(Courtesy of Epic Records)
Picture the musical equivalent of a punch to the head, but instead of feeling pain you’re blown away by an explosion of righteous fury. That’s basically The Clash’s “London Calling.”
By the time The Clash released their third album in December of 1979, punk rock was out of the garage and on the mainstream musical radar. But The Clash took punk’s venom and ideology and combined it with a broad array of new techniques and styles. The result is an album that’s broad in scope, yet still very intense in true rock fashion.
That’s not to say “London Calling” doesn’t have any songs with the punk standards of ear-splitting guitar and thundering drums, far from it. In fact, the title track that opens the album is punk distilled down to its primordial core.
The song opens with a slashing, violent guitar riff alongside a staccato martial drumbeat. Then the rumbling bass kicks in, adding a new level of menace as the guitar and drums continue to propel the song along. Finally Joe Strummer (what a great name for a punk singer) belts out the opening lyrics in a malicious growl, “London calling to a far away town / Now war is declared, and battle come down.” Indeed, “London Calling” is first and foremost a call to arms, with the message reinforced by cataclysmic images of nuclear meltdowns, ice ages and flooding cities in the lyrics.
While “Spanish Bombs” and “Death or Glory” follows in the same vein as “London Calling,” the other standout of the standard punk songs is “Clampdown.” After opening with an ear-splitting high note on the guitar, Nicky Headon lays down another driving drum line echoed by Paul Simonon on bass. This time Strummer and Mick Jones’ vocals take center stage while their guitars provide some punch in the background. The lyrics are typical punk fare as a rant against authority, but Jones and Strummer bring an incendiary passion to their message. This is plainly obvious with lines like, “Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall / How can you refuse it? / Let fury have the hour, anger can be power / Do you know that you can use it?”
But The Clash would not have gained the following they have if they did the same thing over and over again. “London Calling” has many examples of hybrid songs that still contain the band’s core punk message. In particular, there is a great deal of reggae influence on many songs. “Rudie Can’t Fail,” has the high-pitched horns of reggae tunes blended in with the guitar, as do “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” and “Revolution Rock.” The bass and rhythm guitar on these songs are also freer flowing than traditional rock riffs.
The best example of this hybrid rock-reggae style is “The Guns of Brixton.” The song opens with an ominous bass line and low-key drums, highlighted by scratching effects and Paul Simonon’s ethereal guitar picking. Together these elements produce a dark, foreboding sound that bares very little (if any) resemblance to The Clash’s rock roots. But it’s still a punk song because of its subject matter. Simonon gets a chance to take a turn at the microphone for a change and talks about police brutality and rebellion. The lyrics accent the borderline-paranoid tone with lines such as, “When they kick at your front door / How you gonna come? / With your hands on your head / Or on the trigger of your gun?”
Reggae isn’t the only style The Clash blend with their material. There are elements of old school blues (“Jimmy Jazz”), classic rock (“The Card Cheat”) and pop (I’m Not Down”). Heck, “London Calling” ends with what is essentially a pop song, “Train In Vain.” It’s got a bit more power than most pop songs because of the pounding drums and funky guitar, but the lyrics are about a woman who’s abandoned the singer and it has the standard verse-chorus structure pop songs utilize. “Train In Vain” is not a punk anthem, but it’s still a Clash song because it shows how well they could take something from their roots and spin it into something a little different. That was always The Clash’s strength, and it shows throughout “London Calling.” While they would try to do much in “Sandinista!” and then not enough in “Combat Rock,” on “London Calling” The Clash proved that they are the masters of all things punk.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Rob Ryan at Rryan@colorado.edu.
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