The Clash London Calling, 1979, CBS
Brand New Cadillac
Rudie Can’t Fail
The Right Profile
Lost in the Supermarket
The Guns of Brixton
Wrong ‘Em Boyo
Death or Glory
The Card Cheat
I’m Not Down
Train in Vain
Well, we’ve finally reached the end of 1979, so it’s only right to end this bleak year and decade on the same high point that it really ended, with one of the best rock albums ever made. Now, contrarian that I am I did think about offering you Give ‘Em Enough Rope as my Clash album (and it is a good album, despite the way it was produced) but as a punk fan and a Londoner, I really couldn’t in good conscience have given you anything else but the classic London Calling.
Formed in London in 1976, The Clash may not truly have been the only band that mattered but they were an integral part of the punk scene from the start. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones shared guitar and vocals, Paul Simonon played bass and Nicky Headon was on the drums. London Calling was their third album, released in December 1979. Displaying a much wider range of musical styles than their first two punk albums it was commercially successful, reaching Number 9 in the UK chart. It also did well in other countries, eventually being certified platinum in the US. It’s slightly later US release date allowed Rolling Stone magazine to legitimately dub it the best album of the 1980s.
The cover art, considered one of the most iconic album covers of all time is a photo of Paul Simonon smashing his guitar on stage at The Palladium in New York City in September 1979 in frustration at concert security not allowing fans to stand up during the show (a problem that seems to persist at some American venues to this day). The font and text are lifted straight from Elvis Presley’s debut album (or they are an homage, you decide). The (never fully realised) idea being that Elvis’ album was the start of rock and roll and this was the end of it. The album cover was even included on a stamp issued by the Royal Mail in 2010, and once you’re on a stamp you know you’ve really made it.
The Clash’s music was always very reflective of their left wing politics and they practised what they sang about by keeping concert ticket and album prices low to try to offer their fans value for money. Although CBS wouldn’t allow them to price London Calling quite as low as they wanted, it’s fair to say that such a lengthy slice of musical brilliance was worth every penny.
The title track retains it’s angry potency, the sinister anthem of our disaffected city, the strained vocal, the frantic guitars, the heavy drums. It’s a stunningly good song that hits you like a hammer. If you can point me in the direction of a better opening track, I’d love to hear it. Brand New Cadillac shows off some brilliant guitar work and the beat sounds exactly what you expect it should sound like on a song about cars. The band are obviously truly enjoying themselves here. It’s pure rock and roll. Jimmy Jazz has an intro that’s almost delicate and the lyric remains slow and gentle throughout. There is particularly strong bass on this interesting mix of jazz and reggae. Hateful is such a bop. This must have been a huge crowd pleaser. It’s another genuinely melodic song about heroin addiction (why are so many of the good ones about heroin?). Rudie Can’t Fail continues the bopping vibe with a strong reggae influence, it’s probably the most upbeat song on the album. The dark Spanish Bombs can still get you moving, and it’s subject matter of living under the threat of terrorist attacks remains sadly resonant. The vocal style of the song is singular, and you could easily draw a direct line from this song to the style of The Libertines 30 years later. The Right Profile is the most traditional rock song in both tune and vocal delivery, although there is a nice bit of brass action in there, including a great sax solo to liven it up. The beautiful jangly start to Lost in the Supermarket leads into another delicate vocal performance on a song about that most traditional of punk topics, the banality of suburban life. The subject matter may not be new, but it’s beautifully covered. The most complex and political of songs amongst an album of politics is Clampdown, a lament to the lost idealism of youth. This theme is continued with the violent side of idealism covered on The Guns of Brixton, one of my favourite songs ever. The lyrical delivery (and it’s bassist Paul Simonon who takes the lead vocal here) and beat on this track are just intoxicating. Wrong ‘Em Boyo mixes things up with some ska, the brass section is great and it’s a fun track. Introspective Death or Glory has a melancholy tone and is all about punks selling out (something The Clash were repeatedly accused of when they accepted their record deal with CBS) but the drums on this are awesome from beginning to end. Koka Kola is a fun, drug fuelled rocker where the bass takes the lead. The Card Cheat has a big, epic sound to it’s sad lyrics, with full orchestral backing included. Lover’s Rock, despite the ironic lyrics is exactly what it says on the tin and for me it’s the only weak track on the album. Four Horsemen is another more traditional rock song. I’m Not Down is again, another more standard rocker but the lyrics are about standing up to your own personal demons rather than to those in power. Revolution Rock is another reggae track, at 5 minutes and 30 seconds long, it’s the closest they get to indulgence, but it’s a fun enough track to forgive them for it. Final track Train in Vain is such an obviously commercial single with wide appeal and an almost disco-esque beat.
This is just such an incredible album that deserves all the accolades it has received. You won’t stop moving throughout and despite the obvious anger and despondency that runs through it. There is hope here too. The Clash act as rock historians, their themes are not new and nor is their sound, but the weaving of everything together is masterful and groundbreaking. They always wrote very political lyrics as they wanted to write about issues that affected them rather than love songs but this album shows their confidence in their abilities as musicians. They have embraced such a range of styles to make a post-punk album of real substance. Also, it just doesn’t feel 40 years old, every song still resonates.
I’ve heard it said that this is an incoherent album, but I disagree. I think it flows beautifully, each song complementing the last. It’s also astutely politically aware and, while it speaks to me as a Londoner now, it shows a wider worldview than many of their punk contemporaries and an understanding of global politics. The exploration of genres mirrors our London melting-pot in music. Their fourth album, Sandinista! was definitely more experimental, but it didn’t always work. This does. The Clash’s diversity of influence is shown in who they chose as their support acts. On their US tour before the release of this album, both Bo Diddley and Screaming Jay Hawkins opened for them and in later years you could have seen Grandmaster Flash warm up the crowd. This was an album that looked to the future as well as trying to change the present.
The Clash’s legacy is truly massive - if you don’t own a Clash t-shirt, were you even really an angry teenager? Numerous contemporary punk bands as well as artists like Billy Bragg and U2, later bands The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Libertines, Manic Street Preachers, Rancid, Bad Religion, NOFX, Green Day, No Doubt, The Hives, The Vines, The Strokes, The White Stripes, Garbage (who took the drumbeat from Train in Vain for Stupid Girl) and even M.I.A. I was also surprised to learn about their influence on a number of Spanish language artists.
Punk may not truly have died when The Clash signed to CBS but this album does represent the end of it in its pure form. We have seen from other artists this year who are firmly post-punk or new wave how important it was to move past loud noise and anger in order to achieve any kind of longevity and here The Clash do that effectively, bringing British punk firmly into the mainstream with the album’s international success.
So, before we jump headlong into the 1980s it seems worth reflecting on what the angry kids of the 1970s achieved. While the views of the young definitely have more prominence in political discourse today, 40 years later British society is as divided as ever. We still have high unemployment, dissatisfaction with global politics and we seem to be protesting constantly against our current political elite. London remains a harsh city to try to survive in, especially for newcomers, but we’re all still here swimming against the tide and not quite drowned yet.