The adrenalin-quickening title track offered a dystopian, sci-fi vision of London preyed on by underworld zombies following a ‘nuclear error’ (ironically, global cooling, nor warming, was then the terror). It could be a front-line report from the UK’s 1978 ‘Winter of Discontent’, when rubbish was left to pile 20 feet high in London’s Leicester Square and bodies accumulated in hospital morgues after grave-diggers went on strike.



Triumphantly, London Calling builds on the band’s long-standing love of Jamaican music. It is steeped in the bass-heavy, trance-inducing vibes of Afrocentric 1970s reggae albums such as Satta Massagana by the Abyssinians and Culture’s Two Sevens Clash. A cover of Junior Murvin’s 1977 reggae hit ‘Police and Thieves’ had appeared on the Clash’s first album and the gruff-voiced Jamaican deejay-singer Prince Far I was name-checked on their 1978 single ‘Clash City Rockers’.



London Calling’s standout reggae track, ‘Guns of Brixton’, written by the band’s bassist Paul Simonon, alludes to Jamaican outlaw Vincent ‘Ivan’ Martin, who terrified the Jamaican capital of Kingston in the 1940s with his armed hold-ups until a police manhunt left him dead. To Simenon’s romantic imagination, ‘Ivan’ was a Caribbean Ned Kelly figure who eluded capture even as he taunted the authorities.



The album’s outlaw imagery of guns and gang warfare was naïve romanticism. In 1977, Strummer had accompanied Mick Jones to Kingston, only to find the city on the edge of bloodshed. (“I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery”, Strummer sang on ‘Safe European Home’, an oblique comment on Jamaica.) The album’s badland balladry sat well with punk’s vaunted anti-establishment credentials. ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’, a ska jolly-up sired out of an old New Orleans tune, tells of the 19th century African American folk hero Stagger Lee, who shot dead a white man; ‘Revolution Rock’, the eleventh song, draws on Perry Henzell’s cult Jamaican film The Harder They Come (1972), which depicts the bullet-scarred life of an Ivan-like outlaw as he struggles to survive in the ganja-yards and urban alleys of western Kingston.



On the album’s cover was Pennie Smith’s now-famous photograph of Simonon smashing his bass guitar on to the New York Palladium stage. Out of focus, the shot suited the band’s ragamuffin image and moreover recalled the Who’s auto-destructive stage antics. Though the Ramones had released a double live album of punky, three-chord anthems in 1977, the idea of a double album was essentially hostile to punk’s DIY ethos of self-motivation and singles-only output. While some British critics objected to London Calling’s alleged commercialism –– one reviewer punned on the title of the band’s previous album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, by titling his negative opinion ‘Give ‘Em Enough Dope’ –– American critics applauded the music’s immense breadth and what the New York Times called its “primal energy”.


London Calling sold two million copies overnight and propelled the Clash all guns blazing into the 1980s. Their sequel, Sandinista!, a sprawling triple album, offered much more reggae and even rap (‘The Magnificent Seven’), as well as Jamaican deejay-styles of delivery, dubbing and “toasting”. For all the album’s hymnal, incantatory qualities, the Clash had, it seemed, run out of puff. Joe Strummer fired first their heroin-addicted  drummer Topper Headon and then his songwriting partner Mick Jones, and the band was over.



Joe Strummer, who died in 2002 at the age of 50 of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, was very much in favour of fighting Islamism after 9/11. “The evil brilliance is just too much”, he said a week after the attack, adding: “I can’t get away from those images when I go to bed at night”. He may not have cared for Boris Johnson’s comparison of burka-wearing Muslim women to “letterboxes”. He certainly would not have cared for the Conservatives’  latest campaign video.


In the video,Johnson strolls breezily round the Tory party headquarters in man-of-the-people mode (‘How are you? Nice to see you’), before facing the question no politician should ever be asked. And should never answer:


‘What’s your favorite band?’


Strummer, oddly true to his own son-of-a-diplomat, boarding-school upbringing, was at heart a contrarian and non-conformist. Perhaps Boris sees in him a strain of London bolshiness, or faux working-class Toryism that distinguished, say, the Kinks in their nostalgia for the village green and England’s “old ways”. Johnson’s predecessor, the Eton-educated David Cameron, had expressed a love of the class-war anthem ‘Eton Rifles’ by very English band the Jam. In 2007, no less awkwardly, British Conservatives adopted Jimmy Cliff’s ‘The Harder They Come’ as a Tory anthem: the party of law and order had thus endorsed, if unwittingly, the crime habits of a Kingston rude boy. Still, Johnson did get one thing right: The Clash, the last great British rock band, were like nothing before or since.

This article first appeared in the Spectator US edition on 10 December 2019

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