‘There was a point where punk was getting narrower and narrower in what it could achieve and where it would go. It was painting itself into a corner.’ – Mick Jones
By the end of the seventies, punk rock had almost become a parody of itself. The movement was founded upon lefty socio-political ideals that were encapsulated within an in-your-face musical mentality but by the close of the decade ‘punk’ had become a fashion statement for much of the tribe. There were still some great bands but many of the bandwagon-jumpers forgot why they were sporting their safety pins and mohawks.
Even some of its progenitors and early supporters became overly concerned with a rigid punk protocol. Founder of punk rag Sniffin Glue Mark Perry may have lamented ‘Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS’, but it was more likely a case of The Clash distancing themselves from a movement that had already lost sight of many of its core principles shortly after its inception.
Listen: The Clash ‘London Calling’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist
In the title track of ‘London Calling’ Joe Strummer sang ‘Now don’t look to us, phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust’. He later stated in an interview with Judy McGuire, ‘I’d like to see somebody try and beat The Beatles. Many people have tried.’ Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock may have gotten the boot when he admitted to liking the Beatles but here Strummer seemed to reveal that in his eyes the worship of punk rock bands was not deserved.
Another obvious manifestation of the album’s break from punk etiquette is the fact that it is a double album which is more akin to a prog rock album by a band like Yes. However, they did stay true to their punk sensibility as they insisted that it retail for roughly the same price as a single album.
The band also stayed true to their lefty socio-political roots as many of the songs retained a spiky revolutionary sensibility (the title track addresses the Three Mile Island ‘nuclear error’). However, as the band members became more adept on their instruments (including Paul Simonon who first picked up the bass when he started with The Clash) they were able to widen their musical scope.
Due to their friend Don Letts’ influence, The Clash had paid tribute to Jamaican music with their cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ on their debut album. However, on ‘London Calling’ they took it many steps further as with a newly improved rhythm section they could truly skank on tracks like ‘The Guns of Brixton’, ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’ and ‘Revolution Rock’. The also incorporated a healthy dose of rockabilly, taking a cue from The King as well as British rocker Vince Taylor with their blazing cover of ‘Brand New Cadillac’.
Read More: Don Letts’ Top Five Albums of All Time
The Clash were lamenting what they saw as the death of rock n’ roll and initially wanted to call the album ‘The Last Testament’ suggesting it was the last rock n’ roll record. The cover image echoes this sentiment as it mimics that of Elvis Presley’s debut (an album that marked the beginning of rock n’ roll) where The King is holding his guitar. However, in this latest instance, Simonon is smashing his bass figuratively signalling the end of the medium.
The picture was taken during a show at New York City’s Palladium by photographer Pennie Smith. Feeling frustrated by people sitting down in their seats throughout the performance, Simonon started to smash his Fender Precision bass against the stage, an image Q Magazine later said, ‘Captured the ultimate rock n’ roll moment – total loss of control.’ Whether rock truly died in 1979 is arguable, but the sentiment provided the inspiration behind one of rock’s greatest albums of all time.
By Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy