Last year marked the 40th anniversary of one of rock’s great albums, as British punk outfit The Clash released their third studio album: London Calling. Less successful in terms of sales and chart position than their 1982 effort Combat Rock (which featured hits like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I go”), London Calling went on to be universally acclaimed, now it’s considered to be the band’s best work and consistently ranks as one of the best albums ever made.
Coming in at just over an hour long and consisting of 19 tracks, there’s a lot to cover when going through the record track by track. Themes of inequality, anti-fascism, anti-capitalism, unemployment and more, Joe Strummer and co managed to achieve social relevance that few other punk bands had managed until then. At a time when Thatcher and Reagan were about to change the economical and social landscape of the Western Hemisphere, this record also changed the way punk music defined itself.
A new sound and post-punk
Let’s define what punk rock is before getting into it. Punk rock was a subgenre of rock music that burst onto the scene in the mid 1970s, characterised by short songs, a DIY ethic, simple song structures, loudness and a total rejection of all rock music that came before it. Notable early punk bands were The Ramones and The Sex Pistols.
The Clash rode this early wave of punk to fame with their self-titled 1976 debut album. Although a hit in their home country, it failed to crack the US, the final frontier of any British band. Their sophomore album Give Em Enough Rope, definitely had more of an Americana sound to it and it became clear that The Clash were trying to get a foothold in the States. They did not. The album failed abroad and at home, and drew plenty of critics claiming the band had sold out their punk roots.
So how to move on? After a period of creative inactivity and writer’s block, the band came back with producer Guy Stevens to work on London Calling. While still keeping punk’s essence, they fused in elements of ska, reggae, rockabilly and good old rock n roll. The result was one of the first mainstream post-punk albums.
The Clash had definitely moved on artistically, but they still had plenty of the old punk spirit in them. The opening track of the record has the following line “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust”, clearly showcasing punk’s rejection of old rock. To punk purists, the band had sold out. To rest of the world and any fan of music, The Clash had evolved and created one of the best rock albums of all time in doing so.
Themes: from unemployment to the Spanish Civil War
The Clash had always been more politically vocal than their fellow punk pioneers, this social awareness breathed life into many of the album’s better tracks. Opening song “London Calling” is a reference to the nuclear incident that took place at Two Mile Island in the USA, the track being written just months after the nuclear collapse. The song finds a dystopian London facing a similar situation, clearly indicated in the lyrics:
The ice age is coming, the sun’s zoomin’ in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
Cause London is drownin’, I, live by the river
The last song of side one, “Spanish Bombs”, is an ode to the republicans who fought on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War. It’s also a nod to the Troubles, that were taking place in the UK and Ireland at the time, referencing bombing tactics of the IRA.
Other songs deal with a range of issues, “Lost in the Supermarket” relates to the effects of consumerism while “Guns of Brixton” reflects violence in society. Even the more upbeat track like “Rudie Can’t Fail” is a subtle nod to the Rude Boys of Jamaica and the struggles they were facing.
Not all the tracks have political undertones, my favourite Clash song “Train in Vain” is just a simple love song about a couple having problems with their relationship. The song was written in just one night towards the end of production and in fact is not listed on many records themselves. As it was too late to be added on the sleeve, the song appears as a hidden track, coming in at the very end of the album.
A brief, but important moment for The Clash
After the relative failure of their second LP and how punk rock was winding down towards the end of the decade, London Calling in many ways was an all or nothing gamble for the band. They had basically burned all their money and debts were piling up around them.
Luckily, the album was a huge success and the band lived happily ever after. Not really. In 1982 they released their most commercially successful album, named Combat Rock. After that, the band went through a few break ups and reunions, but they never reached the same heights either critically or commercially. Regardless of their future exploits, we’re fortunate that they took the plunge and came out the other side with London Calling.
The cover art of the album is a picture of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his bass before a concert. This act reflects what many people think of punk bands (like the Sex Pistols or The Ramones): lads who would drink a lot and sing really loudly on stage. Not much more to it in that. In fact, Simonon was angry that the bouncers at the show wouldn’t let the audience stand during the concert.
That’s who The Clash were, a punk band yes, but Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were socially and politically active people, something that fueled their best lyrics as songwriters. This comes across clearly on London Calling, an album that’s regularly cited as one of the best rock albums of all time. Rolling Stone has it up there in the top 10 of best albums of all time, together with other legendary artists like Dylan and the Beatles. They even had an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album’s release at the Museum of London.
In terms of musical legacy, post-punk would later revived in the early 2000s, with bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes taking inspiration from London Calling. Even outside of rock music it had an impact; for example, rap artist Chuck D from Public Enemy has said of the album as a direct influence on his own socio-political music.
Basically, it’s a great album. I’m glad to have listened to it in more detail these last days, if you’re reading this, give “Train in Vain” a try 🙂