Energy, Honesty, Intelligence, Tradition and Possibility: The Clash, London Calling

By Daniel Garrett

The Clash, London Calling
Sony Music Entertainment, 1979, 2004

“I came into the punk scene because punk stayed with you, it has taught you something. A lot of the other music of the time left you as it found you.”—Mick Jones, Guitar World (December 1995)

Energy, honesty, intelligence, and a personal sense of musical tradition—of music to be embraced or discarded—and also a communal sense of possibility are what the band the Clash convey: guitarist and singer Mick Jones, with the band’s principal singer and rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer (John Graham Mellor), and bassist and singer Paul Simonon, and drummer-percussionist Nicky “Topper” Headon, all born in the 1950s, blazed a trail through music and society in the late 1970s and early 1980s that seemed to shake foundations. It was an effect both real and illusionary: expectations were challenged, a new model constituted, but traditions—though modified—continued. London Calling, then two albums of shiny vinyl, nineteen songs of changing moods and distinct musical movements, was their breakthrough recording, produced by Guy Stevens. The self-titled album The Clash (1977) and Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978) preceded London Calling, and what followed London Calling included 1980’s Sandinista! and 1982’s Combat Rock (yielding the popular U.S. radio single “Rock the Casbah”), music of the band’s classic period. The 2004 London Calling compact disk set includes the original collection of songs, as well as transferred rehearsal tapes, and a digital video documentary on the making of London Calling, with band interviews.

In the year of London Calling, 1979, I was more likely to be listening in Louisiana to the Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever), and Donna Summer’s Bad Girls, an inventive disco and rock fusion that celebrated sexuality (a theme I found aesthetically interesting but emotionally and morally suspect), and enjoying the radio releases of Blondie, Cheap Trick, Michael Jackson, and Rickie Lee Jones, and work by assorted songwriters and performers—Joni Mitchell, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Gerry Rafferty, Linda Ronstadt, and Supertramp, rather than the Clash, though after I moved to New York I would see later the leather-wearing, Mohawked and safety-pinned “punks” and wonder about the individuality of rebelling in the same style as other people. In the larger world, the year 1979 was the year of James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. (I was fond still of John Steinbeck and Richard Wright.) It was the year of books about Africa, Latin America, and Russia, and of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition. It was the year of the films Alien and Apocalypse Now and Being There, Breaking Away, The China Syndrome, and Hair, Kramer vs. Kramer, Life of Brian, Mad Max, Manhattan, the Marriage of Maria Braun, Norma Rae, the Rose, and Woyzeck—and Apocalypse Now is what I remember as the first film I saw in New York. What hope I felt was more likely to be associated with literature, and what anger I felt too. I knew nothing about the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, and might have read about the Clash in Rolling Stone magazine as a curiosity.

On the Clash’s London Calling, the title song “London Calling” begins with short ringing, repeating rhythms, and its lyrics are easy to understand—by ear, by mind, by spirit, and there is a double-voice intoning of the title phrase. “London calling to the underworld, come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls,” sings the singer in the first stanza of Strummer-Jones’s “London Calling,” a summons of a new generation, and a repudiation of the musical past and the sentimental present, and a naming of then-current social policing and punishment (“all that phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust, London calling, see we ain’t got no swing, ‘cept for the ring of that truncheon thing”). The advice—“forget it, brother, and go it alone” and “quit holding out—and draw another breath”—is as direct as it could be.

The band travels beyond the conventional themes of love and lust in its songs: Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” has the lyric cadences of a blues song—featuring the new mobility of a girlfriend, who is leaving the singer behind; and the music’s rhythms remind me of a late 1960s (spy) film score. The police search for a local character, and there are threats of barbaric violence, in “Jimmy Jazz,” a song detailed with a vibrant jazz horn amid a laid-back rhythm closer to ska or reggae than jazz, and a nearly slurred vocal performance, sounding casual and almost distracted. The composition “Hateful” has a short, fast, heavy beat; and the comradely singing could be two guys singing in a bar over a beer—the sharing of hard times. “Well, I got a friend who’s a man…He gives me what I need,” sings the narrator to doubtful queries in “Hateful,” before admitting “It’s hateful and it’s paid for and I’m so grateful to be nowhere” and “I’ve lost my memory. My mind? Behind! I can’t see so clearly.” Ambition and conformity (and false confidence?) form the subject of Strummer-Jones’s “Rudie Can’t Fail” and here again there is cheery group singing.

