The Clash: London’s Calling: [Record 19]
London Calling: is the third studio album by English punk rock band The Clash. It was released in the United Kingdom on 14 December 1979 by CBS Records, and in the United States in January 1980 by Epic Records. London Calling is a post-punk album that incorporates a range of styles, including punk, reggae, rockabilly, ska, New Orleans R&B, pop, lounge jazz, and hard rock.
The album’s subject matter included social displacement, unemployment, racial conflict, drug use, and the responsibilities of adulthood. The album received unanimously positive reviews and was ranked at number eight on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. London Calling was a top ten album in the UK, and its lead single “London Calling” was a top 20 single. It has sold over five million copies worldwide, and was certified platinum in the United States.
Record One, Side One.
1. London Calling.
2. Brand New Cadillac.
3. Jimmy Jazz.
5. Rudie Can’t Fail.
Record One, Side Two.
1. Spanish Bombs.
2. The Right Profile.
3. Lost in the Supermarket.
5. The Guns of Brixton.
Record Two, Side One.
1. Wrong ‘Em Boyo.
2. Death or Glory.
3. Koka Kola.
4. The Card Cheat.
Record Two, SideTwo.
1. Lover’s Rock.
2. Four Horsemen.
3. I’m Not Down.
4. Revolution Rock.
5. Train in Vain.
Recording and production: After recording their second studio album Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978), the band separated from their manager Bernard Rhodes. This separation meant that the group had to leave their rehearsal studio in Camden Town and find another location to compose their music. Drawing inspiration from rockabilly, ska, reggae and jazz, the band began work on the album during the summer of 1979. Tour manager Johnny Green had found the group a new place to rehearse called Vanilla Studios, which was located in the back of a garage in Pimlico. The Clash quickly wrote and recorded demos, with Mick Jones composing and arranging much of the music and Joe Strummer writing the lyrics.
As early as their second album, The Clash had started to depart from the punk rock sound. While touring in the United States twice in 1979, they chose supporting acts such as rhythm and blues artists Bo Diddley, Sam & Dave, Lee Dorsey, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, as well as neotraditional country artist Joe Ely and punk rockabilly band the Cramps. This developed fascination with rock and roll inspired their approach for London Calling.
In August 1979, the band entered Wessex Studios to begin recording London Calling. The Clash asked Guy Stevens to produce the album, much to the dismay of CBS Records. Stevens had alcohol and drug problems and his production methods were unconventional. During a recording session he swung a ladder and upturned chairs – apparently to create a rock & roll atmosphere. The Clash got along well with Stevens, especially bassist Paul Simonon, who found his work to be very helpful and productive to his playing and their recording as a band. While recording, the band would play football to pass the time. This was a way for them to bond together as well as take their mind off of the music, and the games got very serious. Doing this helped bring the band together, unifying them, making the recording process easier and more productive. The album was recorded during a five- to six-week period involving 18-hour days, with many songs recorded in one or two takes.
Music and Lyrics: According to music critic Mark Kidel, London Calling is the first post-punk double album and exhibits a broader range of musical styles than The Clash’s previous albums. Stephen Thomas Erlewine said that the album appropriates the “punk aesthetic into rock & roll mythology and roots music”, and incorporates a wider range of styles such as punk, reggae, rockabilly, ska, New Orleans R&B, pop, lounge jazz, and hard rock. According to Greg Kot, the band’s embrace of specific musical traditions deviated from punk’s “blow-up-the-past attitude”. Writer Jack Sargeant remarked that “whether The Clash completely abandoned their punk roots or pushed punk’s musical eclecticism and diversity into new terrain [on the album] remains a controversial issue.”
