by Rob Stimpson
One of life’s universally accepted truths is that once you climb to a peak, there must inevitably be a descent. The acknowledgement of such a truth means that time on a peak is scarce and should be cherished, as to capture such perfection even once is a laudable feat, and to capture it multiple times is verging on impossibility. In 1979, The Clash were a very good punk band two albums into their career. In 1979, The Clash released London Calling, and thus marked the peak of their own career, and decimated the punk genre in the process.
Stretching out to 19 tracks, London Calling qualifies as a double album, a tag which tends to carry a wince of apprehension. It is very rare for any double album to be entirely consistent; there is always an ominous sense that a band is either clearing the decks of old material or has been struck by a momentary sense of hubristic grandeur. London Calling, though, is a different animal. There is simply no filler. The consistent quality that kicks out of the speakers is evidence that every track is included on merit, meaning that it is an incredibly difficult task to pick out both a single highlight and any form of weak link.
The album is a work of overwhelming eclecticism, displaying a dizzying array of musical styles and influences. ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ is reggae, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ is rockabilly, ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’ is ska, ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ is tinged with disco and the titular song is the bleakest of punk anthems. Upon release, the embracing of so many different, seemingly opposing styles was criticised by defenders of the punk tradition, casting The Clash as traitors to the scene. Naturally, fans of music itself were, and still are, left in awe of the deft artistry that marries together so much with such apparent ease. Such is the staggering range and breadth displayed that no two consecutive tracks have the same feel to them, musically, allowing the rollicking ride of a journey to feel as powerful and fresh from the first note to the very last.
Not to be outdone, the issues and subjects tackled lyrically are equally as diverse. While there is no strict concept to the album that neatly unites it all, it is the context in which London Calling was written and recorded that proves to be the common theme providing the backbone. At the time of recording, the band was in turmoil; to be specific, they were heavily in debt, at war with their record label, and had been kicked out of their rehearsal studio. In addition to this, the album is a product of its time. The London of 1979 was, like large swathes of Britain, gripped by rising unemployment, simmering with anger, and in many a dark corner, blighted with a worsening drug problem. As far as context and circumstances go, this was a particularly poisonous, gloomy and anarchic atmosphere in which to be creating anything of value.
It is hardly surprising, then, that London Calling has a beating heart ferociously calling for social change. It could so easily have been a didactic album, pointing fingers and shifting the blame, smothered with bile inducing platitudes about healing society and holding hands to a synthetic soundtrack. Such an approach would no doubt have appealed to the mass audience, but The Clash weren’t overly concerned about them. Joe Strummer, lyricist and primary vocalist, was an overtly political man, so it is hardly surprising that a number of tracks reflect their author’s outlook. ‘London Calling’, ‘Spanish Bombs’ and ‘The Guns Of Brixton’ are all heavily politically motivated, shining a light on sinister subjects such as the decaying values of society and the dawning of the nuclear apocalypse, terrorism and the Spanish civil war, and life under the watchful gaze of an overbearing police force. This is as far away from the safety of chart music as you can get.
But it’s not all politics. London Calling is as eclectic in subject as it is in style, and the focus is not on sweeping generalisations, but on exposing the dark reality of the then contemporary life. ‘Hateful’ and ‘Koka Kola’ offer insights into two very different worlds of drug use, ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ is a comment on individual invisibility in an increasingly media dependent society, and ‘The Right Profile’ is an ode to the unfortunate, and now little known, actor Montgomery Clift. These twists and turns in subject and style take an implausible route around break neck corners and at varying speeds and intensity, yet, somehow, they fit together in perfect harmony. There is no formula for it, it’s just the gift of fantastic song writing, something that should be enjoyed for what it is, not examined and plundered for a sighting of the bare bones.
Above all else, though, the greatest achievement on London Calling is the urging of a struggling, besieged population to never give in to circumstance, however dark and unrelenting, and to steadfastly maintain the belief that all people of all backgrounds can become the best person they possibly can be; a message that resonates today more than ever. ‘Clampdown’ rallies against the seeming formality of working the nine-to-five nightmare, ‘Death Or Glory’ champions the view that you don’t need such opposing extremes with which to judge the success of an individual life, and ‘I’m Not Down’ is a testament to self-belief when all else appears to be crumbling away.
London Calling is everything that a classic album should be; it is the life you want to lead, it is what you want your girlfriend to look like, it’s what you want your kids to grow up to be. The constituent parts may not be without fault, but as a united whole, it is perfect. The troubles of the contextual times are tackled head on with the myths, traditions and lore of every aspect of rock ‘n’ roll, and for the shortest hour, for once, we win. It doesn’t just take its place in the pantheon of greatest albums, it kicks the door off of its hinges, strides into the room and stares out the competition, demanding to know why they aren’t as good as this. In fact, London Calling is so good that it brought about the demise of the punk scene itself, proving that the prevailing narrow minded mentality of screaming vocals, churning three-chord guitars and pounding drums was restraining the genre that had risen in opposition to those very same restraints in society. Artistically, The Clash went to places no other punk band had ever been, and where very few musicians have trodden in the intervening years; the very peak of musical perfection.