London Calling, the seminal 1979 record from The Clash, turns 40 years old this month, and still sounds as fresh, as groundbreaking and as genre-bending as ever. The sounds that front man Joe Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon committed to tape in London’s Wessex Studios four decades ago — going far beyond the punk that made the band famous, to take in soul, jazz, reggae, rockabilly, the blues, and so much more — have stood the test of time precisely because the band sought to shake off its punk origins with just the same fervor with which they had embraced “year zero” when they hit London’s punk scene in 1976, and declared, “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones.”
The album is currently the focus of a detailed new exhibit at the Museum of London, offering fans the opportunity to “Go behind the scenes on the making of The Clash’s groundbreaking London Calling – an album that rocked the music scene, serving as an anthem for London, Londoners and music lovers globally.”
A fitting tribute for an album as timeless — and crucial — as London Calling.
“At that time, it was necessary to make these statements, because it was like wiping the slate clean,” recalled Paul Simonon of the band’s early days. “It was about starting fresh. We’d all grown up with this musical information from our own personal interests in our particular genres of music. But it was crucial at that period to clean the slate and say, “This is where we’re starting. This is what we’re about.”
“’I’m So Bored with the U.S.A,’ it’s not to be taken so literally,” insisted guitarist Mick Jones of one the group’s earliest songs. “It wasn’t really about us being bored with America, because we liked America very much, especially all the American TV shows, and films, and the music, of course. It was about the Americanization of England at that time. Music goes both ways, and we took a lot from the past and the people who went first, and then went forward with that, and added to it. But we definitely studied every band that came before us.”
“Me and Mick started things together,” Simonon remembered. “We found Bernie Rhodes, who became our manager, and was very important. We all discussed getting Joe to be the singer, because me and Mick had seen Joe playing with his band the 101ers, and thought he was pretty good, but that his band wasn’t so good. So Bernie approached him to get him to leave his band, which he did. And then Topper came along. So it was a gradual process, really, but it didn’t really take too long from the beginning to become quite tightly formed. Every aspect, from the visuals down to the sound you heard, it was quickly complete.”
For his part, Simonon, the most accomplished artist in the band, incorporated Rhodes’s seemingly daily political rants and his own Jackson Pollock-inspired sensibility into The Clash’s look, and also came up with its name.
“The country was in quite a serious economic depression,” he recalled of mid-1970s England. “We’d have these conversations with Bernie, who would instigate a discussion about the politics that we were living in and what we were going to do if this happened or if that happened. And there was a lot of friction outside in general, especially from members of the public who were quite antagonistic towards anyone that looked like a punk, or even looked different. So the word ‘clash’ became quite appropriate, insofar as also there were a lot of references in the headlines of the day, especially around the various strikes, and battles between strikers and the police. ‘Clash’ kept coming up. And it seemed apt for us.”
“After we had it, we noticed it everywhere,” Jones added. “There was even a book on the Spanish Civil War called The Clash as well.”
Along with the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, the band’s debut made an enormous impact on the U.K. music scene, and soon became the biggest selling import album in U.S. history to that point. Keen to cash in on what it saw as a fad, Epic Records, The Clash’s U.S. label, enlisted Sandy Pearlman, of Blue Oyster Cult fame, to produce Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band’s second album. But it was The Clash’s relentless touring and the burgeoning songwriting partnership between Strummer and Jones that really set the band on the course toward London Calling, recently reissued on vinyl and in a gorgeous scrapbook full of lyrics, ephemera, drawings by Clash pal Ray Lowry, and photos by Pennie Smith, who shot the iconic album cover.
“We didn’t use to write one song, we used to write a batch at a time,” Jones recalled of his early days working together with Strummer, who died in 2002. “It was pretty natural, and developed into really good teamwork. It went through all different phases, of course. But I do think that it’s Joe’s words — the truth in those words — that have carried us to this point.”
Crucially, the legendary, if erratic, producer Guy Stevens came on to helm the band’s next record.
“He used to say, ‘There are two Phil Spectors in this world, and I’m one of them,’” Simonon recalled of Stevens.
“Guy was a record company man, and a DJ in the sixties, and very influential to the bands of that time by turning them onto the music that was coming in from the States,” Jones added. “We probably wouldn’t have known of records like ‘Barefootin’ or ‘Harlem Shuffle’ otherwise.”
