December 14 – People Wanted To Take This Call

The Seventies ended with the release of the best album of the Eighties,  at least according to Rolling Stone. The Clash release their Epic Records epic, London Calling on this day in 1979. It was their third album and while the predecessor , Give ‘Em enough Rope did well in their Britain (reaching #2 on the charts), London Calling not only opened up a new continent , North America, to them but also was a major leap forward musically.

They put it together quickly, as Mick Jones noted later, “Joe, once he learned to type, would bang out lyrics at a high rate of good stuff, then I’d be able to bang out some music while he typed.” The double-album spans over its 19 songs and hour-plus running time , as allmusic puts it a “dizzying array” of sounds, from the hard rock of the title track to reggae inspired songs like “Jimmy Jazz” and “Guns of Brixton” to jazz-influences to the straight ahead perky-sounding pop of “Lost in a Supermarket.” and the upbeat dance-ready “Train In Vain” (their first top 30 hit in the U.S.) Even the imagery was varied – while the iconic photo of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his guitar reeks of the anger they felt (says Simonon: “by London Calling, we’d become grown men and having traveled had become more worldly,”) the lettering in cheery, bold pink and green capitals was a deliberate homage to Elvis Presley’s happy-go-lucky debut.

The lyrics however, were rather dark throughout, touching on a myriad of social problems of the beginning of the Reagan/Thatcher era – the urban violence, the indifference of youth, the over-the-top consumerism of the wealthy…”Spanish Bombs” was inspired by a real-life Basque separatist terror attack. If the tunes hadn’t been perky at times and varied, the album could have been a bleak tome consigned to the dustbins of bad history. But that is obviously not the case. The album went on to sell about 5 million copies worldwide and be their first chart success in Canada and Australia but the impact was far beyond the numbers. By expanding their sound successfully in so many directions while remaining cohesive, The Clash created a lasting masterpiece.

At the time – well, four months after release – Rolling Stone called them “the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” although noting “the band resists such labels.” It praised their “rock and roll rebellion in grand, epic terms” and gave it a perfect 5-star rating and then years later called it the greatest album of the 1980s. Three decades after its release, the magazine put it at #8 on their list of all-time great albums, noting that the “19 songs of apocalypse (were) fueled by the unbending faith in rock and roll to beat back the darkness.” They added it was like a “free form radio broadcast from the end of the world.” It was, it is worth noting, the newest of the eight best on their list. The Village Voice liked its “urgency and vitality, ambition which overwhelmed the pessimism of its leftist world view” and called it the best album of the year. At the turn of the century, Q put it as the ninth best British album of all-time. Surprisingly, only alternative rock specialty mag Spin was indifferent to it, retroactively giving it a 7 out of 10 rating. Oh, and that radio hit “Train In Vain”… it was originally recorded as a song to be given away with NME magazine. When that fell through, the band rushed it onto the LP, but the cover was printed…thus no listing on the song list! The NME perhaps would rue that decision – they’d later go on to call it the best album of the ’80s

March 18 – That New Band Was A Riot

They were a riot! On this day in 1977, over 40 years before a certain uprising at the U.S. Capitol, The Clash put out their debut single, “White Riot”. The fast and furious single was the forerunner of their debut, eponymously-titled album which did fine for them in their UK but which would grow in reputation and stature.

Years later the NME would call it #3 of the Greatest Albums of the ’70s, calling it “speed-freaked brain of punk set to tinniest and most frantic guitars ever trapped on vinyl.” Likewise Rolling Stone would in time list it among the 100 greatest albums of all-time. The single itself hit #38 at home despite (or perhaps because of ) controversy with many thinking Joe Strummer was advocating a race war or supporting White Supremacy. Easy to see how that could be misconstrued, but The Clash were in fact quite loathing of that segment of society.

It was in fact inspired by a violent riot at the Notting Hill Carnival in London the year before. That was a Caribbean-inspired festival attended by upto 150 000 people and (mainly Black) youth rioted and fought with police. As Strummer put it afterwards, the song was a call for young Whites to find a cause, as Blacks already had. “I haven’t got any illusions about anything,” he told Rolling Stone. “That said, I still want to try to change things.”

He also lamented “the only person who played ‘White Riot’ on radio was John Peel…you play our record against any of the other stuff and it just knocks the spots off them.” Soon, John Peel wouldn’t be the only person spinning The Clash! And while few would dispute that they went on to do better things in their next three or four records, if you like your punk raw and angry, this was The Clash for you.

January 25 – Columbia Guessed Clash Meant Money In The Bank

The punk movement was in overdrive in Britain on this day in 1977, which was when there was a bit of a sea change in it – it was according to critic Mark Perry, “the day punk died.” Most would disagree with Perry and point to it as the day it broadened its appeal with the Clash signing a large – 100 000 pound (about $600 000 in today’s values) contract with CBS Records.

