Few things on this earth are guaranteed. Death. Taxes. The fact that Starbuck Caffe mochas will always taste better with full fat milk instead of no-fat milk.
The only thing more sure than those three things is that I love the Clash. There is only one band I love more than the Clash. But that band has been a source of frustration in the past. The Clash never disappointed me. This may be because I conveniently have never heard the infamous last album, stopping only with the very commercial but still pretty fantastic Combat Rock. I will defend Give ‘Em Enough Rope and Sandinista! until my last breath. But come on, now. I have never seen anyone win a music fight about the Clash being good or bad without them hemming and hawing over London Calling.
In fact, I have never met anyone who hates London Calling. They must exist. What sad people they must be. I mean, I know people who merely like the Clash, and I love some of these people dearly, but even they acknowledge the general genius of London Calling. No one has ever argued with me about this album. Even the Beatles cause arguments.
I have to admit, this album is probably my go to for general listening, for angry days, for outraged days, for nostalgic days, for happy days. It’s the most consistently played album in my life bar the album that I mention in the last blog post of this project ( or, the numero Uno of the list). I haven’t lived without a copy of this album in my hands since I first discovered Joe Strummer as a thirteen year old girl. I will never, ever be without it, either.
The album screams perfection from the cover shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass Townshend style in stark black and white, cribbing the infamous Elvis Presley font and colours. It’s easily one of the five most recognized album covers of all time. but underneath was an album so profoundly life shatteringly GOOD, that Rolling stone conveniently forgot it was first released in the U.K. in December 1979 when it named it the single best album of the entire 1980s. Ah, Rolling Stone. Remember when you had great taste in music, instead of becoming the place that never faults Beyoncé for an album that is generally shite?
The Clash were really maturing as a band at this point, becoming less strident and more articulate about their politics, able to draw on multiple music style to compliment their raw punk rock roots. Famously, they became more and more ska on London Calling, pulling out the rock steady rhythms for songs like “Lost In A Supermarket” and “Rudie Can’t Fail”. The latter of these two tracks has a fabulous horn section, one of my favourite brass line’s ever. It’s exuberant, despite the lyrics being bitterly about unemployment. There is a really attempt at vocal harmonies as well. They were so very different from the cynical commercial nihilism of the Sex Pistols, a band I despise to my very core for being nothing but New Kids on the Block for know nothing wannabes of punk rock. I never believed the Sex Pistols were anything but sad little boys looking to annoy as many people as possible by doing “daring” things like swearing on TV. The Clash were real to me. I believed Joe and Mick. They weren’t singing about anarchy in the U.K. to be snotty pricks. They were trying to write cognizant lyrics about real things. “God Save The Queen” maybe infamous. “The Guns of Brixton” was emphatically true.
Also, the Clash were great musicians, a bonus in the DIY era of punk. Say what you will, even the Ramones had the ability to play their three chords fantastically well. The Sex Pistols were barely able to play a G chord. Even I can go that on a guitar, assholes. When I hear “Brixton”‘s bass line, I remind myself that Simonon is a bloody genius as well, and it wasn’t just about my personal God Strummer or the general melodic brilliance of the poppier Mick Jones. Simonon wrote the song. That’s three- THREE- incredible songwriters in one band.
Typical of the Clash, they bring out the amazing covers on this album, too, whether it’s the Ruler’s “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” or the amazing, definitive version of Vince Taylor’s rockabilly classic “Brand New Cadillac”, which is up there as one of the single greatest covers in the history of music. They were faithful interpreters musically, fuelled by their passion for the songs they covered. There is a reason “Brand New Cadillac” and “I Fought The Law” are so well-regarded in the Clash catalogue. The Clash loved music deeply. It was more than a living, it was a life. Strummer and Jones are fanboys as well as geniuses. It makes for a heady combo, leading to interesting double albums with rich musical diversity.
There are the albums cuts, like “Koka Kola”, or “Death or Glory”, or “Spanish Bombs”. These songs are about consumerism, childhood nostalgia, and the Spanish Civil War, respectively. They are memorable melodies, memorable lyrics, powerful statements each. The entire album is like that. Honest to God, few albums in the history of music have absolutely no filler on it. Every song on London Calling could be a massive hit single with the right circumstances. Not a single song is bad. Not a note. Not a beat. Not a word.
But I have gone on for 1000 words about this album without mentioning the two songs that bookend the record. The album famously ends with “Train In Vain”, which was left off the original sleeve printing and became the greatest and most loved hidden track in the history of music until its overwhelming success made it prudent to advertise the song was, in fact, after “Revolution Rock” on the album. The song, a Mick Jones composition, was the Clash at their most conventional, their poppiest. Jones was responsible for their biggest hits, including “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” from Combat Rock. Also, it’s the album’s lone “love” song, a bitter break up track, accusatory and conciliatory at different turns. Jones is often in Strummer’s shadow, but his performance on this song is amazing. He sounds sad, resigned to the situation, but he still has enough left to at least make a point. I think I have listened to this song every day of my life since 1990. Even if it was just the chorus, for thirty seconds, as I wander through my house on my way to do laundry. The song seems to follow me through my life. I can’t complain. It’s a great song, one of my all time favourites, I admit. It’s got to be better than “In the year 2525” being the song that follows you through life. (Side note: “In the Year 2525” is possibly one of the three worst songs ever written in pop music history, the other two being “Timothy” and “Young Girl”. Because dreary futurism, cannibalism and statutory rape do not make for great song subjects.)
The album, of course, opens with the greatest opening song ever. The title track of London Calling is music perfection. A song about nuclear winter in the wake of Three Mile Island, militaristic, minor-key, slower than the usual Clash song. They aren’t racing to the end, they’re taking their time. They want you to listen to their story. It’s a song of mystery, of paranoia, of apocalyptic anarchy. Like “Train In Vain”, “London Calling” follows me through out my life, another song that never leaves me alone. Again, I don’t mind, because the song is so fantastic that even a Celtic folk version sped up to the speed of a jack-rabbit cannot ruin anything (to be fair, I actually adore Captain Tractor’s version of the song, right down to their “ba ba ba” vocals on the breakdown. I also have seen Captain Tractor play live a dozen times in my life, and they always play their cover of “London Calling”, and it’s always amazing live. But I digress. Local band and everything, yada yada yada).
My deep love for the band and the album may cloud my judgement, but I seriously doubt this. There is something about the Clash that transcends the genre. They were called the only band that matters for a reason.
Because it was true. I still think it is true. As much as I love my Beatles and R.E.M. and Radiohead, there are only two bands I cannot live without. The Clash is one.
The other… well, that’s the next album on this list.