A Lot Of People Won’t Get No Supper Tonight

A London Calling postscript. On 7th December 1979 The Clash released London Calling as a single. I wrote about the song in the first of my posts about the album here so don’t intend to add much to that. Except this, the video, filmed by Don Letts on a wet night on the Thames on a barge at Cadogan pier. Letts didn’t know the Thames was tidal and that the pier, barge and boat he was filming from would rise and fall- and then it started to rain heavily. Despite all this The Clash, all in black with brothel creepers and quiffs, filmed against the black of the night, give it all.

The B-side to London Calling is Armagideon Time, a cover of a Willie Williams song from 1977. This is politicised righteous Clash rock reggae, the world where a lot of people are going  hungry and aren’t getting any justice, where they are gong to have to stand up and kick it over. Joe had been talking before the recording about the ideal length of time a song should last- two minutes and twenty eight seconds according to Strummer- and at that point in the recording of Armagideon Time Clash fixer/road manager Kosmo Vinyl can be heard on the studio mic telling the group their time was up.

Strummer responds instantly ‘OK, OK, don’t push us when we’re hot!’ all of which adds to the take. Mick later added some electric sitar and there are the noises of fireworks and bombs going off. Armagideon Time is yet another Clash B-side that stands alongside their A- sides in terms of quality and passion. For the 12″ they pushed it even further with a nine minute dub excursion.

Justice Tonight/ Kick It Over

Weddings, Parties, Anything… And Bongo Jazz A Speciality

Flip side three over, the drama of The Card Cheat fading in your ears. Place it on the turntable, lift the arm of the stereo, let’s have it, London Calling side four.

Lover’s Rock opens up side four and it’s the worst song on the album for me, by some distance. The tune is alright and Mick’s guitar playing has some moments but it’s a one idea groove largely. The song’s title is named after the hugely popular, commercial style of 70s reggae, a genre with some brilliant songs from artists such as Janet Kay, Dennis Brown, John Holt and Susan Cadogan. However Joe’s lyrics are confused or confusing. In the first verse he tells the listener to ‘treat your lover girl right’ but then goes on to blame her for forgetting to take her contraceptive pill and warns that ‘no one will know the poor baby’s name’. In the second verse he steps into a book he was reading at the time, The Tao Of Love And Sex, and points the finger at western men who need more self control in the bedroom before setting out what a genuine lover should do-‘… take off his clothes/ he can make his lover in a thousand goes’. I don’t know what Joe was intending with this song- a genuine attempt at dealing with sexual politics? A pisstake of lover’s rock’s lyrics? Shaming men for the way their bedroom technique? Whatever he meant, I don’t think it works and it’s causes the only real dip in quality across the nineteen songs. Best to move on, move to….

Tsk- tsk- tsk- tsk clang! Four Horsemen!

‘Well they gave us the grapes that go ripe in the sun
That loosen the screws at the back of the tongue’

Four Horsemen is a ridiculous song (in a good way) and I love it. After all the apocalyptic mayhem, nuclear errors, card cheats, murders, capitalist alienation and sufferation Joe now imagines the band as the Four Horsemen- not the biblical ones from the Book of Revelation bringing war, pestilence, famine and death but four comical horsemen. These horsemen do not bring the end of the world but are ageing, stoned incompetence-

‘One was over the hill
One was over the cliff
One was licking them dry
With a bloody great spliff
When they picked up the hiker
He didn’t want a lift
From the horsemen’

The Clash loved to write about themselves- see Clash City Rockers, Garageband, All The Young Punks and The Last Gang In Town for starters- but here Joe has his tongue planted well in his cheek. Maybe this adds to the argument that the previous one is a joke and what opens side four is a pair of joke songs. Four Horsemen is definitely here to lighten the mood, not to be taken too seriously, but for all that Mick’s tune is a belter, Topper is hammering those drums full pelt and Joe gives a full throttle vocal performance. The verses tumble by in a mass of words and images, a crashing chorus, a middle eight with a spoken vocal part (a bit of a recurring technique of the album) and over the ending Joe singing ‘we know, only rock ‘n’ roll/we got rock ‘n’ roll’. The band freak out, guitars squealing and Topper pounding leading to an over the top, crescendo. It’s almost Death Or Glory inverted, or a Bizarro World version of it. Then there’s the final one of those clever segueways leading us straight into I’m Not Down.

