By Jarrett Stieber, contributing writer and guest musician for the ATL Collective
“We’ve been to 52 countries playing and here’s the thing: most countries listen to shit music. We’re here to relieve them of that,” Joe Strummer slurs backstage at the Palladium in New York City. That September concert in 1979 produced not only a pithy quote but also one of the most iconic photographs in rock history: bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision on the stage (a photo which would become the eventual album cover for “London Calling” in December of that year).
Before “London Calling,” the Clash was a band with its back against the wall. Their preceding album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope,” was commercially unsuccessful despite the quality of the music. They fired their producer and relocated to a new practice space where they did nothing but rehearse and play vicious games of soccer against each other. When their CBS record executives would come to check in on their progress, they would challenge them to games of soccer and physically beat their employers. Guitarist Mick Jones reminisced, “The band used to kick the execs in the shins and drag them to the pitch, and doing so was wonderful.”
The four musicians developed a strong sense of unity through shared anti-establishment mindsets and their new material, leading to a feisty sense of confidence toward their future. They hired Guy Stevens, a producer similarly cornered and looking to make a statement, to produce the record. Stevens’ avant-garde approach to production, which he called ‘direct psychic injection,’ kept the band in a state of frenzy during production. Stevens’ would run around amongst the band while they recorded and throw chairs and ladders. The energy and harnessed chaos comes across on the record, which shows a band clearly unified and excited to be making music. The influences of rockabilly, ska, reggae and bossa nova present in the music mix with the band’s signature coarse punk sound to create a transcendent album of music far more sophisticated than any other punk release to date.
Drummer Topper Headon benefited from the cross pollination perhaps more than any other member of the band, vocally professing how pleased he was to play his drums beyond basic rock patterns. The band also decided to pay respect to their influences by including a revamping of Vince Taylor’s song “Brand New Cadillac,” a tune the band used as a warm up before shows and recording sessions.
While most of the double album’s material was written by front man Joe Strummer, Mick Jones contributed a few songs of his own, as well as exerting his presence by forcing Strummer to re-write all the verses of “London Calling” multiple times until they were deemed acceptable. Paul Simonon also got his work on record with the song “Guns of Brixton.”
Despite the wide array of genres present on the album, and overall level of musicianship streaming through the group’s songwriting, Strummer admitted, “We’re not particularly talented but we try our hardest, it’s as simple as that. We give it all we got.” Effort and energy are exactly what those of us outside of the band get treated to every time we listen to the album, whose vinyl practically sweats every time it’s spun on a turntable. From the needle’s drop into the harsh, paranoid intensity of “London Calling” until it softly glides to rest after the Joe Strummer begs, “Stand by me…” for the last time in “Train in Vain,” “London Calling” proves exactly why bands like the Sex Pistols faded away but the Clash persevered. If this album is what London flooding will be like, then I will gladly risk living by the river Thames.