“Federico Lorca is dead and gone, bullet holes in the cemetery walls,” declares the narrator in “Spanish Bombs,” a song full of historical reference, such as the struggle against fascism, that may allude to modern Irish trouble (“the Irish tomb was drenched in blood”). The musical composition supporting the singing is more refined than the voices; the music indicates reflection and a consequent refinement, while the voices are rather rough. When the line “I’m hearing music from another time” is voiced, it could refer to the band’s own music. In fact, London Calling is nearly epic in its themes and variety of music.

The collection includes a piece focused on the actor Montgomery Clift, star of A Place in the Sun and Raintree County, the song “The Right Profile,” written by Strummer and Jones (I suspect one or both of the songwriters had read the then-recent Patricia Bosworth biography of Montgomery Clift that summarized his career and life, noting his glamour, his neurosis, his car accident and damaged face, his sexuality, etc.—as these details are indicated or named in the song). The voice in the song sounds drunken commentary—boorish, femmy—somehow conveying concern, skepticism, and mockery, responses to celebrity that may be timeless.

“Lost in the Supermarket” is about a lonely person, alienated from others, from self, from any large vision of life, and drawn to the things that are impersonally promoted, the things that can be bought by anyone with cash and coupons (“I see all the programs, I save coupons from packets of tea…”). In its evocation of a particular worrying situation, an evocation of a troubling subject set to melodious tones, the song may inspire comparison with the Beatles; and in theme—alienation—it is not unlike the work of the Clash’s contemporaries the Talking Heads; and also—as satire—it might be likened to subsequent bands, such as Pulp. The song is an example of modern, thoughtful (and popular) rock music. (That the Clash worked with established producers—Guy Stevens, affiliated with Mott the Hoople, for London Calling, and later Glyn Jones, affiliated with the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Led Zeppelin, for Combat Rock, indicates their regard for popular music, which they challenged, contributed to, and changed.)

After a muttered opening, ignorance and prejudice and force come together to create brutality and repression in “Clampdown,” with the song’s lyrics declaring, “We will teach our twisted speech to the young believers,” and elsewhere stating, “No man born with a living soul can be working for the clampdown.” There are multiple shifts of rhythm and tone in the mostly quick-tempo arrangement. (I can imagine Prince admiring the arrangement for its propelling propulsion, its inventive intricacy.) However, a couple of lines—such as “Let fury have the hour, anger can be a power. Do you know that you can use it?”—suggest a truth that can be exploited for good or evil. The song is about how someone, maybe each of us, can be intimidated or seduced into working against humane interests—and how the desire to feel confident and in control can lead to self-betrayal, the claiming of an artificial, impersonal force.

Paul Simonon’s “The Guns of Brixton”—which he, apparently, sings—posits a world in which one has to choose to be victim or an armed defender of one’s self and place (“When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun?”). The lyrics are delivered in a somewhat harsh voice, while a guitar’s thrashing and twang offer intimidating comment—a toughly difficult situation is conveyed in the music, with the magic of guitars and drums. The lyrics of the song articulate a world in which rebellion is imminent—a description that heats the imagination and stirs the blood.

“Don’t you know it is wrong to cheat the trying man?” asks Clive Alphonso’s “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” which claims the story of Stagger Lee and Billy, an old blues tale, a tale of bravado and morality, of impulse and fate. A swirl of music surrounds a lazy voice before the rhythm picks up with a movement into more elaborate comment; and the song is a mix of the rough (crudely spoken verses) and the refined (charming choruses).

“Death or Glory” by Strummer and Jones has a great lyric beginning: “Every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world, and ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl. Love and hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands, the hands that slap his kids around ‘cause they don’t understand.” (Again, there is an allusion to culture—to the great Charles Laughton film starring Robert Mitchum, Night of the Hunter, in which a murderous religious fanatic, who has love tattooed on one hand and hate on the other, threatens children who have a secret to wealth he wants.) “Death or Glory” conflates crime, domestic violence, rock and roll exploitation, market research, and sexual violation—lives of immorality and greed. Listening to the song, I actually thought of Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, also 1970s contemporaries of the Clash (I thought of the Jackson Browne of 1977’s Running on Empty and the Springsteen of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and their attempts to marry musical momentum and meaning, their attempts to sound naturally observant and particularly insightful). However, the ambition (an ambition as political as it is artistic) and the anarchic energies of the Clash are probably closer to those of Patti Smith, androgynous, impassioned, and intelligent, she of the large voice, literary references, rock star heroes, and shamanic manner—the principal force and visionary of Horses, Easter, Dream of Life, Land, and the tribute album Twelve, a woman who understood that art is both discipline and revelation.

