The New York Palladium, 21 September 1979. Photographer Pennie Smith is standing in the wings, just off stage left, snapping pictures of the Clash, as they deliver another trademark, fiery performance, for which they’ve become famous. She notices that the band, especially bassist Paul Simonon, seem a bit tetchy, and for good reason: people in the audience are sitting down. Doubly distressing, because not only are the Clash a band who insist that everyone in the crowd be standing, but this is New York, for crying out loud; if there’s one place outside of London that would be excited to see the Clash, it would be New York, but for some unfathomable reason, the enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be coming from the audience on this night. Smith, who is standing closest to Simonon, notices a mad gleam in his eye, and she begins to sense that he is about to do something rash, and maybe kind of dangerous. The set ends, and Smith keeps taking photos. She notices through the camera lens that Simonon has removed his bass and is holding it around its neck, advancing ominously towards her. Smith starts to retreat, but keeps pressing the shutter release button…Simonon raises his favorite Fender bass high over his head… click... and brings it down hard on the stage floor… click. Writes former road manager Johnny Green in his Clash memoir, A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day With The Clash, “I looked back onstage to see Simonon clutch his bass neck and start smashing it on the floor like he was chopping wood.”
Part homage, part parody, part brash comment on the state of rock ‘n’ roll, circa 1979, the cover art for the Clash’s landmark London Calling drew its inspiration from Elvis Presley’s own landmark 1956 debut album, but in direct contrast to the cover photo that introduced rock ‘n’ roll to millions, London Calling‘s out of focus photo of Simonon standing, legs akimbo, in the process of smashing his bass with all his might, was the Clash’s declaration of the end of rock ‘n’ roll as we knew it. Elvis started it, and the Clash were dead-set on bringing it all crashing down.
The influence of London Calling on rock music is immeasurable. Not only did it break down barriers for punk rock, achieving mainstream success, in both the UK and North America, but it also proved that it was okay for a punk band to be great musicians, adventurous even. The us-against-them, DIY aesthetic that characterized late ‘70s punk was still there, but there was a huge sense of musical adventurousness present as well, and the album proved immensely satisfying for punk, pop, and rock fans alike, while exposing listeners to sounds they would never even have considered trying. In a genre regarded by many as being confrontational more than anything else, the Clash were the one band who seemed to be always open to new ideas.
It’s hard for some longtime fans to believe that a quarter century has passed since the album’s release, but that’s probably because London Calling is one of those rare records that has aged extremely well over the years, and that irrefutable fact has been hammered home by Epic/Legacy, whose special 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition of London Calling is guaranteed to thrill fans and captivate new listeners. In recent years, it’s become fashionable to re-release great albums in multi-disc formats, throwing in additional bells and whistles (b-sides, demos, live tracks, etc.), with some treatments being completely warranted (Pavement’s stupendous Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe), some not so much (Weezer’s Blue Album), and some pulling off the feat surprisingly well (Sonic Youth’s Dirty: Deluxe Edition). With a supplemental disc full of demos that were long thought lost, and a nifty DVD chronicling the making of the album, London Calling: 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition is easily one of the best classic re-releases yet.
While the question, “What was the greatest double album in rock history?” can be debated ad infinitum, ad nauseam, what cannot be argued is the fact that no double album has ever been as concise, as focused as London Calling. Albums like these before 1979 (The White Album, Physical Graffiti, for instance) were usually massive, sprawling affairs that, while being fascinating pieces of work, often had moments of artistic self-indulgence that polarized listeners. Clocking in at a surprisingly short 65 minutes (shorter than many single-disc CD releases today), the immediacy, the raw energy of London Calling never, ever makes it feel like a chore to listen to. Sure, it had four sides, but the whole album has never felt as grandiose as something like Physical Graffiti.
Faithfully recreating the feel of the original gatefold sleeve, the new Legacy Edition comes in a swanky, four-panel digipack, with all the original artwork and photos, not to mention a replica of the original lyric sheet. However, it’s not until the opening bars of the title track kick in, with Topper Headon’s military march beat, and the sharp guitar stabs by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (not to mention Simonon’s melodic bass flourishes), that the sheer power and exuberance of the album sets in.
