Sunday, July 25, 2010

December 14, 2009: Punk is Dead; Long Live Punk!: 30 Years of ‘London Calling’

For a movement that had such a profound effect on popular music, the first wave of Punk Rock was a mere flicker on the Rock & Roll timeline. After a running start that involved the usual pre-punk suspects (MC5, Stooges, New York Dolls, Modern Lovers… blah, blah, blah), that first Punk Invasion essentially spanned the release of The Ramones in April 1976 to the death of Sid Vicious in February 1979. By ’79, groups were either dissolving or moving on to less primitive matters. As The Sex Pistols self-combusted, The Adverts were experimenting with choirs on Cast of Thousands, The Damned were dabbling in retro-psychedelics and proto-Goth on Machine Gun Etiquette, and the Artist Formerly Known as Johnny Rotten was putting together the first real post-punk group, Public Image, LTD. Even the devoutly primitive Ramones tentatively expanded their sound with an ill-fated collaboration with Phil Spector, who controversially added keyboards and strings atop the group’s core sound on End of the Century. Not all of these trials worked. While Johnny Lydon went on to enjoy a far longer tenure with PiL than he did with The Sex Pistols, and The Damned continued an evolution that was dismissed by the hip press but avidly followed by fans, The Adverts broke up amidst a storm of dreadful reviews and The Ramones scrambled to get back on track, while never releasing another record as widely acclaimed as the ones they put out prior to the Spector debacle. Meanwhile, artists that were never true punks at heart—Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Blondie—continued progressing unabated.

The group that made the most successful transition from the amphetamine tempos, stripped-down arrangements, and shouted vocals that defined early punk to a more refined sound was doubtlessly The Clash. Their movement from the ragged frenzy of “White Riot” in early ’77 to the lush London Calling less than three years later is as radical an evolution as The Beatles’ shift from “Twist and Shout” in 1963 to Revolver in ’66. London Calling barely sounds like the band that made either The Clash or Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Yes, Joe Strummer’s raw pipes remain instantly recognizable, and the reggae influences previously apparent on “Police & Thieves” and “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” are present and accounted for, but the sheer variety of this double-album is unprecedented not only in The Clash catalogue but in the entirety of Punk. The album encapsulates Rock & Roll as The Beatles’ “White Album” covered all popular music. London Calling reaches back to ‘50s Rock & Roll both in its cover design, which references Elvis Presley’s debut LP, and its songs (a version of Vince Taylor and His Playboys’ “Brand New Cadillac”; a brief snippet of Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” on the front end of “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”). The Clash then move on to the ‘60s with touches of British Rock (the Beatlesque “Spanish Bombs”; “London Calling”, which quotes The Kinks’ “Dead End Street”, a song that deals with the same themes of class imbalance and poverty integral to much of The Clash’s most politically conscious work), Spector-style soul (“The Card Cheat”), ska (“Rudie Can’t Fail”), and reggae (“The Guns of Brixton”; “Revolution Rock”). “Lover’s Rock” and “Train in Vain” are nods to The Rolling Stones in the ‘70s, and Paul Simonon’s octave-hopping bassline on “Lost in the Supermarket” would not have sounded out of place on the disco floor.

One of the few major Rock movements conspicuously absent on London Calling is the stripped-down Punk that had been The Clash’s previous calling card. What is still very present on London Calling is Punk attitude. There is as much righteous anger packed onto its four sides as there was on the total four sides of The Clash’s first two records. The apocalyptic title track stomps through current headlines: the Three-Mile Island nuclear meltdown, threats of the Thames overflowing and flooding London, police violence. “Clampdown” draws parallels between the Nazi regime, capitalism, and violence purveyed by the racist, right-wing National Front movement. “Hateful” is a corrosive look at drug dealers and addicts; “Lover’s Rock” targets sexual politics with a surprisingly graphic lyric. Simonon’s “The Guns of Brixton” is a chilling vision of race riots and police brutality. Yet there are also unusually personal moments, with Strummer mythologizing Mick Jones’s childhood on “Lost in the Supermarket” and memorializing the Punk movement he helped spearhead on “Death or Glory”.

London Calling also notably strayed from Punk in terms of its commercial success. Released in the US in early 1980, it was The Clash’s first record—and arguably the first record by a Punk group (assuming groups like Talking Heads, Blondie, and Costello were always more New Wave than Punk)— to crack Billboards’ Top 50, making its way to #27. As such, it was the first album by a Punk group that many kids outside the UK heard. Not surprisingly, this also led to something of a backlash from purists. London Calling inspired chants of “The Clash sold out punk” by dogmatic listeners (assuming they really were listening) who contended that London Calling helped kill punk. Many others discovered it to be a gateway into the genre and regarded it as one of the most important Rock albums ever made. Twenty years ago Rolling Stone magazine chose it as the best album of the ‘80s and the eighth greatest album of all-time in 2003. It placed highly on similar lists in Mojo, Alternative Press, Vibe, and Q. The web site Digital Dream Door named it the best album Punk album ever made. Whether or not London Calling really belongs in that drawer, it surely did its part in the genre’s survival and ongoing historical significance by proving that Punk groups really had no limits no matter what the nay-sayers said. More importantly, it’s a fucking great collection of songs. Arguments and analyses aside, stuff like “London Calling”, “Clampdown”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”, and “Hateful” rank among the greatest songs of the Rock & Roll era, and The Clash deliver them and the rest with the same passion and commitment they brought to their earlier, rawer recordings. 30 years on, that indisputable quality is all that really matters about the greatest record by the only band that matters.

London Calling was released on this day in 1979.
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