That’s Just The Beat Of Time, The Beat That Must Go On

London Calling side three- the shortest of the four sides of vinyl that make up London Calling, only four songs compared to five on each of the others (and one that is less than two minutes long). In a way it is the oddest of the four sides. Sides one and two, from the opener and title track through to Rudie Can’t Fail and then from Spanish Bombs on the flip running through to The Guns Of Brixton, have a real flow despite their wide range, from rock ‘n’ roll to jazz to reggae. Side three seems a bit like the place where they put the four songs that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. That’s not a criticism of any of the songs as such, more that the jumps from one to the next are bigger, they seem less sonically unified.

Side three starts with the group’s cover of Wrong ‘Em Boyo, originally by Jamaican ska outfit The Rulers in 1967. Paul had brought the song into the rehearsal sessions at Vanilla and it was still there by the time they came to record with Guy Sevens at Wessex. It kicks off with Mickey Gallagher’s organ, the band vamping and Joe bawling out the opening line about Stagger Lee meeting Billy at a card game. At thirty seconds, just like in the original, they grind to a halt and Joe calls out ‘start all over again’. Mick, Paul, Topper and Gallagher come back in with the skank, the Irish Horns are back and everything goes ska . Lyrically Wrong ‘Em Boyo calls out the cheats and the hoodlums- ‘why do you cheat and trample people under your feet?/ Don’t you know it is wrong to cheat a trying man?’ and ‘you lie, steal, cheat and deceit/ in such a small, small game’

The Stagger Lee myth goes back to the late nineteenth century. Stag, real name Lee Shelton, and Billy Lyons had a drunken altercation while playing cards on Christmas Day. Stag shoots Billy dead. Stag O’ Lee (or Stagger Lee) would be picked up later and die in prison. The myth became a standard for song writers and singers from Fred Waring in 1928 to Lloyd Price in 1959 to Nick Cave in 1996.

Greil Marcus wrote about the Stagger Lee myth in his book Mystery Train in a chapter about centred around Sly Stone. In 1991 Joe would go on to star in a Jim Jarmusch film of the same name playing a washed up Englishman freshly abandoned by both work and his girlfriend who gets caught up in a robbery.

From Wrong ‘Em Boyo we head straight into side three’s first Strummer/Jones original, the epic Death Or Glory. Mick wrote one of his best tunes with this one, a full on rocker packed with melodies, lead lines and riffs and Joe came up with a lyric that explores the entire myth of youth, ageing and rock ‘n’ roll, first expressed by The Who a decade earlier, the one about dying before getting old. Mick’s acoustic guitar opens up, Paul’s bass bouncing in too, then an electric guitar picking out a lead line before the moment with the crunching riff at twenty two seconds where they’re all totally on it and in it. Then Joe-

‘Now every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world
Ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl
‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ tattooed across the knuckles of his hands
The hands that slap his kids around ‘cos they don’t understand…’

Clang! Clang! Chorus, Joe and Mick together, in unison…

‘Death or glory
Become just another story
Death or glory
Just another story’

For all the myth making of Rudie Can’t Fail and The Guns Of Brixton, the braggadocio, the group’s rebel image, the court case for shooting racing pigeons and love of trouble with the law this is a counter balance. The cheap hood in the first verse is a frustrated and violent middle aged man. His kids feel his wrath and they don’t know why he’s angry. The rebel rock ‘n’ rollers, the boys in the band, get the same treatment in verse two-

‘And every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll
Grabs the mic to tell us all he’ll die before he’s sold’

Joe is surely pointing at himself here as much as Roger Daltry or Mick Jagger and then the killer line-

‘But I believe in this and it’s been tested by research
He who fucks nuns will later join the church’

The rock ‘n’ roll dream dissected in four lines and destroyed. We always become what we once hated. Youth inevitably gives way to ageing. The hippies sold out, the punks have too. Whatever comes next will do the same. Nothing special to see here, just another story. Another crunching chorus and then the song breaks down. Topper runs round the kit, Joe squawks, Paul’s bass runs up and down, Mick peels some lines off and then they start to build back up for another chorus, Joe with a spoken section…

‘Fear in the gun sights
They say ‘lie low’
You say ‘OK’
Don’t wanna play a show
No other thinking
Was it death or glory now?
Playing the blues of kings
Sure looks better now’

After the chorus Joe shouts out to all the groups that haven’t made it, all the garage bands-

