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The more you'll think about it, the more you'll realize what an awesome sound "London Calling" has. There isn't much else out there that sounds quite like this song, with its mashup of marching quarter-note hits, skanking reggae guitar riffs, a curiously inquisitive bass line, and Joe Strummer's howling vocals.
The genre is technically called post-punk, a genre that music historians place as emerging in 1978, when the sparse three-chord anthems of the first wave of punk evolved into more complex music that mixed several styles, particularly incorporating world music like reggae and dub, as the Clash did. "London Calling" is among the band's most successful "post-punk" singles. Others worth listening to are "Rock the Cashbah," "Bankrobber," or the dub/hip-hop song, "This Is Radio Clash," which find the band moving away from punk and more into disco and reggae.
The mixed-up influences heard in "London Calling" create a peculiar atmosphere in the song. "London Calling" enters the arena of the vital, fun, punk anthem at the same time that it nears the zone of apocalypse. This song is on edge, yet also a huge party at the same time. There's a lot to be said about the fun of revolution. "Punk" might have been dead for two years by the time that "London Calling" was cut, but the Clash continued to play on punk's central themes of anti-establishmentarianism and anarchy, though in an intelligent and often political way. The sense of revolution is not just lyrical, "now that war is declared and battle come down," but in the marching beat of the drum. The beat is sparse, alternating between simple quarter note hits on the snare and a swinging backbeat progression. The quarter note hits on the snare evoke military drumming (as does the heavy use of the snare in general; it is a military instrument) and revolution.
But the song is quick to transform this into its rock and roll beat and switch freely back and forth, as if to emphasize that the fun of war is what is coming through in the evocation of military drumming. Just as with the lyrics, the fun and spirit of the march seems to act as a counterpoint to the darker spirit of the song. Just as Strummer's line "London calling to the zombies of death / Quit holding out and draw another breath" releases some of the dramatic tension of "London is drowning and I live by the river," the marching reggae contours of the song keep the song from remaining totally dark, with its wrenching guitar solos, howls, and unresolved ending complementing the apocalyptic lyrics.
Take the intro, for example. The song begins with its E minor/F major chord progression, but after a while, Mick Jones' overdriven lead guitar stops alternating, hanging on that funky Fmaj9 while Strummer alternates between the E minor and F major, increasing its bite as the tension of the unresolved progression grows. It's wicked.
Then there's the bridge section after the second chorus. The hum of feedback makes way for the howling of Joe Strummer at 1:55 and the echoing guitar solo, which sounds like the twisting of metal in the punk revolution that could have been. While the anarchy of the sound is fun, it's also frightening. Strummer's howling sounds like that of a rooster, perhaps symbolizing not only the rising of a new sun, a new era, but the wild anarchy of that new era. But it also sounds like the crow of rooks, omens of death. Or could it be the howl of a wolf?
Then there's the end of the song. Typically, shorter pieces of music like pop songs go in a sort of musical circle, beginning a certain way, on a certain chord, and ending with a return to that chord, called the tonic. This song doesn't resolve at all. In fact, the end is made out to be distressing. Instead of ending on the tonic, the song echoes out with Strummer's last line, "I never felt so much a-like..." never completing.
If the mission of punk is to rebel and provide a pulse to anti-establishment sentiments through its lyrics and sound, then perhaps the worst fate of punk is to not get that message out. Ironically, the only message that does come out is SOS. Jones switches between his pickups to spell out Morse code with his feedback (it's common for guitars to have noisier pickups that buzz when the guitar is set to read them).
If many were looking to the Clash as the next important British band after the Beatles—and they were; many billed them as "The Only Band That Matters"—then the Clash is here communicating their own inability to have the proper voice, as well as their own sense of being lost.
The phrase "London calling" was the call sign of BBC Radio during the Second World War. It later became the name of the BBC World Service's radio catalog listings. Strummer was definitely tapping into this on his song, making these reports of apocalypse out to be official news reports.
