I was released in the United States four days before London Calling, on January 11th, 1980. I’m not an especially mystical person, but I do have to love the fact that my favorite album ever (and the best album released in my lifetime) has been there for me almost every minute of my life.
Not that I knew it at the time. I didn’t hear London Calling until I was 23 and in college. My musical taste when I was young was embarrassing and ordinarily, I’d spare you the gory details. But, in this case, the gory details will lend an important context to what I have to say about what is (rightly) regarded as The Clash’s finest hour.
My dad was into whiny, 70s country and Neil Diamond when I was little. My mom had lots of Billy Joel and a Kiss 8-track. So I was swimming in shit (culturally speaking) for the first several years of my life. The first album I bought on cassette was Bon Jovi’s New Jersey and I had Def Leppard’s Hysteria on vinyl. Fuck off, I was eight. I indulged in all that hair-metal bullshit throughout the 80s (Mom was into this stuff as well and even once hilariously tried to convince her three children that she was cheating on my dad with Jon Bon Jovi. Believe it or not, this was not even close to the craziest thing she ever did.), never knowing what sort of awesome music was there for the enjoying if I could only go find it. Like many people, I have to credit Nirvana’s Nevermind with knocking (forcefully) some sense into me regarding the music I was listening to. Nirvana actually meant something and their songs weren’t just about rocking and getting laid. You youngsters today might not realize it, but at the time, that was a real revelation.
By the time I was in college, my musical taste had evolved many times over and I’d shed any trace of the shit music of my childhood. So my mind was ripe and open to what London Calling was and is: nothing short of a musical mission statement. It was punk, it was funk, it was jazz, it was reggae, it was… everything. It is the document of a band knowing their capabilities and playing to them with flawless execution.
Let me set the stage for ya – I walk into my roommate’s room and he’s playing the computer game Worms. His team is Clash-themed (characters with names like Jimmy Jazz and Sean Flynn, etc.) I realize that I haven’t paid as much attention to The Clash as maybe I should have. The technical know-how of my roommates was such that much music was passed back and forth between shared folders. So I grabbed somebody’s Clash folder and buckled myself in. I knew the reputation of London Calling, but even that first listen would not reveal to me the impact this album would have on my life.
You see, I’ve literally listened to London Calling at least once a week, every week, since 2003. You do the math. And it’s not getting old, it’s getting better. I used to shuffle my feet and try to equivocate when I was asked to name my favorite album ever but I realized about a year ago that pretending my favorite album changes every week or that I really don’t have just one favorite is engaging in a really unhealthy level of dishonesty: London Calling is it. I know, I know, what about the Beatles, what about the Stones, what about et cetera et cetera et cetera? Don’t care. I’ll take London Calling over all of ’em.
Why? These guys were supposed to be a punk band (and they were a good one when they were one – The Clash is a great album and even Give ‘Em Enough Rope has some great stuff once you get past the hyper-polished production) and here they were doing rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac,” with the Strummer sneer “I said, ‘Jesus Christ! Where’d you get that Cadillac?”), pop (“Lost in the Supermarket,”), and reggae (“Revolution Rock,”) in addition to the firebrand political punk (“London Calling,” “Koka Kola,” “Clampdown”) that they pioneered. You can say all you want about The Ramones (I adore them) and The Sex Pistols (Nevermind the Bollocks is a good album) being the first punk bands, but The Clash was the first band that tried to make punk actually stand for something. Joe Strummer sang this first in 1979 and it hasn’t lost a jot of resonance: “Kick over the wall/ cause governments to fall/ how can you refuse it?/ Let fury have the hour/ anger can be power/ D’you know that you can use it?” Joe Strummer was rocking his ass off while acknowledging a world bigger than his little life in a rock band and Mick Jones was setting that enlightened view to incredible music. That was the formula since the days of “White Riot,” but London Calling saw Paul Simonon’s first recorded shot in front of a mic on “Guns of Brixton” (a song that is admittedly better on the recent live album Live at Shea Stadium than it is on London Calling); it was The Clash performing at the peak of their considerable power with not one weak link in the 19-song chain.
I really have two musical heroes, and they’re obvious to anyone who knows me: Tom Waits and Joe Strummer. Strummer once defined punk this way: “In fact, punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.” He swore there would never be a Clash album that cost more than $5.99 and convinced CBS that London Calling was single-length album with a free bonus record, thus making good on his promise. He was by no means a saint but he was by all accounts a decent man and one of the best songwriters in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. There are countless books (although Redemption Song by Chris Salewicz, whose name I undoubtedly misspelled, is the only one you need) that will tell you all you could want to know about the man. But if you want to know about his musical talent, and the talent of his mates Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon, you need only pick up a copy of London Calling. And then, should you chance upon any of the surviving members of the Clash, offer to buy them a beer and give them your sincerest thanks for what they gave the world at the dawn of the Reagan/Thatcher years.