‘In every dingy basement, in every dingy street
Every dragging hand clap over every dragging beat
That’s just the beat of time, the beat that must go on
If you’ve been trying for years we’ve already heard your song’

Whether Joe’s sympathetic or thinks they’re wasting their time isn’t entirely clear, the chorus comes in again with the claim that death or glory is just another story. This verse could be a shout out to the unheard of bands or just telling them there’s nothing new under the sun. Strummer, who spent quite a few years struggling and trying to make it and who left his previous band in the lurch when the new thing came along, is saying here that it doesn’t matter, it’s all bullshit, we all kill the thing we love and grow old. I’ve never been able to decide if this is cynicism or realism. But it’s a great song, one of the album’s highlights. It doesn’t stop there either, there’s a rousing final section following the breakdown where Mick’s acoustic guitar and Paul’s bass bubble up again, Joe talking about ‘we gotta march a long way/ fight along time/ we gotta  travel over mountains… we gonna cause trouble/ we’re gonna raise hell’.

So maybe despite the hypocrisy of becoming what you stood against, the struggle is still worth fighting, the pursuit has to take place. Just another story.

The split second gap between songs occurs again, the guitars of Death Or Glory stop ringing and we’re into Koka Kola with some sound effects and Joe calling out ‘elevator going up!’. Koka Kola is a sub- two minute dash, Joe singing about the power of advertising and the corporate world (and with a mention of the White House, politics too). Coked up ad executive goes to meetings, sells products, does more drugs, hangs out with party girls, Koke adds life. It’s an album track on a side made up of of one offs and it’s all over pretty quickly as Joe shouts out ‘freeze, hit the deck’. Slagging off the world of advertising was of course just one of many things that would lead to critics of the band accusing them of hypocrisy. In 1991 Should I Stay Or Should I Go was used to sell jeans for Levi’s. In 2002 London Calling sold cars for Jaguar. In 2012 it was used again, this time for British Airways. 

Then we get to side three, track four and The Card Cheat, the least Clash sounding of any of the songs on London Calling and one of my favourites. It was recorded late on in the sessions, Mick and engineer Bill Price trying to get that Phil Spector Wall of Sound by recording every instrument twice, doubling everything up. Led by a Mick Jones double piano part and slamming drum and guitar parts and Mick’s vocal, totally overwrought but utterly heartfelt, telling the story of ‘a solitary man crying ‘hold me’… because he’s-a lonely’. He’s doomed of course, the card cheat must pay for his crimes (just as Billy did at the start of side three), and ‘he won’t be alive for long’. The card game plays out, the King of Spades is put down but the dealer has cottoned on, something’s wrong, and soon the cheat is forced to his knees and shot dead. The horns swell, the pianos pound away, it’s all very cinematic and grandiose. Apparently Joe wrote the words and Mick sang them and there’s a classic Joe lyrical switch and suddenly we’re back in Death Or Glory territory, Joe looking at the sweep of human history-

‘From the Hundred Years War to the Crimea
With a lance and a musket and a Roman spear
To all of the men who have stood without fear
In the service of the King’

In other words, this has all happened before, it’s just another story, nothing is new- like the dingy basements and dingy streets two songs before. A pointless death over a card game and pointless deaths in wars. Joe then hands out some advice-

‘Before you met your fate
Be sure you did not forsake
Your lover, may not be around’

Mick’s brilliance as a musician, an arranger and in the studio is all over this song, always threatening to cross the line but completely convincing. At the end of the song the first verse comes back in, a re-run and a loop, the solitary man crying ‘hold me’ who won’t be alive for long. Maybe this is the point of side three, the songs are linked by their lyrics and themes: the card cheat and murder in Wrong ‘Em Boyo and a myth that had already been around for nearly a century; the rock ‘n’ roll, hope I die before I get old myth; the adman who’s sold his soul to Koka Kola; the man in The Card Cheat, going through the motions that will lead to his death, the same old story for two thousand years. Everyone missing the point, looking for the quick win and easy money but failing to see that ‘their lover, may not be around’.

The Card Cheat

That’s my thoughts anyway. There’s enough room with these songs that you may have different interpretations. I’ve been listening to side three and getting different things from it since first hearing it in 1989. None of the songs are the band’s best known but two of them (Death Or Glory and The Card Cheat) are the equal of any others on this record. They also set us up very nicely for side four which comes in with a rare misstep but soon puts things right.

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