The Clash (final of 3) – London Calling

This post will serve double-duty as a tribute to London Calling and as final post of my three-part series …

I’m not sure of the exact timing of this, but sometime in 1978, The Clash sacked their manager, Bernie Rhodes. Joe and Mick had gone to San Francisco and New York to do overdubs and vocals and got some quality bonding time in. (And made some lifelong friends.) They soon started to wonder what Rhodes was doing for them and he began losing ‘complete control’ of the band.

The Clash toured the UK and then mounted a US tour in early 1979. (Opening act – Bo Diddley.) Audiences in the US were still relatively small as the band were not yet anywhere close to being an international sensation. In fact the small scale of their shows allowed a certain intimacy, with the Clash often allowing fans to go backstage and hang out with them. This was somewhat inspired by Mick Jones getting to know Mott the Hoople guys so well that he and his friends were called ‘The Mott Lott.’

The year 1979 may have been one of their more productive, both personally and professionally. With Rhodes gone, they were steering their own ship and had a lot of ideas about their next album. They were writing and rehearsing at somewhat of a frenzied pace and in fact, would go out and play football during recording and rehearsal which helped build up their camaraderie.

Their producer, Guy Stevens, was a madman who Mick knew from his having produced Mott albums. (The music business is no different than any other in how important networking is.) From what I can tell, his main role was to be zany and keep the energy level up so these blokes (more British slang!) could kick out these great jams. And it worked.

Released as a double album in December of 1979, London Calling was instantly hailed as a breakthrough for the Clash, incorporating styles such as “rockabilly, funk, reggae, soul, rock, ska, jazz.” (I’m a little skeptical of that last one but ok.) It was around this time that a CBS publicist came up with the slogan, “The Only Band That Matters.” The name stuck.

I think this is the first time I really ‘heard’ the Clash and realized that they were capable of so much more than thrash and burn. (The album cover is of Paul Simonon smashing his bass in frustration at the Palladium in NY in 1979. Q Magazine voted it the greatest album cover of all time.)

Here’s the title track, live from Tokyo:

This album and tour brought the Clash to the next level of fame, if not household recognition. Certainly they were by now well-known to rock fans everywhere.

There are so many good songs (and styles) on the album that it was difficult to pick another one to post. I love “Hateful,” a song about drug addiction which was likely influenced by their friend Sid Vicious’ death; “Lost in the Supermarket,” Strummer’s ode to Mick Jones’ hardscrabble upbringing. And the great, fantastically upbeat horn section on “Wrong ‘Em Boyo.”

But I went with “Spanish Bombs,” which “compares the modern day tourist experience of Spain with the circumstances of the Spanish Civil War and contrasts the “trenches full of poets” to the planeloads of British tourists visiting the country’s beaches in the post-Franco era.” That’s some heavy shit right there.

The band toured the UK in 1980 but still weren’t making much money, as their socialist principles dictated that they charge £ 3 for tickets. (What would those tickets cost today?) And the inherent friction in lifestyle, outlook and attitude was starting to show signs of wear and tear. At a show in Sheffield, Mick refused to play ‘White Riot’ because he felt the band had surpassed that. After a heated exchange, Joe punched him in the mouth.

And around this time, Topper Headon developed a heroin addiction that would eventually drive him out of the band. (Jones was somewhat of a pothead and most of them were drinkers, never really doing much in the way of hard drugs). They started working on their next record, which became the triple album, Sandinista (Dec 1980). Again, they insisted on keeping prices down to that of a single album, causing them to make much less than they could have.

