the crier’s end. That’s just the beat of time. 35 years later, that beat goes on, as it must, and while the members of The Clash have long since diminished or died, London Calling itself remains just as powerful as ever.