Our free London Calling display celebrates 40 years of The Clash. See Paul Simonon’s broken Fender, Joe Strummer’s notebook & more at the Museum of London from 15 November.
To honour this truly London anniversary, the Museum of London will showcase personal objects, images, music and memories from the band’s history – some never seen before – in a free display.
London Calling was and is a hugely compelling melting pot of musical styles, driven by a passion for action and a fierce desire for social justice. The album’s music and lyrics remain as relevant today as they were on release.
As well as showcasing the influences and context to the writing and recording of the seminal double album, this new exclusive display at the Museum of London examines how the capital influenced The Clash as they became the most popular British band of the 20th century.
To reflect the band’s diverse range of political, emotional and musical interests, a broad range of items from their personal archive can be seen in the display, including:
Paul Simonon’s broken Fender Precision Bass, smashed on stage at The Palladium in New York City on 21st September 1979
Mick Jones’ handwritten album sequencing note
Joe Strummer’s notebook from the period when the album ‘London Calling’ was rehearsed and recorded
Joe Strummer’s typewriter used to document ideas, lyrics and other writings
To coincide with the opening of the display Sony Music have released the London Calling Scrapbook – a 120-page hardback companion which comes with the album and contains hand-written lyrics, notes, photos and previously unseen material from the period when the record was made.
She photographed the biggest stars. But it was the Clash she clicked with. Pennie Smith relives their first explosive US tour – and reveals how she took ‘rock’s greatest photo’
Pennie Smith was standing less than six feet away when Paul Simonon, bass-player with the Clash, smashed his guitar to pieces on stage at the Palladium in New York. She’d been on the road with the band for two weeks, photographing their first US tour, but she’d always stayed on the other side of the stage, next to lead guitarist Mick Jones.
That night, to mix it up, she switched sides and remembers Simonon suddenly spinning toward her. “He was in a really bad mood,” she says, “and that wasn’t like him.” She took a step back to get a better focus with her 35mm Pentax – and then all hell broke loose. Simonon, seething, raised his Fender Precision like an axe, turned his back to singer Joe Strummer, and brought it crashing down. “It wasn’t a choice to take the shot,” Smith says. “My finger just went off.”
The photograph immortalised Simonon’s rage in grainy black and white. It was an emotional response, he later said, to a stiff New York audience that sat all night in their seats and didn’t move. “You can’t really tell it’s Paul,” says Smith. “But I guess that’s the point.”
On the tour bus the next day, Strummer chose the image for the cover of London Calling, the 1979 album that was to prove the Clash’s masterpiece – an exuberant outcry that is still regarded as one of the greatest, most influential albums of all time. Its slick mix of punk, reggae, blues and rockabilly – with lyrics Strummer rarely bettered – has been cited by everyone from U2 to Springsteen, Nirvana to the Beastie Boys, as a seminal moment. “They’re the band that changed everything,” Chuck D recently said, revealing that Public Enemy set out to be a rap equivalent of the Clash.
As someone who has stood in the middle of the Texas desert and gazed up at the night sky, I can appreciate the near-drunken wobbliness with which Tom Greenhalgh sings “How Many Stars.” As the Mekons play a gently swaying, not-quite-reggae rhythm, the vocalist/guitarist/founding member sounds like a man overwhelmed by the brilliance of a clear night sky dotted with billions of points of light, and all he can muster in response is a fumbling, not-quite-rhetorical question: “How many stars are out tonight? How many stars? How many stars?” When the rest of the band abandon their instruments to harmonize with Greenhalgh, it becomes a besotted sing-along, which is another way of saying it’s a Mekons song.
The inspiration, according to the song’s author, was not Texas, but a desert on the other side of the globe: the Australian outback. “I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, where there are no lights on,” Jon Langford recently told the Quietus. “Because it’s the other side of the planet, they don’t have the same constellations. Just the sheer number of stars was extraordinary.” Fittingly titled Deserted, the Mekons’ latest album (and their first studio full-length in eight long years) is inspired by these remote places where civilization cannot easily thrive but humanity and wonder can.
Lately, the band has been fascinated with overarching, often charmingly unwieldy concepts. Their last album, 2011’s Ancient & Modern, compared the world of 100 years ago and the world of today, while 2014’s Jura,featuring alt-country Rasputin Robbie Fulks, was not only recorded on that Scottish island but addresses issues of isolation and the weighty history that comes with the dour weather. Deserted was recorded in Joshua Tree National Park in California, and begins with the raucous, recklessly paced “Lawrence of California,” which barely holds together as the band reimagine T.E. Lawrence organizing an insurgent army somewhere in Death Valley. “Harar 1883” offer a bleary vision of poet Arthur Rimbaud hallucinating in Ethiopia. The glam-stomping “Weimar Vending Machine” even traces a handful of sand that ends up in a baggie sold to none other than Iggy Pop.
Rarely do the Mekons get quite as loose as they do on Deserted, alternating between arid, nocturnal atmosphere that seems to emanate from Susie Honeyman’s fiddle and moments of near hysteria, as though their sun-baked brains have gone haywire. These songs take their time to wander about, even getting lost in the vast expanse — sometimes a little too lost, as on the rambling “Mirage.” But even that song reveals the Mekons’ versatility and imagination. There is an intoxicating beauty to the harshness of the desert, an inspiration to be drawn from the hardiness of the life found there—and that pretty much describes this unkillable band.