The Siren Sound of the Clash’s ‘London Calling,’ 40 Years Later

Released in 1979, the Clash’s third album changed everything—punk rock, the band that made it, and the fans who worshiped it. Decades later, its rich, eclectic, propulsive sound hasn’t aged a minute, and its messages are as urgent as ever.

By Elizabeth Nelson

“Every Cheap Hood / Strikes a Bargain With the World”

Guy Stevens, the Clash’s hand-picked producer for their pivotal third LP, a double album titled London Calling, was not happy with how the band was performing. So he applied the Guy Stevens method: He charged out of the control room and began a violent assault on the space where the group was attempting to get through the song—thrashing his limbs, dancing wildly, and screaming in their faces. They reacted with a combination of rage and horror and disbelief: Imagine trying to cut a track while some fully hysterical nutter is 5 inches in front of you, all brandy breath, spit, and bile. After all this was done, Stevens announced: “It’s a take!”

The Clash’s first two LPs, 1977’s self-titled debut and 1978’s Give ’Em Enough Rope, thrilled critics and galvanized a large and loyal following. Now it was up to them to consecrate their standing as the biggest band in the world, or at least “The Only Band That Matters,” a nickname they had self-applied. Brimming with talent, energy, and esprit de corps, the Clash sensed they were close to something monumental—a commercial breakthrough and a masterpiece. They had material to spare and an unbreakable date with destiny. They just needed someone to bring it all together, to bring it out of them. They sorted through their options. And then they hired Guy Stevens.

“I’m So Grateful / To Be Nowhere”

It starts in Camden, by the Thames, waters rising, alarms at full blaze. It starts at the end. An apocalyptic event, another kind of destiny. World War II and the bombing of Britain and the economic shudder of the empire through its shaky postwar years and the rise of the right and the shadow of the Cold War and the memory of the Aberfan disaster. Everything, it seems, is in those two chords. London is drowning and the Clash are … ambivalent? Stalwart? Maybe the word is prepared. Prepared for death or the feral future of life in the aftermath of utter catastrophe.

The opening title track to London Calling has, over time, become probably the band’s best-known song: a legitimate standard, its stature well-earned. With its call-and-response vocals and its urban nightmare world-building, it is, by any measure, one of the most powerful compositions of its era—“All Along the Watchtower” annotated and updated for the modern age.

It is also atypically provincial with respect to the LP as a whole. Having established the high stress/high stakes in their home city, the rest of London Calling quickly shifts into a panoramic, exultant celebration of the larger world, from Mallorca to Kingston to Manhattan. Joe Strummer, the son of a diplomat, had traveled extensively as a child to places as far flung as Mexico and Egypt, and the experience vested him with an egalitarian, globalist perspective. Here, in both sonic and thematic terms, we see punk rock stretched from its minimalist, street-fighting-man ethos into something wholly unexpected. Strummer and the Clash became bon vivants, historians, and traveling evangelists for human decency. If Anthony Bourdain’s unofficial philosophy of radical empathy through cultural understanding has any direct antecedent, it is the Clash in the years of London Calling and its 1980 follow-up, Sandinista!

From the group’s outset, the elements of the Clash that distinguished them from their peers in punk’s first wave were their sundry departures from three-chord shout-alongs: nascent forays into blues, glam, reggae, and early rock that suggested a depth of field implausible for, say, Sham 69. On London Calling, seemingly with great suddenness, all of these disparate influences snapped into focus, alchemizing into something entirely singular. Like the Band or the Rolling Stones before them, the sound is an unrepeatable mosaic of obsessions and influences. The remainder of the album’s first side is a curated tour through the Clash’s fascinations: the supercharged rockabilly of “Brand New Cadillac,” the ebullient faux-gypsy noir “Jimmy Jazz” and the Bo Diddley–meets-Bowie drug panic “Hateful.” To a nearly uncanny degree, each of these tracks feels simultaneously old and new. The men recording the music may be young, but they are channeling spirits from Sidney Bechet to Elvis, and you can taste the blood on the tracks.

The last song on Side 1 is also its best. An address to both band and constituency, the stuttering, joyous punk-ska hybrid “Rudie Can’t Fail” is a real-time negotiation between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, whose sublime co-vocals both one-up and elevate each other in the storied tradition of Jamaican toasting. The question being debated is: What do we do in the face of an entrenched ruling class? The answer is: solidarity now, solidarity forever.

