Joey Ramone once said of punk, “The Sex Pistols were a cool band but The Clash were a great band.” Today, twenty-five years since the release of their greatest album London Calling, and two years after the death of their frontman Joe Strummer, time has proven this right. They helped pioneer the punk sound, broke down musical boundaries time and again, and delivered a wake up call to the sterile, corporate stadium rock of the mid-70’s. Now, on the 25th anniversary edition of London Calling (recently released by Columbia) the band sounds fresh as ever. And if there were ever a time we needed The Clash’s message, this is it.
Included in the anniversary edition is a stunning background; providing a look at what went into the album and what the band stood for. The late 1970’s were a time of crisis for working people in Britain. Waves of strikes were going down to defeat and the leadership of the Labour Party were sitting on their hands. It was “the winter of discontent,” with no turnaround in sight, especially after Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979. Internationally, Iran erupted in revolution, the left-wing Sandinista government came to power in Nicaragua, and the Three Mile Island radiation leak reminded the whole world how close it was to global meltdown.
All this affected the members of the band back home in London. For a group whose name was a reference to the imminent “clash” between oppressor and oppressed, these times begged that someone speak out. And they made it clear whose side they were on. Musically, London Calling is a brilliant piece of work. Not just limiting themselves to punk, the band branched out into ska, reggae, jazz and soul (most likely a sign of racial solidarity as well as musical prowess).
Lyrically, this is the band at their most poetic, righteous and politically outspoken. They skewered the privileged elite, spoke of alienation and rejection, and tapped into the widespread anger just below the surface of society. For huge numbers of poor and working class youth, The Clash were singing about them, and the system that sought to grind them into the dust.
Never stopping at simple observation, the band’s lyrics also tried to point a way forward. “We were always of the left,” Strummer said years later in an interview included in the new edition, “we were trying to grope in a socialist way toward some future where the world might be a less miserable place.” They held up the example of the Spanish revolution in “Spanish Bombs.” “Clampdown” urged young workers stay strong and not sell out. And “Guns of Brixton” is an uncanny prediction of the uprising against racism that town would experience two years later. The song is a brilliant reggae fuelled anthem whose lyrics sound like a call to arms: When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come / With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun / when the law break in how you gonna go / shot down on the pavement or waiting on death row.
The extra CD of unreleased material is well-worth hearing. Aside from giving a much more raw image of the band, it also hammers home their commitment to social justice. One never before heard track is called “Where You Gonna Go (Soweto),” a reference to the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. The DVD also provides some great insights into the band’s history, as well as some fun extras.
If there’s one thing that this new collection illustrates, it’s that the greatness of The Clash cannot be separated from their politics. For a whole generation of youth, the message this band carried was one of hope in a world spinning out of their control. Today, we find ourselves in a strikingly similar world. Likewise, rock has been fitted into a safe, unassuming mold that it is begging to be broken. That’s what makes this album so worthwhile. It reminds us that we can fight to win a better world, and that rock n’ roll isn’t just a marketing term. It’s the soundtrack of the alienated, the downtrodden, and their daily struggle. Quite simply, it’s ours.
ALEX BILLET is an American actor, writer, and socialist currently living in London. At home he is a member of the International Socialist Organization
He can be reached at email@example.com