The Making of The Clash's London Calling

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The revered rock photographer Pennie Smith resisted the idea that her shot of The Clash's Paul Simonon smashing his Precision Bass onto the stage of the Palladium in New York City should be used as the cover of the band's third album, London Calling.

It was, after all, out of focus, featured only one member of the band, and was a million miles removed from the glossy full-color images much preferred by record retail outlets. It took graphic designer Ray Lowry, an admired English punk cartoonist and satirist, to convince Smith that, despite its apparent shortcomings, it was the perfect image to adorn what would ultimately prove to be The Clash's definitive musical statement. More than two decades later, Smith's photograph was chosen as the best rock 'n' roll shot of all time by Q magazine, on the grounds that it "captures the ultimate rock 'n' roll moment—total loss of control."

1979's London Calling was the epochal double-album that broke The Clash to the global stage and earned them their first platinum disc in the US. The band had surfaced in London three years earlier, hot on the heels of the Sex Pistols and inspired by that band's in-your-face stance. As co-founder Joe Strummer later recalled, his first encounter with the Pistols had changed his entire musical perspective. "Their attitude was, 'Here's our tunes, and we couldn't give a flying fuck whether you like them or not. In fact, we're gonna play them even if you fucking hate them.'"

The Clash were up and running by July 4, 1976, when they supported the Pistols at The Black Swan pub in Sheffield and, after some membership adjustments, they signed to the London office of CBS Records on January 25, 1977, with a controversial £100,000 contract. At the time, it seemed excessive for a band with precious little history, but it required them to pay for their own tours, recordings, remixes, artwork, and expenses, which quickly ate into any profits they hoped for.

Their hastily recorded debut album, The Clash, surfaced on April 8, 1977. With the Pistols in a conveniently low-profile period, the album attracted considerable acclaim from British critics and gave them their first UK Top 20 placing, making them the most obvious rivals for Johnny Rotten and his chums.

The debut single, "White Riot," was suitably minimalistic, clocking in under two minutes. Strummer thrashed through its three chords with his beloved '66 Telecaster—which he'd had refinished in black and would decorate with decals, including an Ignore Alien Orders sticker and a NOISE stencil—while Mick Jones delivered his simplistic lead embellishments on a cherry double-cut Les Paul Junior. Although the album nodded toward the reggae and '50s rock 'n' roll that they would pursue on later releases, its overall impact came from a relentless adherence to the new punk aesthetic. As a result, it was not immediately released in America—where CBS executives maybe felt unwilling to promote an album including the track "I'm So Bored With The USA."

Signed to an American record label, The Clash were rarely allowed to forget that no matter how heart-warming their British success, the American marketplace was financially much more lucrative. With this in mind, CBS drafted in the redoubtable New Yorker Sandy Pearlman to produce the second Clash album, Give 'Em Enough Rope. On paper, it appeared logical. Pearlman's association with Blue Oyster Cult had proved him ideal in the hard rock arena, and his more recent work with The Dictators suggested that he understood punk.

Unfortunately, despite Pearlman's best intentions, the relationship never quite sparked. It didn't help that Pearlman's dislike of Strummer's trademark rasp caused him to bury the voice behind the solid beats of new drummer Topper Headon and his chrome-finish Pearl kit. More generally, the raw punk energy that had fueled The Clash was softened by the producer's sophisticated approach.

There's no denying that the band had progressed musically since the first album. The arrival of Headon and his metronomic jackhammer percussion, in particular, opened up several directions, freeing The Clash to explore a variety of styles. But among the 10 tracks, there was nothing with the impact of a "White Riot," "Janie Jones," or "Career Opportunities."

Nevertheless, CBS in America threw more weight behind it, and American critics were generous with their praise. CBS must have been delighted when Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone hailed it as "accessible hard rock," which was exactly what the company had been hoping for.

Cracking America must have seemed within their grasp, but months of turmoil erupted in the band in the wake of Give 'Em Enough Rope. They had split with their inspirational longtime mentor and manager Bernie Rhodes, and both Strummer and Jones had nosedived into creative doldrums that manifested as writer's block. "We were at our lowest ebb, really," Strummer revealed in the documentary The Last Testament, "and I think that's when we really showed our mettle."

Slowly, The Clash established a regime of disciplined rehearsals at Vanilla Studios in London and pulled themselves together during the summer of '79, creating songs that drew on rockabilly, reggae, rock 'n' roll, and rhythm and blues—without abandoning the punk ethic that first inspired them.

"All I can remember," Strummer explained, "is writing and rehearsing and then recording it. A real intensity of effort, and our only recreation was playing five-a-side football. We'd play football 'til we dropped, and then start playing music." As the summer turned to fall, they had enough material, potentially, for a double album. According to Jones, the whole album was recorded in demo form before they moved from Vanilla to Wessex Studios.

The Clash - "London Calling"

Despite these encouraging signs, hearts sank at CBS when the band announced that their choice of producer for the new album was the erratic Guy Stevens. He was much admired by Mick Jones, who had followed Stevens' career since the early '70s, when he'd worked with Mott The Hoople, Free, and others. But the producer was plagued by serious drink and drugs problems.

