The Clash and London Calling, the story of a triumph

The Clash - 1979 (creativereview.co.uk)

The Clash – 1979 (fltr: Topper Headon, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones)

Introduction

On the brink of the 1970s and the 1980s one of the best albums of all time was released: double album London Calling by (former?) punk band The Clash. A caleidoscopic album that still bubbles with vitality, ingenuity and pure joy. The story of a true classic.

The Clash

The Clash story starts in June 1976 when John Graham Mellor (alias Joe Strummer) is asked to audition for Mick Jones’s new band. Jones had witnessed The Sex Pistols in February and realized that the future had changed. Accompanied by manager Bernard Rhodes, Jones had founded a band with bass player Paul Simonon and two others. The band went in search for a singer. Manager Rhodes recommended Joe Strummer.

Support act to The Sex Pistols (theclash.com)

Support act to The Sex Pistols

The audition went along fine and Strummer joined the band within a day. Terry Chimes was enlisted as the band’s drummer. Simonon suggested the band name, after encountering the word ‘clash’ an awful lot in newspaper articles.

Within a few weeks the band debuted as the support act to The Sex Pistols, followed by both bands going over to the Dingwalls club to see a show by American punk band The Ramones.

Strongly advised by manager Rhodes, the band started to rehearse in earnest. Strummer: “We were almost Stalinist in the way that you had to shed all your friends, or everything that you’d known, or every way that you’d played before”. It was quickly discovered that Strummer and Jones got along great when writing songs. The band performed shows with bands like The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Subway Sect. In December 1976 The Clash was the regular support act during The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy Tour.

By the beginning of 1977 punk had struck a major chord, particularly in England. On January 25th, 1977, The Clash signed a £ 100.000 deal. Almost immediately the band was publicly defamed by the punk movement: sell-outs they were called, “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS” and the eternal hate of bands like Crass. The band reacted defensively:

Signing that contract did bother me a lot. I’ve been turning it over in my mind, but now I’ve come to terms with it. I’ve realised that all it boils down to is perhaps two-year’s security … Before, all I could think about was my stomach … Now I feel free to think-and free to write down what I’m thinking about … And look-I’ve been fucked about for so long I’m not going to suddenly turn into Rod Stewart just because I get £25.00 a week. I’m much too far gone for that, I tell you.

Joe Strummer, March 1977

The deal wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and would turn out to be a curse in the years to come. The band was expected to pay for their own tours, recordings, (re)mixes, cover(designs) and other expenses, in short all expenses had to be paid by the band themselves.

The Clash - 1977-1978 releases (theclash.com)

The Clash – White Riot, The Clash, Remote Control, Complete Control, Clash City Rockers, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

Debut

In March 1977 the single White Riot was released. In April debut album The Clash was released. The album cover contains a photo of just three people, because drummer Chimes had left the band after recordings for the album had finished. Following over 200 (!) auditions in search of a new drummer, Topper Headon was found, a crucial addition to the band. Headon brought along a jazz-feel, enriching the band’s sound, which would prove to be essential for albums London Calling and Sandinista!.

In May the band went on tour. CBS released the single Remote Control, against the band’s wishes. The fruits of the first recordings with their new drummer, single Complete Control, addressed the band’s vision on the way CBS worked, and was co-produced by reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry. In January 1978 the band released the single Clash City Rockers, followed by the single (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais in June 1978, the first song with a reggae rhythm and arrangement.

The Clash - 1978-1979 releases (theclash.com)

The Clash – Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Tommy Gun, English Civil War, Cost Of Living

Second album

At special request by CBS , the sound of their subsequent album was altered in order to get a more accessible sound aimed at the US market (the band’s debut wasn’t released in the US). Even though the band wasn’t happy about the recording sessions and the sound, the album was well received by the press upon its release in November 1978. But, to be fair, after Give ‘Em Enough Rope the band was questioned. The fearless debut wasn’t equaled, not by a long shot. Tommy Gun was released as a single, their greatest hit in England, up till then. At the end of 1978 the band parted ways with manager Rhodes and went on tour again, and they went to the US as well, where the band toured rather successfully in February 1979.

The Clash - Football during a break (theclash.org.uk)

The Clash – Football during a break

On May 11th, 1979, the band released the EP The Cost Of Living, which contained 4 songs, a cover and other old songs. Both Strummer and Jones hadn’t written a new song in almost a year and all signs pointed towards a serious writer’s block. A problem, as recordings for a new album were planned.

