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

Remote Control

Two different songs with the same name.

In 1977 The Clash’s debut album came out. It opened with the jerky, amphetamine rush of Janie Jones and was followed by Remote Control, a Mick Jones song written in response to the Anarchy Tour. Over a crunching, sped up Kinks style riff Mick complains about civic hall’s bureaucrats, grey London town, the police in the panda car, pubs closing at 11pm, big business, being poor, money men in Mayfair, parliament and people who want to turn you into a robot. All good punk stuff. Unfortunately the song became unmentionable when CBS released it as a single without their consent, which for Strummer, Jones and Simonon symbolised everything they stood against. In a way through it all worked out well- Mick went away and wrote Complete Control, one of their finest moments, which opened with the lines ‘They said ‘release Remote Control’, but we didn’t want it on the label’. In truth Remote Control isn’t by any means a bad song and Mick says they always liked it, they just couldn’t play it on ideological grounds.

Remote Control

Back to the band I started the week with for the second Remote Control. In 1998 The Beastie Boys released their fifth album, Hello Nasty, a twenty song tour de force that Adam Horowitz reckons is their best album. The third song is Remote Control, kicking off with a super catchy riff and Mike D leading on the mic, finding links between satellite dishes, videos games, chain reactions, diamonds from coal, rainy days, Don King and ‘cameras on Mars on space patrol, controlled on Earth by remote control’.

Remote Control

The two bands are linked by Sean Carasov, known to the Beastie Boys as The Captain. Sean started off as part of The Clash’s entourage, selling t-shirts on tour and working his way up to become tour manager Kosmo Vinyl’s right hand man. He’s also in Joe Strummer’s Hell W10 silent film. Sean moved to the USA and became part of the Beastie Boys’ circle, eventually becoming their tour manager in the Def Jam days. Later he became an A&R man and signed A Tribe Called Quest to Jive Records. Mike D and Adam H both write fondly about Carasov but also the feeling he left something heavy behind him and the issues he had with alcohol. Sadly Sean took his own life in 2010.

Armistice

Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Siegfried Sassoon, 1918

Groovy Times Are Here Again

If yesterday’s song could only have been written by Paul Weller in 1978 then today’s is very much Joe Strummer but a year later. The Cost Of Living ep was released in 1979, a four track 7″ single and one of the finest releases the band put out. Led by their cover of I Fought The Law and closed by the re-recorded version of Capital Radio it is bookended by raw, high octane rock ‘n’ roll. In between these two are a pair of songs, one sung by Strummer  (Groovy Times) and one sung by Jones (Gates Of The West) that are lesser known but utterly essential Clash tunes.

Groovy Times opens with a burst of acoustic guitars, electric guitars and harmonica (a nod to Bob Dylan from Mick) and becomes a state of Britain in the late 70s address from Joe. He starts with the effects of economic recession- ‘the high street shops are boarded up’ – and then moves onto the fences put up in football grounds to pen the fans in, a wall of riot police with shields and then contrast it with  housewives all singing ‘groovy times are here again’ (groovy, a word that in ’79 would be completely associated with hippies from a decade earlier). The sleeve of the ep was packaged to look like washing powder and this song seems to be the where the sleeve comes from- ignore the news, focus on the adverts! The second verse picks up with more imagery of wasteland Britain and urban decay but never mind because the radio is still saying ‘groovy times have come to pass!’. In the final verse Joe takes some kind of aim at ‘the king of early evening ITV’ (Bill Grundy) and apparently Elvis Costello (‘put him in a dog suit like from 1964’). It’s the work of men at the top of their game, branching out after the punk orthodoxy of ’77 and the tensions and difficulties of 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album. Coming a few months before London Calling it shows a group throwing off the shackles and on a roll.

Groovy Times

Rachid Taha

It was announced a couple of days ago that Rachid Taha had died aged 59. Rachid was an Algerian singer and activist, based in France, who blended punk and electronic music with North African forms rai and chaabi. Moving to Lyon aged 10 he started forming bands in his teens, djed at local Algerian clubs, and sang in both Arabic and English. In the early 80s he found The Clash and said that for a generation of French musicians ‘they gave us the world’. He bumped into the band outside the Theatre Mogador in Paris during their residency there in 1981, passing them his band’s demo tape, fusing rai with funk and punk. Months later he heard Rock The Casbah and liked to imagine his demo tape had at least partly inspired the song.

Like many people I first heard of Rachid when he covered Rock The Casbah on his 2004 album Tekitoi, sung it in Arabic and re-titled Rock el Casbah, a magnificent cover of the song. A year later at a Stop The War gig in London Mick Jones joined Rachid on stage (and did the same at the Barbican in 2007).  Life goals eh?
RIP Rachid.

Rock el Casbah

The video for the original release, a song largely written and recorded by Topper Headon, is a hoot, starring the group in their full on military fatigues gear, a grumpy Mick Jones, a heavy handed Arab-Israeli section and an armadillo. It’s also a lesson in songs gaining a life or meaning not intended by the creators- Joe sat aghast watching his TV in 1991 as US troops used it to celebrate bombing Iraq.