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Phoney punk mania had bitten the dust: deconstructing The Clash’s London Calling

The ice age is coming, the sun 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

The day has finally come. The day that moi is finally going to review the greatest punk rock album of all time, at least according to urban legend. So, I apologise in advance that I’m going to dent its reputation just a little bit, for London Calling really isn’t the best punk album, nor is it really even a bona fide punk album. Now, how’s that for an introduction?

I perceive the whole punk ideology as The Ultimate Rebellion, and some of the short-lived genre’s classics are among my favourite records ever; Never Mind The Bollocks is socially, politically and musically provocative and its visceral multi-riff hooks never lose their edge; Blondie is a poetic and melodic masterpiece of downtown New York cynicism; The Scream is a glittery, intense and chilling piece of work; Ramones is a fascinating document of an infantile-flavoured break-up/reconciliation with the past; and going further back, the Bowie-helmed Raw Power is a revolutionary call-to-arms, a dangerous and mean motherfucker of an album.

Even some others that I don’t love, but can certainly appreciate their appeal, need to be mentioned: Marquee Moon, for example, takes a while to enjoy, but its importance and uniqueness is rather evident. And then there’s crucial records by The Fall, Buzzcocks or even Wire. The list could go on, and on.

All these records deserve, more or less, the praise they are given and all are, at least marginally, better than London Calling. With the Clash’s third long-player (and with the band in general) things are a little more complicated and a little bit sad. First and foremost, London Calling is an extremely overrated work. Take any of the adjectives listed above and I’ll be damned if they can be applied to this record with a satisfied mind. Unique? If we’re talking convincing the world-wide audience that punk was more than just some simple chord progression than yes. But many had already done that before, so no revolutionary revelations came with this record.

The Clash’s first two LPs, 1977’s self-titled debut (the sound of a riot being born) and 1978’s Give ’Em Enough Rope (a lacklustre hanging offence), thrilled critics and galvanised a large and loyal following. Now it was up to them to consecrate their standing as the biggest band in the world, or at least “The Only Band That Matters,” a nickname they had hilariously self-applied.

Brimming with talent, energy, and esprit de corps, The Clash sensed they were close to something monumental—a commercial breakthrough and a masterpiece. They had material to spare and an unbreakable date with destiny. They just needed someone to bring it all together, to bring it out of them. They sorted through their options. And then they hired Guy Stevens. He’s the balding, beardy one who was reading a book about Montgomery Clift that was squeezed into song, The Right Profile.

Getting themselves in shape to write the tracks on London Calling, the four-piece played soccer games each afternoon on the recreation ground in front of Vanilla, their rehearsal studio in Pimlico in Central London. Clash founder and guitarist (and sharer of my birthday) Mick Jones remembers…

“I just think we really found ourselves at that time, and it was a lot to do with the football. Because it made us play together as one.”

The final starts in Chelsea, by the Thames, waters rising, alarms at full blaze. It starts at the end. An apocalyptic event, another kind of destiny. World War II and the blitzkrieg bombing of Britain. The economic shudder of the empire through its shaky postwar years, and the rise of the right and the shadow of the Cold War and the memory of the Aberfan disaster. Everything, it seems, is in those two chords. London is drowning and the Clash are … ambivalent? Stalwart? Maybe the word is prepared. Prepared for death or the feral future of life in the aftermath of utter catastrophe.

The opening title track to London Calling has, over time, become probably the band’s best-known song: a legitimate standard, its stature well-earned. With its call-and-response vocals and its urban nightmare world-building, it is, by any measure, one of the most powerful compositions of its era—All Along the Watchtower annotated and updated for the modern age, written while former pub rocker (and it shows) Joe Strummer was living on the notorious World’s End council Estate, a mere stone’s throw from Malcolm and Vivienne at 430.

But as a whole long-playing musical statement—and lest we forget is the overblown rock bore conceptualists’ favourite format, the double album—London Calling is patchy, stylistically meandering, confident in its inconsistency and pandering to the public just the right mixture of the most ‘acceptable’ genres of the moment: reggae, no kidding?

