London Calling. The Clash.
1980, Epic Records (U.S.). Producer: Guy Stevens, Mick Jones.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL: London Calling, by The Clash, is, in my estimation, a perfect record. It’s got multiple styles, fun, catchy songs, thoughtful and emotional lyrics, and top-notch performances from the entire band. The songwriting/singing pair of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is among the best songwriting duos in rock, and bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon are unsung heroes behind it all. It’s earnest but fun, careful but sloppy, and it has 19 songs, so you’re getting a lot. It’s my favorite album ever.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
One thing I’ve come to understand about myself after 52 years as a human is that I’m really not very competitive. Sure, I enjoy playing games, and I played lots of sports when I was younger, and I’ve always tried to do my best to win. And yes, I’ve always rooted for certain sports teams. And while it’s true that winning can bring some joy, particularly when one of my kids is a participant, the reality is that it doesn’t provide me with much long-lasting satisfaction. Winning doesn’t motivate me.
This is true in my personal and professional life, as well. I do try to ensure that my family and I are treated fairly in life, and I try to make sure that my career isn’t stagnating. I suppose these facts mean that I am aware of, and invested in, the sort of Competition of Life that one enters simply by choosing to be part of a society. But I’ve never been much of a scorekeeper, tallying successes and failures, credits and debits, breaks and slights, of myself and the people around me1. Scorekeeping doesn’t interest me.
However, where competition intersects with my life, I do expect it to be fair – despite the fact that most of what passes for “fair competition” in American society is not really fair. For all the talk of an “American Dream” and an equal playing-field, and mythology like “self-made” successes, the fact remains that family wealth, not hard work, is still the best predictor of “success” in America.
These two facts about my character – a disinterest in competition and an expectation of fairness – are probably why I’ve always disliked “Greatest Album” compilations. Art is certainly not a competition, and even if an argument could be made that it is, there’s no way such a list could be fairly assembled, giving equal weight to all albums ever recorded.
This is why I’ve selected my FAVORITE albums instead of the BEST albums. I can’t explain to you why an album by an obscure Beatles-rip-off band is great, or why I prefer a pop album by a rather desperate-sounding prog-rock band a bit more than a cherished album by rock legends. How is it that a cult country rock singer could have an album that’s more enjoyable to me than one by a universally acclaimed guitar virtuoso? I don’t know. All I can tell you is what I like. And the album I like the most (besides, of course, all of The Beatles’ albums) is London Calling, by The Clash.
I’ve written before about getting into The Clash. I worked with a guy who couldn’t believe I was in a band and the only Clash songs I really knew were “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah.” He let me borrow the box set The Clash on Broadway, and they immediately became one of my favorite bands.
I don’t really remember purchasing London Calling. I think it was soon after I returned the box set to my friend, but I’m not really sure. With nearly every other record on this list (perhaps every single record), I can recall how and when I got it. But London Calling just feels like it’s always been with me. I know for sure I had it in the early 90s, when I first got a CD player and upgraded my album and cassette collection to this new format.
London Calling has everything I want from an album. It’s got great guitars and tremendous lyrics, and each song has a power and energy that stick with you long after the music ends. The vocals are cool, whether it’s Joe Strummer’s tune-less snarl or Mick Jones’s reedy tenor, or, best of all, when the pair sing together. Even bassist Paul Simonon gets to sing one, and he makes it sound cool, too. The rhythm section is always correct – sloppy when it needs to be, tight at other times – with drummer Topper Headon showing himself as the band’s unsung hero, keeping everything intact as the album careens through multiple genres and sounds. Listening to it is a moving experience, covering any emotion you can think of. To me, it’s the perfect record.
And it’s long, too – 19 songs – so I’m going to stop blabbing and get to the songs, starting with the title track: “London Calling.”
It opens with a guitar fanfare answered by Paul Simonon’s mighty bass riff, calling listeners to attention. Simonon, famously, had never played a note before joining the band in 1976, but the London Calling album shows he learned a lot in a few short years. Joe Strummer furiously spits out the song’s “it’s-all-going-to-hell” lyrics, while Mick Jones softens the “London Calling” refrain with his melodic backing vocals. Jones is a great guitar player, but instead of a solo the album version of the song has backwards-guitar, creating an eerie sound2 that heightens the song’s desperation. It’s a standout opening track among rock albums, the type that makes the listener wonder, “How will they top that?”