Mick piles into I’m Not Down with a pair of chords and then Paul comes in with a lovely bass riff, a bar or two of funky guitar and when Mick calls ‘hup’ they lock into a great descending riff. Paul’s bass playing on this is superb and Mick’s guitar shines throughout, several Les Paul parts stacked up. Mick sings I’m Not Down, very much an autobiographical song detailing the things that have gone wrong in his life over the previous year, singing and playing his way out of bad times-

‘I’ve been beat up, I’ve been thrown out
But I’m not down, no I’m not down’

At the end of 1978 his flat had been burgled, he was attacked in the street by a group of Teddy Boys and then early on in 1979 his relationship with Viv Albertine ended. After all the topics Joe has written about on the album, from Three Mile Island to the Spanish Civil War, from drug dealers to working for the clampdown and then the comic nature of Four Horsemen and God knows what of Lover’s Rock, Mick doing a bit of self- affirmation and positive thinking Clash style is rather good. A proper, singalong, arms aloft Mick Jones song.

Revolution Rock then arrives to take us through to what should be London Calling’s end, a cover of a Danny Ray and The Revolutioneers song, the original out not long before The Clash recorded their version. I once played this song when DJing at a wedding and it down a storm. Revolution Rock is introduced by a Topper drum roll and then those frisky, catchy Irish Horns. This is The Clash go party, percussion and cheese graters leading the way, horns and dance rhythms after all the dread. Joe makes a few lyrical changes, turning ‘everybody get off their seat and rock to this brand new beat’ into the punkier ‘everybody smash up their seat…’. At the end of London Calling El Clash combo sign off with reggae and calypso via West London at the tail end of the 70s, a song to raise the spirits and end the night. Joe slips in a reference to Mack The Knife with the line ‘careful how you move Mac, you dig me in the back/ And I’m so pilled up that I rattle’ but ultimately this is a rave up and a celebration with Joe exhorting ‘tell your Mama Mama/ tell your Papa Papa/ everything’s gonna be alright’. The drop in the middle with the organ break and then Joe and the band coming back in is nothing short of wonderful. As the horns and organ and drums/bass/guitar begin to wind up their circling groove Joe goes into full on sequined jacket entertainer mode with the show band end of song announcement…

‘Any song you want
Playing requests now on the bandstand
El Clash combo
Paid fifteen dollars a day
Weddings, parties, anything
And bongo jazz a speciality…’

Revolution Rock

And that should be that but at the very end of the sessions, almost as the amps are unplugged and lights turned off Mick turns up with another song, one written the night before- Train In Vain. Riding in on a chugging railway rhythm, a superb instantly recognisable drumbeat from Topper, some harmonica and a funky guitar riff, and Mick’s feathery vocal about being left and alone, Train In Vain is a Clash pop song and none the worse for it. There’s a nod to Tammy Wynette in the my- girl- done- left- me lyrics (and she had left him Train In Vain being the second song on the album to be written in the aftermath of Mick’s break up with Viv Albertine) and to Ben E King with the ‘stand by me’ refrain. Mick’s in fine voice on the song especially the bit where he sings the ‘you must expl-ai- ai- ainn… why this must be’ part and it’s genuine and heartfelt. Joe was a bit dismissive of the song, a corny love song in his view, making vomiting faces when they played it live sometimes. It broke them in the USA though, a top 30 single. Viv, no stranger herself to being confrontational and spiky not least in song lyrics, says in her book Boys Clothes Music it is one of her favourite Clash songs.

Train In Vain wasn’t listed on London Calling’s sleeve. This led to various rumours and for a while it was going to be put out on an NME flexidisc giveaway but this fell through so it was put at the end of the album, the sleeve having already gone to print but the discs not yet gone to press. It’s difficult to imagine London Calling without it and after everything you’ve listened to and engaged with over the four sides that precede it, it’s a great way to fade out. On 18th February 1980 they played it at Lewisham Odeon, a gig some readers of this blog attended.

