Gimme a Reason takes classic albums celebrating major anniversaries and breaks down the reasons we still love them so many years later. Today, we celebrate 40 years of The Clash’s London Calling.
In England, the 1970s were quite an eventful decade.
The seemingly untouchable power of the British Empire had taken a massive blow in the wake of World War II, and 1976 specifically saw a national descent into economic disarray despite both Labour and Conservative Party leaders promising to salvage the nation’s fiscal health. This resulted in a spike in unemployment that not only widened the class divide, but also disproportionately impacted young people about to enter the workforce at a time when employment options had effectively vanished.
(Listen: The Opus on The Clash’s London Calling)
At the same time, Margaret Thatcher was rising through the political ranks, becoming the Conservative Party leader before beginning her notorious run as Prime Minister in 1979. The onset of Thatcherism blended with a resurgent sense of nationalism that had sprung up as a result of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, which had taken place just two years prior.
Combined, each of these elements created a rigid climate that many found difficult to live under.
As the decade was drawing to a close just over seven months after Thatcher’s election, The Clash unveiled what they had brewing at Vanilla Rehearsal Studios all year: London Calling. Their third LP lyrically mirrored the events of the past decade, touching upon economic hardship, classism, drugs, violence, politics, and global conflict. However, The Clash dove deeper than the traditional “us versus them” approach to societal commentary through song. Whether it be done through the vehicle of a character (“Rudie Can’t Fail”) or a strong personal connection (“The Guns of Brixton”), each track on London Calling feels notably comprehensive.
Moreover, The Clash accomplished this feat while simultaneously throwing the coolest of curveballs into the idea of what could be regarded as the traditional “punk” sound, broadening it to include influences from reggae, jazz, rockabilly, and more. This willingness to experiment made The Clash something of the mad scientists of ‘70s punk … and London Calling their laboratory.
London Calling initially succeeded because it was very much a product of its time, but it sustains because it is also very much a product of the human experience. The events that occurred in England during the 1970s may have directly influenced London Calling, but the emotions that resulted from the time — feelings of dread, determination, fear, triumph, existentialism, powerlessness, and injustice — have permeated lives, cultures, and communities around the world for as long as memory goes back.
And as long as those feelings are alive anywhere in the world, in anyone in the world, London Calling will be, too.
Click ahead to see why London Calling is still the only album that matters. Also make sure to subscribe to the latest season of The Opus, which further breaks down the band’s seminal album.
01. Mick Jones spelling out “SOS” in Morse code through guitar feedback at the end of the song acts as a subtle nod to the track’s overarching themes of conflict and upheaval.
02. The title came from the BBC World Service’s radio station identification: “This is London calling…” The BBC used it during World War II to open their broadcasts outside of England.
“Brand New Cadillac”
03. The Clash made the Vince Taylor cover their own by infusing it with a sense of gusto and grit, giving the rockabilly track a fully fledged punk makeover.
04. The album’s songs were generally written about London, with some having both fictional and real-life characters, such as an underworld criminal named Jimmy Jazz.
05. Hallmarked by whistling and a breezy beat, the laid-back feel of “Jimmy Jazz” makes it a stark musical departure from what was considered to be the traditional punk sound; and yet, that’s precisely why its presence on the album feels so noteworthy.
06. “Hateful” highlights the sense of community that existed in London’s punk community in the late 1970s. The lyric “I’ve lost some friends. Some friends? What friends? I dunno, I ain’t even noticed” is thought to be a likely nod to the death of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who died from a drug overdose 10 months prior to London Calling’s release. The two bands had an allyship, to the point where Paul Simonon had been quoted saying that the Sex Pistols splitting up and Vicious’ subsequent death had left The Clash “feeling quite alone in some ways” as they were preparing London Calling.
“Rudie Can’t Fail”
07. The track mixes elements of pop, soul, and reggae music. The song is about a young guy who is criticized for his inability to act like a responsible adult.
