It’s not just the gray hairs or the expanding waistline that suggest one is getting old: it’s also when the albums you love so much, and so vividly remember hearing for the first time, have become a part of the rock heritage industry. So it is with London Calling by the Clash, which celebrates its 40th birthday in December 2019.
In 1979, when it was released in the UK, I couldn’t have imagined such a thing. But then, as a British teen who had just left school, I was more interested in seeing if the Clash were a spent force or not: They held a special place in my heart because the eponymously titled first album had, without exaggeration, changed my life in more ways than just my hairstyle. The Clash was my coming-of-age album and had been like a grenade tossed into my small suburban home. Yet, I was massively disappointed with their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope: At the time there had been much debate on where punk was headed, but surely it wasn’t toward the overproduced AOR sound of this record. With an irrational but sincere emotional investment in the band, I willed their third album to be a success.
I remember the frisson of the stylus touching the vinyl when I heard the opening salvo of guitar and drums on the new album’s title track. With its fiercely insistent chord pattern, near-martial beat, and a refrain that plays on the famous BBC World Service station ID”this is London Calling”the song combines images of war and a nuclear holocaust with pop-culture references and a dash of gallows humor. Surely “London Calling” is one of the greatest album openers ever, setting the scene, framing what is to come, and signaling the album’s intent as a serious messageor, to be more precise, a number of serious messages.
Two minutes in, I knew the Clash were back.
Multiple topics and diverse lyrical allusionssome open to interpretation, all somehow blending into a cohesive statementform a strand throughout the album’s 19 songs: Almost at once, the listener is put on alert, conditioned to expect something different at every turn. This is also true of the musical styles on tap. With London Calling, the Clash had the confidence, and had acquired the skill, to apply their varied tastespop, reggae, ska, rockabilly, and jazz. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise: After ditching manager Bernie Rhodes, they used for their next US tour a diverse bunch of supporting acts, including Bo Diddley, Sam & Dave, and Joe Ely.
The album’s eclectic influences stem from the band members’ diverse tastes in music, but also from London Calling‘s producer, the late Guy Stevens.
Stevens is one of those larger-than-life record-industry personalities, biographical sketches of whom are required by law to include the words maverick, unpredictable, and addiction issues. That’s unfair, because his is an impressive story, running through decades of British music. Starting as an R&B and soul music connoisseur known for his extraordinary record collectioncountless rockers of the day learned the covers they played by visiting Stevens’s London flatin the early ’60s he was the deejay at Soho’s infamous mod venue, The Scene Club, playing obscure American R&B imports to an audience that included members of the Stones, the Who, and the Small Faces. After that, he went from playing soul singles to managing a labelSue Recordsthat released such records in the UK.
A few years later, he helped form Procol Harum, whom he named after a friend’s cat (he got the spelling wrong), and is credited as the person who uttered to the band’s lyricist, Keith Reid, “she’s turned a whiter shade of pale,” planting a seed for the famous song. Later still, at Island Records, he helped form Mott the Hoople by discovering singer Ian Hunter (through a classified ad in Melody Maker). Stevens also named that group (after the title of a novel he had read during an eight-month drug-offense sentence as a guest of Her Majesty) and went on to produce three of their first four albums.
Mott had a devoted following, which included one Mick Jones, lead guitarist of the Clash. In fact, Stevens had been involved with the recording of demos for the yet-to-be-signed Clash, but things hadn’t quite worked out. Still, with a pedigree like that, Guy Stevens and his work impressed me and my record-buying mates. (We ignored his part in producing recordings by Free: Our musical horizons may have been expanding back then, but there were limits.)
More important, the Clash were impressed and were anxious to once again work with Stevens, feeling that his huge musical knowledgenot to mention his enthusiasm and passionwould outweigh his reputations for substance abuse and for mayhem in the studio. The latter was calculated by Stevens to keep his performers on their toes.
He wasn’t just an eccentric amateur with wild hair: His methods worked. Both in the London Calling rehearsals at London’s Vanilla Studios and at the recording of the album in the autumn of 1979 at Wessex Studios, Stevens helped to create an atmosphere where the band felt they had the freedom to explore and expand their music. The album’s use of a Hammond B3 organ (played by Mickey Gallagher, of Ian Dury & the Blockheads) and a horn section aren’t a million miles away from those early R&B records. Stevens also made Strummer’s vocals clearer than they had been on their first album, but without the overly slick sound on their second.
The band would always pay credit to him and acknowledge his role. In 1981, the year of his death, the Clash recorded “Midnight to Stevens” as a tribute, and in 2002, for the magazine Mojo, Jones picked him as his all-time hero.
The songs written by the band for their third album were very much Clash songs, and very much London songs: While it’s far from being a concept album, the songs on London Calling create a reflection of the city through a convex mirror, focusing on such issues as unemployment, drug abuse, and racism. This applies even to a song such as “Spanish Bombs,” which seems at first to have little to do with the great city. Appearances can be deceptive: The lyrics refer to the Spanish Civil War, arguably the 20th century’s first major struggle against fascism, a subject that rings bells in London, partly owing to memories of the Blitz, but also because the Clash had been giving strong public support to the Anti-Nazi League, an organization set up to combat the then- growing menace of the far right in Britain.
Footnote: Londoner Phil Brett, formerly a columnist for Listener magazine, has published two novels: Comrades Come Rally (2014) and Gone Underground (2019).
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