I used to work with a man who lived next door to Ray Lowry in Waterfoot, Lancashire. Ray was the cartoonist and illustrator who designed the album’s famous cover and then accompanied The Clash, at Strummer’s insistence, as their official war artist, sending hand drawn and written accounts to the NME as they toured the USA. My ex- colleague said Ray was a lovely bloke, a genuine character with tales to spare. Sadly Ray died in 2008 but there was an excellent exhibition of his work at Salford Art Gallery in 2009/2010 which I went to. There’s lots of his work here.

The sleeve obviously is legendary mainly due to Pennie Smith’s shot of Paul as he brings his bass guitar down on the stage at the New York Palladium, taking out his frustrations at the seated venue and the gig, his skinny, splayed legs instantly part of popular culture. Pennie famously had to step back quickly to take the picture and has always said it’s slightly out of focus- Joe always insisted it was the album cover from the moment he saw it. I’ve always loved the shot of Mick on the back cover too, skipping out of the spotlight onstage in Atlanta, Georgia with the crowd right up against the lip of the stage, no crush barriers or photographer’s pit, no distance at all between band and audience.

Value for money was a punk trope, the importance of not ripping the fans off was paramount. ‘Two albums for the price of one’ Joe claimed regarding London Calling and later ‘no Clash album will ever cost more than a fiver’. CBS didn’t agree. The band took a hit on the price of London Calling with (I think) it having to reach a sales figure of 100, 000 before they started making money from the royalties. The 40th anniversary vinyl re-issue is priced at £34.99, with a transparent sleeve that is removable so you can take off Ray Lowry’s Elvis inspired typography to see Pennie Smith’s shot of Simmo about to destroy his bass on its own. I’ll resist the temptation at that price thank you very much. Even with inflation factored in that’s a lot of money. Maybe, as The Clash pointed out themselves earlier in 1979, that’s The Cost Of Living. Or maybe its just another example of turning rebellion into money.

The punks and the purists say that London Calling is a long way from punk, and I suppose it is a long way from Year Zero, ‘No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones’ and the absolute single mindedness of 1976. But The Clash had realised sounding like 1976 forever was a dead end and as a group they had to move on. The whole point of signing to CBS was to reach as many people as possible. Critics say that London Calling just put the group into the tradition of rock history, aligning them with the very lineage they were supposed to be a break from. They say that London Calling’s rebellion is posturing, a safe and comfortable rebellion, with the familiar sounds of ska, rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, soul, funk and rock all showing that the band were never really punks at all. But there’s plenty in the nineteen songs on these four sides which is exhilarating, confrontational, questioning and infused with the electricity of punk, the raw spirit of what fired them up in the first place. There were bands at the same time going deeper, going to the existential extremities of post punk- PiL released Metal Box in the same year, Unknown Pleasures came out earlier in 1979, both are more internalised, bleaker and more experimental excursions out of the punk. London Calling isn’t an internal expression of bleakness or suppressed emotions, it looks out into the world, takes glee in the colours and varieties on offer, takes shots at those in power and stands up for the underdog. Punk, looking back, wasn’t a new start, it was a full stop, the last gasp of the cycle of garage bands that began in 1955, spun round to 1966 and arced again in 1977. The new start was what came next, the splintering of the new groups and sounds in a thousand directions, something which continued to resonate in the next youthquake of the late 80s. The Clash found their own road out of punk’s cul de sac with London Calling, a record that is thrilling, emotional, open minded and most of all alive.

Paul Simonon ‘I never wanted to go back and relive the glory days, I just want to keep moving forward. That’s what I took from punk. Keep going. Don’t look back.’

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.

The Hillsides Ring With ‘Free The People’

London Calling side two, pick the arm up, place the needle carefully on the outer ring, let it find the groove, a little static, and then…  Spanish Bombs kicks straight in, Topper’s drum salvo followed instantly by organ (played by Mickey Gallagher on loan from The Blockheads) and Mick’s guitar line, a crashing, uptempo chord sequence with Joe and Mick doubling up on part of the vocals. Joe had really taken Bernie Rhodes’ advice about lyric writing to heart- forget love songs, write about the world- and Spanish Bombs is Srummer at his best, contrasting The Spanish Civil War and ‘the days of ’39’ with the growing tourist industry of the late 1970s, ‘Spanish weeks in my disco casino’. The Basque separatist group ETA were active meaning the bombs of the song could be from the 1930s and the 1970s. In the midst of all this imagery, firing out of the speakers with the music piling ever onward, Joe finds space for some really memorable lines, lines about the murdered poet Federico Lorca, a hero of Joe’s, killed by Franco’s fascists, lines about ‘bullet holes in cemetery walls’ and ‘hearing music from another time’ and the chorus in Spanish-

