Any punk band worth its leather and studs can do dystopian, apocalyptic angst. The world is always ending, and after garbage men and plumbers, angry young guitar players have some of the best job security around. The trick is to rage in your own unique way.
On the opening title track of its third album, London Calling — a rock’n’roll landmark released 35 years ago this week, on Dec. 14, 1979 — The Clash approached doomsday as only it could. Instead of lamenting the end of days or fantasizing about some anarchic future, like their peers The Sex Pistols did, these ice-cold Londoners slicked back their hair and stood tall in the face of World War III, environmental collapse and whatever else loomed on the horizon.
“A nuclear error, but I have no fear,” frontman Joe Strummer sang. “’Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river!”
The Clash originally wanted to call the album The Last Testament, the idea being that this double LP would close a chapter in music history that had begun with Elvis Presley’s RCA debut. The band scrapped the title but kept the general concept, ripping off the King’s cover art and creating a record that referenced all of the coolest sounds committed to tape since 1956. It was a revolutionary strategy for a group that had sprung from the U.K. punk scene, which was all about disavowing the past.
Even the Clash had gotten into the “don’t look back” thing, singing “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones!” on “1977,” one of its early punk classics. On London Calling, the foursome of Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon tipped their natty fedoras — part of their new greaser-gangster image — to all three of those artists, and they didn’t stop there.
Over the course of 19 tracks, The Clash goes careening through rockabilly, reggae, soul, R&B, ska and Phil Spector pop. There’s even a love song, “Train In Vain,” which the group cut on its final day at Wessex Studio in London. Because it was recorded at the last second, “Train In Vain” wasn’t listed on the back of the original sleeve, but that didn’t stop the single from reaching No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving The Clash its first U.S. hit.
The album itself climbed No. 27, and while The Clash would achieve greater commercial success three years and two records later with Combat Rock — the one that spawned “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — London Calling is the band’s artistic pinnacle. The record dropped stateside in early January 1980, which is why Rolling Stone named it the best album of the ’80s, and should the world survive long enough for critics in 2480 to list the finest records of the preceding 500 years, London Calling will be a strong contender for top honors. It’s a stunning show of musical growth fed by respect for the past, and it’s played with all the confidence, joy, aggression and passion essential to rock’n’roll.
Read on to get our track-by-track take on an album that no respectable record collection is without.
“London Calling”: Without warning, the drums and guitars hit in unison, opening the song and the album with a heavy hammering groove. It’s like an inverted reggae song — downbeat chords instead of upstrokes — though Simonon’s spare bass boom gives it a slight dub feel. From there, it’s all Armageddon prophesying and unwillingness to lay down and die.
“Brand New Cadillac”: One of three covers to appear on the album, this update of British rockabilly Vince Taylor’s 1959 tune is pure greaseball escapism. The band had a blast with it, and running through the warm-up take, the gang sped up toward the end, like they were taking this Caddie drag racing. That was A-OK with Guy Stevens, the eccentric producer who may be the secret hero of the London Calling story. He insisted they keep that version, and it’s the one heard on the album.
“Jimmy Jazz”: The gang slows down for a loping jangler complete with whistling, horns and a walking bassline. Strummer’s lyrics are all about a police dragnet for troublemaking Rasta, and of course, Joe and his bandmates have got Jimmy’s back: “If you’re gonna take this message ‘cross the town / maybe put it down somewhere over the other side / see it gets to Jimmy Jazz.”
“Hateful”: On one of their all-time catchiest rockers, Strummer and Jones touch on what it’s like to be a junkie. You’re thankful for each score yet sick about what you’re doing to yourself. “It’s paid for,” Strummer yelps, “and I’m so grateful to be nowhere.”
“Rudie Can’t Fail”: This brassy, soulful, quasi-reggae anthem is all about going your own way and living like one of the cool Kingston rude boys of the classic ’60s ska era. The bit about “drinking brew for breakfast” was rooted in reality, as The Clash killed a tallboy or two during the London Calling sessions, which also included midday football breaks in a lot near the studio.