In February 1979 the band found a rehearsal space in the London suburb Pimlico, called Vanilla Studios, a former rubber plant currently in use as a garage. During the months of May and June 1979 the band entered the room and started playing covers. They played long hours, in the afternoon and early evening interspersed by playing football (soccer) nearby. Slowly inspiration kicked in and the ideas were coming again. That’s putting it mildly, they didn’t stop. Lots of material was tried out and recorded. Using a simple Teac 4-track machine daily recordings were made, that showed a band having audible fun with the organic way in which they played and incorporated all kinds of musical influences outside of punk: funk, reggae, rockabilly. Read the story on The Vanilla Tapes below in the paragraph with the same name.

London Calling

The Clash - London Calling (oor.nl)

The Clash – London Calling

On December 14th, 1979, London Calling, a double album, was released by CBS. On January 10th, 1980, it was released in the US, by Epic Records. It stands as the last masterpiece of the 1970s in Europe and as the first in the 1980s in the US.

The album was recorded at the Wessex Sound Studios in London from August to November 1979, interrupted by a number of concerts (also in the US). The band wanted to enlist Guy Stevens as producer, in spite of (or maybe because of?) his alcohol and drugs problems and his rather remarkable production techniques, which didn’t just limit to the technical side alone. In his efforts to create a ‘rock & roll’ atmosphere he swung ladders and chairs between the playing band members to keep them on edge. The 25th Anniversary Edition of London Calling, released in 2004, is accompanied by a documentary entitled The Last Testament: The Making of London Calling, which contains images of the recording process for the album. The band seems to get along just fine with Stevens, yet seems somewhat anxious as well.

Anyway, the band recorded the songs in 5 to 6 weeks during 18 hour recording sessions. Many songs were recorded once or twice, followed by the next song. To get into the mood of recording, the band started with Brand New Cadillac, a highly energetic rockabilly song, with the band excelling in tempo, tightness and joy.

Song by song

The Clash - London Calling - Inner sleeve A (discogs.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Inner sleeve A

The album opens with the title song, which was released as a single one week prior to the album’s release. It’s a fantastic rock song that demands the listener’s attention immediately: “Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust!”.

Brand New Cadillac is the first of three covers, a revamped version of the Vince Taylor song that stems from 1959. During one of run-throughs the band had so much fun with the song that its speed kept going up and up. Producer Stevens thought it was perfect for the album and insisted that that version end up on the album. His wish was granted.

Upon hearing the first notes of Jimmy Jazz it was undeniable, this was going to be an entirely different Clash album. The tempo was slowed down, horns, flutes and a jazzy, reggae bass. A beautiful song dat announced the album’s versatility for the first time.

The tempo is fastened with Hateful, the life of a junkie: “Oh, anything I want he gives it to me / Anything I want he gives it, but not for free / It’s hateful / And it’s paid for and I’m so grateful to be nowhere”. A charge against addiction and its devastating consequences: “This year I’ve lost some friends / Some friends? What friends? / I dunno, I ain’t even noticed”.

Soul, reggae, ska: Rudie Can’t Fail. The 2-Tone fever had recently reared its head and the band seemed to play into it. Perhaps they had been inspired when The Specials opened for them as their support act in May 1979. Rudie Can’t Fail swings irresistibly.

The Clash - London Calling - Inner sleeve B (discogs.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Inner sleeve B

According to many Spanish Bombs is the album’s highlight, but it doesn’t really do it or me personally. The subject, the Spanish Civil War, is touching and lyrically it’s a highlight: “My senorita’s rose was nipped in the bud”, but I never got accustomed to the Spanish “Yo te querda, mi corazón”.

Hollywood fascination. The story on actor Montgomery Clift, who was involved in a grave car accident in 1956: “Monty’s face is broken on a wheel / Is he alive? Can he still feel?”. Great jazzy song.

The Right Profile is the umpteenth highlight on this album. At this time, we’re still on album number 1 (of 2).

Lost In The Supermarket addresses the all present commercialism (it did exist at that time as well): “I’m all lost in the supermarket. I can no longer shop happily. I came in here for that special offer. A guaranteed personality”. Yet another top song.

Time for another rocker: Clampdown, the twin brother to successor Lost In The Supermarket, but this time at a higher level: “We will teach our twisted speech / To the young believers / We will train our blue-eyed men / To be young believers”.

