Listen to Stephen narrate this story, and play part of the song, via Soundcloud.
1979 and 2019.
We are living in a time when musical anniversaries are as common as musical obituaries. Just as it seems a rock star dies every couple of weeks, there’s always some musical milestone being celebrated, usually around a classic album.
But I fell off my chair when today I read that it’s been exactly 40 years since the Clash released London Calling. Forty years. I felt old.
London Calling film clip. Somewhere in early 1980 my eyes were arrested. Sandwiched between an endless parade of multicolored, big haired and affected pop music clips, I see the grainy, shaky, black and white clip of the Clash playing London Calling. They’re on the banks of the Thames, on a freezing winter’s night, it’s pissing down rain, and the band’s playing as if to save themselves from drowning. What sort of a post-apocalyptic, dystopian scene is this? It looks like a war zone. By the end of the clip, this particular pacifist wants to join their mercenary army and fight whatever battle these guys are in the middle of.
It’s still 1980, and I’ve bought a copy of NME, and I’m reading a compelling cover story all about the making of the London Calling album. The article is a bit difficult to comprehend because it’s so far away from what I’ve always imagined recording an album would be like. The story outlines in great detail how the band’s eccentric producer, Guy Stevens, deliberately incited violence during the recording process. I imagined aural chaos. And I had to hear it.
A month later I’m at Coles Variety Store in Doncaster. In the days before barcodes, the LP records had price stickers on them. To help we poor, struggling, dole recipients afford the latest music, my mates and I would sometimes engage in what we called “price change”. This involved peeling off a low price sticker from one record and placing it over the higher recommended retail price sticker of a desired disc. We wouldn’t have called it shoplifting, but we also knew we had to be surreptitious when we set about manually adjusting Coles’ profit margin. My vinyl copy of London Calling still carries evidence of this particular subterranean economic activity. You see, it’s a double album, and I only knew one song on it, and it’s in the spirit of punk. Joe Strummer would have approved of my efforts, I’m sure.
London Calling is the White Album of my generation. The lead off, title track, contains The Best Opening Minute of a Double Album of All Time. Drums and guitars in military lockstep, pulsing a staccato rhythm. It’s an arrogant, arresting call to arms that after four decades has lost none of its punch. Some minimal bass filigree follows, then Strummer’s forcefully desperate vocals slap at your conscience like the last ever news bulletin.
Today, after reading the article about the 40 year anniversary of London Calling, I read the news about Boris Johnson’s overnight landslide election victory, and drew a line from Johnson to Trump to Morrison to Reagan to Thatcher. Here we are, again.
And in other news…
The ice age is coming
The sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running
The wheat is growing thin.
(I never felt so much like [singing the blues])…
Also see Smokie Dawson’s love letter to London Calling, at Almanac Music.