Sunday, December 14, 2014

When phoney Beatlemania bit the dust: London Calling

Chelsea Football Club has, largely due to its apparently chichi location, long been a celeb magnet. When the Sixties were swinging, Stamford Bridge - the Kings Road’s premier (and, come to think of it, only) football stadium - was the place to be, even drawing, bizarrely, Hollywood stars like Sophia Loren.

In the club's current, Russian-monied era of global megastar players and arriviste prawn sandwich-munchers, it is more common to see the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Damon Albarn.

Chelsea is not alone, of course. The Gallaghers are life-long Manchester City fans, Robert Plant is a vice-president of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is positively awash with north London's luvvies. And while there is no doubt that some (including the Tarquins and their crustacean butties) who patronise the sport for its proletariat kudos, there are some whose mere appearance at a game can quite literally take the wind from one’s sails.

In my case, it was turning around from my East Stand Upper seat at the Bridge to see a balding man of late middle age, wearing a blue trenchcoat of non-descript origin and largely resembling an off-duty hotel doorman. Who turned out to be Mick Jones of The Clash. Gob well and truly smacked, a state it remained in for the duration of the game and the remainder of that week.

Right there was proper music royalty. All due respect to other musical giants who venture to the Bridge (yes, Bryan Adams, I mean you), but standing behind me was one of the godfathers of modern rock and pop, co-writer of one of the most fabulously misappropriated songs about a city ever recorded, and a member of the greatest and most enduring band of the entire flash in the pan that was punk.

The Clash's London Calling was released 35 years ago today, just a fortnight after punk's great targets, Pink Floyd, had released their opus to separation and abandonment, The Wall. The contrasts couldn't have been more profound, but there's no need to go down the punk-v-prog route here.

In December 1979 "punk rock", as the fuddy-duddy British media liked to call it, had largely left behind its noisy, granny-scaring minor revolt. In fact, it had already become nothing more than an awful postcard for American tourists in London to send home, a lazy media label used to describe anyone who made their music wearing drainpipes and DMs, rather than with centre-parted hair and silk shirts.

For all its supposed anti-establishment liberation, you can question punk's artistic merits. The Clash were more than that, and London Calling demonstrated how. Their previous album, Give 'Em Enough Rope had suggested a desire to get away from all that three-chord, fuzzboxed anger that much of the punk movement had harnessed. That said, the choice of London's Calling's cover art presented an ambiguity. Pennie Smith's simple, grainy black-and-white image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar into the stage of New York's The Palladium summed up both the movement The Clash had come from, but also what The Clash were doing to punk itself.

London Calling consummated their desire to get away from punk, presenting an engorged melting pot of reggae, soul, R&B and conventional pop-rock, with an added dose of wit and, well, fun. Some of this can be attributed to the controversial choice of Guy Stevens as producer. Against record company objections (Stevens was known to have drink and drug dependencies), Mick Jones was instrumental in bringing in the former Procul Harum and Mott The Hoople producer purely because of the breadth of his chops, an ability to nurture a more soulful Clash sound, but also bring out the band's underlying spirit by nailing a track in only two or three takes, rather than endless, ground-out perfectionism.

The result is an album that sounds spontaneous, bright and thoroughly engaging, 35 years on. That said, the album commences with a punk anthem - the title track London Calling and its dystopian vision. Still favoured - erroneously - by football stadium DJs in the British capital as an unofficial city anthem, London Calling, the song, takes inspiration from the 3-Mile Island "nuclear error" in the March of 1979.

It remains one of the strongest songs of the entire era, marking the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s in the year in which Margaret Thatcher became the most divisive prime minister in British history and the nation's inner cities descended into social dysfunction. Rarely has a title track opened an album so distinctly, either, Jones' guitar chopping away as Joe Strummer rasps "London calling to the faraway towns, now war is declared, and battle come down" (I'm annoyed still as to why that line isn't "battle comes down"...).

One of the most surprising aspects of London Calling is that it's a double-album. Double albums - such as The Wall, released a fortnight previously - were still associated with the excesses of 70s rock. Gargantuan, self-indulgent and bloated. And, yet, The Clash got away with a four-sided, 19-track hour of rare eclecticism for the period.

It's a breezy exercise of a band at play - the cover of Vince Taylor's Brand New Cadillac; Strummer giving vent to his colourful cartoonist side with Jimmy Jazz; Jones bouncing around with the ska-infused Rudie Can't Fail; and even bassist Paul Simonon making his songwriting debut with The Guns Of Brixton.

There is plenty of the insolence that made punk such a source of ruffled conservative feathers three years before - Death Or Glory being the best example - but there is a greater lyrical depth, be it the pop of Train In Vain or the shark contrast of styles of Spanish Bombs, and its allegorical take on the Spanish Civil War and what was going on in Ireland in 1979. And then, with Lost In The Supermarket, Jones and Strummer conspire to produce a masterpiece of downbeat introspection, symbolic of the album's overall maturity.

1979 was the year I started secondary school. It was a year of profound political and social change in Britain, a year that was supposed to herald the end of the 1970s' near-permanently grey-skied gloom. 1980 hardly brought any noticeable improvement, but London Calling stood out in a list of landmark albums - Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, The Specials's self-titled debut, XTC's Drums & Wires, Bowie's Lodger and even Regatta de Blanc by The Police that suggested that the New Wave was to be as vibrant as the punk movement that preceded it had well and truly shaken the tree.

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