The last song of album 1 is the phenomenal The Guns Of Brixton. Written and sung by bass player Simonon, a song about life in a police state: When they kick at your front door / How you gonna come? / With your hands on your head / Or on the trigger of your gun” and its refrain “You can crush us / You can bruise us / But you’ll have to answer to / Oh, the guns of Brixton”. A reggae like song that stands as a highlight in the band’s career. The bass line would be sampled in lot of future (hip-hop) songs.

The Clash - London Calling - Inner sleeve C (discogs.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Inner sleeve C

Album 2 opens with Wrong ‘Em Boyo, a cover of Lloyd Price’s song Stagger Lee, a song about the American folklore surrounding Stagger Lee, which is also the subject of Nick Cave’s Stagger Lee. This song tells the tale of the (gun)fight between Lee and Billy Lyons: “Billy Boy has been shot / And Stagger Lee’s come out on top / Don’t you know it is wrong / To cheat the trying man / To cheat Stagger man”.

Death Or Glory indirectly addresses the criticism The Clash endured. The band didn’t want to succumb to predictability or meet the ‘demands’ made by the punk movement, which had become reactionary: “‘n Every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n roll / Grabs the mike to tell us he’ll die before he’s sold / But I believe in this and it’s been tested by research / He, who fucks nuns, will later join the church”.

The shortest and fastest song Koka Kola, about advertising and the way products are praised (cq forced): “In the gleaming corridors of the 51st floor / The money can be made if you really want some more / Executive decision-a clinical precision / Jumping from the windows-filled with indecision”.

The bombastic, grand The Card Cheat with its wall of sound production is about a lonesome gambler whose luck runs out: “To the opium den and the barroom gin / In the Belmont chair playing violins / The gambler’s face cracks into a grin / As he lays down the king of spades // But the dealer just stares / There’s something wrong here, he thinks / The gambler is seized and forced to his knees / And shot dead”.

The Clash - London Calling - Inner sleeve D (discogs.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Inner sleeve D

Lover’s Rock. Is it a song about the responsibility men must take when they are out and about? “You Western man, you’re free with your seed / When you make lovers rock / But woops! there goes the strength that you need / To make real cool lovers rock”. Or is it about the responsibility of women and the pill? “But nobody knows the poor babie’s name / When she forgot that thing that she had to swallow”. It is assumed (by fans) that Strummer’s sense of humor influenced the lyrics.

Four Horsemen: The Clash as a myth? “Four horsemen and it’s gonna be us”.

I’m Not Down. Optimism as message when encountering adversary: “I’ve been beat up, I’ve been thrown / Out but I’m not down, I’m not down / I’ve been shown up, but I’ve grown up / And I’m not down, I’m not down”.

Revolution Rock is the third cover on the album. In this case, the revolution isn’t political, but personal. Dance and let go of your inhibitions: “Everybody smash up your seats / And rock to this brand new beat / This here music mash up the nation / This here music cause a sensation / Tell your ma, tell your pa / Everything’s gonna be all right / Can’t you feel it? / Don’t ignore it / Gonna be alright”.

The last song is Train In Vain, which was added to the album at the very last minute. Because all album covers had already been printed, it isn’t part of the tracklist on the original pressings. It does get mentioned in the run-out groove of side 4 of the vinyl album. A fantastic song, that adds funk to the already eclectic album. A love song by Jones who is left alone by his wife/girlfriend: “All the times / When we were close / I’ll remember these things the most / I see all my dreams come tumbling down / I won’t be happy without you around // So all alone I keep the wolves at bay / There is only one thing that I can say // Did you stand by me / No, not at all // You must explain why this must be / Did you lie when you spoke to me”. Some interpret the lyrics as a reference to drugs.

The Clash - London Calling - Run-out groove (feelnumb.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Run-out groove

Release

London Calling was a double album, but was sold for the price of a single album. Record company CBS opposed the idea of a double album, but permitted the band to enclose a free 12-ich single, that could be played at 33 RPM. The band filled the 12-inch with 9 more songs.

London Calling reached the top 10 in England and reached platinum status in the US. Worldwide sales are around the 5 Million mark, but its status supersedes those numbers. Generally heralded as a masterpiece, the album is placed in the highest parts of several best of all time lists all around the world.

