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This is the thirty-second in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
This month's feature has actually been planned for months... possibly even years. When the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll first was started up and the featured album column began, there was a period right away where there were some major rock and roll milestones I wanted to commemorate... like 40th anniversaries for Cream and the Beatles. Right around that time I started thinking of other anniversaries I wanted to make sure I didn't forget as the time flew by. This album was one of the first that came to mind and so I've been planning and plotting this feature in my mind since way back in those early days.
The definitive album from the Clash and an absolute rock and roll masterpiece, London Calling turns 30 this month.
An album that was originally going to be titled “The Last Testament”; ironically would be proclaimed by Rolling Stone the “most important album of the 1980s”; one who's demo tapes were at one time thought to be permanently lost on the London Underground; and of course an all time favorite album of mine, London Calling was released on December 14, 1979. It would go on to become one of the defining punk albums of all time and one that would propel the Clash to super stardom solidifying their legacy as one of the legendary bands not only of the punk scene, but of all rock and roll history.
When the punk movement first really broke through with the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, the stripped down rock and roll style... hard hitting, rough and raw... might have been a big part of what defined the genre. The punk movement became, and is to this day, so much more than that though... and I'm NOT referring to certain bands/artists that may or may not be called “punk” by modern mainstream culture/standards, but the originals and those who follow in their footsteps. Experimentation with jazz, reggae, calypso, bossa nova, funk, disco, rockabilly and ska; blending in political social comment with a witty, gritty edge; and using music as a commentary on real life events... these are defining characteristics of the punk movement.
These are also defining characteristics of the Clash and London Calling.
It is that experimentation, that wit, and especially that social comment and link to current events (current at the time that is) that really makes this album such a powerful and compelling work. It's quite a diverse work as well, with a total of 19 tracks of a whole variety of styles.
The album opens up with the title track, a track that would become the Clash's anthem, perhaps for all eternity. “London Calling” is one part reggae, one part arena rock, wrapped up with plenty of punk rock attitude of course. There's a reason this song has become a song of rock and roll legend... it's fantastic from the hard edged, gritty guitar riff, to the political lyrical content and emotional charge. This is punk rock at it's absolute best, and the album only builds upon that for another 17 tracks before closing with another classic.
In the 50s, before he was the inspiration for David Bowie's “Ziggy Stardust”, Vince Taylor was one of the original rebel punk rockers, so having the Clash cover Taylor's “Brand New Cadillac” doesn't seem too strange. The Clash make it their own with this incredibly biting version before going off in an entirely new variety of directions. The lounge jazz meets a sort of honky tonk rock and roll that is “Jimmy Jazz” is playfully charming in both musical arrangement and lyrical story, while the bouncy high energy rock of “Hateful” is actually one of the albums most engaging and catchy tunes, complete with hand claps and sing-a-long chorus. With “Rudie Can't Fail” the Clash embrace reggae and blend in with ska infused rock to comment on challenging the status quo, wrapping it all up in a catchy pop exterior and creating another of the band's defining songs.
The explicitly political “Spanish Bombs” actually has an uplifting melodic arrangement that is engaging and rich, but still straight forward enough to engage the listener and let the lyrical content shine through. “The Right Profile” revisits the reggae feel a little more directly, but blends in swinging horn blasts and rhythm, while the driving almost dreamy “Lost in the Supermarket” tells the sympathetic story of so many of the youths who identify with punk rock to this day. It has touches of irony throughout as well, but is generally heartfelt, with Mick Jones' vocals (lyrics that Joe Strummer wrote with Mick specifically in mind) ringing true. This is one of my absolute favorite Clash songs of all time, and for good reason... it's just great in all respects.
