In a vital and captivating free new exhibition, the Museum of London is celebrating forty-years since the release of London Calling by The Clash. It’s an album that is both precisely of its time and yet timeless, a spirit that the curators, working with the surviving members of the band, have managed to capture perfectly. Markontour has visited twice already in its first week and I’m sure I will be back a few more times before it closes in April.
London Calling was released on 14 December 1979 in the UK and January 1980 in the USA, an accident of history that has enabled it to be regularly voted Album of the Decade for both the 1970s and 1980s. It deservedly makes the top ten of many polls of the best album of all time.
Rehearsals for the album started shortly after the death of the band’s Sex Pistol friend, Sid Vicious, in January 1979, as the short punk era fizzled out. By the summer, when The Clash started recording London Calling at the Wessex Sound Studio in Islington, an even more momentous shift was occurring – Margaret Thatcher had become Britain’s Prime Minister, heralding the start of a four decades-long neo-liberal onslaught against the post-war welfare consensus and pretty much everything the The Clash stood for. After finishing in the studio the band left for a gruelling six week tour of the USA, playing almost every night and returning home just before Ronald Reagan was elected President of the USA in November, marking the moment when neo-liberalism went global.
London Calling was thus the product not only of a band at what turned out to be the height of their powers, but a group of artists hitting their collective creative peak while the world around them was undergoing seismic shifts.
The exhibition paints a picture of a tight-knit band in 1979, so confident of their own following that they gloried in eschewing mainstream TV and radio appearances, while simultaneously breaking with punk orthodoxy to infuse reggae, roots rock’n’roll and a host of other influences into their own unique style. The Clash at this point were insular enough to cast off a growing entourage for the making of their third album, and yet increasingly open to influences well beyond the city that bears the record’s title. There’s a particularly lovely clip of lead singer, Joe Strummer, leaving a hotel mid-tour with stage clothes slung over one shoulder and Martin Luther-King’s towering rhetoric booming out of a ghetto-blaster in his other hand.
Having established a hermetic seal around the recording studio, the band established a solid working routine in a punk sort of way: rehearsals in the afternoon, breaking for a vigorously contested game of football (there’s a lovely scribbled note on display reminding everyone “Sunday 5th August – Football Training – Meet Great Portland Street, 3 O’Clock”), followed by egg and chips in the caff; more rehearsing; a trip to the White Swan, and then back to the studio. I recall that Bob Marley and the Wailers kept up a similar routine when they were in London a year or so earlier and wonder if their reggae contemporaries were the inspiration for this sporting habit?
There’s some great footage of The Clash in the studio, but even more alluring is the chance to listen to out-takes of the London Calling sessions through a mixing-deck. If it hadn’t been for the growing queue gathering behind me I would happily have spent all morning systematically isolating Joe’s vocals, Paul’s driving bass, Mick’s jagged guitar and Topper’s versatile drumming. Actually, that’s exactly what I did on returning for a second visit, managing an uninterrupted half hour courtesy of being first through the doors – something I would recommend as on both occasions the small display space has been packed to bursting by 11am.
Moving on through the exhibition we are treated to handwritten notes that provide glimpses into the genesis of London Calling’s nineteen songs. Joe Strummer’s scrawl for ‘Ice Age eventually became the title track, a reference to a popularised scientific theory of the time that the Earth was entering a new freeze, as well as perhaps reference the singer’s reflection on the meltdown at Three Mile Island and the threat of a nuclear winter. The lines “There has been a nuclear error / But I have not fear / ‘Cos London is drowning and / I live by the river” made it to the final version, but a closing stanza of “Pop is fucked” was cut.
London Calling is an intensely political album, taking in police violence against black Londoners (“You can crush us / You can bruise us / Yes, even shoot us / But oh – the guns of Brixton”), the Spanish civil war, and a general antipathy towards the establishment (“No man born with a living soul / Can we be working for the clampdown”). But there are also one or two nods to love and personal insecurity, of which my favourite is Lost in the Supermarket, detailing Joe Strummer’s materially comfortable, but loveless childhood (“I wasn’t born so much as I fell out / Nobody seemed to notice me / We had a hedge back home in the suburbs / Over which I never could see”). In the exhibition scrapbook we gain a sense of the song’s genesis, seeing the chorus scrawled on the back of a packet of Ernie Ball custom gauge guitar strings.
Towards the end of the exhibition we are reminded that The Clash were not only laser-focused on what they stood for and their extraordinary bond with their fans (London Calling famously lost money, despite selling 2 million copies on its first issue, because of the band’s insistence that this double album be sold for “no more than £5” with a free cassette thrown in!), but also highly conscious about their image. A display cabinet of tour clothing demonstrates bassist Paul Simonon’s talent for design and pivotal role in creating a look for each member of the band.
This attention to detail also applied to album and single cover-art. But while lyrically London Calling is strikingly contemporary, visually the album drew heavily on Mick Jones’ childhood obsession with his father’s record collection. The striking pink and green lettering on the album cover, framing an even more arresting image of Paul Simonon on stage, is shown side-by-side with its inspiration – Elvis Presley’s eponymous first UK release. Whereas The King is perfectly in focus, posing with a guitar ready to play, in the Clash’s homage a blurry Simonon wields his bass in the air, full of urgent energy and about to smash it into the stage. The shattered remnants of the guitar are on display as you enter the exhibition.
All in all, I just can’t praise this exhibition enough. It is a tough thing to do, but the Museum of London has done an incredible job in recreating the incendiary atmosphere that brought London Calling into being and will forever pervade the album each time the needle hits the groove. The only thing it can’t do is provide an opportunity for those of us not lucky enough to have ever seen The Clash live to travel back in time, although there is ample footage of the band rockily launching the album on a rising Thames to keep the visitor enthralled. Take markontour’s advice, however, and get there early if you want to muse in relative peace.