London Calling didn’t just get punk rock played on the hallowed grounds of Shea Stadium; it gave new meaning to the name.
Some people say punk died on January 25, 1977, the day The Clash signed to CBS Records. Almost 40 years later, some people call The Clash the band’s only punk album and the follow-up, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band’s final punk album, and so on. The point is that the punk police were on patrol 40 years ago, just as they are today. So when The Clash arrived in New York City in 1979 to support the U.S. release of its first album, the band may well have thought it had something to prove. The story goes that the September 21, 1979 performance in New York at The Palladium was so unfulfilling for bassist Paul Simonon that he closed the show by smashing his instrument.
So, on one side of the pond, you’re accused of selling out the subculture/lifestyle that brought your band together, while on the other you’re not yet rocking quite hard enough to get the kids out of their seats. Where to go from there? How about the world’s final rock ‘n roll album…
Originally titled The Last Testament, London Calling was intended to be just that, the rock album to end all rock albums, a final fiery missive from the frontlines of the battles between young and old, left and right, art and commerce, the haves and the have-nots. Instead, it’s something much more vital, insightful and inciteful. From the Elvis-inspired front cover that captures Simonon smashing his bass to the opening verse where “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” The Clash launched an all-out assault on any effort to pin down its sound or limit its scope, as if saying, “Punk’s dead? OK, now rock’s dead too. You’re all fucking dead : “London calling to the zombies of death!” At the same time, though, they’re shouting, toasting, singing and jamming together their views of the day’s events, and broadcasting it for the whole world to hear: London Calling.
This same inflamed perspective gives the rockabilly standard “Brand New Cadillac” new life as a class warfare anthem sung up from the gutter. Joe Strummer once introduced the song live, announcing, “We’re gonna do a song about something that no one here can afford.” London Calling is The Clash driving punk rock’s riotous antagonism to the world stage, rolling up in a luxurious new car, stepping out in rude-boy trench coats, yelling at everyone to wake up from their consumerist daze and finally getting whistled at for it like the rock stars they always were.
On “Rudie Can’t Fail,” Strummer sings over ska uprock, “I went to the market to realise my soul/ ‘Cause what I need I just don’t have.” Just three tracks later, over bare-bones rhythm and blues, he admits, “I’m all lost in the supermarket/ I can no longer shop happily/ I came in here for that special offer/ Guaranteed Personality.” Then the band does a double-take, turning working class revolution into a building block for the wall of sound going up on “Clampdown.” And this is just the first half of the album.
It’s at the middle point, “The Guns of Brixton,” that the gloves come off for good. In a trick that’s been duplicated by others since (Rancid’s “1998” off Life Won’t Wait is the best example that comes to mind), The Clash sucker-punches all naysayers and non-believers by punctuating its most “accessible” album with the hardest, most hostile song of its entire catalog. Written and sung by Mick Jones, it’s nothing short of a dubbed out call to arms, driven by Simonon’s dancehall bassline, Topper Headon’s militant marching drums and Jones’ freedom fighter manifesto lyrics. Listening to it, one can easily imagine him keyed up in a Brixton flat, looking out the window for Black Marias, gun in hand, with The Harder They Come playing on a telly in the background. It’s perhaps the most extreme representation of the band’s idealistic stance and the best possible precursor to the concepts and aesthetics that would be explored further on Sandinista! – Notes from the Underground as penned by English hooligans hooked on pirate radio.
By the time the album winds down with a couple of relatively straightforward rock songs, “Revolution Rock” and “Train in Vain,” you’ve been taken for a ride across The Clash’s entire musical purview. You’ve met the folkloric Stagger Lee on “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” scaled a Phil Spector-ish wall of sound on “The Card Cheat” and fallen back on rebellious roots chanting “I’m Not Down.” London Calling didn’t just get punk rock played on the hallowed grounds of Shea Stadium; it gave new meaning to the name, The Clash, establishing the band as a dynamic force, a collision of seemingly disparate styles capable of coming together to change music forever.