The Clash’s third album, ‘London Calling’, is 40 years old this month and so it feels like an apt time to reassess the record that many regard as the band’s finest and that marked the band’s transition to a major act on the international stage. It’s an album that makes me feel like a teenager again whenever I hear it. I first heard it at 17 while it was on sale at Virgin Megastore in Exeter when I was on a family holiday to Clyst St Mary, Devonshire during the Easter holidays in 2000. Five months later, I would restart my A levels at Leicester College where I would meet the man who remains my best friend to this day and The Clash were one of the bands over whom we would bond, but that’s another story. Listening to the album for the first time on a portable CD player in that Clyst St Mary cottage, I remember being struck by the sheer range of musical styles on display across the album. I’d had the US edition of The Clash’s self-titled debut album for about 18 months before then and that remains my favourite work by the band, but ‘London Calling’ is in my view the most accomplished of all their albums that aimed to transcend the confines of punk rock as a genre.
The album opens with the gloomy title track which reminds the listener of the dark fate that would befall the city in the event of a Three Mile Island-style “nuclear error” or the River Thames flooding (the album was released at a time when many people thought heavy rain meant we were living through a ‘new Ice Age’). It beggars belief that this song was used by civic officials to promote the 2012 London Olympics. As you’d expect, the cover of Vince Taylor’s 1959 song ‘Brand New Cadillac’ that follows has far more of a retro, rockabilly sound. ‘Jimmy Jazz’ and ‘Hateful’ are upbeat stompers that keep the pace moving along nimbly, before my favourite song on the album: ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. Even now, the song makes me sing along and dance around my living room with its ska-tinged tale of a “rude and a-reckless” young man who doesn’t want to “live in service/like the doctor who was born for a purpose”.
‘Spanish Bombs’ is a song whose nostalgic-sounding musical tone belies its dark lyrical themes of the Spanish Civil War’s legacy. ‘The Right Profile’ continues ‘Rudie Can’t Fail”s interplay between guitars and horns. The nostalgic tone of ‘Spanish Bombs’ reappears on ‘Lost in the Supermarket’, a song about how someone born into poor circumstances in the 1950s could easily get befuddled by modern consumerist lifestyles. ‘Clampdown’, with its power chords and call-and-response gang vocals, is possibly the song on here that most strongly recalls the musical style of The Clash’s second album ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ (1978). ‘The Guns of Brixton’ was written by bassist Paul Simonon and marks his debut as lead vocalist on a Clash song. Lyrically, the song forces listeners to adopt the viewpoint of a Brixton-dwelling paranoiac as he narrates his frightening surroundings.
‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’ is a cover version of the Rulers’ revisionist take on the ‘Stagger Lee’ folk song and is probably the album’s most dancehall-influenced song. Thematically, ‘Death or Glory’ seems to represent the flipside to ‘Clampdown”s exhortations to young listeners not to betray their ideals, as it bemoans the way in which such betrayals are common features of many people’s journeys into adulthood. ‘Koka Kola’ continues this theme with its indictments of the corporate world and the advertising industry. ‘The Card Cheat’ makes prominent use of horns and deepens the album’s musical stylings further through the use of an old-style music hall piano.
‘Lover’s Rock’, which is dominated by some classic rock-sounding guitars from Mick Jones and Joe Strummer and trite pre-AIDS lyrical encouragement of safe sex, is one of the album’s weaker songs. The piano on ‘Four Horsemen’ is more understated than it was on ‘The Card Cheat’ and Jones’ and Strummer’s trebley guitars are far more noticeable. The Hammond organ is ‘I’m Not Down”s most prominent feature. ‘Revolution Rock’ is the album’s longest song and the one that comes the closest to full-blown reggae. This is problematic for me, as to be perfectly honest, I’ve always hated reggae. As such, it’s my least favourite song here. ‘Train in Vain (Stand by Me)’ makes for a very satisfying conclusion to ‘London Calling’. It’s a wistful tale of a terminated relationship replete with catchy guitars and vocals that was reputedly inspired by Jones’ break-up with Viv Albertine from The Slits.
40 years on, ‘London Calling’ holds up as The Clash’s most successful foray into non-punk musical genres. Songs like ‘Clampdown’ and ‘Death or Glory’ keep enough of a foot in the punk camp to retain the attentions of more traditionalist listeners while the band flirt with rock ‘n’ roll on ‘Brand New Cadillac’, ska on ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, reggae on ‘Revolution Rock’, and dancehall on ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’. The album’s generic experiments don’t always come off, but the band’s flair for ambition and adventure ensures this is a far richer, fuller, and generally better album than ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’, at certain points on which the band felt like they were treading water following their iconoclastic debut. At 19 songs and 65 minutes, it’s not the leanest of post-punk albums and a couple of songs could arguably have done with ending up on the cutting room floor, but this is a minor quibble.
Highlights like the title track, ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, ‘The Guns of Brixton’, and ‘Train in Vain’ represent some of The Clash’s finest songwriting and the band sound like they’re having a great time while they’re making it. The album marked the band’s US breakthrough, charting at Number 27 there and turning them into a band that would headline Shea Stadium and make videos for MTV. It’s possible that this Transatlantic success precipitated the tensions that led to drummer Topper Headon’s dismissal from the band in 1982 for heroin use and Jones’ departure in 1983. Fourth album ‘Sandinista!’ followed just a year later and was a 36-track three-disc beast of a record. It featured even more stylistic experimentation than ‘London Calling’ but lacked the earlier album’s cohesion. That album began a downward trajectory that continued through ‘Combat Rock’ (1982) and the aptly titled ‘Cut the Crap’ (1985). It’s always sad to hear the final work that a band made at the peak of their powers, knowing that the only works to follow would be inferior, but along with their debut album, ‘London Calling’ set a high watermark that ensured The Clash will always have a place in punk and post-punk history. The album is available to buy from Piccadilly Records.