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.