I really love the Clash. This is not to say that I love everything they’ve done (and I’ve heard the vast majority of it), though I like lots of it. But if I had never heard anything of theirs save for London Calling, they’d be one of my (two) musical heroes all the same. I listened to this double-album (double in the days of vinyl, that is) early on in my popular music phase – which began about 7 months ago – and almost nothing else has come close to matching it. (A couple of Neil Young albums do, and that’s why he’s my other musical hero.)

London Calling is simply bursting with… exuberance. I think that’s the most apt description of the energy and fun on this record. Well, gosh, just look at the cover. That’s Paul Simonon smashing his bass – in sheer frustration at a show that was going badly, actually – but this image completely evokes, for me, the power, spirit and audacity of London Calling and the Clash in general.

The 19 songs draw, musically, on a whole bunch of genres. There is punk rock (naturally) as on the ominous title track; ‘50s rock-and-roll like the gleeful cover of ‘Brand New Cadillac’; reggae, including the joyful ‘Revolution Rock’ and the clear-eyed depiction of inner-city violence that is ‘The Guns of Brixton’; ska, e.g. ‘Wrong ‘em Boyo’ which actually starts off as a dramatic Broadway-style number , then breaks off abruptly so that they can ‘start all over again’, this time in frenetic ska mode… Quite a progression from the very straightforward three-chord punk of their eponymous debut, and quite a musical feat for a band classified as ‘punk’ (or any band for that matter).

But London Calling isn’t great simply by virtue of being a musical experiment that worked. Well, yes, the music is pretty fantastic – all credit to Mick Jones, who wrote some incredible melodies and arrangements here (to which the rest of the band no doubt contributed). But it’s really Joe Strummer’s lyrics that make the whole thing, and make the whole thing cohere: the varied arrangements may not be punk, but the lyrics are pure punk (in terms of thematic preoccupation and attitude, that is). It’s shocking how often Strummer manages to Say Something of lasting meaning. And what’s more, he’s witty, funny, sophisticated, literate, and most importantly (from my perspective) really humanistic about it. London Calling could almost serve as a handbook on how to grow up, become and remain somebody you’re proud to be – for both men and women – and to have fun while you’re at it.

Consider ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, in which a bunch of rude boys (in the ska culture sense, not the literal sense) conduct a good-natured verbal sparring match with people who consider themselves respectable pillars of society:

Well they’re saying:

‘How you get a-rude and a-reckless?

Don’t you be so crude and a-feckless

You’ve been drinking brew for breakfast’

Rudie can’t fail.

We reply:

‘I know that my life makes you nervous

But I tell you I can’t live in service

Like the doctor born for a purpose’

Rudie can’t fail.

This is an argument that has been played out in many a time and place between two different generations, only set down here with more poetry. Furthermore, the lyrics – partly written (and sung) in Jamaican patois – are perfectly set to ska-inflected rock (audible in the bouncy guitars, joyous horns, and Topper Headon’s astounding drumming). These people really know what they’re doing. And the result is spectacular songs.

Another of my (many) favourites, ‘Hateful’, is an empathetic, understanding account of addict and his dialectical relationship with the drug/s, featuring outstanding rhythm-section work. Strummer really outdoes himself here, especially with the call-and-response structure of the verses:

Well, I got a friend who’s a man

Who’s a man

What man? The man who keeps me from the lonely, the only

He gives me what I need

What you need?

What you got? I need it oh-so-badly

Oh, anything I want he gives it to me

Anything I want he gives it, but not for free

Hateful

And it’s paid for

And I’m so grateful

To be nowhere.

The other myriad subjects in London Calling – including the Spanish civil war (‘Spanish Bombs’), the futility of war in general (‘Death or Glory’, ‘The Card Cheat’), Montgomery Clift (‘The Right Profile’), suburban alienation (‘Lost in the Supermarket’), the loss of youthful individualism (‘Clampdown’), commercialism and capitalism (‘Koka Kola’), the sexual politics of contraception (‘Lover’s Rock’), and even a(n anti-) love song that became a hit single (‘Train in Vain’) – all receive thoughtful and earnest treatment.

Almost every song on London Calling has something to recommend it as special. It might not be apparent on first listen, but that’s often the case with the Clash because the words are sometimes hard to pick out; put it down to Strummer’s Cockney accent and muffled enunciation. (Thank goodness the lyrics are provided in the insert!) A great Clash song generally grows on you. The music hits you first and then over repeated listens the lyrics creep up on you and before you know it you are marvelling open-mouthed at the craft and collaborative sympathy of the two principal song-writers. (Simonon contributes ‘The Guns of Brixton’, and there are a few covers on this album.) Indeed every time I think I’ve gleaned everything that London Calling has to offer me, I pick up on yet another delightful detail. I don’t think London Calling has finished growing on me yet.

Excepting Headon, perhaps, none of the Clash has exceptional musical chops in the conventional sense. Simonon especially seemed to be the archetype of good-looking non-musicians, although he grew to become a decent bass player: Jones approached him to be in the band purely because of his marketable looks. Jones himself is quite a good lead guitarist though not amazing; Strummer plays ferocious rhythm guitar and sings in a distinctly unmusical manner. But they function superbly as a collective, trading lead vocals or chiming in on the chorus, meshing their instruments, synchronising their tone and energy levels. The outstanding rhythmic slashes in the opening bars of ‘Death or Glory’ – by guitar, bass and drums – come to mind: you can’t help but nod/bounce in time. No wonder the audiences used to pogo furiously at Clash gigs.

And you can’t get much better vocalists in popular music than Strummer. Yes, he doesn’t quite hit the notes dead-centre, and he gargles on the words occasionally. But the emotional range of his delivery is unmatched. In the course of the album he snarls with menace, spits with contempt, yelps with glee, howls (literally, wolf-like) in fear, drawls in a voice that is dripping with sloth, stutters uncertainly, ingratiates himself, squawks in mock-anxiety, and even manages to wink-and-nudge audibly… Strummer is plainly enjoying himself to the hilt on London Calling, and that translates into pure fun for the listener. This listener, anyway.

Sure, London Calling is political and aggressive and scary. It’s thoughtful and socially-aware and occasionally sad. But it is also fun and completely joyous a lot of the time. And that’s why London Calling is not just, objectively-speaking, one of the best albums ever recorded (insofar as it is possible to judge music objectively, but that’s another issue for another day). It’s also one of the most enjoyable albums to listen to. That makes it doubly rare, I think.

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