‘Spanish bombs, yo te quierro y finito
Yo te querda, oh mi corazón
Spanish bombs, yo te quierro y finito
Yo te querda, oh mi corazón’

Federico Garcia Lorca

In his novel Powder Kevin Sampson, writing about a fictional rock band in the 90s based loosely (or closely) on The Verve, has a character explain that the tune for Saturday Night (by Whigfield, an international pop- house hit in 1994) and Spanish Bombs are the same- you can sing the words of one over the other. Since discovering this I have never, ever got tired of singing Spanish Bombs over Saturday Night.

After Spanish Bombs comes The Right Profile, Joe throwing his subject matter net wider still with a song about movie heart throb Montgomery Clift. The song begins the staccato stabs of Mick’s guitar and a hi- hat, Joe reeling off the films Clift starred in- ‘say, where’d I see this guy? In Red River? A Place In The Sun? Maybe The Misfits? From Here To Eternity?’

Montgomery Clift (left, seated) with The Misfits including Clark Gable (right) and Marilyn Monroe (duh)

Montgomery had a car crash that left him with a broken jaw and facial scarring. He’d hit a tree leaving a party at Liz Taylor’s, pumped full of pills and booze. From then on he’d only be photographed from the correct side and angle, from the right profile. Producer Guy Stevens had given Joe a biography of Clift and suggested he write a song about the star’s life. Joe, no stranger to drugs and alcohol himself, wrote about the last ten years of Clift’s life, from the crash in 1956 to his death in 1966, a death some called the slowest suicide in cinematic history. Mick arranges the group and has The Irish Horns swinging about all over the place, everyone speeding up and slowing down, veering left and right, Paul and Topper driving things like Clift’s car with Joe garbling and gurgling the words over the top, breaking down completely for the ‘nembutal/numbs it all/but I prefer/alcohol’ part. Joe gives voices to the crowd standing and staring- ‘ And everybody says’what’s he like?’, ‘is he alright?/ can he still feel?’ and ‘it’s not funny/that’s Montgomery Clift honey!’. No other band, certainly none of the class of ’77 could have written this, the music or the words. ‘Go get me my old movie stills/Go out and get me another roll of pills/There I go shaking again but I ain’t got the chills’. Poor Monty.

Side two, track three is Lost In The Supermarket. Near Joe’s flat in the World’s End Estate was a supermarket, the International (numbers 471- 473 King’s Road). After a disorienting late night shopping visit Joe went home and wrote Lost In The Supermarket, a song about the alienating effects of capitalism, commercialisation and the way the world depersonalises the individual- Joe only came in for a special offer, ‘guaranteed personality’ and left bewildered and broken. Mick wrote a lovely, slick tune for the song, a gliding chord sequence. The rhythm section, led by Topper’s brilliant drumming, complement it completely. Joe sings about the suburbs (where he’d lived) and life in high rise flats (where Mick lived with his Nan, overlooking the Westway). As the song grooves on, a smidgen of disco in the drumming and guitars, Joe develops his theme-

‘I’m all tuned in, I see all the programs
I save coupons for packets of tea
I’ve got my giant hit discotheque album
I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free

The kids in the halls and the pipes in the walls
Makes me noises for company
Long distance callers make long distance calls
And the silence makes me lonely’

Joe gave the song to Mick to sing, a gift, saying he wrote it partly with Mick in mind. From intro to fade out Mick sings and plays beautifully and Paul’s bass playing is streets ahead of where he was two years previously.

Three magnificent songs into side two and there are a pair of songs to come that are as good as anything the band ever did. Clampdown opens with a squeal of feedback, the tsk- tsk- tsk of Topper tapping the cymbal and Mick bawling ‘1-2-3-4’ off mic before the descending riff plays through for a few bars. Joe mutters over the top, words that are almost inaudible-

‘The kingdom is ransacked
The jewels all taken back
And the chopper descends
They’re hidden in the back
With a message written on a half-baked potato
The spool goes ’round
Saying I’m back here in this place
And I could cry
And there’s smoke you could click on’

… and then the smoke clears, leaving Topper’s boom thwack boom thwack, Mick counting everyone back in again and then the question ‘what are we gonna do now?!’

