Everyone who likes music seems to love the Clash. No, really, it's true. Consider the list of other artists who name the band as a major influence: When have U2 and M.I.A. and Rancid all shown up on the same list before? But the Clash's appeal and influence crosses many of the usual genre boundaries that divide popular music. The band's iconic 1979 double LP London Calling has a lot to do with the Clash's worldwide legacy, frequently named among the greatest albums of all time by multiple sources.
The Clash was, at least for a time, considered a punk band. Punk as in real punk—this ain't no Green Day— alongside the Sex Pistols and Generation X, for the 18 months around 1977 that punk rockers considered the genre pure and noncommercial. The thing with punk bands has always been that you love them or you hate them. Some love the authenticity, the DIY attitude of bands who don't know how to play more than three chords but thrash away anyway; others find punk rockers undeserving of recognition for the exact same reason.
The Clash seemed to transcend that, becoming internationally and almost ubiquitously loved. The band shared the typical punk rock anti-establishment attitude (The Sex Pistols' hit "God Save the Queen" might as well be punctuated ironically as "God 'Save' the Queen"). But, as Clash frontman Joe Strummer later recalled, the band also wanted to be big in a pop sort of way, to "break out and break in America and be kind of global." London Calling, with the title track in particular in mind, was the moment when these punk rockers combined their pure punk roots with some rather un-punk elements—intellect, diverse styles, and technical skill—to make that dream come true, making their music more accessible to a wider audience.
We should probably, then, think of the Clash as a post-punk band than a punk band, and we'll explore that difference with "London Calling."
So, what's punk, anyway? A lot of people throw the word around. Typically the only clearly punk thing these days is fashion. Green spiky mohawk man and his bleached, leathered, spiked-out girlfriend smoking in their beat up old car on a really hot day—now that's punk, right? No disrespect to green spiky mohawk man, but his Hot Topic stylings were punk...in 1976. Way back then, the punk movement and punk fashion weren't about the clothes but the attitude behind the clothes. This was the attitude: the consumer industries of the world, fashion and music industries in particular, aren't working, just like the state isn't working. Nothing worked for the punks, who were very often from poor or working class areas, unless they were arty bohemians.
So, what do you do? You do things yourself. The importance of anti-establishmentarianism that makes leathery-spike girl wear the things she wears was that it made room for a do-it-yourself attitude that permeated all punk. This is one reason why we've got the punk music we have. Johnny Rotten didn't like the music or the attitude of music at the time, so he figured he'd make his own music, with his own controversial attitude front and center. It didn't really matter that he couldn't sing.
The Clash were steeped in this DIY attitude and they embraced the radical politics to match. Joe Strummer's lyrics exuded a distaste for the government and capitalism, embracing a postcolonial critique of western imperialism in the Cold War era. Heck, the Clash entitled an entire album Sandinista in tribute to left-wing guerilla revolutionaries in Nicaragua.
On "London Calling," Strummer taps into a particularly post-apocalyptic strain of left-wing DIY thought, describing the destruction of the world by the corrupt establishment even as he calls to others to "go it alone." He sings, "Now don't look to us / All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust," which could be read as a warning that the Clash (billed by their record label as "The Only Band that Matters") didn't really want to be blindly followed by their fans. Instead, the band calls to all the "boys and girls" to "get out of the cupboards" and take their own place in this fantasy revolution/end of days.
The production history of the album London Calling reflects the band's call to everyone to take up the reigns on their own. In 1978, the band took up a new rehearsal space in London called Vanilla. Rehearsing from one in the afternoon until nine or ten at night, taking the occasional break for lunch or some football, the band wrote and practiced the songs that would make up the masterpiece of London Calling. According to everyone in the band, there was a friendly, excited atmosphere at Vanilla that the band would never recapture again. Strummer found the space so incredible that he wanted to record the whole album at Vanilla instead of in a studio.
Part of the reason was that the band wanted to release London Calling as a double LP, with two vinyl discs instead of one, which studios disliked because of the extra costs involved. Since they cost more to make, they cost more to buy, and therefore sold less. Strummer felt that recording at Vanilla, borrowing equipment from the Who soundman Bob Pridden, would cut the costs so the double LP would be a possibility.
