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Clash City

The late Joe Strummer

Marcus Gray's book about London Calling inspires a journey around the London of the Clash. There's a huge sense of disaffection in this city, a feeling that the government protects only the rich and will leave the poor to suffer the recession – it’s like 1979 all over again, and London is still calling, calling out into an atmosphere of impending catastrophe.

It was perhaps inevitable that Marcus Gray’s book about London Calling would turn out to be as much about London itself as about The Clash’s most lauded album. The Transport for London roundel on the front cover is a clue: the ‘19’ in the title refers not only to the number of tracks on the record, but also to the Route 19 bus, which links Finsbury Park, in north London, and Battersea, in the south-west, and which Gray presents as the backbone of London Calling’s geographical reference points.

I live in Finsbury Park and, for me, this reference to the 19 bus added to my already established perception that the neighbourhood has a significant musical history. Across the street from my flat is the Six Acres Estate, where Johnny Rotten grew up. From my kitchen window I can see the old Rainbow Theatre, the venue where Jimi Hendrix first set a guitar on fire, and where 200 seats once were torn out by fans of The Clash. The Rainbow is now a Pentecostal church, but the spirit of punk has not been exorcised from the area. Earlier this year, Rage Against the Machine played a free gig in Finsbury Park to celebrate their 2009 Christmas number one, which they achieved after a Facebook campaign. In their set they included The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ as an acknowledgement of the influence that London punk bands have had on them. They may not have known how close they were to some of punk’s key locations.

In 1977 Topper Headon was also living in Finsbury Park. At a Kinks gig at the Rainbow, he met Mick Jones and was invited to audition as drummer for The Clash. His induction into the band completed its line-up and began the process that led to 1979’s seminal London Calling, but the album itself is not really connected with this part of London. It draws inspiration from all over the city, and far beyond: Gray makes much of the influence of American music and culture. However, as the album’s title suggests, London is where it is rooted.

If you take the 19 bus from Finsbury Park, you begin your journey at the station and then head up Blackstock Road, which leads towards nearby Highbury. As I traverse the London of London Calling I’m not going to follow the 19 bus very closely – I’ll be travelling on my scooter rather than on the bus – but thus far it’s important that I stick to its route. My first port of call is Wessex Studios, where London Calling was recorded between August and November 1979. The studio was in a converted Victorian church hall that’s tucked behind St. Augustine’s Church on Highbury New Park. It had been converted in the 1960s and was refurbished in the mid-'70s. Soundproofing was apparently one area where improvement was needed, and the neighbourhood is so quiet that this was clearly important. I can’t get right up to the studio, which has now been converted into flats: a security gate prevents access to the drive that runs along the church. The only clue to the time that The Clash spent in this peaceful, affluent area is the name of the development: The Recording Studio.

It’s now time for one of the longer legs of my journey around London; I head southwards to Camden, where The Clash had their rehearsal space, Rehearsals Rehearsals, during the early part of their career. In the early-'70s, this was a derelict part of town, caught between railway and canal. Rehearsals Rehearsals was part of an old stable building, and is now part of what has become the Stables Market, a popular redeveloped area where traders sell clothes, records and decorative objects. I step inside Proud Galleries, which occupies part of the stable building. There is an exhibition of photographs documenting David Bowie’s formative years in London, and a band is soundchecking. It seems an appropriate atmosphere. As I leave the building I can hear the sound of The Clash’s ‘Jimmy Jazz’ coming from a record stall opposite. No doubt there is a copy or two of London Calling amongst its wares.

I head away from the crowds of Camden and continue south, down Albany Street, which runs alongside Regent’s Park. My next stop is number 31, where Joe Strummer lived for a while shortly before London Calling was recorded, in a room in the house of designer Sebastian Conran. It’s a huge, white townhouse in a highly desirable part of London, and it’s hard to imagine someone like Strummer being at home there. I don’t linger here for long; next, I’m visiting another of Joe’s former homes, 34 Daventry Street, close to Marylebone Station, was the address where he was squatting when The Clash was formed. Seeking out the location, I head along Marylebone Road, but miss the turning I need. I manage to escape the main road at the last minute and avoid being forced to continue onto the Westway, the elevated road that cuts through West London. Had I ended up on the Westway it would have been no bad thing, as the road has significance for The Clash, appearing in the lyrics to ‘London’s Burning’ and providing the title for Don Letts’ 2000 documentary Westway to the World.

After a slight detour, I eventually find my way to Daventry Street. Number 34 is an anonymous looking building, shorter than most of the buildings that surround it. It’s impossible to tell what kind of place it is now, but later on some research reveals that it’s a supported housing project. On the corner of Daventry Street is a second hand book and music shop, a jumble of a place full of stacked up paper and vinyl. All kinds of Strummer related objects could be buried amongst it, but I don’t have time to stop and look. I have to move northwest, to the affluence, canalside area of Maida Vale. It was here, at 3 Pindock Mews, that Topper Headon lived in early 1979. Its previous resident had been Sid Vicious; Gray describes how the blood sprays that resulted from his heroin addiction could still be seen on the walls when Topper moved in.

From here, it’s only a few hundred yards in a straight line to my next stopping point, Wilmcote House, the tower block where Mick Jones lived with his grandmother between 1975 and 1978. However, I have to take a circular route, as it’s on the other side of the Regent’s Canal, the same canal that passes by Rehearsals Rehearsals in Camden. One of London’s most defining features is the way that affluent areas and poorer estates rub up against each other. Few areas are exclusively rich or poor; instead there are pockets of deprivation and wealth throughout the city.

I’m now on the edge of Notting Hill, the vibrant part of West London that is associated so strongly with The Clash. I continue along the canal so that I can head into Notting Hill proper from a directly northern approach. This will give me a direct route to Faraday Road, where bassist Paul Simonon lived with his father as a teenager. Here, I hit my first dead end. I can’t find number 27. Perhaps it has been subsumed into the housing estate that dominates the northern end of the Portobello Road, or perhaps Gray’s book has provided me with a false address.

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