08. The reference to Dr. Alimantado, a Jamaican reggae artist, in the line “like a doctor who was born for a purpose,” highlights the perhaps unlikely kinship that existed between the punk and reggae communities in the late 1970s in England. Both subcultures shared the common ethos of being anti-establishment, which spurred a sense of solidarity between them.
09. Many punk songs source lyrical inspiration from occurrences on local and national levels. “Spanish Bombs”, which was inspired by the Spanish Civil War, illustrates how attentive The Clash were to what had unfolded in the world around them — and this did not go unnoticed. The mention of the Spanish city of Granada in the lyrics (in likely combination with the fact that Joe Strummer chose to spend time there after The Clash hit major bumps in the road in 1984) resulted in a local plaza being named in Strummer’s honor in 2013.
10. Lead vocals on this song are shared by Strummer and Mick Jones. Strummer mainly sings the verse while Jones sings the chorus. This style of singing some words together heavily influenced the vocal style of contemporary British rockers The Libertines.
“The Right Profile”
11. The brassy flourishes coat the track with a sense of slickness, and saxophone work from the late John Earle really makes it feel like something special.
“Lost in the Supermarket”
12. Tonally and stylistically, “Lost in the Supermarket” is a much different take on the common trope in punk music of critiquing the small town one grew up in and the people and practices in it. This acts as a microcosm of the album’s overall feel of being a musical melting pot.
13. One of the best lyrics on the record is: “I wasn’t born, so much as I fell out,” and it can be taken in a couple of different ways. Joe Strummer, who wrote the song, could be asserting that his conception was unplanned or introducing the idea that his birth was simply another step in the development of his typical suburban family.
14. Strummer was born into a family that didn’t pay much attention to him. His mother was a nurse and his father was a diplomat, so it is no surprise that their son slipped through their cracks.
15. Clampdown (n.) — a severe or concerted attempt to suppress something. Its lyrics comment on people who forsake the idealism of youth and urges young people to fight the status quo. This is one of The Clash’s most complex songs, tackling simultaneously the crushing oppression of capitalism and the dangers of living under fascism.
16. The spoken-word portion in the introduction of “Clampdown” is chill-inducing. An elixir of the foreboding drawl they’re spoken with, their largely inaudible nature, and the way the music blazes on underneath it creates an effect that feels equal parts dangerous, mysterious, and mesmerizing.
“The Guns of Brixton”
17. “The Guns of Brixton” treats listeners to a rare lead vocal performance from Paul Simonon, who spent time living in the titular South London neighborhood.
18. Its lyrics describe the paranoia of living in The Clash’s apocalyptic version of London, which pervades the entire record. Structurally, the album follows closely after the similarly themed “Clampdown”. While “Clampdown” paints a picture of the bleak global situation and calls for the masses to take action against it, “The Guns of Brixton” complicates the issue by addressing the complications that violence can introduce. It is also the last song on disc one of London Calling.
19. Its lyrics “with your hands on your head/ Or on the trigger of your gun,” alludes to the essential tension of the punk era, being caught between impotent acquiescence to a failing status quo and dangerous rebellion in a world of militant police.
Click ahead for more reasons London Calling is still the only album that matters.
“Wrong ‘Em Boyo”
20. “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” was written by Clive Alphonso, and originally performed by The Rulers and has been covered many times. The Clash’s version is filled with a buoyancy that gives it a definitive element of fun, to the point where the listener almost forgets that they’re listening to a song about violence and deceit.
“Death or Glory”
21. While the Sex Pistols made “No Future” the hallmark rally cry of the era, The Clash used “Death or Glory” to outline what that future might look like — highlighting that it, perhaps frighteningly, could include an eventual adoption of ideals that one currently stands against. The track is a somber reflection on how time changes people and priorities (set to an infectious chord progression, of course). As Headon and Strummer wrote in their notes about the track, “[“Death or Glory”] is considering the beat of time, which must come to everyone.”
22. While it’s nothing new for a band to release a song railing against the corporate agenda, “Koka Kola” augments this narrative by painting a picture of who the people within it are — wearers of snakeskin and alligator, “top men who need a top up long before happy hour,” and those who capitalize off of selling visions rather than realities.
