By the end of the 1970s, punk rock had started to dig its own grave. Punk was a cultural movement filled with boundless vigor and vitality. It turned the everyman into a spokesperson of justice, freedom and life. Legions of youth chanted along its anthems, celebrating the prospect of a better world. Unfortunately, the bars of its three-chord song structure became more eminent with every Ramones rip off boy band looking to turn rebellion into money. Punk became too busy fighting over what is “punk” and what isn’t, forgetting the essence of what made it such a potent movement—the idea that you can do whatever the hell you want. After the Sex Pistols imploded in 1978 and the Ramones’ sales started to tank, punk rock seemed to be stuck in limbo.
Out of this mess came The Clash and their 1979 rock ‘n’ roll tour de force, London Calling. From the very first chords of its title track to the final beat of its closer “Train in Vain,” London Calling is an ingeniously rich and brave sonic experiment that combines reggae, new wave, punk, power pop, jazz and folk in a seamlessly organic and confident way.
Lyrically, the record is very dense in content. Unlike the party pop songs of the Ramones or the juvenile tirades of the Sex Pistols, lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer instilled his lyrics with intelligence and sincerity. Every line he wrote was a battle cry for change or an introspective dissection of deep personal troubles. “The ice age is coming / the sun zooming in / engine’s stop running / the wheat is growing thin,” Strummer proclaims on the album’s title track. The song’s marching beat, gloomy bassline and piercing guitar riffs make for a powerful, booming anthem for the collapse of Western civilization. Strummer’s delivery has never been better. He sifts through images of Britain’s social decline with the unrestrained growl of Johnny Rotten and the wizened prophesying of Bob Dylan.
Despite all of this lyrical and musical density, the record is still light on its feet, moving at a pace more exhilarating than most other records. This is all thanks to Strummer’s partner-in-crime, Mick Jones, the band’s lead guitarist, backing vocalist and co-songwriting genius. Jones, with his keen sense of music composition and tasteful guitar playing, decorates Strummer’s words so that they become buoyant and radiant songs that lift the spirits while still being grounded in reality.
The brilliance of Jones and Strummer’s collaboration is most evident on the album’s two standout tracks, “Spanish Bombs” and “Lost in the Supermarket.” The former is a hook-laden power pop song about the Spanish Civil War. The rich storytelling and profound humanness of Strummer’s lyrics, elevated by Jones’ soaring guitar lines and melodic sensibilities, turn the song into a beautiful celebration of the Spanish freedom fighters forgotten by time. The latter is a ballad-esque meditation on suburban alienation with Jones on lead vocals. The song is anchored by a deliciously groovy hi-hat and floor tom combo and is carried by Jones’ twinkling guitar lines. Suburban alienation is by no means new ground for rock music. However, the simplicity in Strummer’s songwriting and the nuance in Jones’ singing, whose voice is a combination of Paul Simon’s sweetness and David Bowie’s evocative yelping, prevent the song from becoming sappy and forgettable. It’s worth noting that the band’s rhythm section, consisting of bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon, does an amazing job of giving every song a strong core while still being versatile enough to shift comfortably with the band’s genre experimentation. Headon, who is trained in jazz and funk, shines especially with his inventive yet danceable drum beats and precise drum fills.
Time has proven to be remarkably kind to The Clash. Their best-known songs have become classic rock staples without becoming clichés. Their experimentation with different genres of music was visionary for its time and predated various musical movements that would become widely influential, most notably post-punk and hip-hop. Ultimately, what makes The Clash such a formidable force to this day is the extraordinary humanity and compassion in their music. Over the decades, various bands have tried to identify with the underdogs, but very few so routinely gave such an articulate and powerful voice to such a large group of society’s outcasts. From the embattled union worker, to the disenchanted suburban child, to the orphaned mixed-race children in the Vietnam war, all the way to the outmanned Spanish freedom fighters, The Clash possessed an exceptional ability in telling stories with humor, vigor, thoughtfulness and a romanticism that somehow, almost magically, never veers into cheap sentimentality. Even after all these years, they are still “The Only Band That Matters.” A+