Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman recalls the Clash's epic album of 40 years ago. Image designed by Hugh Tisdall for Philosophy Football
14th December 1979 – the year of Thatcher’s election was seen out with the release of London Calling, widely regarded as the finest of all Clash albums. Forty years later, 14th December 2019, another Tory nightmare begins and London's drowning. So it seems timely to look back, in hope.
The Clash had burst onto the fast-emerging punk scene in ’77 with their debut album. The band’s second long-player Give ‘Em Enough Rope was released to mixed reviews. It was over-produced, so the raw energy edge of its tracks was somewhat blunted. All this was to change however, with London Calling.
From double album length, weighing in at an astonishing nineteen tracks across four sides, to the stunning cover pic of Paul Simonon doing some serious damage to his bass guitar, this was to become an instant classic. The rich mix of sounds showcased the foursome’s ever-expanding musical influences – jazz, reggae and dub, the blues, rockabilly, ska. This by and large wasn’t what was expected of 1970s English punk bands. Despite that, both fans and critics loved it.
On their debut album Joe Strummer had belted out the anthemic ‘We’re so bored with the USA’ yet two years later The Clash appeared to have fallen hopelessly in love with the place. The influences were obvious, from Montgomery Clift to Cadillacs – a wholesome embrace of Americana minus the shrill anti-Americanism of the band’s more obvious politics.
The band were emerging as fulsome internationalists too. Every bit at home belting out their tribute to inner-city resistance The Guns of Brixton as their very particular account in Spanish Bombs of the battle against Franco’s fascists. For many listeners these tracks would be their first introduction to either subject. The Clash were a genuinely educational, as well as innovative, outfit, a key influence shaping a generation whose politics were framed by being anti-Thatcher on the home front and soon enough against Reagan on the global front too. Sounds familiar?
Two tracks in particular stand out. Not only as unforgettable when first heard but uncannily prescient four decades on too.
What are we gonna do now?
Taking off his turban, they said, 'is this man a Jew?'
'Cause they're working for the clampdown
They put up a poster saying: 'We earn more than you'
We're working for the clampdown
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers
This ‘clampdown’ mixed authoritarianism, race hatred and economic power. What The Clash railed against in 1979 remains the shape of Johnson and Trump’s right-wing, racist populism today.
And then of course the album’s title track, London Calling:
London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down
This was the era of the Winter of Discontent, the Special Patrol Group, war in Ireland (and soon enough in the South Atlantic too), the Nazi National Front on the march, Brixton and Toxteth ablaze, civil disobedience against Reagan and Thatcher’s nuclear arms race, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike. ‘War is declared’ – they weren’t far wrong.
The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin' thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river
The meteorology might be a tad skewift but a frightening vision of the future has become the vivid reality of the present-day climate emergency. A melting polar ice cap, record-breaking heatwaves, agricultural growing seasons in crisis, and rising seal levels.
We can rest assured that The Clash of yesteryear would have been playing Extinction Rebellion benefit gigs today. It’s Revolution Rock, ’79 vintage – play it loud in 2019, and keep the faith.
Philosophy Football’s 40th anniversary London Calling T-shirt is available from here.