Around the time I discovered London Calling, I tried living in England, hoping vaguely for a sort of youthful writing career. And having spent my time collecting memories from odds jobs, (I seem to remember a mail room in the London Cable company, a toy store specializing in wood (as if kids really want to play with wood), a website that sold “art”, and an aluminium publishing company, whatever that means), London Calling always signified unity to me; an idea that among different people and lifestyles, points of view, experiences and tastes, we were all in it together.
It’s all there in a big, loud, beautiful collection of hurt, anger, restless thought, and above all hope; one that if released tomorrow would still seem relevant and vibrant.
It’s there in the brilliant burst of the first minute, sounding like everything the punks must have had in mind, like a challenge, a threat and a prayer all at once. Loud, angry, spacey, forceful, and inventive, the song is a glimpse of fierce individualism among a self-imposed apocalyptic sight. “The Ice age is coming, the sun zooming in, engine’s stop running and the wheat is growing thing, a nuclear error but I have no fear, London is drowning—and I live by the river.”
No time before or since has Joe Strummer been more pointed lyrically, or more vocally persuasive, more rebellious in his individualism, howling as it were because he really meant it; a sincerity that makes his shout, “forget it brother, and go it alone”, sound like the easiest solution to being let down and left out by the masses.
And as if they knew topping it would be impossible, the song acts as an umbrella, shielding and uniting the subsequent retreat through a maze of urban tales and types; the Jimmy Jazz’s and Monty Cliffs of the world, those snorting cocaine in the 51st floor of Manhattan advertising companies, or Strummer’s taunts that “young people shoot their days away, I’ve seen talent thrown away.”
And yet surviving among these stories are more common and almost personal fare, incidents of sex, depression, identity crisis, and of all things a sweeping history of the Spanish civil war.
And maybe the sheer drunk and joyful vitality of the album is why I love it so much. As while much of the subject matter is dark and angry, it’s all covered in a hopeful veneer of action, of wanting to sing among shit for Christ sake’s. You could even hear Joe urging Jones to, “Sing Michael SING.”
And after you’ve heard the sing-along anger and aggression of “Hateful”, or the horn fuelled “Rudie Can’t Fail”, the brilliant arrangement of “Clampdown”, or the monster of a white man reggae song in Paul Simonon’s “Guns of Brixton, you realize this is a supposed punk band attacking everything they saw wrong with the world and their lives with all the weapons they saw fit to exploit.
And after the soulful jam-like struggle of the mistreated female lover in “Lover’s Rock”, the album’s side-B moves almost seamlessly into “I’m Not Down”, one of many Mick Jones-led highlights And as if to further drive home any point of solidarity he sings, “I’ve been beat up, I’ve been thrown out but I’m not down, I’ve been shown up, but I’ve grown up, and I’m not down.” Of course, followed by Strummer’s brilliant breakdown “Revolution Rock”, the message is clear. How could you be anything but alive when there’s music to believe in?
Add to this a cover paying homage to an old Elvis album, complete with a picture of Simonon destroying his bass in concert and it could seem to be the definition of punk about being angry at the failed handling of the promise of music, of the promise of new ideas and rock and roll.
And then, like an afterthought comes “Train in Vain”, an infectious pop tune about lack of loyalty within a relationship. Though in this setting the song could be about anything, about not standing up for what you believe in, and most especially for what you say you love. Sounding almost hurt after the declarations of independence, angry even that you really could be left alone.
And though I think all this, I can’t shake the idea you had to be alive at the time to understand the sheer joy of hearing someone proudly ugly scream, “1, 2, 3, 4!” before every song. And in that case, you would be right for wondering what a 24-year-old Italian flavoured Canadian could know about Punk music or the Clash. It’s a question I would ask too, as I, like you, care too much about music to see it sullied in any way, to see it mishandled, most brutally after the fact.
But if you take away all the labels and tiny classifications we impose, all you’re left with is the music on London Calling, a lasting testament and tonic to everything that can seem hopeless.
And it’s probably idealistic and naïve and whether or not I can articulate it with justice, some of us still want to believe music can change the world. Some of us still need to believe that; a thought which makes me think that maybe the son of a bitch was right, that if given the chance, “This here music mash up the nation, this here music cause a sensation! Tell your ma, tell your pa, everything’s gonna be allright.”