London Calling (1979)

The Clash

Written by Mick Jones and Joe Strummer
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London calling broadcaster“London Calling” is a masterly song that deftly thrusts the personal travails of a struggling band into a broader political, historical context all the while pounding out a powerful Punk beat and guitar-riff pattern. If The Clash don’t quite make music to bang heads to, they surely are ideal for warm-up calisthenics to addle and rattle your brain in preparation for something more extreme.

The song projects a serpentine, if slightly overly histrionic, apocalypse-now-and-forever mood, that is so out there that it invites the listener to wonder if there is not a subtle pulse of satire running throughout. The ominous, reggae-flavored bass line (reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”) fits well with the verses dealing with WWII; the plague of drugs of the 1970s; global climate disruption and nuclear pollution. (A near meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was still fresh news in 1979.)

Bang the head slowly

A BBC ad promoting "The Voice Of Freedom"

A BBC ad promoting
“The Voice Of Freedom”

The phrase “London Calling,” of course, references the stiff-upper-lip opening of wartime broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe. There are plenty of images that remind you of what must have been grim years in London before the American cavalry rode to the rescue: bomb shelters; frightened children; the faraway towns across Europe and North America waiting and hoping.

These lines have generated much discussion:

London calling, now don’t look to us
Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain’t got no swing
‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

These lyrics seem to be a vector for Beatles-haters when indeed the Clash felt as if they were being pumped up with the same sort of over-commercializing steroids that inflated The Beatles – a status Strummer and Company did not covet. At the same time, the band was in financial disarray.

Related: Elvis Costello’s “Red Shoes”

However, they were signaling that their home base had fundamentally changed from the days when it was known as “Swinging London.” Now the only things “swinging” were nightsticks.

The “truncheon thing” could very well be a reference to the death of New Zealand anti-racist demonstrator Clement Blair Peach, who was reportedly beaten to death by police with a rubberized radio – “death by misadventure,” as the official British term drily put it.

The song becomes more fragmented and bitter as it progresses. A new Ice Age is heralded, but so are rising floodwaters in the Thames River. A nuclear power plant is threatened. All of London will be burning or drowned. The scratching, scowling rhythm guitar grows nastier, grabbing the listener’s lapel more roughly. Strummer’s guitar becomes distorted, flashing like a sword slashing at a phantasmagoric chaos that can’t quite be defined.

TheClashLondonCallingalbumcoverIt is in the middle of “London Calling” that the song rises high in the ranks of the top-100 Rock songs of all time, a classic if ever there was one. Strummer’s vocals become more desperate, pleading, dragging us into his nightmarish vision of a future that has arrived all too soon. The clash (no pun intended) of instruments is more strident, nagging, reminding you that there is something happening, and sadly you do know what it is.

The closing lyrics are fragmentary, yet intelligible. Strummer calls upon us to bear witness to the apocalypse.

London calling, yes, I was there, too
An’ 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? 

The flourish at the end – the smile line – brings us back to the struggles of any popular band swamped by the music industry’s shenanigans. Sit up, smile pretty. Play it right and maybe you’ll be the next Beatles.

We’re struck how songs like “London Calling” start as avant-garde works then increasingly invade the mainstream. We expect to hear the Musak version on an elevator some day.

Seventh floor, cosmetics, ladies undergarments and Armageddon.

  • For entirely mad reasons, organizers of the 2012 London Olympics saw fit to use a version of “London Calling” as a promo for their mega-event.
  • Bob Dylan has given the song his imprimatur, singing it in concert a number of times, especially when in Great Britain. 

Also by The Clash on

  • Clampdown“Clampdown” is a spitting, bare-knuckled condemnation of a morally bankrupt capitalist system, the ultimate “us against them” anthem.