The Clash: London Calling 40 Year Anniversary Generational Review


Saturday, December 14, 2019 – This week, 40 Years ago, The Clash released their now iconic 1979 album ‘London Calling‘. Initially released in the UK from CBS on 14th December ’79 with the US release from Epic  landing in January ’80. This, the third album from the band and with noted platinum status and well over 5 Million sales, remains a staple of any good record collection.

This review aims to consider a generational perspective on the album offering a then and now stance on the double album release. You will see that the album means many things to many people across the age groups, and yet the idea of classic means that the tools of the trade have been applied, alongside the creative energy that will forever remain and embody the classic album into a prodigal position throughout time.  London Calling by The Clash is one of them.

Album Overview

London Calling Album Artwork

The Clash came to life within the UK punk scene during the mid-seventies and were in principle were an instant success.  Musical talent in the majority of UK punk in the 70’s, had been sneered at to an extent due to the enigmatic drive to remove structures in society, and therefore within the punk scene.  It is however, very significant that The Clash were divergent musical explorers and whilst punk was red hot, The Clash were searching for a progressive sound that worked with each track as oppose to the noise and often aggression that fueled the punk scene. Experimenting with reggae, funk, dub, ska and rockabilly in their developing beat driven album London Calling, was both insightful and beyond progressive.  In the four-sided album with over an hour of material, the 19 songs distinctly claim the title of masterpiece from content to style to cover to classic status.

As a determination to identify genre, the post-punk new wave was owned, and is still heralded by this album and has generated many bands that followed in the use of an infusion of styles and a movement into the 80’s punk to rock transition. In a similar way across the pond in the US, The Ramones are a developmental cornerstone also.

The significant cultural value and placement of the release, was the nature of varied diverse musical styles that offered inclusion in a particularly discriminatory UK in 1979.  Clearly some of the success of the album was the open ears of many social groups within society that were marginalized and were listening to their experience through musically appropriate tastes and styles. Punk was morphing with Ska taking strides across the industry with bands such as The Specials and The Jam who in their own right were successful, and have retained some status from the period.  It is however ,the punk-rock retention that The Clash maintained that has elevated the album to a legendary position in the all time top ten lists that do the circuit.

The album artwork shows Bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision bass off the stage.  As an album cover, the photo taken by NME photographer Pennie Smith remains a classic in it’s own right and Smith was also asked to take the cover of ‘Sandista‘ the 1980 release from The Clash.

The Museum of London are currently hosting an exhibition until April 2020 titled; The Clash London Calling such is the significance of the band and album release.  Nested in this exhibition is the Simonon’s smashed bass, Topper Headon‘s Drumsticks and Joe Strummer‘s notebook along with Mick Jones‘ handwritten track sequence.

THEN 1979 (Generation X Review)

Upon release, the album drew in the punk mainstay audiences were introduced to the younger post-punk graduates looking for more vibrancy and texture to the politics of youth voice.  The search for a more versatile voice to represent their awareness and angst around topical issues that were prevalent at the time. The approach was to offer diversification and create individual tracks with their own style to build an album of transition – it worked beautifully and requires no improvement or change to consider itself better.  The album strikes into the emotional and socio-political heart of the time and will stay there forever.

Keeping true to the punk roots and to some of the critical appraisal of things past, including a kick at the epic 60’s and naming as a token, The Beatles in the title track London Calling. If nothing else this was brave lyricism and carried the generational movement formally out of pop into punk and into the future.

Watch the video for London Calling

The enormous influence this album has had over progressive decades is substantial, The Kaiser ChiefsI Predict a Riot‘ for instance was clearly drawn to the post-punk genre and pushes the contemporary topics forcefully, representing a criticality of societies dominance of the marginalized. 

The Queen’s Jubilee in 1977 had passed the Lydon-esque anarchy punk was looking for new targets other than the establishment alone.  The content of London Calling covers a range of topics including a couple of love songs such as ‘Lost in the Supermarket‘ and ‘Train in Vain‘.

NOW 2019 (Generation Z post Millennial Review)

The title track London Calling from a modernist perspective, has not used a standard rhyme scheme or pattern. The Clash use half rhyme in the verses apart from the final two outdo verses, and this aligns to the anti-establishment focus that is as relevant today as it was in 1979. There is no specific syllabic meter in the lyric phrasing and this also represents a transition in genres – genius!

A 1940’s war-time radio programme ‘London Calling‘ is represented through the marching bass line that Sinomom used as a trope to elicit a simile. The vocals are demanding and staccato and to an extent offer a militia or insight anarchism in a new way. Adopting a move from global critically and war to a national focus and economic appraisal that the anarchic punk roots openly challenged.  The Clash also made a move with the album and title track to suggest that as the themes of war were fading as social issues that perhaps music should die out too and a rebirth occur.

There are as we know, recurring themes in music that are archaic and there is for instance some distant relationship to ‘Dies Irae’ (translation: The Days of Wrath) by Thomas of Celano, signalling the death of religion and change generationally in terms of what is deemed to be important.  The notion of ‘aggression causes death‘ both in this 13th century piece and London Calling and the representation of war towards change, is ultimately peace. From Classical medieval requiem to Classic Rock music, the transitions forged by youth analysis through their diverse, creative and artistic delivery is prominent then and now.  In a lyrical sense, this is signaled as the London Calling phrasing shifts to the ‘underworld’ lyric towards the end of the song. One could argue this represents the underground railway stations, where Londoner’s hid during wartime air raids.  The softer musical tones are used and again, signal a calmer change to perspectives and the shift in minor to major key musically is used to contrast the aggression. Thos occurs both in this philosophical take on the track alongside the development from punk to post-punk/new wave music.

The Clash used ‘word painting‘ in the construction of the title track and in other tracks on the album that Ska carried through the 80’s.  If you shout, the music crescendo’s and when the lyric is quieter, as is the music. Word painting enables a specific guidance for an audience and in a very contemporary sense, this format of harder and softer elements of hard rock track from Linkin Park also word paint with distinction. This could be a further reference to the violence and the noise of war and this is seen to decrease when war ends.  The sporadic and often blast noise in relation to global conflicts in today’s hard rock and prog-punk are representative symbols of this musical theme.  

A contemporary replica to an extent are UK band Slaves with ‘Cheer Up London‘ that uses the same tropes, modes and themes and presents stylistically a renewed critically of the UK Capitals challenges and pokes at it with an ironic stick.

The Clash refer to people of London as living in an ‘imitation zone‘ and this relates potentially to global theories around the developing use of nuclear power from the time and this is juxtaposed again today’s climate crisis debate and the rise of youth activist Greta Thunberg. 

The lyrics discuss the ice age is coming and notes the then research and the death of humanity and opposes this to change and the need for change – this a very contemporary theme in the Extinction Rebellion campaigning against the capitalist globalism and climate crisis that, ‘economics over environment’ as a ruling class ideology is opposed by youth today.

Stand Out Tracks
– London Calling
– The Guns of Brixton
– Lost in the Supermarket
– Death or Glory

Band Line Up
Joe Strummer – Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
Mick Jones – Lead Guitar, Harmonica, Keys, Backing and Lead Vocals
Paul Simonon – Bass, Backing Vocals (lead vocals ‘Guns of Brixton’)
Topper Headon – Drums, Percussion

Connecting The Clash:
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About Steve Walker 14 Articles
Writer with an interest in process, artist vision, intention and composition. Exceptionally normal take on the extra-ordinary :) DM, F, C.