When word got out that Stevens had started throwing chairs around and poured a bottle of red wine across the keys of the studio's Bösendorfer piano while Strummer was trying to play it, CBS' fears escalated. Curiously, though, the chemistry worked. "Guy Stevens was great," Simonon remembers. "He made me feel really at ease. If I played wrong notes, he didn't care. Like, I made a mistake on 'Brand New Cadillac' and I came back and apologized, and he said, 'It doesn't matter. It's great.'"

Similarly, Headon said: "When Guy was there he just contributed a sort of madness; made us laugh; stopped us from getting too serious." Jones had come to the conclusion that punk was narrowing its focus, painting itself into a corner. "We wanted to do that thing where you can just, like, do anything," he declared. "Just do any kind of music." So that's what they did.

The album opens with the apocalyptic title track, rattling along atop a sonorously swooping bassline, with warnings of an impending ice age, crop failures, and oceans rising. It's powerful stuff, which hits a perfect climax with Strummer's demented bird shrieks at the end.

The Gear of London Calling

The gentle sway of "Lover's Rock," the cavernous, Phil Spector-ish resonance of "The Card Cheat," the subdued menace of "Lost In The Supermarket," the laconic drawl of "Jimmy Jazz," the jangly pop-rock of "Spanish Bombs"—these would all have been beyond the capabilities of any earlier incarnation of The Clash. Even Simonon, who had never before written a song, was encouraged to sing his own composition, "The Guns Of Brixton." And Jones' "Train In Vain" stood out as far superior to anything he had achieved before, not only for its construction but also his vocal delivery.

Released in the UK on December 14, 1979, the album quickly went Top 10, and the title track became a Top 20 single. What was perhaps more extraordinary was that by virtually ignoring almost all the marketing wisdom that CBS sought to impose on the band, London Calling almost immediately won over the American audience.

On January 4, 1980, John Rockwell of The New York Times declared: "Although it's only been available as an import for a couple of weeks and won't be released domestically for a couple of weeks more, The Clash's London Calling still counts symbolically as the first important rock album of the '80s. This is a two-disk set that justifies its length, and the first Clash album that fully explains the acclaim that the band's admirers have been heaping upon it all along."

The American public agreed, buying it in platinum quantities, and its status not only endured but grew over the years. By 1989, it topped the Rolling Stone critics' list of the Top 100 Albums of the '80s.

The Clash - "Train in Vain" (Live at the Lewisham Odeon)

Elated by the success of London Calling, the band devised their next release as an ambitiously sprawling triple LP and their most politically motivated set to date. Sandinista! was named for the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the revolutionary Nicaraguan socialist political party, and it widened the band's exploration of global musical styles. The 36 tracks ranged, with varying degrees of success, across funk, reggae, jazz, gospel, rockabilly, folk, dub, rhythm and blues, calypso, disco, and rap.

Although it attracted admiration for its boldness, and some critical acclaim, it could not match the success of London Calling. The Clash's intentions were evidently honorable and sincere, but Sandinista! came across as the work of a band so fired up by their leftist political sentiments that they were losing touch with their own fanbase. Strummer subsequently admitted that the decision to release a triple LP was, at least in part, motivated by a desire to mock CBS for resisting the issue of London Calling as a double album, only to release Bruce Springsteen's double set The River less than a year later.

Headon has pointed out that the structured method of working that produced London Calling never reappeared. After that record, he said, "We tended to go into the studios without an awful lot of material and jam. That's why, to me, London Calling was our best album."

By the time of their fifth album, Combat Rock, in 1982, The Clash were disintegrating. Jones became increasingly estranged from the band, and Headon descended into heroin addiction. Nevertheless, it was considerably more focussed than Sandinista! and contained two of their most popular songs, "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go." The former was constructed by Headon as a virtual solo effort in the studio, the latter composed by Jones as "our attempt at writing a classic." The album also boasted Strummer's powerful anti-Vietnam rant "Straight To Hell," set to an unlikely bossa nova rhythm.

Understandably, then, Combat Rock became their best-selling album in the US, achieving multi-platinum status in 1995, although it never displaced London Calling as the critics' favorite.

Headon's heroin problems resulted in his dismissal during May 1982, and Jones was fired in September 1983. Despite this, Strummer and Simonon soldiered on, delivering their last-gasp sixth studio album, Cut the Crap, in November 1985, with a trio of hired hands chosen by their former business guru Bernie Rhodes. "This Is England," a Strummer song lamenting the parlous state of his homeland at the time, is generally considered the album's one saving grace. The rest was ruined by Rhodes' decision to produce the album in a style he regarded as an entirely new genre—a chaotic mixture of electronic drums, hip-hop, and cut-up technique. Even Simonon's basslines were replaced by the work of Norman Watt-Roy, a former member of The Blockheads.

Commercially, the album stalled badly in both the UK and US, and just weeks after its release, Strummer dissolved the band. "When the Clash collapsed, we were tired," he stated later. "There had been a lot of intense activity in five years. Secondly, I felt we'd run out of idea gasoline. And thirdly, I wanted to shut up and let someone else have a go at it."

While this downbeat ending to their career certainly damaged The Clash's reputation, their first fistful of albums, and notably London Calling, remain untarnished examples of the work of a band that outgrew its honest punk roots to become one of the most influential rock bands of the era.

About the author: Johnny Black is a music journalist and author of over 40 years experience, having written for Q, Mojo, Smash Hits, and many others. He is a former head of press at Polydor Records and the keeper of the vast music dates archive He lives in Devizes, England.

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