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One of the most irritating questions that you can ask a musician is “What kind of music do you play?” It’s a pretty comical scene picturing a young Manu Chao or Les Claypool trying to answer this. After fifteen minutes of inarticulate gibberish, both the artist and the inquisitor tend to realize that there’s never a very easy answer.
While The Clash tend to get labeled as a Punk band it’s hard to imagine Joe Strummer answering a question like this so succinctly. Sure they slurred their vocals and used distorted guitars, but you can’t quite describe “Train In Vain” as a punk song. In fact, London Calling is the kind of album that doesn’t really fit into any of the shelves at the local record store.
Start with the title track. A mid-tempo march with a bouncy drum part, “London Calling” is nothing if not controlled. The guitars sound a lot more like Steve Cropper than Steve Jones, hitting tight staccato quarters notes to match the drums relentless pulse. Paul Simonon’s bass is the only melody instrument, playing an intricate set of riffs that sound like they were designed for horns. Only the vocals and the lyrics sound like a punk band, their message and their delivery are full of the kind of piss and vinegar you’d expect from late seventies England.
In fact, the lyrics are the only thing that stays semi-constant on this genre-bending record. Whether it’s a song about Montgomery Clift, or the description of an addict’s lifestyle, all of the lyrics have the same biting humor and aggressive politics that don’t quite cover up the honest human sentimentality underneath. Like “Lost in the Supermarket” where even as they make fun of suburban life, and the corporate system that controls it, they empathize with the loneliness of the people caught up in its cogs.
It’s a record about revolution, and not only the political goals or the social changes. It’s about the human side of an uprising and the people who are part of it, the cops in “Working for the Clampdown” or the cheap hoods in “Death or Glory”. London Calling isn’t afraid to tell their side of the story. Even with all of the strong radical messages, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones still manage to remember that it’s not only ideas that are fighting, it’s people.
Maybe this is why London Calling feels like such a big record. The subject matter covers as wide a range as the music, but the sentiment stays the same. London Calling is about change, it’s about revolution, but above all else it’s about the human spirit that makes all of these things possible.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org