Joe answers with a song about the rise of the far right, the dignity and indignity of labour, the crushing of youthful dreams and becoming what you once stood against, conformity and coercion, and a final part about ‘evil presidentes getting their due’. The band are on fire, fully amped up, Mick leading the charge, and the effect is electrifying. Paul’s bass playing is upfront and centre, especially in the remastered version from Sound System. Joe and Mick trade lines, call and response, intuitively- the segue from Mick’s spoken middle eight to Joe coming back in with the ‘But you grow up and you calm down’ is hair raising.

It’s worth pulling a few of Joe’s lines out, starting with the astonishing first line of the first verse-

”Taking off his turban
They said ‘is this man a Jew?’ ”

Joe follows it with ‘they put up a poster saying ‘we earn more than you’, the divide and conquer politics of the far right dissected in a few lines.

”We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers”

Forty years on from the National Front’s resurgence we’re right back where we were. The racists and immigrant scapegoaters that have dragged our politics and public life into the gutter over the last decade are still at it, people now emboldened by the rise of the populist scaremongers. If as he said last week the Clash are his favourite band it’s pretty clear that Boris Johnson wasn’t listening to the words.

‘No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown’

Joe urges the youth not to give in, not to fall in line, warning them of the older generation-

‘The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, boy, get running
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal’

He also warns of being co-opted by them-
‘So you got someone to boss around
It make you feel big now
You drift until you brutalise
Make your first kill now’
The song was originally called Working And Waiting and the lyrics must have started as a warning about the grim realities of work. School leavers in the 70s were factory fodder and with the destruction of manufacturing industry and rising unemployment even that vanished.  As the song fades out and the group bash away Joe and Mick continue to hammer it home, ‘work, work, work/ I give away no secrets/ work, work, more work, more work’. A major piece of work by Joe (the words) and Mick (the tune) and the group rise to the occasion pulling together a hard rocking song to match the lyrics. In a way it’s a much an epic in its scope as (White Man In) Hammersmith Palais was a year before or Straight To Hell would be a few years later.

Clampdown

In 1980 The Clash played Lewisham Odeon, with this blistering take of Clampdown recorded on film. Is there a better sight in rock ‘n’ roll than the moment at fifty two seconds where the three frontmen, all in black, step up to the mic to bellow the first line in unison? Here.

Also in 1980 they played New York (a whole other story) and appeared on the TV show Fridays where they put everything- absolutely everything- into this performance of Clampdown. Here.
Sometime during the Give ‘Em Enough Rope Paul realised that the money came from songwriting and during the rehearsal sessions at Vanilla brought in a song, initially known as Paul’s Tune. It would become The Guns Of Brixton. Someone wrote somewhere that The Guns Of Brixton contains the greatest bassline of the Twentieth Century. Over this thundering, reggae inspired bass Mick adds some texture, some scratchy guitar and Topper splashes the cymbals. The sound of the studio chairs having their Velcro ripped apart is in there too. Joe was given an early version of the lyrics, which Paul wasn’t sure about, and Joe encouraged him to work on them. When the words were finished and the music recorded Joe was given the lyric sheet but handed it back to Paul, saying he should sing it. Paul sings/shouts his words, South London style, a song about police brutality and the ghetto, suffering and surviving. He then brings in Ivan from The Harder They Come- ‘you see he feels like Ivan/ born under the Brixton sun/ his game is called surviving/ at the end of The Harder They Come’. The dub rhythm swings and lurches, Paul throwing the bass around, moving from one foot to the other. The Guns Of Brixton sounds massive, filling the room when played loud. It is one of the most enduring of the songs off London calling, the bassline reverberating through pop culture as a sample and a cover version. The perfect way to close side two, under heavy manners.

There are five songs on side two, five standouts, five album tracks better than most band’s singles. They must have known how good they were when sequencing the album. It has flow, range and depth, showcases their quality as songwriters, inventiveness as players and Joe’s unique abilities as a lyricist.