In fact, "London Calling" was originally titled "News of Clock Nine," as Chris Salewicz, author of Strummer's biography, Redemption Song, noted. It was "a reference to the BBC TV news broadcast in [the late '70s] at nine each weekday evening."
An earlier draft of the lyrics reveals that one line even went, "London calling news of clock nine / Birth control—there's a plot on it."
The lyrics of "London Calling" read like a tabloid drama of end-of-the world predictions...a kind of time capsule revealing how the pessimistic-minded might expect the end to be coming back in 1979.
Unlike some songs, whose staying power comes from their broadness or their engagement with timeless themes, this song, like many Joe Strummer creations, takes its strength by imbedding itself in the atmosphere of the time. The end of the 1970s was a time when much of the world was on edge; "London Calling" was a fittingly paranoiac theme song. Joe Strummer was a remarkably well-read and politically engaged rock star. His lyrics were full of references to things going on in the world, and "London Calling" is no different.
Strummer tapped into fears of oil depletion and climate change long before these issues penetrated mass consciousness. The line, "engines stop runnin'" is clearly indicative of an oil shortage, a nod to the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 that left the West out of gas while OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, inflated oil prices. Surprisingly, though, Strummer's understanding of the oil crisis may have extended beyond the OPEC boycott to the concept of peak oil, which has only become the subject of intense discussion much more recently. In an interview with NME, he declared, "There's ten thousand days of oil left. It's finite." That's true; the only question is how long the oil supply will last before the world taps out this vital resource.
Climate change is addressed, too, but not in the way you might think. Today, most scientists believe that the world is going through a trend of warming, but in the 1970s, that trend was only beginning to become apparent. In the 1960s and '50s, data actually suggested that the world was headed towards a period of cooling. This might explain Strummer's insistence that "the ice age is coming," or the pure ambivalence of this statement considering that the next words are "the sun's zooming in"—maybe causing warming or maybe just blowing up. Whether too cold or too hot, there's no question that the world described in "London Calling" is anything but just right.
Meanwhile, the partial meltdown of a nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania in early 1979 turned the tables on the popular opinion of nuclear energy, sparking new fears of nuclear catastrophe throughout the world. At the same time, "there was a lot of Cold War nonsense going on," according to Strummer, raising the specter of deliberate use of nuclear weapons to achieve military aims. The fear of nuclear holocaust creeps into "London Calling" with references to "meltdowns expected" and "a nuclear error." Joe continued to explain in the NME interview that he was inspired to write "London Calling" while riding in a cab with a woman alongside the River Thames, the river which flows through central London. He said, "We already knew London was susceptible to flooding. She told me to write something about that. So I sat in the front room, looking out at Edith Grove." The irony of the lyric, "London is drowning and I live by the river" is that Joe Strummer really did live practically right next to the river, living at World's End Estate, Chelsea SW10.
The culture of the time finds its way into "London Calling" as well. Punk was still huge in 1979, but it was an altogether different beast than it had been a few years earlier. Many of the original punk bands had split up, and the Clash were one of the few successful bands left (if you could even consider their later music to be punk). The general feel was that by 1978, "real punk" had died as a movement. With the involvement of the recording industry, punk was becoming very commercial, and many imitators were on the rise. Strummer notes this, with a line dedicated to "the imitation zone," saying, "Forget it, brother, you can go it alone!"
The larger milieu of the 1970s, its superficiality and lack of substance, gets a line as well. Strummer denounces all the "phoney Beatlemania," either surrounding the Clash itself or the Broadway musical Beatlemania, which offered "Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation," as one ad ran. There was a sense in the 1970s that people didn't care so much about creating an authentic new culture for the new generation. Instead, they wanted to relive the 1960s, branding new bands as the new Dylan, the next Beatles.
To the Clash, all of this felt like the apocalypse. Everything was falling apart to Strummer, which you can hear in the final line of the song, "I never felt so much a-like," which, as live versions of the song prove, is a shortened version of the full line, "I never felt so much a-like singin' the blues."