The album’s songs are generally about London and feature both fictional and life-based characters, such as an underworld criminal named Jimmy Jazz and a gun-toting Jimmy Cliff aspirer living in Brixton. Some have more widely contextualized narratives, including references to the “evil presidentes” working for the “clampdown”, the lingering effects of the Spanish Civil War, and how constant consumerism leads to unavoidable political apathy on “Lost in the Supermarket”. Sal Ciolfi of PopMatters felt that the songs encompass an arrangement of urban narratives and characters, and touch on themes such as sex, depression, and identity crisis. Tom Carson of Rolling Stone viewed that, while the album draws on the entirety of rock and roll’s past for its sound, the concepts and lyrical themes are drawn from the history, politics, and myths associated with the genre.
“London Calling”, the album’s title track, was partially influenced by the March 1979 accident at a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Strummer’s lyrics also discuss the problems of rising unemployment, racial conflict and drug use in Britain. The second track, “Brand New Cadillac”, was written and originally recorded by Vince Taylor and was the first track recorded for London Calling. The band cite the song as “one of the first British rock’n’roll records” and had initially used it as a warm up song before recording. “Rudie Can’t Fail”, the album’s fifth song, features a horn section and mixes elements of pop, soul, and reggae music together. Its lyrics chronicle the life of a fun-loving young man who is criticised for his inability to act like a responsible adult. Strummer wrote “Lost in the Supermarket” after imagining Jones’ childhood growing up in a basement with his mother and grandmother. “Clampdown” began as an instrumental track called “Working and Waiting”. Its lyrics comment on people who forsake the idealism of youth and urge young people to fight the status quo.
“The Guns of Brixton” was the first of Paul Simonon’s compositions the band recorded, and the first to have him sing lead. Simonon was originally doubtful about its lyrics, which discuss an individual’s paranoid outlook on life, but was encouraged by Strummer to continue working on it. On “Death or Glory”, Strummer examines his life in retrospect and acknowledges the complications and responsibilities of adulthood. While working on “The Card Cheat”, the band recorded each part twice to create a “sound as big as possible”. “Lover’s Rock” advocates safe sex and planning. The reggae song “Revolution Rock” was criticized by NME, who said that Strummer and Jones are unable to compose credible love songs. The final track, “Train in Vain”, was originally excluded from the back cover’s track listing. It was intended to be given away through a promotion with NME, but was added to the album at the last minute after the deal fell through.
Artwork: The album’s front cover features a photograph of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision Bass (on display at the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as of May 2009) against the stage at The Palladium in New York City on 21 September 1979 during the Clash Take the Fifth US tour. Pennie Smith, who photographed the band for the album, originally did not want the photograph to be used. She thought that it was too out of focus, but Strummer and graphic designer Ray Lowry thought it would make a good album cover. In 2002, Smith’s photograph was named the best rock and roll photograph of all time by Q magazine, commenting that “it captures the ultimate rock’n’roll moment – total loss of control”.
The cover artwork was designed by Lowry and was a homage to the design of Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album. The cover was named the ninth best album cover of all time by Q magazine in 2001. In 1995, Big Audio Dynamite (a band fronted by former Clash member Mick Jones) used the same scheme for their F-Punk album. The album cover for London Calling was among the ten chosen by the Royal Mail for a set of “Classic Album Cover” postage stamps issued in January 2010.
Release: The album was released in the United Kingdom on vinyl in 1979, and in the United States on vinyl and 8-track tape in 1980. A gatefold cover design of the LP was only released in Japan. Though London Calling was released as a double album it was only sold for about the price of a single album. The Clash’s record label, CBS, at first denied the band’s request for the album to be released as a double. In return CBS gave permission for the band to include a free 12-inch single that played at 33⅓ rpm. Ultimately, the planned 12-inch record became a second nine-track LP.