“Clampdown” is another favorite of mine. With it's hard rock riffs and plenty of social comment in it's lyrics, it is an anthem for anti-establishment culture... an anthem for rebellion, idealism and fighting “the man”... complete with military-esque march beat and explosive fire. “Guns of Brixton” drops all illusion about the band's reggae influences, but embraces them flat out and displays them for all to see without any hesitation. The political/topical lyrics only up the intensity giving the song a very brooding and even dark, but compelling quality. “Wrong 'Em Boyo” is an interesting one for sure with it's massive, soulful false start. It stops in the middle to give way to a much bouncier, swinging version that retains the horn blasts and licks of the opening, but with a much lighter feel with lots of fun. In a single song it crosses multiple genres and styles, but still works really well and always sounds uniquely like the Clash.
They return to the anthemic with “Death or Glory”. With it's hard hitting riff and massive feel it is both a rallying cry and a stab at much of societies more absurd moments between youth and maturity. This song also features some of the most ironic, amusing and strikingly poignant lyrics Joe Strummer ever wrote, but you have to keep your ears open or they'll slide by and you'll be left going... whoa, whoa, whoa... whoa... what did he just say?
The same can be said for the lyrical content of “Koka Kola”... another personal favorite. It's another upbeat rocker with a great riff and chorus. “The Card Cheat” opens with a little light piano, but the melody is soaring, soulful and almost operatic with thick majestic horn arrangements and a shuffling back beat, while “Lovers Rock” borrows bits from 50s Doo-Wop and earlier pop styles to create a sweet swaying number. This song eventually builds into something more though with an almost disco/bossa nova influenced middle section before fading out. “4 Horseman” is a more straight forward hard hitting rocker with multiple driving rhythmic sections between larger than life choruses. This song also features a very psychedelic bit of guitar exploration in the middle that might just barely hint at some of the noise rock that would come out of the post punk movement in years to follow.
“I'm Not Down” is catchy track with another disco/funky style to it's driving choruses, while the verses are full of thick guitars and percussion, plenty of layers of sound and intertwining parts. Not exactly your typical punk rock song, but a great one for sure. “Revolution Rock” returns to the reggae feel again complete with ska style horns to punctuate it's swaying rhythms and even take on a slight psychedelic feel as the echo from side to side in the stereo picture towards the end... cool... cool indeed.
The album closes with another absolute classic... a song that like “London Calling” would become a defining moment for the Clash. “Train In Vain” is an absolute gem. It's catchy, compelling and engaging, but also driving and full of energy... a rock and roll masterpiece that perfectly closes a masterpiece of an album... the coda that sums everything up and takes it out on a positive note leaving the listener feeling quite satisfied and content... not drained though... invigorated and energetic.
As a whole this album is in the league with only a few other double albums out there. It's diverse and sprawling but also engaging from first track to last, miraculously still sounding like a complete work.
It has to do with the energy level as all of these songs are just brimming with fire and passion... even the slower numbers. During the recording process the band's producer, Guy Stevens, (known for being a bit of a recluse) was reported to have thrown chairs and ladders, poured wine over pianos, wrestled with engineers and gotten right up in the bands faces, jumping around, trying to... as he might put it... capture the maximum amount of emotion on the record as possible. I don't know if his techniques helped or not, but these songs really do seem to be just full of energy and emotion. It's that energy that knits them together into a complete work. As a whole, they really capture the ideology and drive of Clash as a band and as individuals at this particular time.
As good as the music and songwriting is, lyrically this album is that good and then some. Some songs are directly political and make no qualms about it. Others are referencing and commenting on specific events that were occurring in the band's environment at the time, or past rock and roll/cultural/traditional icons and stories. Almost all of these tracks are full of all sorts of little moments of irony and social comment... you know, anti-establishment, stand up for your rights, working class punk rock attitude and idealism. These things make this album especially interesting to listen to from a lyrical standpoint in modern times because, yes, it refers to specific events and in turn is a portrait of the Clash, London and the world in 1979. At the same time though, it's amazing how much the social comment, ideology, passion, irony etc. apply to the modern world as well. It serves that dual function as both a snapshot of the past, and a sort of lens through which to view the present and the future.
