- by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1980-01-01 Label: CBS
How do you “review” one of the greatest albums in Rock & Roll history?
If Never Mind The Bollocks gloriously blasted Punk into being, some three years later, the Clash personified its peak with London Calling. What’s more, they demonstrated that Punk could be far more versatile than three chords and a snotty attitude. Here the Clash cut through Punk’s pretensions and revealed what the movement truly was at its heart: Rock & Roll.
The iconic cover was not only an homage to Elvis, it was also a defiant comment on the conventional depths to which Rock & Roll had sunk since the boy from Tupelo burst on the scene. By 1979 Rock & Roll had been diluted, commercialized and marginalized. And the Clash aimed to blast some fresh air into the dying dinosaur. To set the rafters on fire and storm the Bastille. In the process, they also tore up their Punk draft cards with London Calling.
The opening blare of the classic title track is not only a call to arms but a challenge: “Come out of the cupboard you boys and girls!” “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust!” Musically, there’s no dismissing those ringing opening chords. You have to stand at attention.
‘Brand New Cadillac’ follows. A fiery bridge to Punk’s roots. In the guise of an obscure Rockabilly number penned by some has-been cat named, Vince Taylor. While the name might not ring a bell, the Clash knew Taylor was named checked by Bowie as the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. There’s nothing like the original but the Clash knew that original was lost well under the radar and wisely dusted this one off and took it out for one hell of a spin. When I first heard this album, this was the song that got its hooks into me. This made me a Clash fan. There was no going back. Doesn’t matter whether they wrote it or stole it. Any way you cut it, this joy ride was theirs and they took this Rock & Roll jalopy as far and as fast as it could go. Pedal to the floor. It's Rock & Roll 101: amateurs borrow, professionals steal.
‘Jimmy Jazz’ by contrast dared to slow the 1-2-3-4- let’s go tempo down to a drunken, staggering beat. And that beat wasn't the Ramones so much as Toots & The Maytals. In doing so, the Clash were making a statement beyond police brutality. Punk, Reggae, Rock & Roll: it was all related. It was all Folk music. All connected whether its the Sex Pistols or Bob Marley. Where much of Punk was about asserting one’s exclusive individuality, here the Clash step into the ring with a musical message of inclusiveness.
‘Hateful’ is the Clash at their swaggering, driving best. A scathing diatribe against hardcore drug culture. Chances are it was not lost on drummer, Topper Headon. Who's struggle with the needle caused great tension in the band. A song that casts an unflinching eye at the vicious circle of addiction, without an ounce of romance. Not only is the junkie affected but those around him. “This year I've lost some friends. Some friends? What friends? I dunno, I ain't even noticed”. It’s not only a killer number, but it also has a conscience to go with the body count.
‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ brings us back to reggae, paying homage to Jamaica’s Rude Boys. A fierce duet between Joe and Mick playing the role of Rude Boy and elder statesmen trading barbs. Jamaican musical references abound from Desmond Dekker’s ‘(007) Shanty Town’ to DJ, musician and surgeon, Dr. Alimantado. Soon after, the Specials would burst on the scene bringing the 60’s Rude Boy look to the UK Ska scene. But this song goes to show that The Clash helped pave the way.
‘Spanish Bombs’ picks the listener up and drops them headfirst into the Spanish Civil War of ‘39. Here the Clash not only flex their literary muscles with references to Lorca and Hemingway but lay out the perils and parallels of fascism and terrorism. Daring to question if the "free world" is really all that free. Revealing all too starkly that some ghosts keep no graves. When simmering political resentments turn violent, it’s always the innocent who suffer. “The Irish tomb was drenched in blood. Spanish bombs shatter the hotels. My senorita's rose was nipped in the bud”, Joe and Mick sing. The refrain, “Yo te querda, mi corazón” touching on genuine heartbreak.
‘The Right Profile’ tackles fame and mortality featuring the tragic example of Montgomery Clift, while ‘Lost In A Supermarket’ savages rampant commercialism with Pop anthem smarts. Though written by Strummer, it's Mick Jones’ vocals which lend a sweetness and a vulnerability to the song’s lost soul. Emotions which fly in the face of Punk’s customary outrage. There’s plenty of anger and angst but this is a different expression of it. A touch of sorrow. One of my favorite Clash tunes.
‘The Clampdown’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’ take no prisoners and ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’ reveals more musical diversity, deftly mixing Country, Punk, Reggae and Gospel influences. The blistering ‘Death Or Glory’ features one of the Clash’s funniest lines, “he who fucks nuns will later join the church”. A wry, tongue in cheek stab at Punk posturing and the fickle nature of the music biz. Meanwhile ‘Koka Kola’ is London Calling at its most catchy and incendiary. Drawing the parallel between drug culture and advertising. Again, we’re hit with the theme of consumerism and the lack of morality of those at the top who seek to profit. A song that starkly lays out how all these social ills are connected. Along with what preceded it, ‘Koka Kola’ is the Clash at their most from the hip and whip-smart. This is protest music, with brains. A refreshing antidote to today's vapid Pop culture of creepy boy bands and grandstanding divas.
‘The Card Cheat’ is the Clash at their most cinematic and epic. Beginning with a solitary piano before the band kicks in. A masterpiece, ruminating on the all too fleeting thrills of mortality and greed. It’s the Clash at their most elegiac. Lines like, “If the keeper of time runs slowly, he won't be alive for long!” are worthy of being spray-painted on any public monument.
‘Four Horseman’ gallops in like an ornery apocalypse with a grudge. ‘I’m Not Down’ is a timeless anthem to keeping one’s head above hot water. While sporting two fistfuls of nihilism there’s also a stubborn optimism at play throughout this album. One of the things that set the Clash apart from the rest of their Punk brethren. They kept their chins up for bullies to sock and then turned the other cheek in defiance.
Nothing prepared the listener of the original release for the final track. Mainly because it was “hidden”. But not intentionally. It was the last song recorded during these sessions and the sleeve went to press before the track was added to the master. But what a happy accident. Not only was it initially a surprise for the unsuspecting listener, but it also proved to be their first US hit. Albeit, a minor one. Regardless, there's no denying, 'Train In Vein' is a Clash classic. Lyrically, it’s the most obtuse track on the album. Is it a veiled reference to drugs or a song of abject heartbreak ironically set to an upbeat, train-like rhythm? However one chooses to interpret it, it’s a sensational adios to a thrilling record.
London Calling is what all double albums aspire to be, but all too rarely achieve. There’s not one dud. No wrong move. No fat to trim. The Clash would later take things much further with the smorgasbord triple album, Sandinista! With less winning results. But if Sandinista! is their White Album, then London Calling is their Sgt. Pepper’s. Here both the big risks and big ambitions pay off. Safe to say, the Clash never topped it. If there’s such a thing as a perfect album, this is it. And it was perfection achieved through imperfection. As opposed to some Brian Wilson control freak scene. 40 years after its release, London Calling remains a vital masterpiece that doesn’t sound at all dated. One for the ages.
On a completely personal note, I first heard this record at the age of 16 and it changed my life. I was never the same again. And I never tire of it. One of my favorite records of all time.
Perfect review. I agree with every word. Fucking brilliant, Kevin.