Upon its release, London Calling sold approximately two million copies. The album peaked at number nine in the United Kingdom and was certified gold in December 1979. The album performed strongly outside the United Kingdom. It reached number two in Sweden and number four in Norway. In the United States, London Calling peaked at number 27 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and was certified platinum in February 1996. The album produced two of the band’s most successful singles. “London Calling” preceded the album with a 7 December 1979 release. It peaked at number 11 on the UK Singles Chart. The song’s music video, directed by Letts, featured the band performing the song on a boat in the pouring rain with the River Thames behind them. In the United States, “Train in Vain”, backed with “London Calling”, was released as a single in February 1980. It peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and “London Calling”/”Train in Vain” peaked at number 30 on the Billboard Disco Top 100 chart.
A UK only cassette was released in 1986. A CD was released in the US in 1987, with a remastered version in the UK in 1999 followed by the US in 2000, along with the rest of the band’s catalogue. In 2004, a 25th anniversary Legacy Edition was published with a bonus CD and DVD in digipack. The bonus CD features The Vanilla Tapes, missing recordings made by the band in mid-1979. The DVD includes The Last Testament – The Making of London Calling, a film by Don Letts, as well as previously unseen video footage and music videos. A limited edition picture disc LP was released in 2010.
Reception and Legacy: In a contemporary review for Rolling Stone, Tom Carson found the album vast and engaging in its celebration of “the romance of rock & roll rebellion”, and remarked that, “for all its first-take scrappiness and guerrilla production, this two-LP set … is music that means to endure. It’s so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.” Robert Christgau described London Calling as “warm, angry, and thoughtful, confident, melodic, and hard-rocking” and called it “the best double-LP since Exile on Main Street”. The album topped the 1980 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Christgau, the poll’s creator, also named it the best album of 1980 in an accompanying piece for the Pazz & Jop and remarked that “it generated an urgency and vitality and ambition (that Elvis P. cover!) which overwhelmed the pessimism of its leftist world-view.”
According to Dave Thompson, London Calling established The Clash as more than “a simple punk band” and, despite its amalgam of disparate and occasionally disjointed influences, was a “potent” record of neurotic post-punk. Don McLeese of the Chicago Sun-Times hailed it as The Clash’s best album and “punk’s finest hour”, as it found the band broadening their artistry without compromising their original vigor and immediacy. Sal Ciolfi of PopMatters called it a “big, loud, beautiful collection of hurt, anger, restless thought, and above all hope” that still sounds “relevant and vibrant”. In a review of its reissue, Uncut wrote that the songs and characters in the lyrics cross-reference each other because of the album’s exceptional sequencing and remarked that “The Vanilla Tapes” bonus disc enhances what is already a “masterpiece”.
Accolades: London Calling has been considered by many critics to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time, including Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who said that it sounded more purposeful than “most albums, let alone double albums”. In 1987, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times named it the fourth best album of the previous 10 years and said that, while The Clash’s debut was a punk masterpiece, London Calling marked the genre’s “coming of age”, as the band led the way into “fertile post-punk territory.” In 1989, Rolling Stone ranked it as the best album of the 1980s. In 1999, Q magazine named London Calling the fourth greatest British album of all time, and wrote that it is “the best Clash album and therefore among the very best albums ever recorded”. In 2002, Q included it on its list of the 100 Best Punk Albums, and in 2003, Mojo ranked it twenty second on their list of the Top 50 Punk Albums.
London Calling was ranked as the sixth greatest album of the 1970s by NME, and the second best by Pitchfork Media, whose reviewer Amanda Petrusich said that it was The Clash’s “creative apex” as a “rock band” rather than as a punk band. In 2003, London Calling was ranked number eight on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Entertainment Weekly’s Tom Sinclair declared it the “Best Album of All Time” in his headline for a 2004 article on the album. In 2007, London Calling was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a collection of recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance. The album was included in the BBC Radio 1 2009 Masterpieces Series, marking it as one of the most influential albums of all time, some thirty years after its original release.
Film: In December 2010, the BBC reported that a film about the recording of London Calling was in the early stages of production. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon are working as executive producers for the film. The script was written by Jez Butterworth and shooting would begin in 2011. Alison Owen and Paul Trijbits had been chosen as the producers.