London Calling 40 years on: How The Clash rewrote the rule book

The Clash filleted rock, politics and history with swagger and biting social commentary

London Calling, The Clash’s great third album, was released 40 years ago today, on December 14th, 1979. Time has judged it one of the seminal rock’n’roll albums. The 19-tune double LP – price £5 – hit the Christmas market in a blaze of righteous Jamaican reggae and driving dance-floor ska, 12-bar jazz, mento calypso, disco, funk and much else besides.

Having just returned from an American tour on which they were supported by the soul veterans Sam & Dave and the blues showmen Bo Diddley and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, The Clash were fired up with the romance of the United States. London Calling is haunted by ghosts of Depression-era railroad folk, rockabilly and even Tin Pan Alley show-tune harmony.

Appropriately, the cover replicated the luminous pink-and-green lettering of the sleeve of Elvis Presley’s first album – one of the United States’ most revered debuts. If The Clash had discovered the US (and, by extension, themselves), not everyone was happy. Punks who had endorsed the band’s “no Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” line, from the B-side of their 1977 single White Riot, were put out.

From their amphetamine-spiked early days as a London garage combo who professed to be “bored with the USA”, The Clash had assembled a wildly disparate collection of songs that juxtaposed musical styles from far and wide.


The wonder is that London Calling ever got finished

The album's 65 minutes dig deep into rock legend, politics, myth and European history. The songs tell of the death of an opium-den gambler "seized and forced to his knees and shot dead" (The Card Cheat) and consumer alienation (Lost in the Supermarket); we travel back to the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and contemplate the druggy self-destruction of the Hollywood matinee idol Montgomery Clift (The Right Profile). And in Brand New Cadillac, a rockabilly cover of a 1950s song by Vince Talyor, we listen to a young woman Cadillac owner berate her daddy ("I ain't never coming back"). The album has the density and variety of a film, and the band knew it. The LP was sold with a sticker that proclaimed The Clash as "the only band that matters".

The wonder is that London Calling ever got finished. The band's chaotic producer, Guy Stevens, caused all manner of problems in the recording studio, from blowing up the mixing desk, smashing chairs in front of CBS record executives (while the band recorded Death or Glory) and fighting drunkenly with his engineer to nodding out under the console and, at one point, pouring red wine into the piano – because, he told the Clash guitarist Mick Jones, it would "sound better".

Having produced Mott the Hoople, Free and other mid-1970s British rock acts, Stevens added barrelhouse piano, Stax-style Irish Horns and multiple drum signatures to The Clash’s habitual power-chord workouts and riffs borrowed from Dr John’s New Orleans R&B and the pub rock of prepunk bands such as Dr Feelgood. The result had all the stridency, swagger and passion of punk-era Clash but was more expansive and mellow in atmosphere. (Wretchedly, Stevens died of an overdose, at the age of 38, two years after the album was released.)

Forty years later, the strange magic that went into making the album seems remarkable. A rehearsal room was found in the back streets of Pimlico, between Buckingham Palace and the River Thames in central London, where for four months between May and August 1979 The Clash wrote and thrashed out their extraordinary new material.

Beneath the album's veneer of Americana was a very humdrum world of London public transport, greasy-spoon cafes and pub-sandwich lunches. In his book on The Clash, Route 19 Revisited, Marcus Gray relates that most of the songs were conceived at points along the number-19 bus route as it ferried band members across the city, southwest to northeast. "Sing, Michael, sing… on the route of the 19 bus!", the band's frontman, Joe Strummer, exhorts Jones on Rudie Can't Fail.

A harbinger of change for The Clash, London Calling appeared seven months after Margaret Thatcher's election triumph, in May 1979 – a watershed moment that saw a free-market evangelist installed in 10 Downing Street. Overnight, Thatcher became the face of the "market counter-revolution" that swept post-communist Europe hand in hand with Pope John Paul II's anti-Soviet exhortations. The unloosed forces of anti-state capitalism and politicised religion are with us still.

London Calling, with its escapism into the United States of the 1950s and 1960s, served as a tonic to the grim reality of late-1970s Britain as the outgoing Labour government, under Jim Callaghan, appeared bankrupt and played out.

Punk itself had lost its direction as the revolt against authority turned into mere style, with zipped and bondaged imitators cursing Thatcher in mock cockney tones.

Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal Party, was meanwhile on trial for murder, while Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, on bail awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, died of a heroin overdose.

In these unstable times, Strummer did not want an action replay of The Clash’s eponymous 1977 debut album: a virtual snapshot of blue-collar British youth beaten down by mass unemployment and public-sector walkouts. London Calling, with its array of backing vocals, overdubs and casual ad-libs (“start all over again!”, “it’s ridiculous innit?”), found The Clash in a less combative but still political mood.