Of course any discussion of this album, wouldn't be complete without at the very least mentioning the cover art. A completely spontaneous picture of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his instrument at a particularly frustrating gig, it has become one of the iconic rock and roll images, perfectly capturing the energy of the punk rock genre and this particular album. Teamed up with the pink and green lettering, echoing the original Elvis releases, the cover goes right along with the original album title of “The Last Testament”. It reflects back to the first rock and roll records, while implying that this is the last, and rock and roll is literally being destroyed like Paul's bass. Pretty neat... oh, and it's a pretty cool picture too.
In terms of this album's placement in the musical hierarchy, I find it interesting to compare and contrast this one with the other bands of their genre and time. Take the Ramones and the Sex Pistols compared to the Clash. All three bands actually knew each other, and all three are unequivocally defining examples of the punk rock genre. The Ramones though, are much more towards the straight forward rock and roll side of things. while the Sex Pistols tackled the same social comment with a touch of irony, but have a more nihilistic and sneering attitude.
In the Clash you have something unique that combines both. Instead of purely nihilistic, they're idealistic and fiery, but still have the attitude and the irony. At the same time they take the straight forward rock songs and expand upon them, letting their drive to experiment with new styles lead them to new and exciting ends. On this album the Clash quite simply sound like a band out to change the world and I don't think anyone can argue that they didn't accomplish just that. London Calling is one of the major albums that defined what punk rock could be and the freedom it could provide, and would provide, for so many bands to follow.
Whether you're a longtime fan of the Clash or not, I think London Calling is pretty much a must have for any rock and roll collection. Fans of bands like the Cure of the Police will surely find something they'll like about this album, but so will many others. Anyone who thinks they know punk rock music based purely on bands like Green Day or NOFX (not that there's anything wrong with Green Day and NOFX) needs to take a listen to this... and the Clash's music in general.
I also think many people who have completely dismissed punk rock as a genre of bands that couldn't even play their instruments, needs to take a listen to this album. The Clash are far beyond just competent musicians and these songs are not at all just the 3 chord straight forward songs from punk's roots. They are complex arrangements with plenty of rhythm and melody, overlapping parts and styles. Plus as I said, the lyrics are where it's at and are a great example of the kind of social commentary that can exist even within a catchy rock tune. Who knows, maybe a quick listen will open a few skeptic's eyes.
So on this 30th anniversary of the London Calling, lets all turn it up and rock out to the Clash at what might be their absolute best. There's a reason Rolling Stone labeled this album the “most important album of the 1980s” even though it was released in 1979... it's just that good.
If you don't own this album already. I highly recommend you check out the 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition. This is the edition I own and used as a reference for much of the material in this review. It not only includes the album, but has an additional CD and DVD as well.
The CD is the long missing “Vanilla Tapes”... the original demos of almost the entire album. Once thought completely lost on the London Underground, a copy was discovered purely by chance and as far as I know, this edition is their first release. They're really neat to hear as these are stripped down and in some cases starkly raw versions of these songs and give a great insight into the creative process of the band at the time.
The DVD contains a short documentary of the making of album and includes a lot of interesting background. It has footage from the studio where you can see producer Guy Stevens getting wild and rowdy in his eccentric ways... smashing chairs and everything. There's also a few promotional videos included as well from the album... overall a great collection of additional material.
You can find the 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition directly from Amazon here: London Calling
It appears as if there has also been a 30th Anniversary Edition released as well, although it's only 2 disks. Not sure how it compares sound wise to the 25th Anniversary version, but still, worth checking out: London Calling 30th Anniversary Edition
As a closing note, I'd like to dedicate this entire review to Joe Strummer... rhythm guitarist and vocalist for the Clash. Joe unfortunately passed away from a sudden heart attack in 2002 and so this is for him. R.I.P. Joe, you are greatly missed.