On December 14th, 1979, The Clash’s London Calling entered the world. Almost 40 years later, the album is considered to be one of punk rock’s greatest accolades.
It reinvented what the masses musically perceived as “punk rock,” changing the artistic direction a punk rock artist could pursue forever. Released at a time when the spirit of punk was declining, The Clash’s London Calling showcased the true nature of the band and punk music as a whole.
When journalists and critics labeled and put them in a box, The Clash fought harder to prove that there’s more to punk rock than meets the eye. Their revamped musical sound introduced a new musical genre called “post-punk.”
In its essence, post-punk consists of the band merging punk rock with other musical styles like reggae and rockabilly. This fusion helped produce iconic songs like “Guns of Brixton” and “Brand New Cadillac.”
Another aspect of The Clash’s London Calling that should not be ignored is the lyrical themes explored. This record belongs to an exclusive category of albums, where the music is overpowered by the lyrical meaning. Each song on the album represents a certain dissatisfaction that a member of the band had with real-life events.
For example, the title track “London Calling” reflected the growing tension of nuclear war surrounding the “Three Mile Island Accident.” “Guns Of Brixton” talks about police brutality, and “Clampdown” urges the youth to fight the status quo.
The Clash’s London Calling represents the work of a band who finally discovered themselves. A band that isn’t afraid to fight ‘the power that be’. In order to truly appreciate this masterpiece, one must first dive deep into punk rock history.
Who Started the Punk Movement?
To understand The Clash’s London Calling, you have to understand what punk rock is, and the circumstances that created it. Formally, punk rock was born out of the variety of alternate musical styles explored during the 1960s. However, the mentality and energy of the movement came from the attitudes of rebels who rejected what music was turning into.
A similar movement had begun to take place in the UK during the 1970s. The musical landscape was rapidly changing as the next generation of artists began rejecting their “heroes,” who were now seen as “authority” figures and “celebrities” who weren’t really creating impactful music.
In addition to that, the political landscape was changing, which was causing a lot of social unrest. One particular riot, which occurred in West London in 1976 is particularly noteworthy.
During the final weekend of the summer season in London, an annual celebration of Caribbean culture occurs at the Notting Hill Carnival. A tradition dating back to 1966. While often a happy event, it’s important to note that the summer of 1976 was the hottest summer on record. Also, the relationship between the police and the African community had broken down completely leading up to that weekend.
The resulting effect was a full scale-riot , where a 1,600 strong police force violently broke up the carnival and arrested 60 people. Amongst all the rioters were two particular participants who were also creating chaos everywhere they went. Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon.
The musical significance of the riot will always have a special place in music history. It will always remain the foundation on which the spirit of The Clash would be built on. Their debut self-titled record was an all-out punk rock assault.
It represented the DIY aspect of the movement and called for a need to do things differently. It also incorporated the legendary three-chord style of playing, which soon became an industry standard for punk bands.
The Clash – White Riot
The lyrics explored controversial themes of a race war in “White Riot,” also written about the riot at the carnival. “I’m So Bored With The USA” touched upon dictatorships and “London’s Burning” the drag of 9-5 life. The release of the record brought The Clash to the forefront of the British punk rock movement.
For their second record, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band’s record label CBS Records made life very difficult. They chose a producer who gave the band a more commercial sound. This resulted in a breakdown in the relationship between both parties.
Prologue to The Clash’s London Calling
By the summer of 1979, The Clash was pretty much done. At every corner they turned, problems seemed to mount for the band. Music critics and journalists even started writing them off. Their relationship with their record company CBS had broken down completely. In addition, The Clash misunderstood the kind of record deal they had signed.
They thought they had signed a 5 album deal, which in reality turned out to be a 10 album deal. Another significant matter was that the band had fired the man who had thought of The Clash in the first place, Bernard Rhodes. Apparently there were rules to punk, but they seemed to be ignoring them.
Unhappy with their last record, The Clash blamed a lot of it on the interference with their record label. With each tour, the band had begun amounting debts. They didn’t see any money from album releases for almost 18 months. In order to stay on the road, they had to put out more records.