23. The original title of this song is “Koka Kola, Advertising and Kokaine” — the early version is available on London Calling (Legacy Edition). The early demo contains additional drug references, which were removed from the final song, but the association of commodity and addiction is still clear. Desire becomes necessity, and cocaine filled its niche in American consumer culture just as easily as Coca Cola, and the whole song is a statement on that.
“The Card Cheat”
24. While working on the song, the band recorded each part twice to create a sound as big as possible.
25. The way the prettiness of the piano contrasts from the otherwise grim lyrics. In some ways, it almost makes the track’s narrative that much more devastating.
26. The opening guitar hook. Despite it only lasting for the first 13 seconds, it eases the listener into the track like a hot knife cutting through butter
27. “Four Horsemen” has an insatiable sense of energy that sustains itself from start to finish. In addition to the tongue-in-cheek lyrics that envision the band as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, it’s a pure blast of raw, sonic power — something The Clash have always been able to deliver and deliver well.
“I’m Not Down”
28. If London Calling were the galaxy, “I’m Not Down” would be a solar flare. The track’s message of persistence and resilience adds a splash of brightness against the album’s otherwise murky thematic elements.
29. Thematically, “Revolution Rock” feels like the perfect track to have been the almost-closer of London Calling. Whereas many of the tracks that precede it chronicle injustices and disappointments of the past and then-present, “Revolution Rock” coolly looks toward how things can change for the better in the future.
“Train in Vain”
30. Topper Headon’s drumming is a standout throughout the entire album, but it especially pops on “Train in Vain”. The slick, crisp rhythms he created juxtapose the track’s other musical elements, such as the plucky guitar and the low notes of the harmonica, in a really rich, dynamic manner. Headon has been quoted saying that he feels some of his best drumming is on London Calling, and “Train in Vain” makes it easy to see why.
31. “Train in Vain” feels like a special treat because it almost wasn’t part of London Calling entirely. It was a last-minute edition to the album that was added after the sleeve had already been created, originally leaving it completely unlisted — and making it one hell of a bonus track.
32. The song’s opening lyric, “You say you stand by your man,” is a reference to two famous songs: “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King and “Stand by Your Man” by Tammy Wynette. The song goes on to state that, in contrast to these two songs, his girlfriend does not stand by him.
33. The Clash recorded this album after returning to England from a short US tour. The band was intrigued by American music as well as its rock and roll mythology, so much so that the album cover was a tribute to Elvis Presley’s first album.
34. The album was recorded during a 5- to 6-week period with 18-hour days. Most of the songs were recorded in one or two takes, which is a quick turnaround for creating arguably the best rock album of all time.
35. The iconic photograph used for the album cover was taken during a show at New York’s Palladium in 1979. It turns out Paul Simonon’s outburst wasn’t the result of punk-fueled rage against the system, but a visceral reaction to the venue’s disappointing crowd. Simonon was unable to raise any real response from the crowd, so he grabbed his instrument by the fretboard and smashed it furiously against the stage. He didn’t know it at the time, but album artwork history had just been made.
36. The photograph was named the best rock and roll photograph of all time by Q magazine in 2002, as it captures the ultimate rock and roll moment, “which is a total loss of control.”
37. London Calling covers an impressive range of subjects; topics range from racial conflict, unemployment, and drug use to safe sex, the tragic life of actor Montgomery Clift, and social displacement.
38. The album’s overall theme is post-punk, incorporating a wide variety of music styles, including punk, reggae, rockabilly, ska, hard rock, pop, lounge jazz, and New Orleans R&B. The whole record is an amuse-bouche of all the different styles The Clash could create masterfully.
39. The album has enjoyed an enormous amount of praise and critical acclaim, from the time of its release to the present day. London Calling made the Top 10 on charts in the United Kingdom, and its title track was a Top 20 single. Rolling Stone ranked the album No. 8 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
40. To this day, the record has sold over 5 million copies and consistently turns up in top 10 lists of the most influential albums of all time.