As much as London Calling is an album about the world in 1979, the state of things in London and the faraway towns, it’s also an album about people and their lives, the way they respond and react to the world, a world which kicks them and brutalises them and threatens to flood their homes. It’s an album about Jimmy Jazz and Rudie, the narrator of Hateful and his dealer, Federico Lorca, Montgomery Clift, Ivan and Joe dazed and confused under the supermarket striplights. The Clash were a people band, they did things for their fans (letting them into gigs for free, not over charging them for albums, not stripmining albums for singles) and they wanted to reach as many people as possible. Writing about people was what they did. As Joe pointed out much later ‘without people you’re nothing’.

In a few days- side three.

To The Faraway Towns

In three weeks time, 14th December to be exact, London Calling will hit forty. My copy (pictured above) was purchased second hand at some point in the late 80s, already a decade old then. Since then I’ve ended up with three copies on CD- a plain re-issue, the 25th anniversary re-issue with the Vanilla Tapes and the remastered one from the Sound System box set. Sometimes I think I should replace my vinyl copy which has seen better days but baulked at the price of green and pink re-release. And in many ways I’m happy with my original copy- it’s lived in and we’ve all got a little worn over the last forty years.

There’s an exhibition on at the Museum of London celebrating the album with Paul Simonon’s smashed up Fender Precision bass as one of the exhibits. We can sit here and blather about punk hitting middle age and ending up behind glass in cases in museums, surely not what punk was about, and moan about them selling out- and people were accusing The Clash of selling out from the moment they signed to CBS right through to now- but instead I’m going to focus on the record, the nineteen songs spread over four sides of vinyl that make up what may very well be the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Record Of All Time. I don’t especially care for Best or Greatest Of All Time, it’s all subjective and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but if I were forced to have cull the majority of my record collection, to pare things back to the absolute minimum, London Calling would be one of the survivors. I can’t imagine my listening habits without it.

Some context- in 1979 The Clash were in a bit of a hole. They’d moved on from the purist, Year Zero-ism of 1977 and had faced some criticism for the Sandy Pearlman produced Give ‘Em Enough Rope. In 1979 they’d put out album track English Civil War as a single complete with the magnificent cover version of Pressure Drop on the B-side. In May they released the four track Cost of Living e.p. a record so red hot it almost couldn’t be contained by the 7″ of vinyl it lived within- a searing cover of I Fought The Law (more grist for their detractors, rebel chic plus someone else’s song), two new originals in the shape of Groovy Times and Gates Of The West (yet more grist for their detractors, the band who in ’77 were so bored of the USA but were now singing about it) and a new recording of Capital Radio (Capital Radio Two) to beat the scalpers charging over the odds for the original.

The group had changed management, ditching Bernie Rhodes, which led to them leaving their Camden rehearsal base and both Strummer and Jones admitted after that they’d suffered from writer’s block. For what would become the London Calling sessions Clash tour manager and roadie Johnny Green and Baker had secured them a new space, the back of garage in Pimlico, re-christened Vanilla Studios. They locked the doors, kept people out and began playing around with covers that each of the four members brought in from their background and wide range of influences- rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, ska, rhythm and blues. In the afternoon band and crew broke off for football over the road, a couple of pints and then back to the rehearsals. From this they assembled the songs that would become London Calling, three cover versions (four of you include the cover of Armagiddeon Times on the B-side to the lead single), one song written right at the end after the sleeve had already gone to print, a first song and lead vocal for Paul and fifteen Strummer- Jones originals. They recruited semi- retired, semi- legendary producer Guy Stevens to produce the album, tracked down by Joe in a pub. Stevens caused chaos in the studio, deliberately, to get the group into the right frame of mind, a rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere (which all four said they thrived on). They spent six weeks in Wessex Studios, Bill Price stepping in when Stevens went too far, and came out of it with a double album that they insisted would retail for under a fiver. Value for money was a key punk concern. London Calling may not be punk but it is made of the punk aesthetic- do it yourself, loud and fast, keep mistakes in if they add to the song, don’t do what they tell you to- spliced into roots music and rock ‘n’ roll. It is personal and political, local and global, London and the faraway towns.