The Spirit of Punk
It was time to make a record. However, the band had lost all their infrastructure when they fired their manager, who owned the lease on their rehearsal space, “Rehearsal Rehearsals.” Now they would have to call upon the spirit of punk rock.
That’s where people make the misconception about the genre. You see, it’s not just a style of music, it’s a way of life. It’s how you approach situations and turn your limitations into assets.
Punk is all about embracing the DIY aspect of music. Doing it for yourself rather than pleasing a select group of people. The whole point of The Clash’s London Calling was the band embracing their fears and trying things they had never done before. Their first order of business was choosing a place to rehearse.
So they called up their road manager Johnny Green, who sprung into action and began scouting potential locations. Now Johnny Green is an interesting personality. He holds a degree in Arabic studies and is an authority on the Tour De France. However, the one thing that he wasn’t too familiar with was real estate.
He came across an ad for a rehearsal space located on 36 Causton Street in Pimlico, London. At first, he thought he had the wrong place, due to the fact that it was a motor garage where cars were being sprayed illegally.
However, the owner of the garage was really friendly and convinced Johnny to take up the rehearsal space, who quickly hustled some money out of The Clash’s accountant and paid the deposit.
The owners of the rehearsal space called it Vanilla Studios, and soon the band made this rehearsal space their headquarters. The reason why Vanilla Studios appealed to The Clash was due to its anonymity and seclusion from the music scene. They also wanted to record their rehearsals, which made the location ideal to keep away from the public.
The Vanilla Tapes
Once the location had been decided, the band wanted to produce their demo tapes themselves instead of bringing in a producer from outside. So they tasked road manager Johnny Green to source some recording equipment to help them record what ultimately became The Vanilla Tapes.
Johnny sourced a four-track recorder, along with some other portable recording equipment to create their own cassette tapes. He read up on how to operate the equipment, which eventually became their own hand made DIY punk rock recording studio.
Secluded from the world, the band began experimenting with different playing styles. They played music that was close to them such as covers of Bo Diddley, old rockabilly songs, r&b, and reggae.
At the time, the band was aware of the criticism written about them by journalists. They wanted the band to create an identical replica of their debut album to match the commercial impact it had. The Clash had started calling these critics the “Punk Police.”
This musical experimentation was only made possible due to the band’s secret weapon, drummer Topper Headon. Although he made significant contributions to the 1978 album Give ‘Em Enough Rope, he viewed his role in the band as nothing more than a gun for hire. The kind that would come down to the studio to lay down his drum tracks and leave once done.
But now he was in on the creative process right from the start. He had the experience to play a wide variety of styles such as Bossanova, swing, and jazz. Johnny Green sourced a percussion set for Vanilla Studios, which was a strange set of contraptions for Topper’s use.
Vanilla Studios had just the right atmosphere to end Mick Jones and Joe Strummer’s writer’s block. The band had recently released The Cost Of Living EP, which featured tunes written months earlier. It also included their cover of Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought The Law.” Before they didn’t have any new material in reserve, but now the music poured out of them.
While Mick worked out the tunes, Joe brought out a typewriter and started coming up with lyrics like an old school journalist banging out newspaper copy. Another important aspect of this record was Joe Strummer’s ability to write lyrics which reflected the overall mood at the time.
Normally, the tune would suggest the lyrics heard in the song, but in this case, the lyrics inspired the tune. That’s another aspect of why The Clash’s London Calling is so iconic. It attacked real issues people in the world were facing with a punk rock mindset.
Lost In The Supermarket – The Clash (Vanilla Tapes)
Here’s a song written by Joe Strummer that features Mick Jones on lead vocals. The symbolism of the song touches the listener on a personal level. The supermarket featured in this song is located on 471–473 Kings Road, beneath the World’s End Estate. Joe Strummer used to live there at the time with his girlfriend Gaby Salter.
One night, Joe imagined standing in the aisle of the supermarket. He visualized a lyric about a kid, alienated in a London tower block listening to his parent’s fight on the floor above with only the walls and the pipes for company.
