Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The London Calling-1979


On December 14, 1979 one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time was released. It was at this time that the music world was undergoing some serious growing pains and many people were beginning to finally see the error of their ways in the absurdity that was disco. Though disco didn't officially “end” until the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in July of that year, its epitaph had already been written by the forces of reason represented by the emerging punk scene who had begun a total war against it a few years earlier.
The album in question was the third release by The Clash,
London Calling.
Long established as a cultural mecca of literature, music and learning, the London of the late 1970’s had again given birth to some of the greatest music the world had ever heard. The desperation of the post war years had turned the boom into a bust. The cultural and social consequences quickly became a double edged sword that would give a great gift to the world while at the same time punish its own inhabitants under a crushing avalanche of the repercussions of social upheavals created by the phenomenon of the latest incarnation of the “London Calling”.
The term itself, which escapes the understanding of pretty much anyone outside of its draw, is much like the now infamous line, “Bangkok has him”; the London Calling isn’t just an album or a book title or a cliche, it’s a social construct of a culture where a city and an atmosphere changes a person.
In his book London Calling: a Countercultural History of London Since 1945, Barry Miles quantifies the concept of London Calling as a counter culture movement that began in the waning days of World War II where young men from the rural, sleepy outlands of Britain traveled to London to make their art their life and in the process lost everything they were and filled up instead with what London gave them. As competent of an author and social observer as Miles is, he seems to limit himself with the idea as an invention of modern culture. Personally, I see Mick Jones’ and Joe Strummer’s experiences in dealing with life in the mega city of bright lights and the struggle to find a unity with their own art akin to the same trials gone through by Thomas Tallis under Henry VIII or Taillefer with William the Conqueror; there’s just something about London that “makes” the music. It’s something most Americans just can’t grasp; the draw of London and its place in all that is “British”.
But this isn't a critique of British history, so…
Much like the experiences of Nirvana at the outset of the Seattle Sound Grunge movement in the late 80’s, the new Punk of late 70’s Clash in London was a turning point that turned out to just be the beginning of a whole new realm of music/culture influence. What The Clash did on London Calling was to become the default expectation for the new sound and a direct reflection of the world it came from.
Following their second album, and in true Punk form, they broke with their manager and found a new place to practice which turned out to be a studio in the back of a garage. Whether it was just a place that felt like home, or that it presented a grittiness that success had taken away from them, it worked and led them to write their greatest work ever.
They also chose Guy Stevens to produce the album, which was definitely not a high point for the opinion of
Guy Stevens-Not popular
with stuffed shirts
them held by the execs at CBS Records. Stevens was, for lack of a better word, a nut. He was an alcoholic, drug addict, not “normal” (as defined by record executive opinions of what a producer should be) and was by no means an easy person to deal with. But, the band had held him up as an instrumental aspect of their original success from when he’d been involved in their first demo that got them discovered. Though he’d been incredibly successful with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the Beatles, he never would've been on the project at the behest of the label had The Clash not had enough star power to demand it.
His experience and affinity toward, and amazing personality mesh with, the band vindicated them in their choice. He seamlessly created an atmosphere that led them to write like themselves, which obviously turned out best instead of what a more corporate producer sent by the label ever would've been able to do. Just like Bruce Vig would do ten years later with Nirvana on Nevermind, Stevens found a way to let the band “be” the band they wanted to be, not feel like sellouts for using the tools available in modern recording to clean up and deepen their sound and still make an album that was palatable to the label.
The first, and most iconic, thing about London Calling is that album cover. Everyone knows it, it’s just one of those pictures that will long outlast the now fleeting importance of what album covers have become. But, this
Just fixing the nail pops in the stage,
 nothing to see here
was an album from when albums were actually albums. You know, those big, round plastic looking things that came in a huge sleeve that you set up on a giant stereo? Yeah, those things.
The image of bassist Paul Simonon utterly trashing his bass on stage came at The Paladium in New York on “The Clash take the fifth tour” tour on September 21, 1979. Sure it’s now become such a trendy faux pas for a rocker to get so amped up that he trashes his gear on stage, but at the time this was the height of absurdity or edginess(depending on your particular comfort level and coolness). What most people don’t know was that the photo was almost canned by the photographer due to its quality but after Strummer insisted, it was surrounded by titling to intentionally mimic Elvis Presley’s first album forever relegating poor old Elvis the Pelvis to the background as
"OWWW. I cut my foot
on a nail sticking out..
this version became one of the top ten album covers of all time as voted by “Q” magazine and was issued by the Royal Mail as a stamp in their Classic Album Cover stamp series. 
