The Clash – London Calling

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I own a lot of albums and sometimes, it is distressingly easy to get lost in the collection and take things for granted. At the same time, sometimes a random album by some no-name band will hit the spot better than an acclaimed classic. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I occasionally forget how good the third Clash album is, and how much I like it.

What I Think of This Album

Without a doubt, the Clash’s best album, London Calling forces you to reconsider what punk means. Actually, it does nothing of the sort. I mean, I find the debate about what punk is or is not to be tedious and stupid. Yes, the band explores and incorporates different styles into their basic sound, and it’s certainly not the case that they are following any script about what kind of music they are “supposed” to be making, and sure, many other punk bands were unwilling or possibly incapable of doing the same. But none of that should serve as some indictment of punk, or frankly, as a reason to mythologize the Clash. The album is not special because it somehow broke a punk mold; it is special because it’s a phenomenal record. The Clash didn’t move beyond punk with this, nor, alternatively, did they elevate or validate the genre – both those positions rest on a rigid assumption of what punk is. This is the part where I retreat into the annoyingly watery realm of claiming that punk is an attitude or a spirit more than anything else. If you don’t like that, then fuck you – is that punk enough? I think that to define punk as just one thing is not punk at all.

As for the album itself, it is one of those rare double albums that never sags or sounds like it goes on too long; if anything, you yearn for more as soon as “Train In Vain” comes to a close. The Clash sound superhuman, like they could take any genre and twist it to their purposes. And, through their careful eclecticism, they firmly place themselves within the flow of rock history, reaching backwards and forwards at once. The quality on display here is stunning. At nineteen tracks, there are maybe five or six songs that aren’t outstanding. The bulk of this album is on fucking fire.

Apocalyptic fever dream “London Calling” stalks the soundstage like a starving wolf, pushed to the brink by nuclear disaster and the threat of a devastating flood. The Morse code at the end is cool, as is the weird animal noises Joe Strummer makes. The cover of Vince Taylor’s 1959 “Brand New Cadillac” is incendiary; the sound of the band reclaiming British rock while honoring its past. If the prior cover of “I Fought the Law” was a nod to the U.S., this was a declaration that the British conceded nothing to their former colonial subjects.

Woozy “Jimmy Jazz” is fun stroll into New Orleans style R&B. Stuttering anti-heroin screed “Hateful” is tuneful as fuck. The call out to Desmond Dekker via the ska track “Rudie Can’t Fail” is just one of the great things about this classic track; I point out that Mick Jones sings lead on this one. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones covered this in excellent fashion. This is just one of many songs on this album featuring the critical contribution of the Irish Horns. The history lesson of “Spanish Bombs” is only slightly marred by Strummer’s terrible Spanish, but the way it brings together the efforts of the IRA, the ETA, and the Spanish republicans of 1936 is a nifty trick. The casual cruelty of “The Right Profile” comes across like petty filler – poor Monty Clift. The Jones-sung “Lost In the Supermarket” is a poignant, tender, and personal indictment of the obliterating force of consumer culture; the bass part is superb, and the slippery ascending riff at 3:19 is one of my favorite things in the world. Headon uses the floor tom as the snare in this song.

The anti-capitalist theme is continued on the rousing call to arms of “Clampdown.” Bassist and one of the ten coolest humans ever Paul Simonon contributed and sang the astonishing and entrancing paranoid reggae tribute of “The Guns of Brixton.” Jimmy Cliff covered this song (fittingly, as its reference to The Harder They Come and the main character Ivan are specific call-outs to Cliff), and ex-Housemartin Norman Cook, in his time with Beats International, sampled the depth charge bassline; Cypress Hill also sampled the bass part.

“Wrong ‘Em Boyo” is a cover of a song by the Jamaican band the Rulers, which is based on the American folk song “Stagger Lee,” with an amazing horn part and fantastic drumming, as well as a superb organ part. “Death or Glory” makes me want to storm my state capital and demand social justice. Social Distortion covered this track. CAN YOU BELIEVE WE ARE STILL TALKING ABOUT ALL THE AMAZING SONGS ON THIS ALBUM?

Okay, so the next four tracks are not classics, but they don’t suck either – in particular, “Koka Kola” has a fun sound, and the milkshake-thick “Card Cheat” has a nice piano part (the credits list Jones playing the piano and Strummer playing the “pianner,” so you figure it out). “Lover’s Rock” is okay; “Four Horsemen” is forgettable.

“I’m Not Down” is pretty good, if not up to par with the album’s best songs. The Irish Horns once again add to their legacy with “Revolution Rock,” another reggae cover. And “Train In Vain” is perhaps the most famous hidden track in history. Added to the album after the sleeve had already been sent out, this stellar piece is, by the way, sung by Jones, and is probably one of the best Clash songs ever, with a fantastic rhythm guitar intro and a key harmonica part from Jones. The Shout Out Louds have covered this, as did Kirsty MacColl. You should definitely own this album.

Mickey Gallagher of Ian Dury and the Blockheads contributed organ to several tracks.

The Best Thing About This Album

Ummmm. Are you fucking kidding me? Jesus. As it is impossible to pick one song or even musical element, I will say the energy is the best thing about this album.

Release Date

December, 1979 (U.K.); January, 1980 (U.S.)

The Cover Art

WOW. As if this album needed more to commend to it. Seriously, one of the best rock album covers ever. The font, of course, echoes that used on Elvis’s debut album. The photo was by Pennie Smith. The photo on the back of Jones strutting across the stage would’ve also been a great cover shot.

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