London Calling, by The Clash
Suggested by Neil Hodgkinson
Reviewed by Sara-Jane Davies
Before I begin, may I first doff my cap, not once, not twice, but a thousand times, to our very own Craig. Back in September, when this project came into being, we were all excited, enthralled, expectant and, as the reviews came pouring in, not just a little impressed by Craig’s apparent mastery of all things review-like. As time has gone by, his staying power has proved to be nothing short of remarkable.
Almost five months in, I’ve been given the honour of providing a guest review; my second review to date. And it’s a day late. I did the listening bit yesterday, within an hour of being nominated. I made notes, I pondered on what slant I’d take, and then (my very mundane) existence took over and … that was that. The point of all this is to say that I’ve now gone far beyond being impressed by Craig’s commitment. Put quite simply, I-genuinely-do-not-know-how-he-does-it. Kudos to you, Mr Stevenson.
So. The Clash. I suspect I should feel some shame in admitting that, until yesterday, I was familiar with only four songs by this band; The ubiquitous Should I Stay or Should I Go, Rock the Casbah, London Calling and Train in Vain. The latter two are the only ones of these on the London Calling album; they are the two slices of bread between which lay seventeen other tracks. Yep – a nineteen track double album. Was this payback for the triple album I treated you to last week?
We all have preconceptions about things, it’s human nature. And my preconception of The Clash – maybe it’s down to their name – led me to expect more ear-jangling “noise” than I got as I listened to my first unknown track, Brand New Cadillac. At only just over two minutes long, this is an upbeat, rock and roll wonder, with great guitar and drums. Straightforward, formulaic, but such a tight sound. This bodes well, thought I.
The next track, Lost in the Supermarket, didn’t disappoint either; bouncy tempo and great musical accompaniment again. Rudie Can’t Fail, the third track, fell a little too heavily into the ska camp for me. It’s not that I hate ska, but its jarring off-beat rhythm grates on me. Unsurprisingly, it is for this same reason that I can’t listen to reggae for longer than two minutes at a time.
To begin with, some of Joe Strummer’s vocals were a difficult listen – Jimmy Jazz being a good example of this. But I soon conceded that, in fact, Strummer’s vocal style is all part of the formula, the package, and it fits the songs perfectly. These are not songs for polished, note-perfect vocals, and they wouldn’t sound right with anyone else’s voice running through them (with the exception of Mick Jones, of course).
Notable points for me: the chord progression in the opening to Spanish Bombs (a solar plexus moment – rare for me these days), the drum fills in Brand New Cadillac, the bass lines throughout the album in general. I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the sound. I simply didn’t expect such musicality, and I’m only sorry it has taken me 46 years and 362 days to hear it. I expected my standout track (again, preconceptions!) to be Train in Vain but instead I’m opting for Death or Glory, although Lost in the Supermarket comes a very close second.
The downside? 19 songs is a little excessive. OK, it was released as a double album, but was the band unable to decide which tracks to exclude, in order to release a single album? Should they have considered releasing London Calling Vol. I and Vol. II? I must admit that by the time I reached track 13 (Koka Kola) I began calling on Alexa to skip, and this continued right through to the final (familiar) Train in Vain. That said, I will absolutely be adding The Clash to my online library, and will be listening to their other stuff – the stuff they did before this exploration of so many other styles of music.
I completely get why this album was listed at number eight in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (2012). Musically it is a triumph; a smorgasbord of styles; rockabilly, ska, reggae, New Orleans R&B, pop, lounge jazz, hard rock, brought together in a masterful way. It’s shown me that I shouldn’t see punk bands like The Clash as being ‘inaccessible’ or ‘not my thing’ without giving them a listen first. I’ve missed out on years of being able to enjoy a lot of these tracks, but I’ll make up for lost time, and stick it on again today. I might even listen to the tracks between Koka Kola and Train in Vain.
Anyway … it’s a very solid 7/10 from me.
[Craig’s Review –Like Sara-Jane, I am embarrassed to admit I’d heard the standout singles and little else by these legends. Hell, I didn’t know this was a double album until I Googled. And it started great: London Calling is a monstrous track, showcasing Strummer’s characteristic vocal to perfection, second only to Should I Stay or Should I Go in that regard. However, while Sara-Jane embraced the merry skipping between genres, the hopping and bopping from punk to reggae to ska to rock and back like a coke-addled frog at an aquatic rave, I just wanted to flatten the bugger with a frying pan. SJ is right, this could and should have been a pair of more focussed and thematic albums. While the songs were decent, I expected something more, somehow, something befitting true Hall of Famers. My fault, I guess. I went in believing the hype. It’s a 5/10 from me.]