It was thirty years ago today that London Calling by The Clash came out.
If you get 100 people off the street to free-associate what “punk rock” means, I suspect the answers you get will depend on the subjects’ ages and whatever social label they wear on their sleeves (or through their noses).
People under 30 – the ones who were born long after “Punk” was dead? They’ll probably think attitude-thick genre museum bands like Green Day and Blink 182, people who’ve kept the superficial elements of the punk form – buzz-saw guitars heavy on rhythm and light on solo pyrotechnics, three-minute songs, lots of attitude (justified or not).
People under 40 who see themselves as maybe just a tad counterculture? Maybe they’ll slip in references to Rancid, Social Distortion, the Dead Kennedys or Henry Rollins, and mumble something about rejecting this and anarchy that and dystopic the other thing, and some of the other adolescent catchphrases that “punks” repeated at the time, and maybe even dye their hair pink, don a pair of greasy black stovepipe jeans and a ripped t-shirt and stick a safety pin through their nose for good measure.
But just about anyone of any age who can remember the term “Punk Rock” will list London Calling as the peak of the genre. Perhaps if you were sentient at the time – and, at 16, I barely was – you can recall some of the hype and hyperbole over the record; to one critic or another, the Clash were “the only band that matters”; Dave Marsh famously opined that the Clash “is a band that can do anything they want, right now”. At a time when music was changing faster than it had since the first radio station banned the first Elvis Presley record from airplay, The Clash were the band that was pushing the change further, and faster, than anyone.
The funny thing, though? The part that two generations of critics, poseurs and after-the-fact fans miss, thirty years after the fact? London Calling largely wasn’t a “punk” record.
The ironies keep coming, though. While London Calling wasn’t “punk”, it did more to further “punk”‘s alleged goals, at least as far as music was concerned, than every other punk record combined. It effected more change in mainstream musical taste than any other punk record. It kicked the Top Forty open to ragged, raw, “do-it-yourself” music more than any record, ever. Its’ appearance on the Billboard charts kicked off the greatest disturbance in the Top Forty force since FM radio stopped being “alternative” – the glorious, four-or-so year period in the eighties where the “alternative” was the mainstream.
London Calling covered the waterfront, style-wise: from brutal, hard punk rock (the title cut, “Clampdown”), giddy ska (“Wrong ’em Boyo”, “I’m Not Down”), balmy bar-band reggae (“Rudy Can’t Fail”, “Revolution Rock”)…
…and quite a bit that you can’t classify at all; “Spanish Bombs”, which sounds like the Kinks rendering Ennio Morricone; “Jimmy Jazz”, a slinky, boozy “blues” number which is to jazz what Chris Gaines was to alt-rock; “Brand New Cadillac”, a menacing minor-key-inverted cover of “the first British rock and roll record” by Vince Taylor which sounds like…well, like the Clash doing rockabilly.
I think I played my first copy until it turned white from the needle tracking. And even today, it’s got something for just about every mood; over the weekend I had ‘Rudy Can’t Fail” coursing through my head – partly because we used it as a bumper on Saturday, but also because it’s one of the catchiest songs of the decade.
On those days when I’m feeling very 47 years old and the world’s been beating me about the head and shoulders enough to get me down, I spin “Death Or Glory”:
What’s it about? The gruelling life of a rock star, for all I care. But it’s three minutes and change of exactly why I love music; it grabs me in the liver and says “Dance, mofo!”+
And I do.
The other moment? “The Card Cheat”
I didn’t really “get” this song when I was 17. I think I was probably into my thirties before I really figured it out. And today, if someone asks me why London Calling is so great, it’s my answer.
It’s a musical version of a noir film – speaking of genres I didn’t appreciate until I was older. What’s it about? Flailing against the darkness, or seeking and failing to find one little bit of immortality, or maybe just crap from Mick Jones’ notebook?
I dunno. But between the Irish Horns’ ruffles and flourishes and Jones’ dork-fingered piano playing, it wrenches a noir beauty out of the garage-band genre.
The Clash couldn’t live up to the hype, of course; nobody could live up to the kind of hype that they got in their day. The followup, Sandinista, was ambitious but shrill; Combat Rock gave me the sense that Strummer and Jones thought they were too good for the whole “pop star” thing – it was like a punk-reggae Dennis DeYoung record.
But London Calling is still timeless, as these things go.