In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Such a varied, wide ranging album sonically and stylistically.”
Before I started listening to London Calling for this review, I already had an intro half written in my head. I was gonna talk about how it was the pivot point between The Clash proving themselves with the first two records, then using the mainstream mega success gained here to attempt something a little more ambitious with the triple album epic, Sandinista. Turns out I was wrong about all of it.
While London Calling is the iconic record and image of the band today, it’s predecessor was actually a bigger chart hit back in the day. And as far as ambitious, epic records go, I had no idea that London Calling was itself just that, with 19 tracks clocking in at well over an hour. So while I assumed this would be the most familiar Clash album in this career retrospective, I was really pumped to realise just how blind I was going into this legendary and important piece of rock and roll history.
Opening with the titular track, it’s obvious why this might be the most famous and most played song by The Clash almost 40 years after its release. London Calling is a great example of a band becoming more polished with their song writing and instrument playing craft, while losing none of the raw edge that made them so revolutionary in the first place.
There’s a 50s, greased back, rockabilly sound to Brand New Cadillac that perfectly suits the song’s title. For a band that always bucked the slick, self aggrandising cock sureness of American rock, they certainly do a good job of appropriating it here. Which makes it the perfect partner the 50s doo-wop rock and roll (complete with sax solo), given a lazy, stoner looseness on Jimmy Jazz.
With Rudie Can’t Fail, I realise something about The Clash. The more guitar effects or general trickiness, the more likely are the chances that you’re listening to a Mick Jones lead song. I’m not saying Jones leans on these sonic affectations as a crutch or anything, I just think he has a different approach to song writing than his old sparring partner. I think Joe Strummer saw music and melody as nothing more than a delivery method for his message. Jones songs feel like music and lyrics are more organically linked, and probably evolve together on symbiosis.
There’s more Jones weirdness with Lost in the Supermarket. Possibly the least Clash-like song by The Clash that I have ever heard. It’s poppy and light, and even pretty, in a way that I never expected form this band. And when you’re dealing with 19 songs and over an hour of music, this kind of weird surprise is always welcome.
Going full dub, the rules of reggae are slowed and tuned right down for the hypnosis inducing The Guns of Brixton. The lethargic energy feels so counter intuitive to the passionate, protest like subject matter, it’s almost like the song is tricking you into subconsciously taking it all in. It’s also the only song on London Calling written and sung by bass player Paul Simonon, which might explain it’s unique, bass heavy groove. Crank those reggae rules up in tempo and energy, and you get the dance hall ska of Wrong ‘Em Boyo.
When it comes to the poster boys of this period of punk from each side of the pond, the UK is always represented by The Clash, while the US is all about The Ramones. I’ve never seen enough similarities between the two to know why they were both labelled with the same genre moniker, until Death or Glory. Speed this up, flatten out the bass line and the vocal melody, and this could be on any Ramones record.
OK, so Lost in the Supermarket just became the second least Clash-like song by The Clash that I have ever heard. Because The Card Cheat is a piano driven piece of grandeur that sounds like it could be the opening song to a rock musical, introducing us to the story and main characters. Before London Calling mixes things up again with the disco bounce of Lover’s Rock.
Saving the best for last, this might be seen as blasphemous from the band’s faithful, but Train in Vain might just be my personal favourite song by The Clash. It’s super poppy and maybe a sign of the kind of song writing that Jones would indulge more in and eventually lead to his being kicked out of the band. But what can I say, it’s pop charms work on me.
While the first song hinted at the more polished song writing and musicianship, it’s the rest of London Calling that really surprised me. It’s such a varied, wide ranging album sonically and stylistically. Yet, for all its genre hopping, it still remains very much a Clash record. Turns out, success, fame, money and critical respect did nothing to smother the dissatisfaction and passion of these guys.