An inside look at an essential new perspective of the best punk rock album ever
“From the start, the Clash has made a religion out of being non-conformists – either by rarely doing what would appear to be in their best interests, or by refusing to fulfill people’s expectations of them.
“The secret to all of this, of course, is that they themselves don’t know what’s next on the agenda; their unpredictability isn’t so much a smokescreen as a blank screen. As a result, a lot of speculative writing constantly dogs them. Every new record runs into the same futile argument: Are they true musical revolutionaries, discarding any style that has become uncomfortable, or are they merely dilettantes, easily bored and petulantly moving on to new toys?”
Trouser Press magazine founder and publisher Ira Robbins wrote the above paragraph as the intro to his September 1982 review of the Clash’s Combat Rock album, but it’s every bit as relevant in reconsidering the legacy of London Calling, the groundbreaking third LP by “only band that matters.” Although London Calling wasn’t the Clash’s most commercially-successful album (that would be the aforementioned Combat Rock), the double-disc set nevertheless charted Top 30 stateside and Top 10 in the U.K. and eventually earned a Platinum™ Record for better than a million copies sold.
The importance of London Calling lies not in its modest commercial success, but rather in the album’s artistic accomplishments. Rising out of the late ‘70s U.K. punk scene that boasted of bands like the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Buzzcocks, the sound and fury that imbued the Clash’s first two albums – their self-titled 1977 debut (which wouldn’t be released in the U.S. until 1979) and 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope – was easily the equal of any of the band’s punk-rock contemporaries. A blowtorch can burn only so long before it fizzles out, however, and the Clash’s creative team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were already chafing at the straitjacket imposed by the punk aesthetic.
Some of this dissatisfaction with punk-rock can be heard in the grooves of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, fueled in part by the influence of producer Sandy Pearlman, notable for his work with Blue Öyster Cult. The band picked up additional ‘left field’ influences during two tours of the U.S. opening for artists as diverse as Bo Diddley, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Joe Ely, and the Cramps. Sharing a fascination with American roots music, as well as organic musical genres like Jamaican reggae and ska, Strummer and Jones overcame writer’s block to explode out of the gate with the songs that would comprise London Calling, the album exploring rockabilly, hard rock, and New Orleans R&B alongside the aforementioned reggae and roots-rock.
Legacy Recordings is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album’s December 1979 U.K. release (it was released in January 1980 stateside) with the publication of the London Calling Scrapbook. The gorgeous, oversized 120-page hardback book is nestled in a removable plastic slipcover and will look fantastic on the book (or record) shelf of any fan or collector. Packaged in the back of the book is the original nineteen-song London Calling album on CD, along with (presumably) Ray Lowry’s hand-drawn song lyrics as they appeared in the original gatefold album cover. Designed with the Clash fan-boy or fan-gal in mind, the London Calling Scrapbook offers a wealth of material culled from the band’s archives as well as those of photographer Pennie Smith and artist Ray Lowry, both important figures in the Clash story.
It was Smith’s iconic photo of Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision Bass onstage at the Palladium Club in New York in September 1979 that graced the cover of London Calling upon its original release, and it is only appropriate that it should be featured on the cover of the London Calling Scrapbook. Smith – a staff photographer for Britain’s New Music Express (NME) magazine – shot a veritable “who’s who” of rock ‘n’ rollers throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, from the Who, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin to the Clash and the Jam. Smith reportedly didn’t want the photo to be used for the LP cover, feeling that it was too out of focus, but both the Clash’s Joe Strummer and graphic designer Ray Lowry thought that it would make a great album cover. Lowry designed the London Calling album cover in homage to Elvis Presley’s self-titled 1956 debut album, with pink letters down the side and green text across the bottom.
Many of Smith’s photos of the band can be found throughout the London Calling Scrapbook. Smith specialized in B&W photography and her atmospheric technique and open access to the Clash helped her capture the band’s indomitable spirit on film. A handful of Smith’s photos include madcap London Calling producer Guy Stevens, a tragic figure on the London rock scene who passed away in 1981 and had previously produced albums by Free, Mighty Baby, and Mott the Hoople. The book also includes a number of color shots by NME photography Barry “Scratchy” Myers as well as a bunch of fan photos and artwork.
Ray Lowry was a well-known British cartoonist, illustrator, and graphic artist whose work appeared in underground publications like Oz and the International Times through the 1960s, and later in the New Music Express and The Guardian. Lowry’s love of rock ‘n’ roll led to a friendship with members of the Clash, who subsequently invited Ray to accompany them on their 1979 U.S. tour. Lowry’s estate graciously provided copies of the artist’s “Clash USA ‘79” columns that were a travelogue, of sorts, originally published by NME. Lowry’s columns were hand-drawn and lettered and include cool little illustrations along with his insightful writing on the band and the tour, which helped establish the band stateside.
Much the rest of the London Calling Scrapbook is comprised of the sort of memorabilia that the Clash fanatic will eat up – reproductions of set lists and hand-written pages of lyrics; fan mail and postcards; press clippings from British music zines like NME and Smash Hits, including an article by noted music journalist Kris Needs, as well as American newspapers, including a story by the esteemed music scribe Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. Tucked in between reproductions of backstage passes and adverts for the album are a couple of über-rare items of interest: one is the typewritten “Story of the Clash” as written by Strummer and Mick Jones in 1979, the other is a complete reproduction of Clash fan Andy Barrett’s 1980 zine Completely Sold Out, with color photos.
The most fascinating piece of Clash memorabilia featured in the London Calling Scrapbook, however, is a photo of the watch worn by Paul Simonon when he smashed his bass, as captured by Smith’s aforementioned photo. Broken during the thrashing of his instrument, the watch is frozen at the time of impact. The London Calling Scrapbook similarly captures the band, forever frozen in 1979 at the time of their greatest creative achievement, providing invaluable documentation of the lead-up to, and aftermath of the release of the Clash’s London Calling, one of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums to ever grace our turntables.