I’ve never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or been on a roller coaster, and until two months ago I had never heard London Calling by the Clash. In my adolescent punker days the number of tracks scared me away: 19 on a punk record. In college I couldn’t justify buying something I should have owned twice already or face the stares of the record store clerks. It took another 8 years and ten dollars left on a Best Buy gift card for me to finally take the plunge and give London Calling a good hard listen.
Of course, London Calling isn’t a punk record. There’s no loud and fast, sneer and scoff posturing that makes cartoons out of the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls. While punk made it possible for the Clash to be a band it’s equally important that they broke away, and that’s what made them, as Joe Strummer put it, the only band that mattered.
All genres are constricting and the great bands are the ones who can live in styles and not for them. The songs on this album span continents and islands, yet never fake the accent. There are girls, cars, movie stars and shady characters sporting dread locks and duck asses. It’s expansive and great, but it isn’t perfect. I stand by my initial reason for avoiding this purchase, there are too many tracks. But there are so many A-grade songs that a B+ just doesn’t cut it here.
Track-by track breakdown of the best album I’d never heard after the jump…
I don’t need to say anything about this song. It’s perfect and dangerous in its simplicity. The two chords that launched a million teenage manifestos.
Brand New Cadillac
You know that dream where you’re driving away from a sepia-toned sunset and Laura Dern from 1992 is riding shotgun and playing with your hair while you steal a glance down her shirt and lick your lips? Well this song is playing during all that, and it makes you twice as cool.
Lil’ bastard of a slow cooker that mellows things out to a respectable buzz. Saying zee as well as zed made me feel included as an American.
Amazing organ sound, call and response vocals and the high-hat on the chorus. Solid.
Rudie Can’t Fail
If reggae sounded like this I’d listen to reggae. Easily my favorite song on the album. Sounds like how a band at its peak is supposed to.
If you’re ever thinking of putting a Clash song on a mix tape please, please use this song. The recipient will learn history, Spanish, and flawless songwriting.
The Right Profile
It’s a fact. There will never be anyone cooler than Joe Strummer. [Montgomery Cliff comes pretty damn close though. -Ed.] Sharp R&B meets TMZ. Strummer’s vocals are amazing, even when he’s mumbling.
Lost in the Supermarket
When I was younger I used to say this was my favorite Clash song because it was the only one I knew that wasn’t “Rock the Casbah” or “Train in Vain”. I’m glad that opinion wasn’t shared with too many people. There’s some energy lost with this song but it’s a solid Mick Jones attempt at disco and I can respect that.
Wait a minute. Did I just learn about class warfare in Briton? I’m not sure but this is a great song and I’ve been saying, “Ha! Gitalong! Gitalong!” all day.
The Guns of Brixton
See “Rudy Can’t Fail,” dub style!
Wrong ‘Em Boyo
I thought I had heard enough versions of “Stagger Lee” to fill my lifetime quota. I was wrong. Bouncy and fun with a horn line just a couple of notes shy of stealing from “Sea Cruise.”
Death or Glory
The album peaks here. Not to say the remaining tracks aren’t as good, I’ll get to that, but rather in the natural progression this is where things start to wind down. Particularly the breakdown towards the end feels like watching your favorite movie where you’re very close to the end but you know there are still some good lines left.
Not a fan. The shortest song on the record but still sounds like filler to me. I get it. Big corporations and consumerism are bad. [But drugs are fun! How did you miss that? -Ed.] Move on. 19 tracks is too long and I would easily pull this one from the list.
The Card Cheat
When did Phil Specter start producing this album? Unlike anything else on the record. In fact, it’s a a stark contrast to anything else but a perfect almost last song. The reverb used here is particularly nice, stretching the main two chords out over the whole song. No holes, just warmth. Someone should write a movie just to have this song in it.
Meh. We go from channeling everything that was good about mid 60s pop music to this dud. Out of place on the album and just boring. No reason for this song to be four minutes long.
This track should have followed “The Card Cheat.” The piano lines would play so well against each other. It’s a perfect natural progression of the theme and energy leading up to the close of the album. Slightly silly in the tough guy posturing but sonically just what the album needs at this point.
I’m Not Down
If this song weren’t produced so good I’d say yank it from the album. More great use of guitar tones, clean and thin, slap back plucky, and even some good old overdriven feedback. Nice drum breaks too.
I want all reggae to sound like The Clash. Nothing too important on this song but it’s got a great energy and stays solid for a 5 minute song.
Train in Vain
Yup, after a full hour of listening we’re at the end and it’s pop. What’s more it’s relationship pop. Nothing punk here and that’s just fine. If you’re really going to be the only band that matters than you’ve got to matter to a lot of people. If the Clash hadn’t had pop hits we wouldn’t be gushing about them still, thirty years later.
Video: The Clash – “London Calling”
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