Mick Jones always assumed that this song was how Joe imagined his childhood as a kid living in flats, with his mother and grandmother. However, the symbolism of the lyrics goes a lot deeper than that.
It describes someone struggling to deal with an increasingly commercialized world and rampant consumerism. As the song progresses, the protagonist seems to be bemoaning the depersonalization of the world around him, as themes of advertising and consumerism are dealt with.
Clampdown – The Clash
Outside of Vanilla, the political world was rapidly changing as a turbulent decade was coming to an end. A right-wing conservative political party was coming into power headed by Margaret Thatcher, bringing her principles known as “Thatcherism” with her.
The Clash perfectly captured the mood of the opposition in The Vanilla Tapes with a demo called “Working and Waiting.” According to Joe Strummer, the song is said to be influenced by a nuisance parking inspector. However, the lyrics seem to take a more symbolic meaning by warning society of the dangers of signing up to an oppressive system.
Traditionally, the word “clampdown” is a term used to define the brutal establishment. The word gained attention during the 1970s when writers used the term to describe the need for “clampdowns” against the growing threat of strikers, agitators, benefits claimants, football hooligans, and punks towards the social, economic and moral well being of the UK.
The term was used as an oppressive word during The Clash’s generation. Strummer, a proud and loud socialist, penned the lyrics to pay particular attention to the failures of a capitalist society.
The wearing of the “blue and brown” represents the color of the uniforms worn by factory workers. The idea is further pressed by “young believers” who are introduced into the capital system by those “working for the clampdown” who will “teach our twisted speech.”
Guns of Brixton – The Clash
Paul Simonon remembers The Clash’s London Calling as the first time all the band existed in harmony and were free to contribute ideas as they pleased. Only a year earlier, Paul told a reporter he didn’t feel it was his place to contribute to the music.
One thing you must know about The Clash is that reggae music has always been close to the band. Tracing back to their early days, reggae has always influenced the band’s sound. From their cover of Junior Murvin’s classic “Police and Thieves” to an original track titled “White Man in Hammersmith Palais.”
“Guns Of Brixton” represents the first time that Paul Simonon stepped up to the task as a songwriter. What he produced with that loping, minor-key bass line, to this day remains to be one of the few or only times reggae and rock came together so harmoniously.
It certainly shows off the “dread” style of late-’70s Rastafarian reggae, the kind purveyed by Yabby You and Culture.
So-called ‘Sus’ laws gave policemen free rein to do as they pleased with people of color. The result was widespread racial profiling, and police paranoia, which was later depicted in the movie ‘The Harder They Come.’
The version on The Vanilla Tapes doesn’t feature any of the lyrics mentioned above because the band had a hard time convincing Paul to step up to the microphone. So on the tape, it was simply known as “Paul’s Tune.”
The Build-Up to the Clash’s London Calling
The Clash never had a better routine than the one they had at Vanilla Studios. They took to playing football each day before practice, on a concrete pitch located across the road from the rehearsal space.
For a while it was perfect. Eventually, CBS wanted to check in on their investment, and so they visited The Clash hideout. Instead, the band took them straight out to the football pitch for a game. After the band had roughed up the executives on the football pitch, Joe gave them the good news.
The rehearsals at Vanilla Studios had officially produced The Vanilla Tapes.A total of 16 songs laid to tape using their punk rock recording studio. Ultimately, the idea proposed to the executives by the band was to release The Vanilla Tapes as their third album.
Introducing Guy Stevens
The executives were horrified with the idea and thought the band had gone mad. However, Joe seemed to anticipate this and knew that CBS wouldn’t seriously consider the idea. Instead, he pulled out his bargaining chips and put forward a proposal.
If they couldn’t put out their homemade tapes, they would at least be able to choose a producer of their choice for their forthcoming record. After the disaster with Sandy Perlman who had produced Give ‘Em Enough Rope, The Clash wanted their own producer, someone more offbeat. The producer they ended up choosing was someone the band had worked with before, Guy Stevens.
