Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "London Calling" by the Clash


So what does a punk band do once they discover that they have ambition? It’s a tough call: risk being a sell-out or risk being a cliché. Two things that the Clash would rather die than be.

So ultimately, London Calling is a story of a band quietly accepting that they’re not really any more punk than the Stranglers, and being cool with it. Famously, the Clash managed to shaft their record label into putting out a single-priced double by asking if they could include a free single with their next album, then asking if that single could be a 12”, and then asking if it could run at 33 rpm. CBS Records, it would appear, are profoundly stupid.

Nevertheless, the additional disc did offer the Clash the chance to stretch out a little. Whether or not that was a good decision is subject to critical interpretation. While there are dissenters who consider this album overrated, by and large critics worship this album. In their wisdom, you will find critics who rate this both as one of the best albums of the 1970s and one of the best albums of the 1980s. How many other albums can claim that?

And I have to be honest here: “this record changed my life” is a horrific cliché, and while I won’t claim to be eking out a different existence than I would were it not for Messrs. Strummer and Jones, I must confess that this record was indeed terribly important to me during my teen years. So I might just tread lightly. Except as regards “Lover’s Rock”. Nothing excuses that.

London Calling is 65 minutes – hardly twice the length of punk albums. It turns out that 12 songs is a decent number for a punk album, so it’s what I’ve set my watch by. This means that only 7 songs get cut, meaning that after all London Calling kinda is what CBS were duped into believing it was: a full-length album plus an EP. Oh, those crazy record labels…

London Calling
Side one
  1. London Calling (3:23)
  2. Death or Glory (3:57)
  3. Spanish Bombs (3:21)
  4. Hateful (2:46)
  5. Brand New Cadillac (2:10)
  6. Clampdown (3:52)
Side two
  1. Lost in the Supermarket (3:50)
  2. Wrong ‘em Boyo (3:13)
  3. I’m Not Down (3:07)
  4. Train in Vain (3:11)
  5. The Card Cheat (3:53)
  6. The Guns of Brixton (3:13)

The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» London Calling, Single-Disc Version «


London Calling: keep (side one, track one)

Okay, I won’t be so churlish as to drop the title track, lead single and – arguably – most popular song. But I have to confess to being rather less enthusiastic about this song than many of the others on the album. I’m not quite sure why that is. I think it’s mostly to do with the chop-chop-chop riff. And perhaps the cock-a-doodle-doos. However, awesome bassline. And pleasantly neo-apocalyptic lyrics that definitely do sound thirty years old. Plus, plenty of other people do seem to like it. Who am I to tell them differently?

It’s the album’s statement of purpose, its clarion call. So just as it heads off the double, it should head off the single too. Logical is logical.

Brand New Cadillac: keep (side one, track five)

Year Zero, my ass. Whatever was great about rock and roll is what was great about punk. The gap between the Sex Pistols and the Stray Cats is way, way smaller than anyone would ever pretend it is. The Ramones knew this and revelled in it. The Clash knew it and tried to hide their embarrassment about it. But this is a great cover, full of life and energy and all that, even if ultimately it’s just filler.
I was on the fence about this song, but it’s the energy that wins me over. But I think that track two is a bit early and a bit prominent a position for this song: it makes for a bit of a letdown after “London Calling”. So I put it on one of the typical cover-version slots: the next-to-last song on side one.

Jimmy Jazz: lose


A queer little what-was-that pseudo-jazz ditty that doesn’t seem to realise just how silly it is, even once we get to ‘zay-ay-zed-zed’. Full marks for effort, I suppose, but ‘effort’ isn’t what convinces us to put needle to vinyl. Nothing, as far as I can see, convinces me as regards this song, which would have been overlong if it were only 40 seconds long. At 3:18, he says “and then it sucks”. Yes indeed it does.

Hateful: keep (side one, track four)

Don’t want to be the classicist condemning all the Clash’s efforts to expand their sound while defaulting back to the power-pop they were known for. But they do do it so very well, you know. And while this Bo Diddley stomp is every bit the filler that the silly song that comes before it is, ultimately it’s less ‘hateful’ and much more ‘what I enjoy listening to when I play the Clash’.

I started the album with three back-to-back ‘anthems’, so it falls to this song, at track four, to really start introducing the ‘body’ of the album. I think it really keeps up the energy levels on my all-out side one.

Rudie Can’t Fail: lose


A confused little song that works its ska-ish groove as decently as it can, but ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s the kind of song that’s not exactly bad so much as ultimately pointless. Music doesn’t always need a point, of course, but ultimately this is just filler. And ‘you’ve been drinking brew for breakfast’ is a ridiculous line.

