“London Calling” by The Clash (1979)
The first time I remember hearing about punk rock, I was a sophomore in high school and some classmates were talking about the absurdity of the Sex Pistols and their song “God Save the Queen.”
“She’s not a human being,” they quoted the epic line growled by John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon.
The premise sounded moderately interesting, so I kind of was looking forward to seeing the Sex Pistols on “Saturday Night Live.” Of course, the band broke up before making it to New York, and Elvis Costello took the SNL gig. The rest is history.
I also was aware of Britain’s other major punk band, the Clash, but can’t say I heard very much until “Train in Vain” hit the airwaves when I was a senior. That seemed more like a typical pop-rock tune than anything as extreme as I understood punk rock to be.
So I didn’t hear the album that contains “Train in Vain” until a year or two after its release.
It turns out the single is kind of an anomaly as far as “London Calling” is concerned. It wasn’t even included in the track listing on the original LP, as the song was added at the last minute.
The rest of the album shows Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon and the late Joe Strummer coming up with as fine a recording as punk rock had to offer, even if the band had evolved beyond it’s punk roots at that point.
The Clash, in fact, probably reached it’s apex with the title track, which kicks off “London Calling.” The song captures an apocalyptic vision of despair as well as anything recorded in the rock era and is especially poignant for those of us who grew up near Three Mile Island, which nearly melted down around the same time the Clash was starting work on the album:
“The ice age is coming, the soon is zooming in/Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin/A nuclear error, but I have no fear/London is drowning, and I live by the river”
Next on the track list is a vicious take on British rock pioneer Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac,” with Strummer channeling pure desperation as his woman, in her fancy car, announces: “’Balls to you, Daddy’ … She ain’t never comin’ back.”
The album continued with a song that fully displays the Clash’s affinity for reggae, first evinced on the band’s debut album with a cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” Law enforcement also figures prominently in “Jimmy Jazz,” the third track on “London Calling,” as police come looking for the title character, whom no one claims to have seen.
Throughout the album, Strummer and company address a wide variety of issues: racial strife (Simonon’s first songwriting venture, “The Guns of Brixton”), the shortcomings of capitalism (“Clampdown”), generation gap (“Rudie Can’t Fail”), rampant consumerism (“Lost in the Supermarket”), drug use (“Hateful”) and the long downward spiral of actor Montgomery Clift (“The Right Profile”), among others.
The album concludes (besides the last-minute “Train in Vain”) with a version of Danny Ray’s “Revolution Rock,” another reggae-flavored song, featuring a full horn section and lyrically summarizing the Clash’s musical mission.
As does the cover art: Pennie Smith’s photo of Simonon bashing his bass against the stage at New York’s Palladium, framed in typography reminiscent of that used on Elvis Presley’s debut album.
The Clash was so rich with prime material that “London Calling” works tremendously as a two-record set. The band tried to up the ante with its follow-up, “Sandinista!”: The general consensus is that one good record is somewhere amid the three slabs of vinyl contained therein.
Its scope certainly is a long way from the couple minutes’ worth of thrashing that constituted “God Save the Queen” and the other songs that set the standard for punk rock.