At that particular point in their career, the Clash could do no wrong, as everything they tried on London Calling worked spectacularly: the ridiculously catchy horn flourishes in “Rudie Can’t Fail”, the energetic ska of “Wrong ‘em Boyo”, the Phil Spector homage in the fabulous “The Card Cheat”, and the pure pop genius of “Train in Vain”. Jones delivers his finest vocal performance on the surprisingly tender “Lost in the Supermarket”; the way he sells Strummer’s lyrics is almost jarring, especially when he sings “I wasn’t born, so much as I fell out,” sounding uncharacteristically vulnerable for a punk rocker. Strummer’s lyrics are in peak form on “Spanish Bombs”, as he muses about Garcia Lorca and the Spanish Civil War, and how bomb attacks by Basque separatists in the late 1970s echo a similar sentiment (“Spanish bombs rock the province/I’m hearing music from another time”). Paul Simonon comes close to stealing the show entirely with his sinister “Guns of Brixton”, led by his absolutely menacing, dub reggae-fused bassline. Meanwhile, Headon ‘s drumming is sensational throughout, adding deft beats and fills that channel classic, insistent rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, ska, and jazz.
As great and timeless as the album portion is, it’s the tantalizing lure of the Legacy Edition’s extras that has longtime fans salivating. In May and June of 1979, before they headed to London’s Wessex Studios to record the album with producer Guy Stevens, the band holed themselves up in a former rubber factory in Pimlico, London, called “Vanilla” to fine-tune their new songs and tighten up as a band. In late June, they recorded their new compositions, as well as a few covers, on a Teac four-track recorder, but according to Green’s memoir, they were lost at a London tube station, gone forever, achieving almost a mythical status among Clash fans. This past spring, however, as Mick Jones was packing things up to move to a new house, he stumbled across a box with dubbed tapes from the Vanilla Sessions, and 21 of the tapes’ 37 tracks appear on this set’s second disc (no need to worry, every song the band played at the time is represented on this set).
The trouble always is, when rare recordings are unearthed, they hardly live up to the myths surrounding them, but while the sound quality is often lacking in spots, the Vanilla Tapes offer a riveting glimpse of so many classic songs in their infancy (at one point, you hear the band go through a number of clumsy false starts on “The Guns of Brixton”, but once they get going, they soon settle into a serious, hypnotic groove), and most excitingly, four songs that have never been released before. Those unreleased tracks offer a glimpse at just how adventurous the band had gotten during that period: “Lonesome Me” is straight-ahead country tune sung by Jones, complete with Jones’s twangy lead guitar licks and harmonica accompaniment, while the instrumental “Walking the Slidewalk” delves more into slinky blues licks. Strummer’s “Heart and Mind” is the kind of potent coming-of-age tune that he excelled at, and his “Where You Gonna Go (Soweto)” is decent, straightforward reggae. The songs that would eventually appear on London Calling, despite the raw feel, sound more fully-realized than some might have expected. “Hateful”, “Clampdown” (titled here as “Working and Waiting”), and “The Right Profile” (titled here as “Up-Toon”) are all fiery, taut performances (all instrumental versions), with “Hateful” actually possessing more intensity than the album version. Their reggae cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” is tremendous, as are the rough-shod versions of the two covers that made it onto the album, Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac”, and the band’s loose interpretation of Jackie Edwards’s “Revolution Rock”.
Most surprising is the rehearsal version of “London Calling”, and if ever there was proof of just how valuable a producer Guy Stevens was, it’s on this track. Many listeners will be surprised at how weak the song seems, as the band sounds hesitant, almost robotic, and Strummer goes for a more detached tone in his voice, sounding more enigmatic than passionate. On the accompanying DVD, we’re treated to rare home video footage of Stevens and the band in the studio (another “miraculous” discovery from early this year, by Simonon this time), and we see Stevens doing everything he can to get the most out of the band: he hops around excitedly from member to member while they record, he swings a ladder around dangerously, he smashes chairs on the studio floor, he gets in Strummer’s face while recording vocals. Both the DVD footage and the Vanilla Tapes make the final album version all the more special, and show how, without the borderline psychotic Stevens around barking in the guys’ faces, this album might not have been as great.
The DVD comes with 13 minutes of the lost studio footage, three promotional videos, and the excellent, half-hour documentary The Last Testament: The Making of London Calling, by Don Letts, director of the great Clash film Westway to the World. Along with the wonderful reproduction of Strummer’s handwritten lyrics, there’s a nice, 36-page booklet, containing excellent essays by Tom Vague and Pat Gilbert, and best of all, an excerpt from the band’s homemade fanzine, The Armagideon Times, featuring commentary and doodles by band members, describing every track on the album. Overall, London Calling: 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition is a terrific package; like Pennie Smith’s now legendary cover shot, the Clash caught lightning in a bottle in 1979, and a quarter century later, the electricity is more palpable than ever.