He told NME, "We've got some crazy ideas. Suppose a group comes along and decided to make a sixteen-track LP on two Teacs, which dramatically diminishes the cost factor called 'studio costs.' [That way] you can get a f---ing LP for two or three quid [In 1979, full-priced LPs retailed for £5 or £6]. The majors don't like doing that sort of thing because it sets unhealthy precedents."
Those precedents, of course, were the DIY precedents of punk. Many bands had been self-releasing albums during the punk movement because they couldn't get signed to labels and they didn't trust the record companies trying to cash in on their "authentic" movement by making it commercial. The Clash did end up recording at Vanilla, but at the request of the record company recorded the album again a proper studio. "The Vanilla Tapes," as they are called, have since reemerged though, and are available on the 25th anniversary rerelease of London Calling.
Even as they embodied many aspects of the punk movement, the Clash were already beginning to transcend it. One of the most important aspects of punk music was the claim to a "Year Zero" of music. Punk rockers felt that the music of the 1970s, particularly the meandering, guitar-hero centered, classic rock of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin was stupid. 1976 was the beginning, and everything before that was declared a musical wasteland. Like other music acts, the Clash began to ignore this ban and started looking back. Way back, actually.
With their tour of America in 1978 and their subsequent returns during the mixing of London Calling, the band demonstrated a fascination with America that disregarded punk's year zero. This can be seen even in the cover art of the LP. The famous photograph of Paul Simonon smashing his bass dominates rock photography, but the black and white photo and the pink and green lettering are also an allusion to Elvis Presely's debut album cover. The single cover for "London Calling" continues this theme, lifting an old RCA Victor cover with that familiar '50s artwork of two happy white children listening to records, changing only the titles of the songs that the kids are listening to. (The records on the cover are Please Please Me by the Beatles, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones, Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, The Clash, and Elvis Presley.) All are debut albums, if you count Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited as the debut of the rock and roll Dylan. And all but two of the albums were released before 1976.
"London Calling" itself features the ultimate no-no of pre-1976, non-punk musical influences: The Eagles. At the very end of the song, Mick Jones plays with the feedback of his guitar, switching between his pickups to sound and then mute the distortion. He spells out, with the feedback, S-O-S, the famous Morse code distress signal. If Mick Jones was inspired by anyone in this clever guitar move, it was by Joe Walsh, of the Eagles, who put Morse code guitar lines in his songs on several occasions, spelling out things like "Register and Vote." How un-punk.
Or maybe even post-punk. Post-punk was a movement that took the punk ideals of antiestablishment, starting over, and innovating, and explored music experimentally. Bands like Devo, Cabaret Voltaire, and This Heat would experiment by branching out and breaking the Year Zero of punk. They looked back past 1976 to some great '70s acts like David Bowie and Roxy Music, King Crimson, and Neu.
Instead of looking to bands like Led Zeppelin, which punk aligned itself directly against, post-punk bands opened up their sound by putting the guitar in the background, turning down the fullness of the guitar sound in favor of skanking lines and spikey cleanness reminiscent of reggae. This more rhythm-oriented guitar allowed the bass and drums more room to fill the soundscapes. This is a defining feature of "London Calling," whose guitar lines skank along to the rhythm section, letting the bass line take a more melodic role than usual.
While punk, according to Simon Reynold's Rip It Up and Start Again, attempted to sound militant and "aggressively monolithic" by purging itself of all the blackness and soul of rock music, it's clear that "London Calling" does have some swing elements. You might listen to "London Calling" and realize that the song really sways between the punky militancy and the swinging soul of rock the entire time. Topper Headon's drumbeat demonstrates this easily. The militancy evoked by the quarter note hits on the snare drum evoke that monolithic punk sound. But the beat occasionally switches to a backbeat-oriented swing rhythm. Listen for yourself. It's very interesting. "London Calling" seems to be a bridge between old Clash and future Clash, negotiating the band's punk roots with its desire to reach out to new sounds from Africa and Jamaica.
Later music by the Clash would more fully incorporate disco elements, but the power of the beat in "London Calling" is undeniable. This song is something you can dance to, with its swing rhythms and powerful bass lines. While the song is a masterpiece, it is also a snapshot into the evolution of a band that could prove itself capable of creating both such raw punk as "White Riot" and such commercial disco as "Rock the Casbah."