Sandinista has some good stuff, but generally speaking, it was a lot more self-indulgent and would have, I think, made for a much better single or double album. That said, there’s nothing better I think than “Police on My Back.” Classic Clash and one of my favorites of theirs, ever. (An eagle-eyed reader advised me that this an Eddy Grant/Equals song that the Clash covered so I have added that info in to set the record straight:

Well I’m running police on my back
I’ve been hiding police on my back
There was a shooting police on my back
And the victim well he won’t come back

By early 1981, the notorious wheel of pop fame had turned once again and by now the Clash – all of four years in – were no longer the new sensation. Bands like The Jam and Echo and the Bunnymen were hot. And so Strummer, looking to regain the band’s previous status, convinced the other guys to re-hire Bernie Rhodes. This was a decision he would later come to regret.

In America however, the band’s acclaim continued to grow. In 1981, one of the great, legendary Clash concert series was held at the now-defunct Bond’s Casino in New York (Times Square.) Instead of playing one or two nights at Madison Square Garden, in keeping with their smaller, cheaper philosophy, they preferred the 1700 seat venue. Originally planned for seven nights, the hall was oversold (3500) seats the first night, causing the NYC fire department to shut the Saturday show down.

For the completist, I found an interesting news video from that time. It lacks the stark images I’ve seen of cops on horseback controlling the crowds. But still, pretty good footage of the shows, the news media’s reaction and interviews with the band. And there is a guy speaking to a reporter at 3:47 who is clearly not Strummer but who is identified as such.

The Clash responded by adding ten more nights to deal with the incredible demand. And thanks to Mick Jones’ interest in hip-hop, early bands of that genre such as Grandmaster Flash were openers. Sadly, the fans did not take to these bands and booed them. (BTW,  it’s not clear to me why The Clash sometimes get credit for introducing reggae to a white rock audience. Didn’t Eric Clapton do that in 1974 when his cover of “I Shot The Sheriff,” was a smash?)

Mick had not reacted well to the return of Bernie Rhodes as he felt, rightfully so, that Rhodes’ control freak tendencies were now encouraging Bernie to get involved in songwriting. And in many ways, even though the band limped along for four more years, this was the beginning of the end.

Somehow, despite all the turmoil, they managed to record Combat Rock (1982), their best-selling album ever. With songs like “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” they were at absolute arena-rock stardom levels.

Topper Headon – who wrote the music for “Rock the Casbah,” was ousted from the band due to his heroin addiction. (This is the song I mentioned in a previous post that Joe’s busker buddy Tymon Dogg inspired by playing Eastern scales on his violin.)

And in 1983, Mick Jones – the main music writer in the band – was fired. The general consensus was that Joe and Paul were sick of his prima donna behavior and had stopped talking to him. There is a strong feeling among band members that not only did Bernie Rhodes engineer this, but that he in fact – despite having no noticeable musical talent- wanted to replace Mick.

(In fairness, I’ve also read that Rhodes did not see this coming and it was Strummer and Simonon that planned the purge. Truth is probably somewhere in-between. But it’s clear that Mick neither fired himself nor quit.)

For all intents and purposes, once Headon and Jones were gone, so were the Clash. They got a couple of guitarists to replace Jones and a drummer to replace Topper. But not only was it clearly not the same band – imagine if the Stones replaced Keith and Charlie – but it was evident the band’s best days were behind it.

Bernie took more musical control and in 1985, The Clash released their final album, the aptly titled Cut the Crap. Arguably the best song is “This is England,” which was Strummer’s mournful look at his country. (Marred, in my opinion, by the use of a drum machine. All that shit is Rhodes’ doing.)

In early 1986, the Clash disbanded. Strummer later described the group’s end: “When the Clash collapsed, we were tired. There had been a lot of intense activity in five years. Secondly, I felt we’d run out of idea gasoline. And thirdly, I wanted to shut up and let someone else have a go at it.”

Coda: The Clash were inducted (by the Edge) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. He said, “I love this band,” calling them one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. Seeing them in Dublin in 1977 actually changed his life, he told the crowd, and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” couldn’t and wouldn’t have been written if it weren’t for The Clash. Edge later wrote, “The Clash, more than any other group, kick-started a thousand garage bands across Ireland and the UK.”