Guy Stevens was a producer who was a legendary figure in the London 1960s rock ’n’ roll movement. He had run an influential r&b record label and produced various legendary musicians. He was also known for having one of the best record collections in London. However, he had gained a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon.
In 1967 he produced “A White Shade Of Pale” by Procol Harum and had the final mix sent to him in prison because he was serving time for a drug charge. Since then, his chronic drinking had put him outside of the industry. Guy died in 1981 from an alcohol-related overdose. Producing The Clash would be his final act.
Originally, Guy Stevens was present in the studio when the band undertook a demo session prior to getting signed out by CBS records. However, the role he played in these sessions is uncertain. What is known is that he was not the producer.
Guy had a reputation of bringing out a certain flair in the artists he was associated with. He was the man responsible for introducing artists like Alex Harvey and Mick Ralphs‘ Mott The Hoople.
However, before Guy could really get involved, the band had to deliver the tapes to him first, since he didn’t own a cassette player. So the strategy they adopted was simple, Johnny Green would be the man responsible for delivering the tapes, and he was to take a boombox loaded with The Vanilla Tapes in it.
The Clash was really secretive about their new sound and did everything possible to keep it under wraps, and Johnny knew this was valuable cargo. So he came up with a cunning plan, which involved writing a decoy artist’s name on the tape label with really weird track names.
The purpose of this was that should he misplace the boombox, someone would immediately dispose of the tapes. However, that evening Johnny Green had a few beers before setting off into the night to deliver the tapes, and neither the boombox nor the tapes were ever seen again.
The true accounts of what happened that night vary in Clash circles. Some believe he got mugged on the tube, while some believe a wider conspiracy is at play. Guitarist Mick Jones believed that Johnny passed a magnetic field on the tube, which sucked and erased the tapes.
However, the theory pitched by Johnny himself is slightly less dramatic. “I got pissed and left it on the tube [laughs].” Johnny confessed up, he remembers someone in the band calling him a “wanker,” so they cranked out another copy to reach Guy Stevens. When he finally heard the tapes, he understood the musical sophistication the band was aiming to accomplish and agreed to take on the project.
Recording Sessions Begin
The recording sessions were scheduled to begin in August of 1979 at Wessex Studios in North London. Previously, this studio had been made famous as the studio where Queen created the iconic drumbeat to “We Will Rock You.”
Also where The Sex Pistols recorded Nevermind The Bollocks, Here Comes The Sex Pistols. This studio also hosted a historic confrontation between these two bands.
Home Video Footage of The Clash Recording London Calling in Wessex Studios
Guy Steven’s aim with The Clash’s London Calling was to bring out the musical sophistication he had heard on the tapes without dampening their punk rock energy. Topper commented on this by saying, “While it’s all written, rehearsed, and recorded, there’s still a lot of unrehearsed side to things, which is Guy.”
How did he manage to bring out this musical sophistication from the band? Well, he had a strategy. In order to transfer onto record the punk nature of the band, he decided to behave like a fan at a gig.
Guy moved on to his trademark party trick, which was throwing chairs across the studio. Some of it was even recorded on a home movie, which displays Guy wielding a plastic chair over his head and slamming it repeatedly on the studio floor.
Joe says Guy was the ultimate cure for musical constipation. He was also a voice coach. The homemade video even features Guy coaching Joe, in an effort to move him away from his trademark punk rock signing that disguised his singing on the earlier records. Unlike Sandy Perlman who put down Joe’s vocals in the mix, Guy had great confidence in his vocals and command on lyrics.
London Calling – The Clash
Joe Strummer’s lyrical writing is one of the most beautiful aspects of The Clash’s London Calling. Just take a look at the title track, which arguably is one of the best songs the band has ever produced.
Thanks to Topper’s recollection, the genesis of this song can be traced to the Vanilla sessions when one day Mick entered the studio with a chord progression he was especially excited about. This new progression was perfect for Joe’s metronomic rhythm guitar.