Jones also recalled that, in the studio, Stevens had an “unorthodox way of expressing himself.”
“It was Guy’s way of injecting a certain atmosphere into the room,” Simonon added with a laugh, when Jones recounted Stevens hurling chairs and even a ladder around the recording studio during takes, in order to inject energy into The Clash’s performances. “There were some strange moments. I remember one time looking into the control booth, where the engineer and Guy were, and they were sort wresting over the desk. We couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, so we stopped playing. We stop playing and we went into the room to find out what was going on, and they were wresting because Bill Price, the engineer, was trying to stop Guy from putting on a live record of Arsenal beating Manchester United live through the system while we were recording.”
“It was a contrast to Sandy Pearlman, that’s for sure,” Jones added.
The now-classic title track came about naturally, Jones and Simonon recalled.
“Edward R. Morrow used to say ‘London Calling,’ when he was reporting back from London to America during the Blitz,” Jones remembered. “But our inspiration was really because, at the time, there was talk that if the Thames Barrier burst, everywhere would be underwater.”
“And there was all this stuff in the papers at the time about expecting another Ice Age,” added Simonon. “There was a lot of doom. If you read the papers in those days, you just swore that the Earth was going to end imminently.”
As for the eclectic mix of styles, Jones attributes it to the four “ghetto blasters” the band took everywhere, each playing something unique to its owner. If he brought a classic rock and roll sensibility to The Clash around the time of London Calling, Strummer was touting rockabilly standards by Bo Diddley, while Headon played a stream of rare R&B and soul, and Simonon spun deep reggae cuts.
But each of them had eclectic taste, added Simonon.
“My parents were beatniks,” he said. “They listened to people like Juliette Gréco, Francois Hardy, as well as Latin stuff. But I found my music through my classmates, because you’d have that thing where you’d finish school and you’d hang out at each other’s houses and spin records. That’s where I discovered reggae and ska, because most of the people that I went to school with were from a West Indian background. And around the corner from where I lived there was a place called Ted Carroll’s, where the Teddy Boys used to hang out, and I’d listen to music by Eddie Cochran and stuff like that. So I got into sort of rockabilly, too. Stuff like ‘Brand New Cadillac,’ by Vince Taylor.”
The Clash famously covered Taylor’s classic, and incorporated the disparate styles they loved into the stew that became London Calling, consciously shedding the limitations the purists in the punk scene had placed on the genre.
“We didn’t see the point in that,” Jones scoffed.
Jones and Simonon also agree that the true musical all-star of London Calling was drummer Topper Headon.
“He used to ask for a load of percussion instruments from his man — his roadie — The Baker,” recalled Simonon. “This great big cardboard box would roll up and he’d go to town. It added so much; so many textures.”
“It was his toy box,” said Jones.
“It was like a kid at Christmas with dozens of toys,” added Simonon.
As for the iconic Pennie Smith-shot cover, captured at a The Clash’s 1979 stand at New York City’s Palladium, Simonon insisted it was a happy accident.
“I was totally frustrated,” he recalled. “I couldn’t hear what I was playing onstage, so it almost felt like I was miming. And also, I thought there was a situation going on which happened a lot in England, where if there’s a seated venue, and the audience stands up, then the security forces them to stay in their seats, and it causes a friction. In New York, everyone was seated, and nobody seemed to be allowed to get up, so that frustrated me. Or maybe they just didn’t like the show. Either way, it annoyed me. But it was a completely spontaneous moment that Pennie Smith captured, because she knew us and sensed something was about to kick off.”
Still, as iconic as the cover has become, Simonon isn’t without regrets.
“I regretted smashing that bass throughout the rest of that tour, because the spare one I had was really light and it didn’t have the same sound,” he recalled with a laugh. “Funnily enough, smashing that bass made things worse, really. I should’ve smashed the other one!”
Ultimately, the stars aligned for The Clash on London Calling. It’s stood the test of time — and was likely one of the key reasons the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 — precisely because it is ambitious and sprawling and audacious, not to mention because Strummer and Jones’s songs are the perfect blend of past, present and future.
As we wrapped up, however, Simonon joked that he believes The Clash did eventually take that ambition too far.
“That’s an album called Sandinista!,” he said with a chuckle.