The Clash, London Calling – Retro CD Review

Joe Strummer was the ideal front man for a rock & roll band. His preeminence is showcased on London Calling, The Clash’s Third Full-length release. It is considered one of their best albums by many, and though I don’t agree totally, that’s mainly because so many of their releases are so thoroughly well-structured. That having been said, London Calling is an excellent album. Thirty years after its release, it is still a shining example of both the cohesion of this unit and their willingness to explore and expand their sound. Although it was released in England in December of 1979, it is being reviewed here for its American January 1980 pressing. The original record was a double album, and was considered a leap for a punk band. I think it would still be considered a departure for a punk band in modern days to release a double album, but The Clash had no problem proving that they were more than just any old punk band with this record. This album is a significantly more cohesive effort from the band than the previous albums where songwriting is concerned, as pretty much everyone got involved, and vocal duties are more shared than before.

The title track is as ominous and powerful as ever, and fires its quick-march tempo across the lines of battle. “Brand New Cadillac” jumps headfirst into the rockabilly genre and makes it viable for The Clash to be seen as more than just a punk band, as the album shows in other tunes. This song was actually written by Joe when he was in the 101’ers, and I will admit that I was never a big fan of it originally, but it has grown on me, and, having subsequently heard the original version, I now believe Mick Jones and Topper Headon to be the ingredients necessary to make it properly happen. “Jimmy Jazz” strolls the streets of the title’s jazz sounds, as well as elements of a kind of honky-tonk manner, all the while maintaining its edge. “Hateful” is a different kind of melodic punk rock that the band had explored on the prior release Give ‘Em Enough Rope; the track from that album, “Stay Free” is its closest relative in The Clash canon. “Rudie Can’t Fail” weaves back and forth between a ska/reggae feel and a straightforward rock approach, and for the most part, gets it right…not that there was really much of anything to compare in those days.

“Spanish Bombs”, for me, has been a love/hate song. I go back and forth. At the time of writing this I enjoyed listening to it again, but at the same time I feel that the song could’ve been lost and not affected the integrity of the record. The bell-like tones of the acoustic strings mixing with the backing organ give a decidedly foreign flare, as does Jones & Strummer’s usage of interwoven English/Spanish lyrical content. The whole of the record to this point had a decidedly English flavor, but this tune is definitely international. We move on to “The Right Profile”, which has all the makings of a New York taxi symphony in the afternoon. (This is actually a good thing, believe it!) When you hear the staccato Telecaster chords open this song, followed by the tenor and baritone sax hooting to introduce the rest of the instruments, you cannot help but think of the streets of midtown/downtown Manhattan. There is a distinctly American taste in this one. “Lost In The Supermarket” was one of my good friend Matt Pollina’s favorites for a long period, and I can understand why: this song has a more pop-oriented texture to it, guitars jangling and the driving upbeat tempo allows the somewhat depressing lyrical content a more uplifted carriage. “Clampdown” has long been a favorite of the punk scene in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and it is one of mine as well. I have no idea what else to say about this one…it’s good. “Guns of Brixton” is Paul Simonon’s first effort singing a song with The Clash, and it has become one of their best-known and best-loved reggae-like tunes. The bass line here is incredible and is easily recognizable anywhere you go. The content, of course, deals with an area of London well known as a tough neighborhood and a haven for criminal-minded types, and as Simonon grew up in that area, he knew enough about it to make it authentic when he wrote and sang it. This song is the last track on the first record of the original release.

“Wrong ‘Em Boyo” opens the second record with a jazz/blues overtone, but quickly switches to an up-tempo ska beat. It is a good song, but not one of my favorites. What helps it along is the use of more predominant horns, especially saxophone, than ever previously used by this outfit. While it isn’t a bad tune, it is largely forgettable, which is why I can never recall what it’s called when discussing the album, unless I am looking at a copy of it. This is largely true of the next track “Death Or Glory”. “The Card Cheat” which, while it is more a true rock ballad, also falls into this category. “Koka Kola”, on the other hand, is short, sweet, and full of caffeine – or rather, I mean, Strummer’s wit. It is another of my favorites on the album.

Side four opens inauspiciously with “Lover’s Rock”. I will just skip over this weak link and move to “Four Horsemen”, which is another of The Clash’s forays into what is one of their favorite fun lands: self-aggrandizement through song. Previous endeavors into this style include “Clash City Rockers”, from their self-titled debut album, and “Guns On The Roof” and “Last Gang In Town”, off their album Give ‘Em Enough Rope. “Horsemen” is a fun, light-hearted rock & roll song that carries the album into lighter territory. “I’m Not Down” features Mick Jones on lead vocals, for the fourth time on the album, and utilizes a variety of percussive fills and approaches disco at some points, but stays with the rock & roll theme which dominates the album. This is, again, a fun tune which extols the first person’s strength by surviving many pitfalls in life and yet vows that “I’m not down”. It is a splendid pick-me-up when you are feeling downtrodden but plugging away at life. “Revolution Rock” is exactly what one would expect from a song by The Clash featuring “revolution” in its title: catchy, reggae-infused rock with Strummer encouraging the listener to dance his/her way into a revolution. Although not written by The Clash, it is definitely their song on this album. The album closes with one of The Clash’s most successful singles ever released, “Train In Vain”. This track actually made it to number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February of 1980, and made it to number 30 on the Billboard Disco Hot 100 the same time period. It was one of the first songs I ever sang at a karaoke bar and despite it not being one my favorite songs by The Clash, it holds a very special place in my heart for its catchiness, its danceability, and its quirky, popping guitar work. It is a great closer for an album.

OVERALL RATING: This album earns a solid nine out of ten on the SPS scale. You can’t do a whole lot better than that. I cannot tell you where I would be without this album in my life. In a side note, I’m not sure if I mentioned it in December, but on 12/22/2002, Joe Strummer passed out of this life at the age of fifty. It was a huge loss for the music community, as he has touched many lives, and I doubt we will see another person quite like him in the near future. His music has certainly impacted my life.