The Clash - London Calling - Back cover (genius.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Back cover

It was branded a masterpiece upon release, with many instantly recognizing its eternal value. Of course The Clash was doomed by many in the punk movement, because the band had dared to evolve. The review in the American Rolling Stone magazine, at the time still a leading music magazine, stated: “Merry and tough, passionate and large-spirited, London Calling celebrates the romance of rock & roll rebellion in grand, epic terms. … It’s so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive”.

The Clash - London Calling - The smashed bass (rpmonline.co.uk)

The Clash – London Calling – The smashed bass

Review

1979 was a really great year in music, which saw the release of a large number of exceptional debut albums, and was ended with the release of London Calling, a highlight in the history of pop/rock music. It proved it was possible to link punk esthetics to social engagement, other styles of music and distill a believable musical document from that cocktail.

More than that, the musical palette was staggering: punk, reggae, rockabilly, ska, (New Orleans) R&B, pop, jazz and (hard) rock. Moreover, the lyrical themes were more varied and complex that could be expected from the average punk band, which oftentimes didn’t go beyond the archetypical fuck the system sentiment.

What makes the album all the more unbelievable is the fact it’s a double album. It doesn’t contain one bad song. All great plans, ambitions and risks make for a caleidoscopic album that still sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did at the time it was released.

The Clash - London Calling - Miniature (atlasobscura.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Miniature

Cover

The iconic London Calling cover is a stroke of luck. Photographer Pennie Smith shot the photo during a concert at The Palladium in New York City on September 20th, 1979. Bass player Simonon smashed his bass out of frustration: the band played at a venue where the audience was sitting down and didn’t stand up, due to the ‘policy’ of the venue’s bouncers.

When cover designer Ray Lowry saw the photo he thought it would make for a nice cover. He based his design on the debut album by Elvis Presley (entitled Elvis Presley), using the same kind of green and pink lettering.

Some little facts:

The Clash - London Calling - Ad (picclick.co.uk)

The Clash – London Calling – Ad

  • Photographer Smith wasn’t very enthusiastic about the choice of the photo as she thought it was too blurry. She did try to make the band pick another photo.
  • On the back cover it states that the front cover photo was shot on September 21st, 1979, when in fact it was September 20th, 1979.
  • Apparently Smith owns the watch, worn by Simonon at the night he smashed his bass. The watch stopped at 9:50 PM. So, with that in mind, one of music history’s defining moments can be exactly deduced. Simonon smashed his bass on September 20th, 1979 at 9:50 PM, local time.
  • As if the inspiration alone wasn’t enough, Elvis Presley was used in the advertising campaign for the album.
  • The cover was used as a stamp by the British Royal Mail.
  • The album cover was released as a gatefold in Japan only.
  • In 2016 the book Double Take: The World’s Most Iconic Photographs Meticulously Re-created In Miniature was published. The book was the end result of a four year process where 40 iconic photographs were re-created in 3D as miniature scenes. One of those 40 photographs was the cover of London Calling

The inner sleeves of the albums contained the (hand written) lyrics to the songs. The back cover contained the tracklist and a photo of Mick Jones and a photo of Joe Strummer and Topper Headon.

The Clash - London Calling - Singles (theclash.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Singles

Singles

Four singles were culled off the London Calling album:

  • London Calling
    (released on December 7th, 1979)
  • Clampdown
    (released on December 14th, 1979 in Australia)
  • Train in Vain
    (released on February 12th, 1980)
  • Rudie Can’t Fail
    (released in 1980 in The Netherlands; exact date unknown)

Songs

All songs written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, unless stated otherwise.

Side   Song   Lead vocals
The Clash - London Calling - Mick Jones - Hand written sequence (twitter.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Mick Jones – Hand written sequence

A London Calling Joe Strummer
Brand New Cadillac (*) Joe Strummer
Jimmy Jazz Joe Strummer
Hateful Joe Strummer
Rudie Can’t Fail Joe Strummer/Mick Jones
B Spanish Bombs Joe Strummer/Mick Jones
The Right Profile Joe Strummer
Lost In The Supermarket Mick Jones
Clampdown Joe Strummer/Mick Jones
The Guns Of Brixton (#) Paul Simonon
C Wrong ‘Em Boyo ($) Joe Strummer
Death Or Glory Joe Strummer
Koka Kola Joe Strummer
The Card Cheat (~) Mick Jones
D Lover’s Rock Joe Strummer
Four Horsemen Joe Strummer
I’m Not Down Mick Jones
Revolution Rock (^) Joe Strummer
Train In Vain Mick Jones
Written by
* Vince Taylor
# Paul Simonon
$ Clive Alphonso
~ Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon
^ Jackie Edwards, Danny Ray

