To The Faraway Towns: ‘London Calling’ Echoes 40 Years Later
Early in 1980, browsing the record bins in my hometown Walmart, I happened upon a new album by The Clash. A huge fan of the band’s first two albums (both released stateside in just a little over a year previous), I didn’t know it existed. A sticker on the wrapping declared, “Specially-Priced Two Record Set.” It only cost $7.99, at a time when double albums typically ran $12.99.
That same sticker proclaimed, “18 New Songs from the Only Band that Matters!” Now, identifying more with punk than Hollywood rock stars, I was inclined to believe this, but it was a bold thing to say. After all, this was in the middle of Pink Floyd’s almost four-month stint at the top of the U.S. charts with “The Wall,” while their “Dark Side of the Moon” would continue lurking somewhere on the Billboard Top 200 for years to come. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Rush, Styx, Journey, Heart and Led Zeppelin also topped the charts at that moment.
In the United States, The Clash were relatively obscure. Released here in January, “London Calling” deliberately climbed the charts over seven weeks, peaking at No. 27, the band’s highest chart position yet (by about 100 slots). But for those they reached, The Clash were like no one else. When I saw the band on the cover of Rolling Stone in April, I thought, “We made it.” Rolling Stone’s Tom Carson echoed that sentiment in his review, stating that The Clash somehow managed to take all of rock and roll and bring it “together into a single, vast, stirring story — one that, as the Clash tell it, seems not only theirs but ours.”
It had been there from the beginning. The band distanced itself from the nihilism of the genre-defining Sex Pistols with a relatability that made them seem less like rock stars and more like brothers in arms. Frontmen Joe Strummer and Mick Jones instantly became my tiny gang’s Lennon and McCartney (the cockney-barking Strummer as Lennon, the melodic Jones more McCartney), just as wide-ranging in sound and spirit but scaled back for a different era. As Greil Marcus wrote in New West two years before, the Clash “struggle to define and seize the essence of the music, to take over its history, to refashion its past and future according to what can be done by a few people, now.”
The album cover wedded an Elvis Presley graphic design with the threat of the Who, bassist Paul Simonon slinging his bass behind his head like a sledgehammer, a split-second before slamming it against the stage. On the back cover, the Springsteen-like Strummer thrust his mic stand into the blurred drumsticks of Topper Headon. Guitarist Jones ran down the stage, guitar slung at his side. The front captured the frustration and rage teenagers feel every day of their lives while the back cried freedom. Long before record labels, another sticker warned, “This album includes lyric content which may be offensive to some members of the public.”
That Walmart discovery was better than Christmas.
Playing the record, stakes I’d never imagined emerged. It was one of the greatest albums I’d ever heard — catchy as hell, diverse and textured, intimate and ambitious, immediate and somehow classic. Forty years later, this remains true, although it helps to look at the differences between now and then.
Thirty years into the CD era, it’s easy to forget how much the form has changed. Albums were typically about 40 minutes with 20-minute sides. The two-sided 33 1/3 LP had only been popular for about 20 years, and the idea of the “concept album” was roughly a decade old. Double albums, about twice as long (like CDs) sprawled and rarely had the same focused intensity as the standard LP. “London Calling,” in contrast, never lets up.
The opening title track is a clarion call of guitar and drums as clanging percussive weapons, bass providing an ominous, halting, backward and forward rumble to suit Strummer’s wordless crows and a torrent of apocalyptic imagery. Then comes the unforgettable refrain. The world’s ending. London’s drowning. But the band’s not afraid. Why? They cry together, “I live by the river!” Talk about hope against hope — the first side’s, and in some ways the album’s, main theme.
Again like the Beatles, The Clash tear through American genres making them their own, often emphasizing the links to England’s own cultural mix. It’s hard to get more American than the rockabilly of “Brand New Cadillac,” but this is a cover of English rocker Vince Taylor, and it celebrates the character that ties the traditions together — the guy who’s been dumped because he doesn’t have enough money for that car. From the lilting junkie nod of “Jimmy Jazz” to the railing message to a drug dealer, “Hateful,” to the closing reggae rocker “Rudie Can’t Fail,” the music itself is the main chance for its desperate characters.