Spanish Bombs: keep (side one, track three)

When I first heard this album, it was this song that, ultimately I think, made me a Clash fan. All that is magnificent about the Clash, all that explains why people felt that the Clash ‘mattered’ is here. It’s terribly exciting, and it all sounds like the work of men who are much smarter, much more sincere and have much more unimpeachable politics than you. The Spanish Civil War is not normal subject matter, but here it sounds like the most natural thing to sing about. Over those amazing, rolling drums and those not-very-punk organ chords, Joe Strummer’s vocals hit home the lesson that, somewhere out there, are people fighting for worthy causes. Commemorating them seemed half as brave as doing them, and enjoying the commemoration? Well, to a suburban kid with a record player, it sure as hell felt like something.

The original’s side two is wonderful, and “Spanish Bombs” is an amazing place to start that run. But this song is too great to be buried too deeply in, so I thought it was important to include it in the album’s sustained three-song introductory ‘statement of purpose’, as the third song on side one.

The Right Profile: lose


I’m a bit undecided about this song. I can recall that I used to like it, coming as it did in the dead centre of that amazing rush that is side two. Plus, lots of lovely horns. But, at the same time, ugly sax solo. Rather meaningless lyrics about an old drug-addict film star. And the same chop-chop-chop of “London Calling” masquerading as reggae but not really.

Ultimately, though, I decided it didn’t make the cut. There’s something ultimately unsatisfying about it, I think. Even when surrounded by two of the best songs the Clash ever did.

Lost in the Supermarket: keep (side two, track one)

Jesus Christ, when the hell did punk rock get so heart-on-its-sleeve, so sensitive, so brave? This absolutely stunning song somehow seamlessly mixes discontented memories of a suburban youth with discontented fragments of modern consumerist life. Mick Jones manages to sing Joe Strummer’s highly personal lyrics as if they were his own, a performance of amazing depth. Much, much more ‘pop’ than ‘punk’, this song has a kind of warmth to it that is as disarming as it is frankly gorgeous. A highlight of any album, single or double. Even if, in all honesty, it does go on as much as a minute and a half too long…

Side two of my one-disc version is rather more introspective than the anthemic side one, so this particular masterwork is the best way to get that second side started: still up-tempo, but less upbeat.

Clampdown: keep (side one, track six)

One of the album’s singles and most covered songs, too. Musically it’s got that Clash-crunch that you need. It’s also one of the rare songs on the album that, when it goes a bit weird toward the end, doesn’t become significantly worse (a good deal of the songs on London Calling have annoying breakdowns). The lyrics are a bit troubling; I have a sense they weren’t thought all that well through. By and large it seems to be typical anti-capitalist aggression, which is all well and good, but the first verse seems to have something to do with Nazism too. “Taking off his turban, they said ‘is this man a Jew?’” is the first line on the song – a line that isn’t really appropriately explained, and even if the intent is resolutely anti-prejudice, I wonder if all of this song’s fans were sure of that.

An interesting sequence here in comparing the two versions: a three-song set on the double becomes, here, the first song on the second side, the last song on the first side, and the last song on the album. “Clampdown” shouts out ‘side closer’ to me, especially if you envision these as 12” discs that eventually run the needle silently to the inner groove, where some mechanics on the turntable cause the arm to rise up and go back to its holder.

The Guns of Brixton: keep (side two, track six)

You do realise that Paul Simonon can’t sing, right? It’s tough to give this song quite the ‘legendary’ status it frankly deserves with such bad singing on it. But… the bass, the bass, the bass. More bass playing, Mr Simonon, less singing. Yes, the Clash can play reggae. This is not exactly reggae, but it has much of that genre’s energy. Too many stupid ‘boi-oing’ sound effects, but it’s still a great, hard-as-nails song – exactly the kind of song that made the Clash seem so ‘important’ at the time. Well, I assume. I was four years old. It’s been perhaps too heavily praised since then to be appreciated on its merits alone. But it is still a great song, and an almost-great recording.

I’m not quite sure why I wanted to end the album with this. I knew I didn’t want to end it with “The Card Cheat”, but I didn’t want a poppish or a typical punkish song either. So this cod-reggae gets the nod for ‘album closer’. Where I’m sure it would be happy to sit.

Wrong ‘em Boyo: keep (side two, track two)

Ska is a wonderful genre that unfortunately is bogged down by the mere existence of plenty of god-awful neo-ska bands or non-ska bands doing ska songs. Rare to see someone get it so right. The Clash also covered Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”. In both cases, the results were lovely. This song is filled with an exuberance that, oddly, brings out the morality of the message. And starting off with a tidbit of this song’s prequel, “Stagger Lee” that breaks down and instantly becomes this song is a brilliant touch.

Side three is always an iffy thing on a double. In this case, the Clash manage to overcome the side three curse by (a) making it incredibly short (less than 13 minutes) and (b) stuffing it up the wazoo with brilliant songs. The double starts disc two with this song, which is a very clever choice. I wanted “Lost in the Supermarket” to get act II up and running, but after that, this light-footed song fits just fine.

