December 14, 1979 was the date that marked the UK release of the double album by The Clash titled “London Calling.” The world of rock music would never be the same.
Few albums stand the test of time: still having an impact on popular music three decades and more after its release. Fewer still are those albums capable of standing the truest test of time: seeming far fresher than the music being made three decades and more after its release. The Clash’s “London Calling” seems far fresher than almost all music that has been released in the 21st century. There are pockets of vital music being released today–bands like The Rakes, Camera Obscura, and the Weakerthans spring to mind–but even their music doesn’t quite bite into you the way that London Calling does. From those first opening martial chords of the song “London Calling” to the fade-out of the secret track “Train in Vain” this is an album capable of changing your life. (Especially when up to this point you had, like me, been forced to think crap was actually good music because crap was the only thing your local radio station would play.)
“London Calling” is not my favorite punk rock album or even my favorite album of the 1970s–that honor would go instead to Entertainment! by Gang of Four–but this double-wide assault on the senses has its place in history alongside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds and The Wall. “London Calling” is one of the rarest of all entertainment products: an important album; perhaps the most important album of the 1970s.
In a way, “London Calling” is like a Charles Dickens novel set to music; packed with outlandish characters both real and semi-fictional. There’s Jimmy Jazz and Stagger Lee, there’s that guy who got lost in the supermarket and Rudie who can’t fail, there’s the drug addict whose dealer is so hateful and all those wonderful men and women fighting for freedom from Franco, including one of those poets buried in the trenches, but more on him later. Then there are my favorite characters of all from “London Calling”: that card cheat and my favorite actor, Montgomery Clift. Listening to “London Calling” is like opening up a favorite book you keep wanting to read over and over again.
Of course, the characters are the point of “London Calling.” There may be a huge chasm of time and politics separating the rude boys of reggae from the freedom fighters in Spain in the days of ’39 not to mention the chasm existing between them and the star of “A Place in the Sun,” but metaphorically they are part and parcel of one and the same. Montgomery Clift was the ultimate 1950s movie rebel because he wasn’t a bridge to outdated machismo like Marlon Brando nor was he as one-dimensional as James Dean. Montgomery Clift’s sensitivity is directly antagonistic to the fascistic undertones of the iconic male figures in movies from the grapefruit-smashing James Cagney in “The Public Enemy” to the swaggering hips of Clift’s one-time co-star John Wayne. Montgomery Clift is therefore just as much a figure of rebellion as another figure that pops up much more briefly and much more metaphorically: Federico Garcia Lorca.
The fight against Franco’s fascism is unquestionably light years away from the fight against the fascism of Hollywood patriarchy in strict terms of blood and death and glory, but both Clift and Lorca belong inside that famous supermarket from “London Calling” where the forlorn singer went to buy a guaranteed personality. The rebellion against the overt consumerism that reduces everyone to a commodity becomes part of a much larger theme of the fight to rebel that makes “London Calling” more than just a collection of songs. The death of the idea of the concept album in the wake of easily downloadable singles is perhaps no more tragically underscored than in the realization that “London Calling” could probably not be made today.
Everywhere you turn on the original album’s four sides you are presented with the persistence of rebellion on “London Calling.” What eventually becomes a kind of melancholic sub-theme of the album is that rebellion is almost always quashed. Montgomery Clift winds up a sputtering mess of alcohol and drugs. Lorca is shot dead and echoes from the days of ’39 only reminds us that Generalissimo Francisco Franco lived a long and fabulous life. The non-believers working in the factory waiting for the “clampdown” are far more likely to get sucked into becoming young believers who accept the myth that debt and consumption is the key to happiness rather than taking up the mantle to refashion the system into something far more fair and evenly divided.
There is a certain inescapable sadness in listening to “London Calling,” especially in a song like “Koka Kola” when you realize that the tie between the pushers selling a defective sense of happiness to low-lifes on the street as well as the rich and beautiful in their mansions are exactly the same as the pushers on Madison Avenue drawing up new plans to sell you flawed happiness in the next 30 second commercial and the print ad and the radio jingle.
The ultimate importance of “London Calling” actually lies in what is commonly regarded as its most apolitical song. Many years ago I read an interview with one of those corporate rock faceless icons who tried to explain away his meaningless work by suggesting that even The Clash tossed in a throwaway radio hit along with their political stuff. It is a sign of the ignorance of corporate rock icons that “Train in Vain” might be seen as a song less important that masterpieces like “Spanish Bombs” or “The Card Cheat.” It is a song too easily dismissed as a love song, but when placed in the context of its unbilled location at the end of “London Calling,” the lyrics take on a much more robust meaning.
“Now I got a job
But it don’t pay
I need new clothes
I need somewhere to stay
But without all of these things I can do
But without your love I won’t make it through
But you don’t understand my point of view
I suppose there’s nothing I can do
You must explain why this must be
Did you lie when you spoke to me
Did you stand by me
Did you stand by me
No, not at all
Did you stand by me
When looked at from the perspective that the cast of characters from “London Calling” that precede its seemingly innocuous and utterly ordinary narrator, the forlorn young man questioning a lover’s loyalty fits perfectly within the pattern of individual rebels fighting against the Man, society, the way things are, society…you get the idea. When viewed from this perspective, these lyrics seem not to be about a lovesick man talking to a woman, but rather about a rebel asking why he is forced to go it alone. “Train in Vain” is a song authentically about the fact that the average person really does not understand the point of view of the real rebel. The rebel in his own time is almost in all cases subjugated to the whims of the majority and objectified as a threat to the status quo. All that the rebel asks is that a few people be willing to stand by him even if you don’t necessarily understand his point of view. Just understand that he understands something that you may not yet be able to see.