Side two looks outward at a world that offers empty remedies. The gorgeous ringing guitars of “Spanish Bombs” measure the distance between the fight of the moment’s Basque separatists and the Spanish Civil War. “The Right Profile” contemplates the tragic nature of Hollywood-style stardom. With its disco rhythm, “Lost in the Supermarket” plumbs the lonely heart of consumer culture. Adding a whiplash to that rhythm, “Clampdown” beats back at that same culture’s creeping fascism, and “The Guns of Brixton,” a deep, dark reggae threat, promises retribution for police state abuse. Album one closes with an echo of its opening, bluesy defiance.
Sides three and four move beyond individual angst, searching for ways to fight forward as a group. Covering an English band’s take on Jamaican rocksteady, the Rulers’ 1967, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” the classic Stagger Lee is turned into a list of rules about how to treat each other. Maybe the catchiest, boldest rock anthem here, “Death or Glory,” decides the fight for right itself is the only ethical choice. It then looks at the alternatives. The jingly “Koka Kola” satirizes the advertising industry, selling us cheap happiness while fueled on cheap thrills and cocaine. The cathedral of layered instruments that closes the side, “The Card Cheat” pulls it all together, remarkably finding empathy for those who can’t get it right.
If the second half of “London Calling” is about community, the final side turns these ethical considerations into a dance party. The side begins and ends with the politics of the bedroom (or backseat). “Lover’s Rock” uses girl-group playfulness to counsel young men to take responsibility for sex before accelerating into a sort of disco rave. The album’s closing track, ironically the band’s first American hit single though missing from the cover art, “Train In Vain” rails at the failed promises in a lover’s breakup.
In between, “Four Horsemen” echoes the clarion call of “London Calling” with hard, urgent rock released by a danceable finish, drums and guitar winking disco flourishes. Perhaps the album’s most intimate moment, “I’m Not Down,” uses a funky rhythm to look the blues of the album dead in the eye and adds Latin percussion to draw all of the album’s rhythms into one. A cover of Jamaican Danny Ray’s “Revolution Rock” closes the record, calling on listeners (and their “mamamamas” and their “papapapas”) to “dance to this brand new beat.” It’s important to note that “London Calling” did not simply assert The Clash as a first-rate rock band, it did so with its boldest, most vital statements made infectious and danceable.
That embrace of rhythm and blues, jazz, reggae and maybe even especially disco here were crucial to what made The Clash different. At the top of the charts next to the rock gods were Donna Summer, the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson, but that previous year FM radio had thrown itself into a war with disco that had strong racist, sexist and homophobic subtexts. In Chicago that previous summer, rock fans joined together at Comiskey Park to burn records, sentiments echoed by Max Floyd’s Rock and Roll Army in Kansas City. In that climate, The Clash chose two R&B and reggae DJs as guiding lights.
One-time R&B DJ/promoter, Sue label manager and the guy who bailed Chuck Berry out of jail, Guy Stevens produced “London Calling” (or at least raised hell at the sessions). At the same time, Don Letts, a reggae DJ vital to the London punk scene and a filmmaker who documented the band’s history, played a role as a fifth member of the band. Letts and Brixton-bred Simonon had grown up on reggae, and the whole band understood that the post-industrial economic problems of London fell hardest on South London’s African-Caribbean community. The Clash knew a war on dance music was a war on the poor.
For such reasons, Public Enemy’s Chuck D recently hosted the terrific podcast: “Stay Free: The Story of The Clash.” He starts the series stating he owes his musical identity, in part, to Strummer. The Clash, then, continues its reach beyond punk into rap (which the band would soon tackle) and, over a decade later, even heavy metal with Rage Against the Machine. Its work is far from over. Though “London Calling’s” apocalyptic title track rings more ominous with every widening of class division, every uptick in global warming and every nuclear standoff, the timelessness of the music fights back and forward with each new play.
— A long-time editor of the national music and politics newsletter, Rock & Rap Confidential, Danny Alexander has been writing about music for various Kansas City–area publications for three decades. He's the author of Putnam Berkley's "Liner Notes: Soul Asylum" and The University of Texas Press's "Real Love No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige."