“Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realised that you either became a power or you were crushed.” —The Clash lead vocalist Joe Strummer
“Merry and tough, passionate and large-spirited, London Calling celebrates the romance of rock & roll rebellion in grand, epic terms. It doesn’t merely reaffirm the Clash’s own commitment to rock-as-revolution. Instead, the record ranges across the whole of rock & roll’s past for its sound, and digs deeply into rock legend, history, politics and myth for its images and themes. Everything has been brought together into a single, vast, stirring story.” -Tom Carson of Rolling Stone magazine
The 60’s were over, but the momentum that they had built up, artistically, culturally, and politically, would carry over into the 70’s. Straight out of the gates, the third trip to the moon went horribly wrong and the astronauts on board the Apollo 13 mission barely survived. At Kent State University 4 students were killed and 9 more were injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire during an anti-Vietnam War protest. The earliest homosexual rights demonstrations would take place while Disney World in Orlando was being built. The Civil Rights movement in America entered a new phase following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 as overseas the Northern Irish were marching against British rule. Terrorists held Israeli hostages at the Olympic games and the title of President lost some of its reverence following Nixon’s Watergate scandal. The next President was a simple peanut farmer, and Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister. 900 people committed mass suicide under the cult leadership of Jim Jones and Ted Bundy confessed to committing 30 murders. Western art had entirely lost its innocence as pornography became increasingly popular and the hippy, trippy, optimistic sounds of the 60’s were replaced by aggression and angst as punk rock came into the scene. Rock and Roll’s king, the great Elvis Presley, died alone on a toilet at the age of 42. Something had changed, and nobody was ready for it.
The artistic advances and creative boom of the 60’s set up the 70’s to deliver big, and they did. Filmmakers used modern technology to push the medium to never before seen heights as Coppola made The Godfather and its sequel, Polansky made Chinatown, and Scorsese made Taxi Driver within a stretch of 3 years. Blockbuster movies would follow a similar trend as Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws, Lucas would give us the earliest Star Wars, and horror movies were changed forever following Friedkin’s adaptation of The Exorcist. Music continued to shift, keeping the ball rolling after the leaps and bounds which took place through the 60’s. After their breakup in ’69, the Beatles released their final album Let It Be, while their greatest contemporaries, The Rolling Stones, continued to grow and release albums like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street which would earn them their place in the conversation of greatest rock band on earth, and maybe ever. New styles and ideas came forth as Black Sabbath more or less invented Metal and bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols made Punk what it is. Progressive Rock had its short heyday which most recognize as coming to an end in 1975, but by then artists like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, David Bowie, and Queen gave us some of the best albums anybody could ask for. Pink Floyd stuck to their guns and between 1971 and 1979 put together one of the most immortal 5 album runs ever. While Disco ran rampant Marvin Gaye, an artist known for making easy listening R&B love songs, released What’s Going On?, one of the most potent protest albums ever. A young Bruce Springsteen was being called the next Bob Dylan, improving with each album he released up until 1975’s Born to Run, and in the same year the real Bob Dylan made one of the most incredible returns to form ever with Blood on the Tracks. Queen, Elton John, Rush, Michael Jackson, etc. etc. etc. The music world was exploding, as technology improved more artists felt like they had something to say, and had the means to say it how they wanted to. Trust in the powers that be and national pride were at an all time low and the mind expanding hallucinogens that ruled the drug scene in the 60’s were replaced by harder drugs like cocaine making a once freeing experience into one that carried real danger, destroying or ending lives altogether. I personally consider the 1970’s the greatest decade of modern art, but what was the cost? After experiencing and being a part of all of this, plenty of people had something to say. Few however could say it quite like a group of guys from London, the so called “Only Band that Matters”: The Clash.
London Calling has cemented itself in the history of rock and roll not only because of the way it mixes musical styles or because it sounds so good. The true power of this album comes from what the young Brits had to say. The album’s opener and title track “London Calling” is a dystopian rant fueled by the fears of disaster in the modern world. Referencing nuclear waste and the disaster which had happened in a plant in Pennsylvania, they fear the damage that can come without caution. Commenting on how, if the rivers in London flooded, most of the central city would be ruined and people would drown, they see through the supposed protection offered by the government and modern technology. Songs like “Guns of Brixton” call attention to racism and police brutality in cities, explicitly mentioning Brixton, the mostly Caribbean neighborhood in south London where bassist Paul Simonon grew up. Indeed, throughout the album we hear the anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist ideals of the band’s members spill out into the music, but the album isn’t totally negative. I mentioned earlier that the band went by the promotional moniker “The only band that matters”, but why do they matter? Unlike their former idols and punk rock legends The Sex Pistols, The Clash are not entirely nihilistic and negative. Through their unrest and dissatisfaction you can find hope and optimism in the lyrics and the music of London Calling. The Clash matter because they have the guts to stand up and say what they believe AND they actually believe that through their music the world can be a better place. As the 70’s came to close with a brand new decade on the horizon, this was the perfect album to help the transition. “Yes, things have been hard,” they said, “but it’s up to us to do something about it.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the album’s iconic artwork. The album cover features a black and white, out of focus image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar against the floor in New York’s Palladium. The anger and discontent heard within the album, and the punk scene at large, is perfectly captured in the image, probably because Simonon was actually furious when the picture was taken. Punk is a style which is meant to be played loud and felt by an audience, and the story goes that the ushers at the Palladium kept trying to keep the audience members not only controlled, but calm and seated while the band played. Outraged by this, Simonon destroyed his bass, and photographer Pennie Smith was right there to capture the moment. The fuzziness and lack of focus on the image only serve to heighten the emotional response one gets when looking at it. The text on the also cover tells an important story, paying homage to Elvis by mirroring the pink and green typography of Elvis’s debut LP. They honored the late King while tying themselves into the legend of rock and roll. It may have been bold at the time, but 42 years later London Calling is as iconic as almost any other rock album you could throw at me. The Clash may not have truly been the only band that matters, but they sure were pretty important, you gotta give them that.
The 70’s were effectively over. Artistic and technological advancements were in no short supply, but progress comes at a cost. So much damage and sadness happened almost regularly, and artists harnessed that misfortune into something good, resulting in what might be the greatest decade of modern art we’ve seen. Wallowing in sadness has never helped anyone, and The Clash stood up to make a statement. Things can be better, things will be better, and it is up to the people to do something about it. As the door closed on the 70’s and the final 20 years of the 20th century were at the doorstep people like the member of The Clash were not so much left with the question “what do we do now?” Matter of fact, to them the details didn’t really matter. What mattered was that they knew that things could be better, that things would be better. All they had to do was make it happen.
Here come the 80’s, dude! Radical!