The next couple songs might make a listener think they’re not going to try. “Brand New Cadillac” is a fine song, a cover of a UK rockabilly song by Vince Taylor about a girlfriend’s new car. It’s straightforward, and notable for drummer Topper Headon’s insistent bass drum and Jones’s guitar. And “Jimmy Jazz” certainly shows the band isn’t going to be constrained by their punk rock past. The song, about not giving up a suspect to the police, has horns, flanged guitars, and a Chicago blues feel. They’re both good songs, but they’re not on par with the opener, or, perhaps, the rest of the album.
“Hateful” rides a Bo Diddly beat to its sing-along chorus. It features terrific vocals, and once again stand-out drumming from Headon. Joe Strummer writes all the band’s lyrics (usually), and he’s known for his political messages. However, this song is a personal song about drug addiction and its effects. Next is what may be (I’ll say this about five or six songs, I’m sure) my favorite on the album: “Rudie Can’t Fail.”
There’s flanged guitar all over London Calling, and it appears in the opening of “Rudie Can’t Fail.” I love how Joe encourages, “sing, Michael, sing!” and the terrific horn part in the intro. The rhythm section once again are unsung heroes, keeping afloat a ragtag song about young folks who don’t want to hear the complaints of the adults around them. They’ve got their chicken-skin suits and pork-pie hats, and that’s just fine. It’s a fun, bouncy, reggae-ish song, with chugga-chug guitars that’s fun to sing along. And not only can the band do fun, they can do serious, too – as on the awesome “Spanish Bombs,” another song that is my favorite.
The voices of Jones and Strummer blend so well on this song – one of the few where Strummer carries a tune. There’s a cool acoustic guitar strumming throughout, however I’ve heard that it was actually Jones’s electric guitar strings mic’ed separately from his amplifier, creating an acoustic sound. It’s really cool, as is all of Jones’s subtle guitar work throughout. The lyrics describe the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and makes connections with the IRA, whose efforts were in full force in the late 70s. The pair sing in pigeon Spanish on the chorus, roughly translated as “I love you forever, I love you oh my heart.” Strummer demonstrates his lyrical range by following this song up with “The Right Profile,” a horn-driven affair with great guitars, about the sad story of former matinee star Montgomery Clift, whose beautiful face was badly scarred in a car accident.
The genres and styles keep piling up on London Calling, as the excellent dance/pop, XTC-esque “Lost in the Supermarket” is up next. The lyrics, about a childhood in the suburbs and the false promise of consumerism, were written by Strummer, but he wrote it from Jones’s perspective, for Mick to sing.
The bass and drums provide a near-disco rhythm that Jones’s riff sits atop. The band has a penchant for opening songs with a chorus or bridge, as opposed to the typical verse, and here the chorus begins things. Mick’s chiming guitar, at 0:39, when the verse starts, sounds great. He plays and sings brilliantly throughout. Topper Headon’s dance beat is insistent, providing the sound of Jones’s “giant hit discotheque album.” It’s sad but upbeat, personal yet universal. And it leads into another song that is my favorite on the album: “Clampdown.”
This is perhaps the ultimate Clash song, the type of song I associate with the band: angry and righteous, yet fun and singalong good. It’s Joe Strummer at his best, from his mumbling opening through the final “I’m givin’ away no secrets!” It’s about the connection between fascism and corporate life – something anyone who’s had a corporate job has felt. I’d love to go line by line through all the lyrics, because they’re brilliant. But in particular, as a guy reflecting on 30 years of personal corporate bullshit, lines like “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power,” and “You grow up and you calm down …/ You start wearin’ blue and brown/ And working for the Clampdown” really resonate. The music behind the lyrics is excellent as well. Mick Jones sweetens Strummer’s vocals with his harmonies and backing vocals, and as usual, Topper Headon’s drumming is brilliant. Plus there are plenty of guitar licks that add the perfect touch, such as the call to action at 1:15. (Here’s a clip of them playing it live on the old US TV show Fridays.)