Side One

Opening with the strongest statement of intent they could, the title track and single crashing in on Jonesey’s two chord intro and Simonon’s rumbling bass, a clarion call. Joe strikes out straight away, looking out from the capital to the rest of the country- ‘London calling to the faraway towns/ now war is declared and battle come down’- with a state of the nation address taking in the death of the 60s ten years earlier, police brutality, impending nuclear and climate apocalypse, starvation, the zombies of death (a line widely thought to be a reference to heroin carving its way through the punk scene) and Joe sitting in his flat on Chelsea’s World’s End estate, where he lives by the river. Joe took an early version of the lyrics to Mick, who told him to re-work them as the chorus wasn’t strong enough. Imagine that. The song ends with a burst of radio pips and Joe’s plea ‘London calling at the top of the dial/ and after all this won’t you give me a smile?’

Then it’s immediately into their cover of Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac. One of the attentions to detail on this record is the gaps between the songs and the instances of split second timing. No sooner has London called than Simmo’s bass takes us into the rockabilly flash of ‘My baby drove up in a brand new Cadillac’. This was the first song recorded at Wessex, the cover version warm up sessions paying off. Topper said they’d have to redo it to, it speeds up in the second half, to which Joe Stevens replied ‘all great rock ‘n’ roll speeds up’. From there on in they were flying. ‘Balls to you baby’, Joe sneers updating Taylor’s 50s single to the late 70s, ‘she ain’t ever coming back’.

Jimmy Jazz is a change of pace, initially a laid back sounding jazz- blues song, Mick’s guitar playing decidedly non- punk, all echo and space. Joe comes in over the swinging backbeat with a tale of the police looking for Jimmy, threats to cut off his ears and head, Jimmy Dread and Satta Massagana, Joe eventually going all scat. Jimmy Jazz is the big sign on first listen, half way through side one, that things have changed, that other influences are all over this record. Jimmy Jazz, after the strum and drang of the title track and the amped up rockabilly of Brand New Cadillac, is a breather of kinds.

Jimmy Jazz

And then blam! Hateful, a three minute, three chord trick, a rocking Bo Diddley shuffle with lyrics about heroin addiction (again) and in the ‘this year I lost some friends’ a reference to Sid Vicious and his sad death in New York. Even their throwaway side one track four album songs are better than most band’s singles.

Side One closes with Rudie Can’t Fail, very much a London song, Mick responding to Joe’s instruction of ‘sing Michael sing’ with a shouted ‘on the route of the 19 bus…’ We’re deep into ska and reggae territory, horns driving the song emphatically, again with that Bo Diddley shuffle and beat. A celebration of the West London rude boys and drinking brew for breakfast, the youth being criticised for not settling down, getting a job from the paper and taking responsibility. In response Rudie loves his life, ‘I tell you I can’t live in service’ he says, ‘looking cool and speckless’ in his pork pie hat and chicken skin suit. The band’s rhythm and ska builds up, the guitars choppy and the horns parping. It’s clear whose side The Clash are on.

Side One takes in so much in it’s five songs, from apocalyptic modern rock to cool jazz, from rockabilly to funky reggae, it’s tempting to just flip the needle back to the start and go through it all again. The band are flying, Joe’s on fire lyrically and the songs up the ante from one to the next covering more musical ground than any other punk band would be able to. And that’s before you’ve even flipped the disc over and played side two, possibly the greatest run of Clash songs they committed to one side of black vinyl. And I’ll come back to that soon.

Victor Jara

Not very long ago Boris Johnson said the United Kingdom would leave the European Union- no ifs, no buts- on 31st October 2019 and that he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than ask The E.U. for an extension. Today is 1st November 2019 and unless I’m mistaken the UK is very much still in the E.U. An extension was asked for and granted, extending membership into next year. I think it’s very unlikely we’ll see the Prime Minister face down in a ditch today. It’s not nice to wish death on anyone- and I’m not saying I wish Johnson dead- but he raised the stakes with his use of language, he made the rash promises and here we are, still in the E.U. Johnson is a proven liar, a racist, a homophobe, the PM who illegally prorogued parliament, who insulted the memory of murdered MP Jo Cox in the Commons… the list of his failings goes on and on. Frankly, a ditch is too good for him.

Half a world away in Chile protesters have been taking to the streets in their thousands, rising unhappiness with the political and economic situation, deep disillusionment with their government (led by a billionaire President), the increased cost of living and widespread inequality. Chile is one of the most unequal countries on earth with millions of citizens frozen out. The protests turned violent with the arrival of riot police, the subsequent deaths of at least eighteen protesters and reports of human rights abuses by the security forces. A few days ago the above picture appeared, hundreds of protesters with guitars joining the thousands already on the streets and then the massed ranks of guitarists singing a song written by Chilean poet and singer Victor Jara.