Basically, Mick said the first idea for the song came when he saw a newspaper headline about the River Thames. The article emphasized with maps what would happen if the river was due to flood. This idea later made its way to Joe who spent months refining the lyrics to “London Calling.”
By then he had gained a reputation to write long into the evening. Often seated in a quiet spot under the piano or tucked in between flight cases, while he spent time refining draft after draft.
The lyrics heard on The Vanilla Tapes differed significantly from what is heard on the final studio version. This draft included phrases like “London Calling to the fools in the crowd, I would call it dangerous to gee your weight around, London Calling – we’re the kings of the South, Hated all over, kings of the mouth.”
Over time, the symbolism of this song has grown considerably and is now viewed as the brainchild of a man who’s become the spokesperson of his generation. With that, he had also transformed himself from being a punk ranting madman to an adult trying to make a statement.
Mick Jones the Producer
Guy Stevens was many things but he wasn’t a musician. He could mime a Chuck Berry lick on air guitar and plead with Joe to play the piano more like Jerry Lee Lewis, but he would never be able to tell you if you were out of tune.
So now that the basic tracks were down, Guy had outlived his usefulness. When it came down to the final points of producing, Guy could even be a hazard and become impatient with any tinkering.
So the slow but necessary process of overdubbing had to be done when Guy wasn’t looking. Luckily Johnny Green struck up a friendship with Guy and became drinking buddies. “And Guy had to be stopped from being a bloody nuisance, and so I would tell him “Fancy a drink Guy?” [his response] “Yes why not?, not much going on here is there?” [Johnny’s response] “No doesn’t seem to be, let’s hit the boozer from up the road. And we would go and exchange stories.”
With Guy taken care of and back where The Clash had found him, Mick Jones took a seat in the producer’s chair next to recording engineer Bill Price. On the last album while others were fooling around riding dirt bikes across the studio, Mick stalked Sandy Perlman like a hawk, picking up production tips and learning the tricks of the trade.
Now at Wessex Studios, Mick worked with Bill Price to fine-tune the album’s sound, conducting meticulous overdubs while carrying out musical experiments. He used the bathroom in the studio as a make-do echo chamber to record Topper banging on the pipes.
He also made recordings of the velcro separating on the seats in the studio, which can be heard in the intro to “Guns Of Brixton.”
The attention to detail towards the album’s sound is really commendable for a punk rock album. However, it doesn’t end there. Another aspect which makes London Calling the record it is today is the presentation.
The Clash’s London Calling Album Cover
In all its glory, the album cover to The Clash’s London Calling is arguably the greatest album cover of all time. The attention to detail is mind-blowing as it contains enough references to acknowledge the past and give a glimpse of the future. For example, the lettering references Elvis Presley’s debut album, while the photo resembles the classic rock and roll attitude of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend.
The cover features Paul Simonon holding his bass high up in the air as he’s about to smash it on the stage.
Photographer Pennie Smith captured the moment before the bass hit the stage. Although it’s a blurry shot, it served its purpose. Joe Strummer was the man responsible for pitching this idea, as he thought the sound of Paul’s bass hitting the floor was the best sound The Clash ever produced.
What’s interesting about this is to consider that back then bassists and drummers were considered to be less worthy, and were rarely featured on record albums by themselves.
The Legacy of The Clash’s London Calling
By the time London Calling was released, The Clash had evolved into a UK punk band that was ready for the world’s attention. Joe Strummer had a massive love for the radio. He was a romantic when it came to the radio.
Joe never went anywhere without a radio, his dad worked in the diplomatic service and as a family, they lived all over the world. Nonetheless, wherever they went, Joe tuned in to the BBC World Service.
“This is London Calling in the European Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation.”
That phrase became the cornerstone upon which London Calling was built. While it merely means something less to any ordinary person, to Joe this message represented a call to arms delivered directly from the banks of the River Thames.
The legacy of London Calling is represented clearly on the album cover, which contained a very interesting sticker that read “The Clash! Specially priced two-record set..18 new songs from the only band that matters.”