The band cools it down a little next, with a song written and sung by bassist Paul Simonon, the reggae-inspired “The Guns of Brixton.” The lyrics – about police violence and oppression – are still very relevant today. It’s a song that shows the band’s versatility, as does the next track, the irreverent cover of another old reggae song, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo.” It’s fun ska, and Mick and Joe’s voices sound terrific against a horn section and sax solo.
But after those two digressions, they’re back on the punk power bus with the excellent (and once again, my favorite song) “Death or Glory.”
It’s a song about failing to live up to the punk and rock ‘n roll ideals, when “Death or Glory becomes just another story.” It’s a song with an interesting structure, as it begins with the pre-chorus and chorus before starting in on the verses. This song is another Topper Headon tour de force – his fill at 0:20 is brilliant, and the drum break from 1:33 to change style to disco is tremendous. It’s also one of Strummer’s best vocals on the record. He stays close enough to a tune as he ever does, and his emotion can’t be contained.
The next song, “Koka Kola,” is a quick, fun Mick and Joe collaboration with excellent guitar stabs from Mick, a bubbly bass from Simonon, and clever lyrics about cocaine’s unacknowledged place in the corporate world. “Know wut-a-mean?” After that, “The Card Cheat” brings some Wall of Sound production pomp to the record.
I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, but in his autobiography3 he mentioned his admiration for Joe Strummer and The Clash, and this song – with its opening piano, horns and 60s-girl-group drums – sounds like the band is paying homage to The Boss. Each instrument was recorded twice so that the sound would be as huge as possible. Mick Jones carries the lead vocals and does a wonderful job on a consideration of what really matters in life. It’s a powerful song that I grow fonder of as I age.
While I have plenty of songs on the album that I think of as my favorite song, I only have a couple that are my least favorite, and the band kindly put them next to each other on the record! They’re not awful, but “Lover’s Rock,” a cheeky celebration of the birth control pill with a disco breakdown, and “Four Horsemen,” a straight ahead rocker about making the most of your life, are just okay, in my opinion. Certainly not skippable – but just a bit less than the others.
“I’m Not Down,” on the other hand, displays everything I love about London Calling – except for not much Strummer.
Mick Jones carries the vocals and plays great guitar throughout. Simonon and Headon are at their best, for example at about 0:55, when the song suddenly develops a calypso beat, or 1:31, when it takes on a Motown-style breakdown. And check out Headon’s fill at about 1:41! Jones wrote the song about persevering in the face of depression and hardship, lyrics that reference real events in his life, such as being beaten up by a gang of rockers in 1978.
Before the band wraps up the album, they throw in another reggae cover song, this time “Revolution Rock,” originally done by Danny Ray and the Revolutionaries. It’s got very Clash-esque, confrontational lyrics, and the band makes it their own. Then London Calling closes with one of the band’s most popular songs, “Train in Vain.” (Like many, you may have thought it was titled “Stand By Me.”)
It’s another song written by Mick Jones, and it famously was nearly left off the album because it was recorded so late in the sessions. (Original pressings didn’t list the song’s title.) It’s a fun, catchy number, with a great Simonon bass. But what I particularly love (it’s also my favorite song on the album!) are the honest, heart-achey lyrics. The following lines have always stuck with me as very good: “Now I’ve got a job/ But it don’t pay/ I need new clothes/ I need somewhere to stay/ But without all of these things I can do/ But without your love/ I won’t make it through.” It’s a soulful number, which is really evident in Annie Lennox’s great cover version. It’s a perfect closing track to what – to me – is about as close to a perfect album as any non-Beatles band ever made.
So there it is, folks. 100 Favorite Albums. It’s been so much fun writing these the past five or six years! I plan to keep doing some other music writing, but I’m not sure what. Whatever it is, it will appear here at 100favealbums.net. I really appreciate you reading, and I invite you to reach out and say hello.
And if you want to hear more from my list: here’s a Spotify playlist with a few songs from each album.
“Brand New Cadillac”
“Rudie Can’t Fail”
“The Right Profile”
“Lost in the Supermarket”
“The Guns of Brixton”
“Wrong ‘Em Boyo”
“Death or Glory”
“The Card Cheat”
“I’m Not Down”
“Train in Vain”