The adrenaline-quickening title track offered a dystopian sci-fi vision of London preyed on by underworld zombies following a “nuclear error”. (Ironically, global cooling, not warming, was then the terror.) It could be a front-line report from the UK’s Winter of Discontent of 1978-9, when rubbish was left to pile 6m high in Leicester Square, in the middle of London, and bodies accumulated in hospital morgues after grave-diggers went on strike.

Triumphantly, London Calling builds on the band’s love of reggae. It is steeped in the bass-heavy, trance-inducing vibes of Afrocentric 1970s reggae albums such as Satta Massagana, by The Abyssinians, and Culture’s Two Sevens Clash. A cover of Junior Murvin’s 1977 reggae hit Police & Thieves had appeared on the Clash’s debut album, and the gruff-voiced Jamaican DJ-singer Prince Far I was mentioned on their 1978 single Clash City Rockers.

The standout reggae-inflected track on London Calling, Guns of Brixton, written by the band's bassist, Paul Simonon, alludes to the Jamaican outlaw Vincent "Ivan", or "Ivanhoe", Martin, who terrified the island's capital, Kingston, in the 1940s with his armed hold-ups, until a police manhunt left him dead. To Simonon's romantic imagination, Ivan was a Caribbean Ned Kelly who eluded capture even as he taunted the authorities.

The outlaw imagery of guns and gang warfare was naive romanticism. In 1977 Strummer had accompanied Jones to Kingston, only to find a frightening place on the edge of bloodshed. (“I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” Strummer sang on Safe European Home, an oblique comment on mid-1970s Jamaica.)

Nevertheless, London Calling’s badland balladry sat well with punk’s avowed anti-establishment credentials. Wrong ’Em Boyo, a ska jolly-up sired out of an old New Orleans tune, tells of the 19th century African-American folk hero Lee Shelton, aka Stagger Lee, who shot dead a white man. Revolution Rock, another ballad, draws from the rude-boy identity of Perry Henzell’s cult Jamaican film The Harder They Come, from 1972, which depicts the bullet-scarred life of an Ivan-like outlaw as he struggles to survive in the ganja yards and urban alleys of western Kingston.

On the cover of London Calling was Pennie Smith’s now famous photograph of Simonon smashing his bass guitar on to the stage of the New York Palladium. Although out of focus, it suited the band’s ragamuffin image – and recalled The Who’s auto-destructive pop art. Although the Ramones had released a double live album of punky three-chord anthems in 1977, the idea of a double album was essentially hostile to punk’s DIY ethos of self-motivation and singles-only output. While some British critics objected to The Clash’s alleged commercialism – one negative review punned on the title of the band’s previous album, Give ’Em Enough Rope, with the headline Give ’Em Enough Dope – American critics on the whole applauded the music’s immense breadth and “primal energy”, as the New York Times put it. Overnight, London Calling sold two million copies and propelled The Clash, all guns blazing, into the 1980s.

The band followed with a sprawling triple album, Sandinista!, which offered more reggae and even rap (The Magnificent Seven), as well as Jamaican DJ styles of delivery, dubbing and toasting.

For all the album’s hymnal, incantatory quality, The Clash appeared to have run out of puff. In 1983, with their drummer, Topper Headon, addicted to heroin, the band split up.

Its verve and youthful exuberance effectively led the way for bands from U2 to Beastie Boys to Blur

Joe Strummer, who died in 2002, at the age of 50, of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, said of London Calling's influence: "We didn't have any solutions to the world's problems. We were trying to grope in a socialist way towards some future where the world might be less of a miserable place than it is". He added, with characteristic humour: "If Karl Marx was unable to do it, then there's no way four guitarists from London could do it."

The band’s avowed egalitarian politics jarred somewhat with their new-found love of the United States, but The Clash always were provoking and paradoxical in their views.

Four decades later, the album’s vertiginous attack seems if anything to have sharpened. Digitalised music production may have killed off the ordinary human business of recording musicians, but London Calling has shown its longeveity. Its verve and youthful exuberance effectively rewrote the punk rule book and led the way for bands from U2 to Beastie Boys to Blur.

Last month Boris Johnson cited The Clash as his favourite band, along with The Rolling Stones, but was London Calling really made for Establishment figures such as the British prime minister? (In 2007, no less cringe-making, the British Conservative Party adopted Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come as a Tory anthem, the party of law and order thus endorsing, if unwittingly, the crime habits of a Kingston outlaw.) Joe Strummer, oddly true to his son-of-a-diplomat, boarding-school upbringing, was at heart a contrarian and nonconformist. And The Clash, the last great British rock band, were like nothing before or since.

Don Letts's film The Clash: Westway to the World screens at the British Film Institute, in London, today, with a Q&A from Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. The Clash: London Calling, a free exhibition, is at the Museum of London until April 19th, 2020. The London Calling Scrapbook, released to mark the 40th anniversary of the album, is available now