Musicians

The Clash - London Calling - Press photo (theclash.com)

The Clash – London Calling – Press photo

The Clash:

  • Joe Strummer – vocals, guitar, piano
  • Mick Jones – guitar, piano, harmonica, vocals
  • Paul Simonon – bass, background vocals, vocals on The Guns Of Brixton
  • Topper Headon – drums, percussion

Additional:

  • Mickey Gallagher – organ
  • The Irish Horns – horns
  • Norman Watt-Roy – bass

The Vanilla Tapes

When the band ceased their relationship with manager Rhodes at the end of 1978, the band lost their rehearsal space as well. Like stated above, the band found a space at the Vanilla Studios. The advantage was that he band was far removed from the punk movement centered in the heart of London. Without interference the band was able to focus on their music.

Using the Teac 4-track machine recordings of the rehearsal sessions were put unto cassette tapes for the band members to use and listen to.

The Clash - The Vanilla Tapes (last.fm)

The Clash – The Vanilla Tapes

Unfortunately those recordings have vanished. Well, that was the general idea. When Mick Jones was moving house in 2004, he stumbled upon a box containing The Vanilla Tapes. In 2004 the 25th anniversary of London Calling was commemorated and Columbia released The Vanilla Tapes as a bonus disc.

So, what can be heard? The Clash having a great time and are musically free. Away with the limitations of punk, away with the limitations of rock. The recordings contain songs that are ready and essentially sound like the ones that were put on the album. Others are still embryonic and some of them didn’t make the album.

Paul’s Tune is an early version of The Guns Of Brixton. Koka Kola, Advertising & Cocaine is a precursor to Koka Kola, of which the lyrics aren’t completed yet. The Police Walked In 4 Jazz is an instrumental version of what would turn into Jimmy Jazz, just as Up-Toon is an instrumental version of The Right Profile. Working And Waiting is the first attempt at Clampdown.

The Vanilla Tapes are an essential link in the route to London Calling and is mandatory for anyone that holds the band close to their heart.

Songs The Vanilla Tapes

All songs written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, unless stated otherwise.

  • Hateful
  • Rudie Can’t Fail
  • Paul’s Tune (*)
  • I’m Not Down
  • 4 Horsemen
  • Koka Kola, Advertising & Cocaine
  • Death Or Glory
  • Lover’s Rock
  • Lonesome Me (#)
  • The Police Walked In 4 Jazz
  • Lost In The Supermarket
  • Up-Toon (instrumental)
  • Walking The Slidewalk (#)
  • Where You Gonna Go (Soweto) ($)
  • The Man In Me (~)
  • Remote Control
  • Working And Waiting
  • Heart & Mind (#)
  • Brand New Cadillac (^)
  • London Calling
  • Revolution Rock (&)
Written by
* Paul Simonon
# Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon
$ Sonny Okosun
~ Bob Dylan
^ Vince Taylor
& Jackie Edwards, Danny Ray

After London Calling

The Clash - Rude Boy - Button (pinstand.com)

Soon after London Calling‘s release the movie Rude Boy was released. The movie tells the tale of a Clash fan, who becomes a roadie for the band. The movie contains live recordings as well as studio recordings around the time of recording the Give ‘Em Enough Rope album. The band was so unhappy with the movie that they had buttons made with the text “I don’t want RUDE BOY Clash Film”.

The Clash - Bankrobber (theclash.com)

The Clash – Bankrobber

Of course the band went on the road with the very successful London Calling tour, which lasted until June 1980.

In August 1980 the band released the single Bankrobber, followed by masterpiece Sandinista! (number 11 in my album top 50) in December 1980, a triple album (!), consisting of 36 (!) songs. Even more diverse and varied than London Calling, Sandinista! is my favorite The Clash album.

The article on Sandinista! is currently planned for publication at the end of 2020. In that article the album will be described and rated, followed by the rest of the band’s career.

In closing

What’s your take onLondon Calling? Let me know!

Video/Spotify
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: The Clash and London Calling, the story of a triumph. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.