The song is El Derecho de Vivre en Paz (The Right To Live In Peace) and the sound of the umpteen strummed guitars, the multitude of voices and doleful, haunting melody is a sound to behold. Guitar army, this machine kills fascists, the people united can never be divided et cetera.

Victor Jara said his songs weren’t protests songs but revolution songs. He was a poet, activist, singer, director and member of the Chilean Communist Party who played a major role in establishing the New Chilean Song movement, a upsurge in Chilean folk and popular music in the early 70s. In 1973 Allende’s government was overthrown by a right wing coup, supported by the US government, and Augusto Pinochet (friend of Margaret Thatcher) was installed as dictator. On 12th September Jara was arrested and with thousands of others rounded up and held in the Chile Stadium in Santiago. The guards smashed his hands and fingers up and then asked him to play the guitar for them. Shortly after he was killed by a shot in the head and then forty bullets fired into his body. His music was banned by the regime, the master tapes burned or confiscated. Victor’s widow Joan distributed his music around the world, publicising his songs and work. That crowd in Chile recently, a new generation of protesters, using his song and words and tune, shows the power of song and music and inspiration they can bring.

In 1980 The Clash released Sandinista!, six sides of vinyl containing the most varied output of their career (and any other band’s career for that matter). Side 4 has possibly the best run of songs on the whole triple disc set, opening with their sublime, rollicking cover of Police On My Back, the murky rock reggae of Midnight Log and The Equaliser, the lilting, anti- war The Call Up and then the final pair of Washington Bullets and On Broadway. Washington Bullets tells the story of imperialism from Cuba in 1959 to the Sandinistas of the Nicaragua that gave the album its name, taking in the American backed Bay Of Pigs invasion, the Dalai Lama, the Chinese mistreatment of Buddhist monks, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the murder of Victor Jara, Strummer half singing, half talking the words ‘As every cell in Chile will tell/ the cries of the tortured men/ remember Allende and the days before/ before the army came/ please remember Victor Jara/In the Santiago stadium/ Es verdad those Washigton bullets again’.

Washington Bullets

If You Catch Me At The Border I Got Visas In My Name

A month ago I watched the excellent documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., a film about the life, music and politics of M.I.A. The film is made up of home video footage, TV appearances, time spent with Justine Frischmann and on the road with Elastica, interviews and various shaky, hand held video camera and phone clips. It’s a fascinating document, energetic and gripping. Much of the film centres around a visit to Sri Lanka which Maya extends longer than intended and the impact this has on her convictions and politics and the effect this then has on her music, her view of herself as an immigrant and a Londoner. As her music becomes more popular and widespread she walks into various controversies. She is accused by the US media of being a terrorist sympathiser (her father was a founding Tamil Tiger). She is set up by the New York Times and responds by tweeting the journalist’s mobile phone number. She is invited by Madonna to appear with her at half time during the Superbowl and gives the whole of Middle America the middle finger. Her ambition and attitude are evident from the star and she comes across very well too, likeable and genuinely questioning her own attitudes and beliefs. She has swagger and self- belief and has made some of the best pop songs of the 21st century.

I’ve posted this before but it never gets tired, a thrilling pop- rap blast riding in on that Mick Jones Straight To Hell guitar sample, Diplo’s production and M.I.A.’s lyrics about people’s perceptions of immigrants (hence the gun shots and cash registers of the chorus).

Paper Planes

The best use of a Clash sample? Maybe so. Norman Cook and Beats International made very good use of Paul Simonon’s bassline for Dub Be Good To Me in 1990, with Lindy Layton’s sweet vocal and The SOS Band’s song.

Dub Be Good To Me (LP version)

In 1994 Deee Lite sampled the wheezy organ from Armagideon Times for Apple Juice Kissing, a song about kissing on the back row of the movies and therefore a much less political song than Paper Planes, Straight To Hell or The Clash’s cover of Willie Williams’ reggae tune but all part of life’s rich tapestry. And a very smart use of a Clash sample too.

Apple Juice Kissing