Review Summary: London Calling turns 40 years old today, but it doesn't sound a bit dated nor dull. Instead, it serves as a landmark in musical history, expanding punk beyond any limitations while ushering in further deviations of the genre.
It doesn't take a lot to play punk rock. Any group of three of four who are slightly competent at their respective instruments can play punk rock. After all, punk primarily erupted out of rock n' roll and a desire to make music simple again, and it proved to be one of the most accessible and intentionally sloppy genres of music. Since the mid-70s, there have been thousands of punk acts around the world simply for the reason that it's just angry and simplified rock n' roll with a slight edge. All those pretentious compositions venturing over the ten minute mark with technical virtuoso that filled up a lot of '70s rock? Yeah, punk was in opposition to that, among other things.
In 1977, you could mistake The Clash as one of those punk bands, who were a bit sloppy in all their playing but could make above-average songs that competently express their frustration and angst. They'd always been one of the wittier and more socially conscious punk bands, fusing politics in their debut album with slightly
more intelligent songwriting than most of their contemporaries who would write songs about love and/or against their parents, and other aspects of "the establishment". Their debut was well-received by the press and many rock fans across the West and formally broke the band into the punk rock scene. They decided to take a left turn on their sophomore release Give 'Em Enough Rope
by infusing reggae, ska, and other elements that weren't typical for punk, or rock n' roll for that matter. It also was their first album to feature Topper Headon on drums, who proved to be more than just effective at holding the rhythm that bonds punk rock. It wasn't a great endeavor, as it's plagued with inconsistencies and songwriting that's inferior in most metrics to that of their debut, but its incorporation of non-rock elements into rock music dominated by anti-establishment ethos proved to be a key step towards something greater and more expansive.
By the end of '78, the band had enough with regular punk and they saw the writing on the wall. The Sex Pistols, Ramones, and Buzzcocks-to name a few-were all declining in creativity and success. The issue? Punk is an inherently limited genre; there's only so much you can do with three guitar chords and youthful angst, and nearly every punk act ran out of the juice that made them popular in the first place. The Clash knew that this would happen if they didn't alter directions, if the sales and critical reception of their sophomore release proved anything. They didn't care much about aesthetics and public persona, because those weren't important and they had nothing to do with the original philosophy of punk. Politics and philosophy had
to be the forefront of any punk album, and the band had too many ideas and demos for a single release. London Calling
is the band's drawing board that represents everything they wanted to do, and it's far more than just a collection of 19 songs. This is so much greater than anything that's considered punk before 1979, and there have been few punk (of expanded deviations, not first or second wave) records that have come close to reaching London Calling
's greatness in the last 40 years.
One of the main reasons why London Calling
is so effective is that it's so much more than just punk. The Clash took a lot of influences and freshly incorporated them into a punk format (the attitude, or ethos, and the rhythm section are the most legitimate punk elements of this album). They took heavy interest in reggae, ska, pub rock, pop rock, hard rock, R&B, and the few cases of punk turning away from its limited roots at the time, among others styles, and they used all these to their advantage. London Calling
sounds like a 1-hour party in a pub, probably happy hour, and Joe Strummer is drunk off his mind and having the time of his life, but still competent as ever. He was never the most technically gifted vocalist, but his work is phenomenal throughout the album; he had a special and unique knack for turning anything into an anthem with his give-no-***s attitude of singing, and he doesn't sound angry like Johnny Rotten, but he has his own charm. There's definitely an atmosphere here, even if the fairly-polished production doesn't imply it; the horns, the pianos, the brass section, the harmonicas, and the rock n' roll formula work extremely well with that confrontational attitude held dearly in punk, and nobody thought this could work before this. This is pure fun, however mature and serious it was. Even though many of these songs are indeed fun, they knew when to get serious. The title track is revered as an iconic opener for a valid reason; it's a horrifying and prophetic track that screams in existentialism and has those sharp and angular post-punk guitar hooks. "Death or Glory" is a bona-fide punk track, and while it's anthemic and catchy, it's also politically charged to the max. "The Guns of Brixton" is ominous, sounding an echo on the post-punk like Joy Division that also erupted that year.