Bono has described The Clash as “the greatest rock band. They wrote the rule book for U2.” And consider how socially conscious U2 are and where at least some of that came from. The Clash also influenced Billy Bragg (a one-man Clash), Stone Temple Pilots, Jakob Dylan, Stiff Little Fingers and the garage revival evinced by The Strokes. And frankly, no Clash, no Green Day. (Interestingly, while I’d heard that Jack White was into them, I’ve seen a list of his influences and they’re not listed.)

Here’s a nice video of old chums Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, along with Steve van Zandt and Dave Grohl doing “London Calling” at the Grammys.

Sandinista, The Clash and London Calling are all in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, London Calling in the Top Ten. The songs “London Calling,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Train in Vain,” “Complete Control,” and “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” are all on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Bernie Rhodes has “continued to be involved in fashion design  and the music industry, as well as various political and social causes.” (His counterpart, and in some respects mentor, Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren died in 2010.) If you’re a punk fan, say what you will about these two guys, they deserve a lot of credit for fostering that scene in England.

Topper Headon lives quietly in England, his drug problems long behind him. Paul Simonon still sometimes plays and is involved with Greenpeace. After being sacked, Mick Jones formed the successful Big Audio Dynamite and still sometimes records and sits in with bands.

In 2002, after almost twenty years, Mick got on stage with Joe Strummer’s band, the Mescaleros, and jammed on a couple of tunes including “White Riot.”

And in December of that year, at age 50, Joe Strummer died of a heart attack from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. In his remembrance, Strummer’s friends and family have established the Strummerville Foundation for the promotion of new music. The foundation also holds an annual festival with the same name. His wife Lucinda and his kids, Jazz and Lola, were present at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.

This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel

Sources – Passion Is A Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash, Pat Gilbert. The Rise And Fall of The Clash (documentary), 2012.

8 thoughts on “The Clash (final of 3) – London Calling

  1. Yeah, their backstory is way more interesting than I expected. I knew the story with a broad brush but I definitely learned a few things as i was reading up on them. As to Sandinista, I didn’t get into it much when it came out. I am going to have to go back and spend some quality time with it before I start getting The Clash out of my system.

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  2. Great series! I think “Sandinista” should be held in higher regard even if it´s not as epochal as the debut or “London Calling”. BTW, “Police on my back” is a cover of a Eddy Grant/Equals tune.
    Best regards and congrats for a great blog!

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    1. Thanks for kind words on series and blog. It’s always nice to know that one isn’t writing for oneself.

      Yes, I definitely need to listen to “Sandanista” again as I mentioned to another commenter. I think I may not have given it enough attention when it first came out. So, three albums to listen to! Look forward to it.

      Right you are about “Police on My Back.” I think I knew that but lost sight of it somewhere. Regardless, great version. I also want to mention a great cover I somehow overlooked, “I Fought the Law.” Boy I love that as much as anything they ever did.

      Thanks for commenting. I know you’ve been out there as a reader for a while, so I’m happy you came in out of the cold. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great series. I didn’t ‘get’ the Clash for some time but did finally do so via the Live At Shea Stadium album – which has a great version of Police On My Back. It’s always impressive to see a band that can evolve in such a short space of time – just 2 years to London Calling when you consider how they could barely play at the time of the first album.
    Interesting side note (well, I find it interesting) – the London Calling cover is an homage to that of Elvis Presley’s debut.

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  4. Thanks. Frankly, I didn’t ‘get’ them either. For me, music needed musicianship and when I first heard punk, these bands could hardly play. So at first, for me it was Sex Pistols=Clash=all of punk. So I wasn’t into them. But I very much was into punk’s sibling, New Wave. Loved Police, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, etc.

    Don’t remember exactly when I first got into the Clash. I’m sure I heard a song or two prior to London Calling. But definitely from that point on. I’m still not their biggest fan but what I like of theirs, I love. And I totally get their influence on other bands. Good intel on the cover. Thanks.

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