They may have also managed to co-opt populist publications such as Rolling Stone into accepting it as one of the ‘sacred cows’ of rock, but musically the whole shebang is rather hit and miss: some tracks stand out, others are just there, as mere unremarkable filler. London Calling is a perfect example of an album that appeared in the right place at the right time, gaining popularity and fame for merely hinting at things that other, braver and less commercial artists, explored with much more verve, depth and bravery.

Which kind of reminds me… aren’t The Clash essentially the Beatles of punk? For some, the assertion might seem an affirmation of grandeur. For me it is a reasonable comparison, but not particularly flattering for either band. They both reached the masses. They weren’t half bad. They were, sort of, really good but incredibly over-rated, hiding the true revolution and anger behind accessible often ”granny” music while the Velvet Underground and the Stooges knew what it meant to be noisy.

But, hey, what do I know, right? Shame on me for even thinking that London Calling is all this. It’s just that every time I put it on, it’s always the same old story: the record is kinda fun, but if I want to listen to a stab of visceral rock I’d rather listen to something much meaner, more aggressive and dangerous. Or arty.

Still, the title track fading out with a Morse Code signal spelling S-O-S was a clever touch, reiterating the earlier urgent sense of emergency, and further alluding to drowning in the river. Oh, and it was a nice nod to the outdo of David Bowie’s glam proto-punk 45 John, I’m Only Dancing while they were at it.

That they also covered the supercharged rockabilly Brand New Cadillac by doomed rock ‘n’ roller Vince Taylor, which The Dame credited as the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust, was certainly no coincidence. And like Bowie, The Clash absorbed everything they came into contact with and spat it out with gleeful abandon: punk, rock, reggae, dub, glam, pop culture, politics.

Ultimately, then, London Calling features two of the Clash’s best known tracks (the other being Train In Vain, which I’m sure had their aficionados tearing what was left of their hair out when Annie Lennox dared to track it in the ‘90s), but also that cover.

Tall, hot and handsome Paul Simonon (the only one of the quartet even remotely easy on the eye), caught in a blurry fit of pique, slamming his favourite Fender Precision bass against the stage at a concert at the Palladium club in New York. In a way, it marked the death knell for punk, though the truth is rather more mundane. Simonon described what led to that infamous guitar smash in an interview posted on Fender’s YouTube Page:

”I was sort of annoyed the bouncers wouldn’t let the audience get up out of their chairs so that frustrated me.”

Alas, thanks to Pennie Smith’s immortal photo, one of the most famous album covers in the history of rock came to existence, though Smith at first didn’t want to allow the use of her photo, pointing out that it was grainy and out of focus. Strummer and art designer Ray Lowry convinced her that the lack of focus was in this case a good thing, as it made it more authentic and spontaneous.

Smith recalls Strummer’s words.

”Joe said ‘that’s the one.’ I said ‘don’t be daft. It’s out of focus.’”

So, why was it?

Smith, whom I interviewed for MOJO magazine in 2000, continues, “The lens I was using made him appear a lot closer to me than he actually was, so and that’s the reason it was out of focus.”

Lowry also used the opportunity to pay an unmistakable typographic homage to Elvis Presley’s self-titled album from 1956. The photo of the buff bassist whacking his instrument became a pop culture icon, a symbol of young rebels and a glorious loss of control. In 2002, Q magazine acclaimed it as the best rock ’n’ roll photo ever.

And they’d be right. Just don’t believe everything you read about the music contained within. Oh yeah.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: After Mick Jones was unceremoniously booted out of the Clash he set up Big Audio Dynamite, who had a notable hit with the brilliantly prescient E = mc2   in 1986. The band are pictured here in New York the following year, with David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Jimmy Cliff, Dave Stewart and Paul Simonon (whose new band Havana 3am were supporting B.A.D.). One of the later B.A.D. line ups did a cover of Bowie’s Suffragette City but we’ll pretend they didn’t.

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