Death or Glory: keep (side one, track two)

Okay, I have to get a bit personal here. Whatever the ‘punk spirit’ really is, it reaches people in different ways. London Calling was, for me, a yard-sale purchase for a dollar, bought on the basis of a few books or magazines or whatever where I’d read about it. The second disc was cracked all the way from one edge in to the label, yet miraculously it still played. This song, very simply, slaughtered me. A newly politicised pre-teen, this song seemed to represent everything that was worth struggling for – or rather, struggling against (as the song is actually about ‘selling out’). The song is built on a knife-hard guitar riff, though it’s not as ‘hard’ as some punk. I don’t think I realised that in many ways the Clash was saying goodbye to music that sounded like this – all I knew was that it spoke to me, and I wanted more. A few of the lines in this song also knocked me out in their telling of hypocrisy among pseudo-rebels and former rebels. Gave me much to chew on.

Inasmuch as disc two was kind of the ‘let’s rip off our record label’ scam, disc one does kind of play like a complete record. It’s surprising to me, then, that they didn’t include this song on the first disc. Its anthemic qualities are so clear that it seems like a real set-opener. I think bringing it all the way forward to track two is a bit of a surprise, but I think it really states the album’s themes and purpose properly.

Koka Kola: lose


I suspect that the Clash could have written five hundred songs exactly like this if they’d wanted. I love the fact that, unlike so many songs on London Calling, it’s no longer than it needs to be. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a song: no melody, no real structure behind it. The only thing it has going for it is well-spat lyrics. They seem to describe something, but ultimately don’t. Cute pinball bass line though.

The Card Cheat: keep (disc two, track five)

Awesome, awesome, awesome. If you have to let your ambition go wild on your double album, at least have the decency to listen to this song. It’s here and now that the Clash ask all of their punk fans to decide whether they’re willing to go on the full journey with them or not. Reggae? Of course. Ska? Sure. 1950s rock? Okay. Spectoresque everything-bigger-than-everything-else majesty? Er… well… that’s a tougher question. There’s even a fanfaring trumpet… But here’s the thing: the song is astounding, magnificent, gorgeous. The vocals are practically sobbing over top of the big-bigger-biggest instrumentation. The whole thing is just so huge, and it’s all absolutely gorgeous. Whatever yobbish punks out there pissed off by songs like this were probably people the Clash could afford to lose anyway.

Obviously this could only come toward the end of the album. I didn’t want it to be the final track, but I think next-to-last is a good place for it, giving “The Guns of Brixton” the job of ‘bringing people back from the spell this song casts’.

Lover’s Rock: lose


Ew. Ew. Ew. The Clash sing about sex just as well as Prince would sing about the Spanish Civil War. While I think you could argue that the Clash’s death-or-glory rebel-music pose was indeed sexy, this song about sex is the least sexy thing I’ve ever heard. Horrifying.

Four Horsemen: lose


The Clash were a great band, with the unfortunate tendency to tell us on a regular basis how great they were. Another bit of self-mythologising is this particular little ditty: not a bad song but not a great one either, one that sounds like too many other songs on this album. You know the deal: would have made a decent b-side if London Calling had been a single. Still and all, I might have included it here if it had ended at about 1:57. Instead we get a whole one-minute breakdown of no value whatsoever except for the nifty way it leads into the next song.

I’m Not Down: keep (side two, track three)

Side four tends to fly by in a series of ho-hums. This is largely typical ‘I will survive’ stuff, but it does have the kind of energy levels to make ‘true believers’ out of its listeners. And belief is, of course, the Clash’s stock in trade. So let’s let them have a moment here to state their M.O. For the court, etc.

Side two, track three. I’m happy to include this song, but I find I have precious little to say about it. Which is why albums have a position called ‘side two, track three’.

Revolution Rock: lose


You know, the Clash could cover reggae songs. Very well and convincingly, in fact. In a perfect world, their amazing cover of “Armagideon Time” would be sitting here in the penultimate slot of this album, while “Revolution Rock” would be sitting, ignored except by fanatics, on the b-side of the “London Calling” single. It would have been so easy. Instead of convincing reggae, then, we’d get this rather embarrassing version. At five and a half minutes long, it’s the longest song by fully a minute and a half on an album of overly-long songs. And oh my is the ending boring and embarrassing. Stop trying so hard, gentlemen.

Train in Vain: keep (side two, track four)

And by now the Clash have just become an excellent pop group. This peerless song is 100% pop, no more, no less. It deserves to be every bit the hit that it is (based not on chart measurements but by just how many people know the song: i.e. everybody). The whole hidden-track, NME stuff is an interesting story, for people who care about such interesting stories. But ultimately it’s just everything a pop song should be: simple lyrics about love (in this case about heartbreak), a catchy chorus with a catchy riff, and a three-minute song length. I know such simple and direct statements might contradict the punk ethos; however, ultimately I don’t know much about punk, but I know what I like.

This song got its placement as the final track on the original only because it was included on the album at the last minute. While we’re all used to hearing it there, I don’t think it really is an album closer: it belongs somewhere in the middle, in a rush of songs, I think. I let it lead into “The Card Cheat” on side two, track four, so in a way it’s still ‘terminal’. But not the end of the story. Not anymore.

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