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.

The Future Is Unwritten, and the Past Lives On

I’ve wasted a minimal amount of time though, as my next stop is just down the road. This is 42b Oxford Gardens, the basement flat that Simonon moved into in 1979, when he became the first home-owning member of The Clash. I’m now only about 100 yards from the Westway, which cuts through this part of town, casting shadows over the streets. Its ugly immovability seems to stand for the unease and racial tension that cut through Notting Hill in the '70s. The area south of the Westway is the more affluent part of Notting Hill. The 1999 film that gave this neighbourhood a new wave of popularity focussed entirely on this part of Notting Hill, neglecting to mention the estates to the north. I turn down a broad street flanked by imposing white houses, not unlike 31 Albany Street, and continue along it until it intersects with Portobello Road, the main tourist drag. Here, I have to slow right down, as hordes of people are swarming across the street.

Having moved out of Wilmcote House, Mick Jones moved into a flat in Notting Hill with his former colleague from his old band London SS, Tony James. However, the flat became a target for thieves, so in 1979 they moved to 5 Simon Close. This is a boxy house, tucked away in a tiny street, little more than a yard, off Portobello Road. From here, I can still hear a busker on the main road playing double bass and singing rock 'n' roll songs. The atmosphere is similar to Camden, a few miles away down the Regent's Canal: market traders, bustle and music. Simon Close marks my last visit in Notting Hill. Although The Clash were encouraged to make much of their connections with this area, they were less closely tied to it than might be thought and, as I've seen, there are important places in their history scattered all over London. I'm heading a few miles south now, but it's a fairly quick journey down major thoroughfares. I navigate the last of Notting Hill's tourists, and make my way through Kensington. From here, my road is a straight line down almost to the River Thames.

Chelsea was always connected with punk. Vivienne Westward's famous shop Sex was located on the Kings Road, the same street where Malcolm McDowell first spotted Johnny Rotten, wearing a customised T-shirt that bore the slogan ‘I Hate Punk Floyd’, but this is not where I'm stopping next. Very close by is the huge World's End Estate, which was completed in 1977, the year in which The Clash famously declared that there would be, 'No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones.' A couple of years later, Joe Strummer was dating 17-year-old Gaby Salter. Although her parents were tolerant of their daughter's relationship with an infamous musician almost ten years her senior, they were less keen on the idea of her living in the squat in Daventry Street, so they invited Joe to move into their flat. Thus 31 Whistler Walk, on the World's End Estate, became his new home.

It’s a striking collection of buildings, dominated by seven red brick towers that seem to me to have more in common with New York’s Stuyvesant Town than with most of the other brutalist tower blocks that were put up around London in the '60s and '70s. Looking across the Thames from these towers is Battersea, the end point of the route 19 bus. A little way downriver is the Cadogan Pier, where the video for London Calling was shot one wet night. The name World’s End comes from a pub that used to stand in Chelsea, but it’s a suitably apocalyptic sounding backdrop for a song that talks about impending ice age and famine. The World’s End Estate is evidently what Joe Strummer was referring to when he sang, ‘I live by the river’.

I now have only one place left to visit, and head up along the embankment to Pimlico. This was the location of Vanilla, the rehearsal space on Causton Street that The Clash began to use after firing their manager Bernie Rhodes and quitting Rehearsals Rehearsals in Camden. It was here that much of London Calling was conceived and written, so it’s a crucial stop on my journey. The site, which was a collection of warehouses and car workshops, has since been redeveloped and has been taken over by the London Diocesan House. However, the playground across the road where The Clash used to play increasingly competitive games of football during breaks from rehearsals, is still there. My tour is now complete, and it’s time for me to head back to Finsbury Park. Curiously, my first and last points, the Rainbow Theatre and Vanilla, are both now religious buildings. Well, there have been those who have argued that music is a kind of religion, so perhaps this is appropriate.

Marcus Gray’s book is an extraordinarily thorough account of the context and production of London Calling. The fact that he dedicates 200 pages to close readings of the album’s songs is testament to the detail that is involved. While the songs are impressively documented and the characters involved brilliantly realised, it is the attention to place that makes Route 19 Revisited stand out. Few other books about music provide a narrative cartography that you can use to trace the geographic influences of a band and their work. With this book as my guide, my journey around the London trodden by The Clash is completed successfully.

“The Clash-Sleepy London Town” by © Alex M. Bustillo
published with permission.
See more of Alex’s work at Mandel

On my way back I pass a reminder that, 30 years on from the release of London Calling, the social and political situation is not at all dissimilar to the way it was in 1979. There are boards on the ground floor windows of Millbank Tower, which houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party. A few days earlier, protests about proposed increases in university fees resulted in an outbreak of rioting here. The anger that fuelled this damage was provoked not only by cuts to education funding, but also by all of the other cutbacks and job losses engineered by the British government. There is 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.

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