The style of the album itself was a change from their previous releases. Whether a reaction to the fact that the music industry had for so long completely marginalized all actual music for the money making potential of the disco fiasco or because of the inevitable growth as musicians all bands seem to go through once they rise to a level of feeling secure enough to reach higher, it was a general hodge podge of ska, riffle, punk, rock, jazz and even reggae influenced grooves.
Joe Strummer and the boys had become well known enough and successful enough that this album represented a far more introspective move on their part. Long gone were the days of poor kids who just loved to play music, they had become “artists” and the normal punk angst that had driven them to this level had begun to be replaced by the disillusionment of adulthood and far loftier issues they faced.
By example, the title track discussed the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island and the rising social issues crippling young adults in England at the time. 
The drug epidemic that had been inherited from the hippies of the 60’s had quickly become the bane of the late 70’s and had replaced the peace and love ideals with the harsh truth of realities that punk became the outlet for. Into all this came the “London Calling” where the innocence and youth of Britain was erased by the harsh reality of what it took to survive.
CBS used the line, “The Clash: The Only Band that Matters” as a quirky and snarky Punk mantra and
promotional tool. But it was also the way the band lived with their music, which explains the concern over what they knew could happen once their music left their lungs and was filtered through the corporate music machine. Luckily, this album came about at just the right time when The Clash had enough clout to exercise a bit more artistic control over their work than many musicians are allowed.
A great indicator how grounded and secure the band had become in their writing is Revolution Rock, actually one of their lesser known songs. One of the best Reggae songs ever written, it was pretty much universally slammed by critics as an example of Strummer and Jones’ inability to write ballads and “radio successful” songs. Honestly, when you look back at it and realize that they were even included into his lyrics by Bob Marley after he heard them, it’s amazing those critics had the intelligence to tie their own shoes after missing something this monumental right in front of them.
Back into the sense of loss over where they had found themselves through success and where they’d come from, Lost in the Supermarket tells the story of why so many were feeling the pull of London. The emergence of modern globalization, and what Strummer saw as an increasingly commercialized world of rampant consumerism had led to a monotony and alienation of living in suburbia resulting in an ever increasing depersonalization. Perhaps that's describing it too deeply to retain its Punk-ness, still the sentiments were genuine of the time and probably harder to grasp in today’s terms since it’s something that we've just become used to dealing with.
Clampdown is another great example of their influence, or curse depending on how you look at it. Its sound has become the default for bands like Blink 182, Green Day, Good Charlotte and a hundred other generic post punk groups. Still though, it’s a great song and at the time was truly unique.
As if to show how cutting edge and prophetic they really were, Guns of Brixton is a song that was literally 
before its time. The song was written bassist Paul Simonen and was the first of his sole creations to be recorded by The Clash. During live performances, he and Strummer would trade instruments since he didn’t feel comfortable singing and playing the bass lines he’d written for the song.
The song itself is about the heavy handed treatment of locals in his hometown of Brixton by the police. There had been mass upheavals in Brixton for quite a while. Simonen used the song to tell the story of a man’s supposedly paranoid outlook on life and how it was not just a misperception of reality but an expectation of his future based on the events he’d witnessed. While some critics bashed the song as an overreaction of the listless youth, Simonen’s words proved true when two years later the building animosity and desperation from poverty in Brixton exploded into the Brixton Riots. After a young man bled to death from a stab wound, up to 25,000 people marched through the streets protesting what they saw as a failure of the police. After two days of nonstop rioting, looting and an atmosphere just short of revolution, confrontations had led to 299 policemen and 65 civilians being injured and dozens of buildings being burned down.
Through all of this, the album kept its edge. Though the engineering was quite professional and can in no means be said to have been lacking, it still sounds like The Clash. While some producers may have tried to over engineer and turn out an album more Pop than punk, it’s obvious that all the stars aligned for The Clash during this time and they got the best recordings of their best work.
Just like Cobain’s reticence on over dubs and backing vocals, Strummer was concerned with the album becoming over polished and missing the point of what it was written to be. Strummer’s “London Calling”  was meant to be Punk without being garage, rock without being glam, thoughtful without being whiny; in essence it was meant to be a rock star type mega work without being polished and Disneyfied into destruction. Nirvana wasn't actually able to accomplish it with their mass market effort years later but whether that was because of the album itself or because of the culture in which the album was absorbed it’s hard to tell. London Calling however was still fringe enough, still raw enough that it never became over exposed, over emulated or over hyped. Granted, they never had the worldwide level of icon status of Nirvana or the vulgar wealth, but maybe in that their staying power and true appreciation by fans is what it should really be measured by. It was the right band at the right time with the right producer. It’s not that no other band could’ve achieved such a masterpiece of music, it’s just that no one else did. London is still calling.

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