“To the Opium Dens / To the Barroom Gin”

But why Guy Stevens? Thirty-five years old at the time of the album’s recording, Stevens had a well-earned reputation as a surly and dangerous figure, a historic consumer of speed and alcohol who had done hard time for possession in London’s Wormwood Scrubs penitentiary. The notion of retaining Stevens as producer understandably sent a chill through the Clash’s label, CBS. It was like hiring Sam Peckinpah to helm a Hollywood blockbuster. What could possibly be the rationale? Even the Sex Pistols, for god’s sake, had ultimately elected to work with the decorated industry pro Chris Thomas for their big commercial swing.

But for the Clash, it had to be Guy. Trouble was, no one could find Guy. No one had a number for him, and anyway he never stayed in any place very long. Joe Strummer combed the pubs of Oxford Street, where Guy was known to dwell. It took a while but he finally discovered Stevens slumped over a bar, the specter of a much older man. “Have a drink!” Guy insisted, and Strummer obliged. London Calling was off and running.

“So What Will All the Poor Do With Their Lives / On Judgment Day?”

I’m suspicious of anyone whose heart doesn’t swell during “Spanish Bombs,” the deeply moving, remarkably catchy account of a doomed group of antifascist insurgents pinned against the rocks and ultimately slaughtered by General Francisco Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a hit, but wait until you hear it. The Clash are a bit like The Wire. The atmospherics and storytelling tend to be so spectacular that it is only in the gripped and exhausted aftermath of experiencing a song that it might briefly flash before your mind: Wait, am I learning?

And you are. When was the last time you thought about Montgomery Clift, the brilliant and troubled Method actor from The Misfits and From Here to Eternity, dead at age 45 under lightly lurid circumstances? “The Right Profile,” Strummer’s wry and sad eulogy to Clift, is a rollicking anthem for a doomed figure who not coincidentally resembled Guy Stevens.

London Calling’s loneliest song is “Lost in the Supermarket,” a meditation on consumerism and the alienation of the suburbs, whose images of consumption and ennui—“I came in here for the special offer”—evoke an escalating sense of dread in an already claustrophobic milieu. In Jones and Strummer, the Clash were gifted with two great vocalists who sounded nothing alike and yet fit together perfectly. Jones’s vocal on “Lost in the Supermarket” conveys all the tender anguish of the song’s shy-but-desperate-for-action protagonist. Joe wrote it for Mick knowing he could never have pulled it off himself.

Toward the back end of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the closest double-album analog to London Calling, Mick Jagger practically browbeats the listener: “Let it loose / Let it all come down.” It’s tragic and beautiful. It’s giving in without giving up. “Clampdown” is the Clash’s response. Four minutes of pure rage and melody that indicts everyone from the exploitative bosses to the picket line holdouts, it’s the centerpiece of London Calling, taking John Lennon’s caustic critiques on “Working Class Hero” and turning them into actionable steps: “Let fury have the hour / Anger can be power / Did you know that you can use it?”

“When We Were Talking / I Saw You Nodding Out”

Before the Clash, before Mott the Hoople, before Wormwood Scrubs, Guy Stevens had an obsession with American music: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Link Wray, Jerry Lee Lewis. He prided himself on having every Motown single and every Stax release.

Joe Strummer was playing the piano on a London Calling track and Guy Stevens decided he didn’t like the way the piano sounded, so he rushed out of the control room and poured red wine all over Strummer’s hands and into the piano. This is bullshit. The band didn’t hire Guy Stevens; they enabled him. The problem with people like Stevens is that while they are off on their paths of destruction, someone has to mop up the wine. Someone has to mop up the blood. And someone has to actually record the music. That job fell mainly to London Calling’s engineer and unsung hero, Bill Price, who meticulously and brilliantly oversaw the tedious process of overdubbing and mixing while Stevens went about the business of being a “vibe merchant,” which mainly meant breaking furniture and falling down stairs. But even still, no one disputes Stevens’s contributions to the finished product. He was not facilitator, he was obstacle. He was a duende.

“Trenches Full of Poets / The Ragged Army / Fixing Bayonets to Fight the Other Line”

The Spanish poet, playwright, and revolutionary Federico García Lorca believed that the muse was all fine and well, but for an artist to achieve something greater they needed to engage with their duende. duende is a demon that exists within us, that sleeps in our bones and feeds on our marrow. When the artist awakens their duende, it is at their own peril and is seriously risky business, because the duende will battle them at every turn and challenge them to be transcendent. And this is often a fight to the end, because by its very nature the duende embraces and seeks out death.

