Sipping a seasonal ale in the beer garden, enjoying a pitch perfect Halloween night, I happened to mention that I was considering The Clash’s classic album “London Calling” as the topic of my next column.
“Excellent choice,” a friend said, his eyes lighting up as his wife began singing the opening bars of the album’s title cut, bopping and dancing.
Their response sealed it for me; an album so universal that it causes friends to spontaneously break out in song must be, by its very nature, as essential disk for any collection.
When I play the Ten Disks For Life game, “London Calling” is a steadfast selection for that mix. For those of you on Planet Clueless (still searching for Kenyan birth certificates), the Desert Island game demands that you pick ten disks to be your only companion— for the rest of your life. Just you, ten disks and hermit crabs, you clacking coconuts together as your sanity slips away and your magically powered music machine keeps you company. Select well and thoughtfully – there are no take-backs and Amazon doesn’t deliver to the island.
Saying that “London Calling” is one you’ll take to the end is like saying a seventy-degree day in January is “pleasant,” or “I really like shoes.”
Likewise, “compromise” is not a term that could be leveled at The Clash, ever, and as much of the music underground dug deeper into a credo that rejected respectability (the more obscure, the hipper), The Clash just went ahead and rocked, relentlessly, nodding sacerdotally to the music that inspired them but holding their gaze firmly on the future.
Released in late fall 1979, The Clash created one of the great moments in rock, one that could have gone to the greedheads but, thankfully, went to the truly earnest. Rejecting the demands of their record company, “London Calling” was released as a two-disk set, priced as a single album and refused to settle into any definable genre of the time. Straddling the transition of two decades, it was a defining point for both and a watermark that other bands could only aspire to emulate.
To understand the transformative power of the album, I need to trek back into my past a bit.
Navigating the high school social strata, I discovered that I was rather amorphous: not a Jock, not a Brain, I just didn’t fit in anywhere — and I kind of liked that. Also not a joiner, I never got involved in anything except griping about the sorry state of music in the ’70s. Almost everything sucked. My radical aspirations languished in that patchouli-soaked polyesther atmosphere of apathy and mediocrity. Tom Wolfe was on the money when he coined the term “The Me-Decade.”
My only breath of fresh air in that dismal decade was exhaled in the columns of Lisa Robinson and Lenny Kaye in “Hit Parader” and Lester Bangs in “Cream,” the chroniclers of a brewing revolution in music. Through those monthly reports from the underground, I learned that there were other outsiders, other malcontents, other seditionaries waiting for the call to revolt.
I guess what I was waiting for at that time was a bigger and better MC5: Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and later, The Ramones, Talking Heads and Television. Though louder and more articulate than, say, Fleetwood Mac or Bob Seger, those proto-punk bands hadn’t managed to challenge me to “Kick out the jams, *************!” Sure, they shot out the windows for the sake of being heard, took a knife to the canvas for the need create a different perspective, but their Dada sensibility (with anarchist overtones) was more art-student than activist.
While the first wave of U.K. punk reinvigorated my faith in music, the politics of nihilism nonetheless disheartened me. Wave the black flag all you want but if you’re not offering any alternatives, you’re just a vandal. While the attitude was liberating and the sound intoxicating, I had to hate myself in the morning, like the aftermath of a terrible drunken tear.
It was The Clash that brought me salvation. Adolescent angst can only endure so much negativity before suicide or selling out seem to be the only options. The Clash showed me another way out: rise and resist.
From the opening chords of their first album (and with a gracious nod to The Who) the song “Clash City Rockers”, is a brash call to arms (“... Or burn down the suburbs with the half-closed eyes/You won’t succeed unless you try ...”), to the declaration of independence in the anthemic “Garageland,” the first Clash LP was a manifesto as well as a challenge — give up the bag of glue and man the barricades. More importantly, the LP proved that The Clash refused to be defined (and limited) by the music: “Remote Control” states that in no uncertain terms while the brilliant cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” provides unequivocal proof. I was awestruck, I was amazed. I was saved.
Two years later, The Clash made good on their promise, kicking the doors in to grab the mantle of The Greatest Rock and Roll Band In the World. Refusing to compromise a note to anyone (including the punks anticipating the release of the album), taking elements of pop, soul, rockabilly, reggae, ska and jazz the band created two disks of unrelenting power.
Dealing with subjects such as nuclear meltdown (in the title cut), drug abuse, radical politics, racial conflict and the reluctant march to adulthood, the album nonetheless sparkles with life and it was in that refusal to drop into darkness that threw me a lifeline in my own descent into cynicism. Pushing the metaphor in “The Right Profile” to its rightful conclusion (“Monty’s face is broken on a wheel/Is he alive, can he still feel?”), the tragic fate of actor Montgomery Clift is told with one of the catchiest rhythms ever composed. Likewise, the paranoid terror expressed in “Guns of Brixton” (“When they kick out your front door/how you gonna come/with your hands on your head/or on the trigger of your gun?”), the scratchy reggae rhythms prevent the song from wallowing in gloom. Likewise, the uncompromising grooves of “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” and the profane “Death or Glory,” it’s clear that a change is gonna’ (or hasta’) come: “Okay, I went to the market to realize my soul/Cos what I need I just don’t have, oh no/First they cursed then they pressed me ‘till I hurt/They say Rudie can’t fail.”
From the explosive title cut at the album’s start to the stellar finale of “Train In Vain,” there is not a moment of filler nor a muffed phrase; there is not a single note that is untrue.
As we discussed the merits of “London Calling” at the brewery, how it helped define a generation, the way it changed how punk music was viewed, we returned to the fact that there is no untrue note on the album. And if we look at art, we see that, in every case, it is that truth that sets apart the great works from the merely mawkish.
What makes “London Calling” great is that it expresses truth, from start to finish.