Death or Glory: London Calling Turns 40

One fan’s history with the Clash classic

Variation of London Calling album cover / Illustration by Ron Hart

When I was first getting into punk, I found a copy of the Clash’s London Calling at my local record store and brought it home, excited by the title track (which I was familiar with) and eager to listen to what was often acclaimed as “the best album of all time” in many of the critical works on punk and rock in general that I was devouring at the time. I popped it into the CD player at my house, cranked it up…and then put it on the shelf for a few years. 

Safe to say I was not a fan of the album until much, much later. Blame it on my youth and inexperience; I couldn’t relate to the variety on display across the 19 songs comprising London Calling, an album that is technically “punk” but in many ways isn’t (like its most obvious precursor, Exile on Main St., was technically a “rock” album by the Stones but had way more going on). Also, like Exile, Calling wasn’t chock-a-block with hit after hit; some of the songs didn’t really move me on initial listening. But as the album and I both turn 40 this year, I’m glad to say that I see what all the fuss is about.

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon from The Clash, shot at the Saint Paul Civic Center September, Sept 12, 1979. Eight days later at the Palladium in New York City, Pennie Smith snapped her iconic image of Simonon smashing his Fender Precision that became the cover of ‘London Calling.’ Mike Reiter, who snapped this shot, said, ‘I did not have the same access that Pennie Smith did for that great pic of Paul that they used, I was just a kid with a camera I checked out at school.’ (Mike Reiter)

London Calling was the first thing that made the Clash distinct from their punk peers (including the one-album-wonder Sex Pistols, who faded from the scene after their last concert with Johnny Rotten in January 1978). It was bold, brash, in-your-face in its utter disregard for what constituted “punk”; indeed, it was a conscious effort on the part of the band to expand their horizons. I didn’t know this at the time I bought it, but the Clash were huge fans of reggae music, and that love shows most tellingly in “The Guns of Brixton.” I go back and forth on whether I like this song or “like” it, ironically; Paul Simenon’s vocals are kind of a lot. But it’s a fantastic riff, and like so much of the Clash’s output it benefits by showing that the band were more than “hey-ho, let’s go” Ramones clones. 

“Spanish Bombs” is another favorite, and one that I think I liked before I liked the album as a whole. Same goes for “Rudie Can’t Fail,” “Jimmy Jazz,” and “Lost in the Supermarket.” Another thing I didn’t realize at the time was that the Clash was way more than just Joe Strummer; Mick Jones was arguably the McCartney to Strummer’s Lennon (or maybe they were both the Lennons of the group, and Simonon was the George). The Clash outlasted many of their punk peers not just because of their changes in style but also because the nexus of Strummer and Jones worked so well together, until it didn’t. Jones would be kicked out in the wake of Combat Rock, and the band would limp on for a few more years. But when it was Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Topper Headon, they truly were “The Only Band that Mattered.” 

Back cover of London Calling / Illustration by Ron Hart

I think my initial disappointment with London Calling lay in the fact that the title song is just so goddamn brilliant that there was no way any of the other songs on the rest of the album could measure up. I still think the opening salvo of that title track might be the greatest artifact of British rock and roll (though if you ask me next week or the week after, my answer could change to “Hey Jude,” “Golden Years,” “Common People,” or “Bizarre Love Triangle.” I’ve given this subject a lot of thought). It’s definitely the sound of a group who isn’t content to rest on their laurels. In depicting a nightmarish hellscape of nuclear contamination, the Clash clearly have the Three Mile Island incident in mind, as well as the general tenor of the Cold War era. At a time when unstable leaders the world over once again have their finger on the nuclear trigger, “London Calling” is a deep howl into our own abyss as much as it was at the tail end of 1979. 

 

In August of 2018, my grandfather was slowly slipping away from us. He’d lived a good life, eighty-three years on this planet as a good, decent man who tried to provide for his family. He was, for all intents and purposes, the main father-figure in my life. And for the last week of his life, as I drove to and from the hospice care facility where he eventually took his last breath, it was the Clash that comforted me, both the “singles” compilation and also London Calling. I doubt that my grandpa had ever heard of the Clash, or knew how much his grandson loved this band from a musical era that meant nothing to a Southern man of Elvis’s generation. But I found comfort in the album like I’d never known before, and I’m grateful for that. So on the occasion of its fortieth birthday, I can say to London Calling that it’s never sounded better.

 

AUDIO: The Clash London Calling (full album)

Trevor Seigler

Trevor Seigler is a substitute teacher (the chill one) in South Carolina. He is more machine than man now, but you can still look him up @T_L_Seigler on Twitter.

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