“Spanish Bombs”: Had Lennon and McCartney written a song in 1964 about the Spanish Civil War, it might’ve been half as good as this. Joe’s Spanish is a bit dodgy, but Mick’s guitar line — and that heartbreaking minor chord that ends the song’s main progression — goes right to the corazon.
“The Right Profile”: Strummer had a fascination with golden-age Hollywood, and he penned this jazzy tune after reading a book about the actor Montgomery Clift, who suffered a disfiguring automobile accident in 1956. It’s a send-up of poor Monty’s plight, but it’s done with love.
“Lost In the Supermarket”: There’s no punk trope more cliche than complaining about suburban living. But here, The Clash tackle the emptiness of consumer culture and the loneliness of adolescence with more grace and emotion than anyone before or since. Strummer penned the lyrics for Jones, who sings with a heartbreaking quiver.
“Clampdown”: With the sentimentality of “Supermarket” out of the way, Strummer and the boys turn up the guitars and go aggro, decrying the capitalist system that seeks to grind you down the minute you’re old enough to start working. “The judge says, ‘Five to 10,’” Strummer bellows, happy to choose prison over the factory. “But I said, ‘Double that again!’”
“The Guns of Brixton”: The shining moment of Simonon’s career is a mean reggae tune about life in a police state. Although Simo isn’t much of a singer, his monotone delivery speaks to the defiance, disaffection and paranoia pulsing through the skanking beat.
“Wrong ‘Em Boyo”: Essentially a cover of Jamaican rocksteady outfit the Rulers’ version of Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” this blend of R&B and ska tells the timeless tale of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons, two men whose deadly 1895 altercation in a St. Louis bar has become American folklore.
“Death or Glory”: Before getting this one’s title tattooed on your bicep, consider that Joe is taking the piss out of the punk scene, talking about how every young rebel rocker eventually grows up, mellows out and “ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl.” You risk becoming “just another story,” and three years after the initial U.K. punk explosion, that’s a fate the Clash were looking to avoid.
“Koka Kola”: The fastest, punkiest tune on London Calling is all about coked-up advertising execs and the products they convince us we need. If Joe is sick of being force-fed Coca-Cola, he’s not angry. Gazing at the fat cats in their “snakeskin suits and their alligator boots,” he’s more amused than anything. “You won’t need a launderette,” he jibes. “You can send them to the vet!
“The Card Cheat”: Too complicated to ever attempt live, this Spector-style pop tune centers on a lonesome gambler who’s luck finally runs out. As with “Jimmy Jazz” and “The Right Profile,” it’s peppy pop about a doomed hero, and it’s a great example of Jones taking charge and pushing the band in new directions.
“Lover’s Rock”: The title refers to a style of smoove baby-making reggae popular in the U.K., and the lyrics offer seemingly ironic instructions on how to “treat your lover girl right.” The lyrics about birth-control pills earned the band some criticism, but most fans agree Joe was just having a laugh.
“Four Horsemen”: The Clash had already gone the self-referential route with “Clash City Rockers,” a B-side from 1978, and here, they kick things up into full-on self-mythology, imagining themselves as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
“I’m Not Down”: The Clash was always an optimistic band and here, Jones offers not a positive fight-the-man political screed, but rather a song about personal betterment and soldiering through “that kind of day when none of your sorrows will go away.”
“Revolution Rock”: Having come full circle from the doomy opening track, The Clash closes with a celebration. Originally done by Danny Ray and the Revolutioneers, “Revolution Rock” isn’t about overthrowing any governments, but rather freeing your feet and letting your inhibitions go. With the help of sidemen the Irish Horns, the Clash get downright giddy. “Playing requests now on the bandstand!” Strummer announces. “El Clash combo. Make fifteen dollars a day.”
“Train In Vain (Stand By Me)”: Just when you think it’s over, Headon clicks in with a slick drumbeat Garbage would later sample on “Stupid Girl,” and Jones serves up lovesick lyrics he’d written the night before the session. The doubling of the harmonica and simple guitar chords make this one of The Clash’s most straightforward and conventional songs, though Jones’ chorus — “You didn’t stand by me / No way” — makes it a fitting love song for the punk generation.