In honor of today’s opening of the XXX Olympic Games in London, it seems like a good time to roll the clock back a bit in service once more of our latest obsession, the Gates of Edam. Yes, we will now take a bit of a stroll back to the late 1970′s when the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the Soviet Union was a distinct possibility at any given time as well as enjoying some inspiration from today’s far less lethal event at one of the Olympic Games television events.
That’s the British Government’s Culture Secretary and the official Opening Bell of the Olympic Games that goes happily flying off into the crowd, fortunately without causing injury.
In 1979, being bonged by a bell would have seemed little more than a small bother when compared to what was then thought to be an event that could happen any day, at any time.
By 1979 and The Clash’s classic double album London Calling, punk music was all but over and done with. The Clash were the one true holdout but even they were rapidly evolving. They did have one advantage of course in that they were probably the only true punk band that were also seriously good musicians. So, when they were found themselves on the crest of a musical wave heading for the rocks, they had the skills and talent to incorporate a wide variety of musical styles into their huge project while moving punk in a newer and more accessible arena, as in, the radio.
“London Calling” is one of those songs that defies any complete description. It’s punk, new wave, reggae, rock, ska with a bit of jazz thrown in just for fun. More than anything else what “London Calling” is, is attitude.
Lead guitarist Mick Jones opens up “London Calling” with chords that sound like he’s busily stabbing someone with his Gibson Les Paul and then along comes Paul Simonon and his bass. Simonon wrings his Fender Precision Bass’s neck with a huge sounding slide and hammer-on part that actually is the lead for the intro of the song until Jones slowly, strum by strum, narrows his chords into a single lead note. Behind all this is drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon who has sense enough to keep things tightly wrapped up for at least the intro and first verse. (Yes, I know those are not the instruments they are playing in the video. The video director wanted a different look.)
When lead singer Joe Strummer makes his entrance, it’s appropriately big. And mean and nasty and overblown. Strummer was a guy that didn’t seem to be able to do anything musically without it being all of those things and more.
“London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls.”
Without much of a voice really, one thing that Strummer had in spades was passion. He’s breathy and not really all that tight on pitch but there’s a tone of desperation in his voice that makes it work. Really work.
With his bandmates Simonon and Jones handling the backing vocals with their oft repeated “London Calling” at the breaks in the lead lines, it just keeps getting more and more disturbing.
One of the more famous lines in “London Calling” is “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” As a young punk rocker, they could only see the musical theatre show “Beatlemania” as a sell out to commercialism. The funny part about that was The Beatles themselves thought the same thing and famously reunited one afternoon to try and put a stop to it.
Strummer sings that line with a measure of disgust that’s hard to beat.
If ever there was a guy who sang with conviction, it was Joe Strummer.
“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning and I live by the river.”
When the chorus comes around Strummer takes it mostly alone with his increasingly tortured vocal. A quick jump right into the second verse and they’re off again, this time with Jones adding a few chiming notes before starting a slow feedback wail that sings all the way through the next two lines before dropping out with a quick chord slash leaving Strummer all along with…
“London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out and draw another breath.”
Then Strummer starts talking to his fellow – no doubt – terrified survivor. The change to a loose conversational style while singing…
“London calling and I don’t wanna shout
But while we were talking I saw you nodding out
London calling, see we ain’t got no high
Except for that one with the yellowy eyes.”
…leaves you somewhat breathless as you now start to realize the end may very well be near; or already happened and it just hasn’t gotten around to you yet.
All the while Strummer’s vocals are getting more and more intense as disaster slowly creeps up and pushes you over the bridge…
Jones’ guitar is screeching with another controlled feedback wail as Strummer himself starts to wail and shriek before Simonon’s bass pulls you out of the maelstrom. For the next 30 seconds Headon rolls his drums down the stairs while Jones plays what seems like any loud noise that can be made by a loudly amplified guitar in perfect agony over what has befallen London. All the while Simonon is methodically plugging along as the only last and failing connection to reality.
“Now get this, London calling, yes, I was there, too
And you know what they said? Well, some of it was true
London calling at the top of the dial
And after all this, won’t you give me a smile?”
After surviving Armageddon, at least for a while, there’s small solace in the fact that “London Calling” is still heard on the radio. “London Calling” was the BBC World Service’s radio introduction to all their broadcasts during World War II. So, in The Clash’s post nuclear world, there’s that one last, small hope. The BBC is still – somehow – on the air.