The last great album of the 1970s – or was it the first great album of the 1980s? - came out 40 years ago. London Calling was The Clash at their peak, punk at its unexpected zenith, pop at its surprising return, and rock at its freshest.
This review, written in 2004 to mark the 25th anniversary version of the band’s third album, is only half the story really. But it’s still true today.
London Calling: 25th anniversary edition (Sony)
There’s nothing more stifling than rebellion gone stale. By 1979, punk’s initial cry of freedom – from closed doors and self-centred excesses of the music industry - had become for some “purists” a lot of yelling down of anyone who actually practised this.
If you didn’t dress this way, act this way and kept your musical options as narrow as possible you weren’t a true punk
Most sensible artists quietly ignored the boofheads but The Clash took them head on. More so than the later triple-disc Sandinista! album, London Calling was a thumbing of the nose at orthodoxy. Yes it sounds a bit silly now, but making a record which said you had broad musical tastes and a desire to explore them was radical talk, especially if you hadn’t set the world alight yet despite having signed to a major label.
The album which emerged from this remains a fantastic collection of songs no matter whether you know the history or not. From the Elvis referencing album cover art and its own iconic addition of Paul Simonon’s bass about to meet the stage violently, to the final echoes of Train In Vain, this is a record with flair.
Reggae, early rock’n’roll, classy pop and jazzed up moves nuzzle up to lyrics about the Spanish revolution, London’s demi-monde, drugs and displaced childhoods. And so much of it is just pure pleasure, from the drive of Spanish Bombs to the leap of Death Or Glory to the catchiness of Lost In The Supermarket.
This anniversary edition offers two significant extras. Firstly, there’s the long-lost Vanilla Tapes of pre-album demos. Though not exactly the mother lode, the Basement Tapes of its generation (they are murky and half done in some cases and you can see why some songs never made the final cut) they are very interesting peeks into the development of both song and band.
Here is an early, wordless but still edgy, version of what would become The Guns Of Brixton, identified as Paul’s Tune. Here too is Lonesome Me a loose bit of cod-Hank Williams which wisely never saw the light of day but shows the generosity of spirit behind the final album.
Perhaps more satisfying is the DVD which has a documentary on the making of the album which veers from dry to over the top (particularly Clash associate Kosmo Vinyl) backed by some B&W footage of the utterly mad producer Bill Price in full flight in the studio.
You should own this album in some form.
It’s the best punk album by the best punk band because it is not punk at all – musically, stylistically – but perfectly punk conceptually. And did I mention the great songs?