The Rewind Button # 8 – The Clash, London Callingby LefebvreDave on May 2, 2012 • 9:28 pm No Comments
(The Rewind Button is a group blogging project. Every Thursday, we review an album from Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums list.) This is what rebellion done right sounds like. As with many things in life, grit and authenticity cannot be faked or impersonated. By merging powerful lyrics and adopting an open door policy to almost all musical styles, The Clash’s London Calling (1979) lies at number eight on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Albums.
Born of punk roots, London Calling is that special moment when rebellion goes mainstream and pulls in the masses. Sure, punk purists probably puke at the prospect of listening to this album, but this isn’t a list of greatest punk albums, it’s the greatest albums of all time.
In university I briefly flirted with ska. No, not the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (although listening to The Impression That I Get is still enjoyable). Instead, the guy in the dorm room next to mine lent me more traditional ska albums like The Specials. My interest lasted only a short time – something about the loud brass sections makes me eventually want to shut it off.
While The Clash draw influence from ska for London Calling, they provide enough respite from that sound (and include other influences) to make it more enjoyable. The breadth of musical styles that converge on this album is as huge as the double album itself. By merging punk with ska with rock ‘n roll, The Clash broke down barriers.
In 2002, Q magazine named the cover of London Calling, with the picture of Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision Bass against the stage in New York City, the best rock ‘n roll photograph of all time.
Coming off of last week’s review of Exile on Main St.’s double album with another double in London Calling, you get the sense that epic pays off in the greatness category. This may explain why some bands are drawn to make long albums – I always thought it was ego and the belief that all of their songs were worthy. I stand corrected.
A two-take wonder, in many cases the band tried to record the songs with the least number of plays possible. Then there’s the drama of their producer throwing ladders and chairs around the studio to increase the chaos of the recording session and create an environment that would compel a gritty, disturbed sound.
By far the most interesting lyrics are contained in the title track with Joe Strummer singing: “Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”. Searching the net for this phrase brings up multiple possible meanings. Is it about the punk rock movement, or the Broadway show named Beatlemania which had just ended?
Lyrics are what helped build this album’s greatness to what it is today. This was punk with a melody and a message. The prescient commentary on the environment in the refrain:
The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river
Could Al Gore have said it any better?
But to focus on lyrics alone is to neglect the equally impressive and unconventional mixture of musical styles that make up this album – a veritable Petri dish from which many bands that followed would grow their own personal sounds. The influenced masses are many.
As I listen to the island inspired sound of Revolution Rock, I’m struck by the dissonance it creates in my mind. The bar-weary voice, coupled with the accented, tropical sound of the music, stands in such stark contrast, yet they mingle together like a pauper and a prince at a party. I swear I hear maracas in the background. This is the surprise gem in this album. It prompted rejection when I first began listening to it, but by the end I was fully converted.
Speaking of island-inspired sounds, in my research for this review I came across a bit of an oddity. It appears ukulele players are especially drawn to covering London Calling. Maybe it’s because this particular song lends itself well to the ukulele, but YouTube is awash with their covers. Admittedly, these musicians are drawn to remaking many songs, but there seems to be an inordinate number when it comes to The Clash’s hit song.
I suppose I could make some point about The Clash’s inclusiveness of musical styles lending itself to other styles covering their songs, but we all know that it would be baloney. So what to make of this? Probably not much, except to hammer home the point that this music is pervasive, and also to provide this rather interesting rendition below.
With Train in Vain, the final song of the album, The Clash provide the perfect ending to an album steeped in rebellion. It’s unabashedly poppy, catchy and traditional in every way. It’s like a big fuck you to end the album, as though Joe Strummer is saying: “yeah, we know we just broke all the rules to making music, but to be tied to the punk ethos of anarchy is to subscribe to a new set of rules.” Instead, by dropping this final, perfect, pop song at the end, Strummer leaves no rule unbroken, including the conformity to non-conformity.
Amazingly, it’s this song that elevates the album for me, not because I like it so much, but because of what it represents. It’s the knock out punch. Before I was an admirer, now I’m a believer, and the rebellion has taken root.
The following are some of the other bloggers who are participating in The Rewind Button. I’ll update as they post their reviews.