The poet Edward Hirsch says this: “Duende means something like artistic inspiration in the presence of death. It has an element of mortal panic and fear. It has the power of wild abandonment. It speaks to an art that touches and transfigures death, that both woos and evades it.” The duende wounds the artist in order to show them true pain and ecstasy, and the artist who is being driven by a duende (and simultaneously dueling with it) is truly fearless, which lends to limitless creativity and intuition. The duende makes them scream and howl and scratch and claw because their very existence depends on it, and from that comes heroic bravery, surpassing beauty, and an unreplicable artistic innovation and imagination brought to life.

So anyway, that’s why Guy Stevens.

“Don’t You Know It Is Wrong / To Cheat a Trying Man?”

So goes the refrain from the Clash’s ebullient reimagining of the 1923 murder ballad “Stagger Lee,” which concerns the barroom death of a St. Louis gangster named Lee Shelton. Three sides in and we’re a long way from the Thames. But we’re never far from a rising river.

The slow-burning “Death or Glory” is a repudiation in real time of the band’s knee-jerk rebellions of years previous. It’s easy to call for a riot without acknowledging the real-world consequences for those who participate and lack the resources to extract themselves from arrest and the bail process. Besides: “He who fucks nuns / Will later join the church.” The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gem “Koka Kola” is an act of comic revenge against the encroaching advertising world, in the style of early Who, and its future colonization of both our whims and habits.

Finally, at the end of Side 3, there is the piano-driven set piece “The Card Cheat,” a horn-abetted ballad that is probably the most ornate thing the band ever recorded. Stevens is quoted as saying, “There are only two Phil Spectors in the world, and I am one.” This is Stevens’s attempt at “River Deep, Mountain High”; it’s a tale of a hard-traveling gambler meeting a long-time-coming demise.

Side 4 is a tonic. The easygoing Strummer-penned “Lover’s Rock” is an oasis of pure romance amid an endlessly complicated battlefield of global and interpersonal dynamics. “Four Horsemen” is a straightforward reaffirmation of Joe, Topper Headon, Paul Simonon, and Mick: the men making the music happen. “I’m Not Down” is the brilliant Jones-sung final word on all the misery and magic and possibility of the new great depression: “I’ve been beaten up / I’ve been thrown around / But I’m not down.”

The group play to their strengths on a transporting cover of the Danny Ray and Jackie Edwards reggae anthem “Revolution Rock,” apparently ending London Calling on a thematically appropriate act of joyous defiance. But then they turn tricky. “Train in Vain,” the unlisted 19th track, is a Mick Jones tour de force of bouncing hooks and romantic alienation, an instant classic headlined by the desperate Marvin Gaye–worthy exhortation to a lover he can’t stop from leaving him: “You must explain why this must be!”

“I Know That My Life Makes You Nervous / But I Tell You I Can’t Live in Service”

Upon its release, London Calling received rapturous reviews and sold in the neighborhood of 2 million copies—not enough to qualify as a genuine blockbuster but certainly confirmation of the band’s steadily rising stature. The following year’s Sandinista! was more ambitious still—three discs of dub, synth-pop, and straight rock that ran to nearly two and a half hours. That record has no shortage of brilliant and memorable moments, but the overarching lack of focus stands in stark contrast to the ambitious but surgical London Calling. The Clash elected to produce Sandinista! themselves.

Guy Stevens died in 1981, less than two years after his last great triumph. He, too, had fought pugnaciously, but circumstances and substances overwhelmed him. He was 38. That year, the Clash recorded the memorial track “Midnight to Stevens,” a languid, ambling tune freighted with the sort of melodramatic hyperbole that the producer would have loved. “It’s that company trick / We’re all jumping through.”

London Calling is a landmark four decades later, improved by time and the album’s vision of a world growing both smaller in technological terms and more imperiled by permanent class inequity. More so, it is one of the most generous, gratifying, and galvanizing works of art the 20th century has to offer. It begins with apocalypse and then lights a way out. The path is an arduous one and filled with peril. But win or lose, the principled fight is always worthwhile. “Yo t’quierro y finito, yo te querda, oh ma côrazon.” 

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.

Source: The Siren Sound of the Clash’s ‘London Calling,’ 40 Years Later

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