killed punk rock for good, but ushered in a new age of post-punk, new wave and art punk. All three sub-genres which had been developing before once the first wave of punk acknowledged its commercial and artistic crises, but they were rarely fully developed and mature, with some key exceptions (Devo, Joy Division, Pere Ubu, The B-52s, etc.). By the end of the decade, 'traditional punk' (an oxymoron) had been buried alive, and this double-LP made sure it stayed locked in its tomb. This is one of the few, if not the only, punk albums that genuinely transcends genres and defies all limitations and conventions. This is the most consistent double-album by far; most bands don't have enough musical ideas to successfully execute a double-album, and they're usually tainted with a ton of filler. [i]London Calling/i] isn't a concept album, but the band sought our direction in its conception: they wanted this to close a chapter in music history that began with Elvis Presley's self-titled album in 1956. Compare the energetic and rebellious styles of music and the album covers if you must. This direction made the album as eclectic and wild as it sounds, and it's instrumental in the album's effective styles of incorporating plenty of different elements into a rock sound that stretched the limits of punk. Nearly every song here is fantastic and memorable, which is surprising for a double-album; of all things, a double album of punk rock shouldn't be as good as it is. The band's energy and chemistry is turned up to 150%; between Strummer's vocals, the lively rhythm section that reflects dub and reggae as much as rock n' roll, and the angular, razor-sharp guitar playing from Jones, and the production (Guy Stevens was a bit of a drugged-up mess, but matched perfectly with the state of The Clash at the time), this is as energetic as an album can get, and this energy never lets down. Even on the laid-back songs like "Wrong 'Em Boyo" and "Revolution Rock" have a ton of life and soul condensed into them. No song is too short or underdeveloped, and no song exceeds its warranting time. The sequencing is pretty great and the album has an undeniable flow to it; one song leads to another so linearly and does a tremendous job keeping this pub-like atmosphere intact.
The energy here is important because, first and foremost, it makes this album fun
. Punk rock, in its first wave, is generally fun; it's loud, raw, angry, but something you can generally sing along and bang your head to. While London Calling
is notably one of the first punk albums to be well-produced and sound lively while not
raw and caustic, this contains 19 songs that are highly memorable, melodic, and rhythmic that inevitably get stuck in one's head as they keep returning to the album. It's pop rock, but still sounds highly genuine, and the steadfast energy only keeps this pub-like atmosphere consistently running, which makes this more fun than most albums. But in addition to being energetic and fun, why should this album matter?
The songwriting and the lyricism is remarkably good and deserves attention as well, because let's face it: the first wave of punk's limitations included sloppy songwriting and dumb lyricism cloaked in the anti-establishment sentiment that drove the music in the first place. For good reasons: what good is the music of the working class if not sloppy and reflective? I wouldn't call Strummer, Jones, and Simonon's writing as brilliant as the more artsy and intricate bands who got more underground attention at the time (Devo, Television, Pere Ubu, etc.), but it's still very good, because they all do a fantastic job detailing the lives and existential moments of working class life in London in an era of deindustrialization, corruption, and materialism. They don't take it to poetry, but for an album with few songs exceeding the four-minute mark, this is surprisingly detailed and, as said before, anthemic, which helped it become as popular as it is today. And given that the lives of the working class Britons haven't drastically
changed in the past four decades, the lyrics here still sound fairly fresh and witty today. If the rhythms and melodies don't get you tapping and humming, the lyrics should be of interest. When they're not political, they're still amazing: "Train in Vain" is the second-best song on the album for the reason that few love songs are as infectious as that new wave gem. But the lyrics here reflect that give-no-***s punk attitude very well, and Strummer's delivery is really charming. And no, Joe Strummer probably would not have endorsed Jeremy Corbyn in the past few years if he was still alive.
isn't an album I've always loved; the first time I heard this was in a hotel room the night before a college tour up in Maine, and I was surprised to hear the acclaim for it, as I was taken back by it besides a few of the band's classic songs on it. But this quickly turned into one of my all-time favorites, and I'd be surprised if that status changes anytime soon. This might not be the greatest punk rock album of all time, as I'd give that accolade to Zen Arcade
by Hüsker Dü at the moment, and Devo's debut and NoMeansNo's Wrong
are worthy contenders, but it's the album that make punk follow an important trajectory that breathed new life into rock, and it's an elite album that rightfully falls into the punk canon. Happy 40th anniversary, London Calling
, one of the few albums that makes me wish I lived in London.