IS LONDON CALLING BORIS JOHNSON?

 

 

Boris Johnson recently cited the Clash as his ‘favourite band’ along with the Rolling Stones. London Calling, the Clash’s great third album, was released in the UK in December 1979, forty years ago this month. Time has judged it one of the great rock ‘n’ roll albums, but was it really made for Establishment figures like the British prime minister?

 

 

 

 

For the affordable price of £5.00 the nineteen-tune, double LP hit the Christmas market in a blaze of righteous Jamaican reggae and driving, dance-floor ska, 12-bar jazz, mento-calypso, disco, funk and much else besides. Having just returned from an American tour on which they were supported by the blues showmen Bo Diddley and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the Clash were fired up with the romance of America.

 

 

Appropriately, the album’s cover replicated the luminous pink-and-green lettering of Elvis Presley’s first album sleeve – one of America’s most revered debuts. If the Clash had discovered America (and by extension, themselves), not everyone was happy. Punks who had endorsed the band’s “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” line from the B-side of their 1977 single ‘White Riot’ were put out. From their amphetamine-spiked early days as a London garage combo who professed to be “bored with the USA”, the Clash had assembled a wildly disparate collection of songs that juxtaposed musical styles from far and wide.

 

 

The album’s 65 minutes dig deep into Depression-era railroad folk, rockabilly and even Tin Pan Alley show-tune harmony (the skiffle-like swing of ‘Jimmy Jazz’, the melancholy of ‘Train in Vain’). The songs tell of the death of an opium den gambler ‘seized and forced to his knees and shot dead’ (‘The Card Cheat’) and the druggy self-destruction of the Hollywood matinee idol Montgomery Clift (‘The Right Profile’) In ‘Brand New Cadillac’ – a cover of a 1950s song by Vince Taylor – we listen to a young woman Cadillac owner berate her Daddy (“I ain’t never coming back”).  The album has the density and variety of a film, and the band knew it. The LP was sold in the UK with a sticker which proclaimed the Clash as ‘the only band that matters’.

 

 

The wonder is that it ever got finished. The band’s chaotic producer, Guy Stevens, caused all manner of problems in the north London recording studio from blowing up the mixing desk, smashing chairs in front of CBS record executives (while the band recorded ‘Death or Glory’), fighting drunkenly with his engineer, nodding out under the console and at one point pouring red wine into the piano because, he told Clash guitarist Mick Jones, it would ‘sound better’. Having produced Mott the Hoople, Free and other mid-1970s British rock acts, Stevens added saxophone, barrelhouse piano and multiple drum signatures to the Clash’s habitual power chord workouts and riffs borrowed from Dr John’s New Orleans R & B and the pub rock blues of British bands like Dr Feelgood. The result had the stridency, swagger and passion of punk-era Clash but was more expansive and mellow in atmosphere. (Wretchedly, Stevens died of an overdose at the age of 38 just two years after London Calling was released.)

 

 

A harbinger of change for the Clash, London Calling appeared seven months after Margaret Thatcher’s election triumph in May 1979: a watershed moment for the world that saw a free-market evangelist installed in No 10. With its escapism into Americana and the music hall rock of the Kinks (the descending bassline of ‘I’m Not Down’ recalls that of ‘Waterloo Sunset’), London Calling served as a tonic to the grim reality of late-1970s Britain in which the Labour government under Jim Callaghan appeared bankrupt and played out.

 

 

In these unstable times, Strummer did not want an action replay of the Clash’s eponymous 1977 debut album: a virtual snapshot of blue-collar British youth beaten down by mass unemployment and public sector walkouts. London Calling, with its array of backing vocals, overdubs and casual ad-libs (‘start all over again!’, ‘It’s ridiculous, innit?’, ‘What a relief!’), found the Clash in a less combative, but still political mood.

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