“The money can be made if you really want some more,” advises the song “Koka Kola,” in which high-rise buildings, ambition, doubt, style, bright lights, newspapers, the prevalence of advertising, and the threat of gun violence, are all part of an overwhelming vision of a certain kind of life—intoxicating, and finally intolerable. The singing is authoritative; and the rock music arrangement is thoroughly developed. Much of what is called punk rock music is against aspiration, against the establishment of institutions and values (its makers and appreciators did not want to be gentlemen and did not mind being seen as lowly street punks); and the fast, hard, short songs that often make up punk rock music can seem against meaning as well as order (often it is time and duration, as much as aspiration and whether it is achieved, that affirm meaning). It may be an irony that in a song that offers such critique the music is itself rich.

Members of the Clash have cited American and English rhythm and blues music as references, and rock musicians such as the New York Dolls, the Stooges, the MC5, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, and Humble Pie as influences (the band toured America with Bo Diddley). The band was too intelligent not to have influences or influence. (Mick Jones has been quoted as saying that London Calling was a move away from punk rock music, which the band began to see as narrow, as one corner of a much larger room, with the album an attempt to offer evidence that the band could do different kinds of music.)

The song “The Card Cheat” seems to offer a metaphor for an ill-considered life, with shallow choices made and pursued; and there is vulnerability in the singer’s voice. With harmony that might have been learned from the soul group the Temptations, “Lover’s Rock” may be about sensitivity, erotic talent, birth control, sexual promiscuity, male vanity, or it may be nonsense, an excuse for more music (here, that means some guitar noodling). In “4 Horsemen” drink, food, promises, and torture do not produce revelation of secrets; and silent, solitary, strong forces—the four equestrians, heroes or myths—are very different from ordinary men. However, the music of “4 Horsemen” seems ordinary to me, whereas “I’m Not Down” has a confident, galloping rhythm and spirited singing. “I’ve been beat up, I’ve been thrown out, but I’m not down, I’m not down. I’ve been shown up, but I’ve grown up, and I’m not down, I’m not down,” are some of the lines from “I’m Not Down.”

“Revolution rock, it is a brand new rock” is the opening line of “Revolution Rock,” written by Jackie Edwards and Dave Ray, a song that associates a new attitude with a new beat, and not for the first time, with its vagueness allowing imaginations to do their work. I like the Clash’s version of Strummer-Jones’s “Train in Vain” but—honest me, perverse me—I prefer Annie Lennox’s interpretation. When Lennox sings, “You said you love me and that’s a fact, then you left me, said you felt trapped. Well some things you can explain away, but the heartache’s in me till this day,” I hear the disappointment and pain and regret more. Mick Jones’s “Train in Vain” is still a great conclusion to the original set of songs of London Calling.

The rehearsal tapes offer impressive instrumental presentations of songs, including of “Hateful”; and “Rudie Can’t Fail” has a ska beat with a doo-woppish chorus that recalls the Specials for me; and “Paul’s Tune,” which I like very much, has a thick groove; and there’s a somewhat melancholy aspect to “I’m Not Down.” The songs “4 Horsemen” and “Koka Kola” are here too, but the sound on “Death or Glory” and some of the other songs is a bit muddy or uneven. Following “Lover’s Rock” is a countryish “Lonesome Me” (there were a lot of people unexpectedly doing country music in the 1970s), and “The Police Walked in 4 Jazz” demonstrates an admirably unified instrumental band sound. “Lost in the Supermarket” is pleasing, and so is the sustained rhythm of “Up-toon” (yes, Up-toon), and the verseless “Walking the Sidewalk.” There is a captivating tension in the rhythmic sound of “Where You Gonna Go (Soweto)”; and “The Man in Me” sounds like country blues mixed with reggae—obviously this is a band experimenting with sound. “Remote Control” is fast and intense—punkish. After “Working and Waiting” is “Heart and Mind,” with its moral choices and inventive singing (jazzy chanting); then, “Brand New Cadillac,” and “London Calling,” and “Revolution Rock.” The rehearsal tapes and documentary are interesting to the band’s admirers and useful for the critic or music historian; and will be resources for years to come. Listening to London Calling in year 2008, one year away from the recording’s thirtieth anniversary, it is certain that the collection is a vital passage in the tradition of modern popular music—angry, funny, imaginative.

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett says, “There are feelings of anger, disagreement, and impatience that we have, that even the most noble and well-intentioned among us sometimes have, and because those feelings are discouraged and disrespected, they can become greater—stronger and more important to us. Consequently, music that recognizes and respects those feelings has value—but those feelings and that music are not all that we should value.” Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com.

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