It was remarkable for an underground band that had only played a couple dozen gigs (none as headliners), but it paid off handsomely for all involved. And though it was a big amount of cash, it hardly put the band in the lap of luxury as it specified they had to pay all expenses for their album and tour. Frugal Joe Strummer kept the band living in an old warehouse and drew just a 25 pound-a-week salary while putting together their self-titled debut

The debut was put together hastily, arriving on the shelves in their homeland in less than three months after being recorded in slightly less than one. Americans would have to wait a couple of years though, until after their second album, Give Em Enough Rope, was out. That was because CBS and their Epic branch didn’t see them selling well here. One of their execs actually wrote to a complaining American fan at the time that “I personally am an avid Clash fan” but “A&R decisions are not based entirely on taste and musical preference.” He told the punker his “presumption that releasing a Clash record would change the complexion of the American music marketplace…is a false one.”

He was perhaps right. It took three albums and as many years for the band to make any sort of impression on the U.S. market, and just as they were getting hot, they essentially broke up. Strummer later explained that. In 1982 they opened for The Who on an American tour, and “I remember looking at them and thinking ‘God, any day now this is going to be us’…no matter how hard I tried not to be, I was going to become a phony.” He said they broke up after the big-selling Combat Rock (well technically the name was used on one more album, but Strummer had fired his bandmates and seemed disinterested in it by that point) because “we could’ve been huge (but) on the one hand, there was our dignity, on the other hand, Aerosmith.” CBS might have preferred the latter, but I believe most fans think he picked the right hand!

December 12 – Strummer Kept Vinyl Makers Busy 40 Years Back

If you’re being compared to The Beatles, you’re probably doing something right. If you’re being compared to The Beatles “White Album”, you’re probably doing something right to about half your fans and annoying the other half. Such was the case for The Clash 40 years ago. On this day in 1980, they put out their fourth full album (and boy was it full!), Sandanista. In case you were wondering, ever the rebels, the name “Sandanista” was from a socialist party/militia in Nicaragua which was engaged in a virtual civil war at the time.

It came just a few days under a year after their landmark London Calling album, and Joe Strummer and Co. did their best to top that record in every way. More variety, more socially-conscious lyrics, more songs changed up with Mick Jones singing, more… well, everything. In the end, Sandanista ended up as a triple-album, with 36 songs. Later CD releases saw it take up two discs. In those nearly two hours of music, there was a little something for everyone. Except perhaps cohesiveness. As allmusic would later comment, The Clash “tried to do everything! Instead of presenting a band with far-reaching vision, like London Calling did, Sandanista plays as a messy, confused jumble.” There was conventional punk the band had made its name with, there were forays into reggae, dub, Calypso, dance pop… the comparisons to the “White Album” are easy to see, given that album’s polarizing effect on fans and wide variety.

No one could accuse Joe Strummer, or the rest of the band, of resting on their laurels. Given that this was three LPs in one, and London Calling before it a double, in effect they’d delivered seven albums worth of material in just three years. “It was doubly outrageous,” the singer noted, “actually it was triply outrageous!” Columbia Records weren’t anxious to release such a behemoth, but the band got its way… by putting their money where their mouths were. To allow it to go out as The Clash wanted, and at a lower than expected price for a triple-album, the band agreed to give up all royalties on the first 200 000 copies sold then take a reduced rate on subsequent sales.It’s unclear as to whether either party really made any money on the venture, but ultimately the fans won.

While not all felt the album was great and most believed at least a few of the three dozen tunes were forgettable, almost all agree there was some fine work spread out over the album. Allmusic for instance, again comparing to the Beatles self-titled double album suggest it was enough for a “single great record” and did contain a few tracks – “Police on my Back,” “Charlie Don’t Surf” and “Hitsville UK” primarily – that “rank among the band’s best.” Some would add “Somebody Got Murdered,” the opener, “The Magnificent Seven” and “Career Opportunities” to the list.

Rolling Stone were among the most enthusiastic devotees of the record, rating it a perfect 5-stars and later including it among their 500 greatest albums of all-time. In the original review, the columnist wrote “nothing could have helped me get through the unreal mass depression…over John Lennon’s murder (better) than the release of The Clash’s Sandanista a few days later.” They felt “The Clash by insisting on their own heroism, continue the willingness to gamble it all away and still keep winning.”

Whether or not the fans felt that is a bit of a debate. The album did OK, but wasn’t exactly a smash. It reached #3 in both New Zealand and Canada (where that was their best showing ever), and #24 in the U.S. where down the road it was certified gold. In their own UK, it got to #19, which was lower than their previous trio of albums. There “The Call Up” became their tenth top 40 single; in the southern end of the globe, “Police on my Back” was an Australian top 40. “The Magnificent Seven” got to #34 in the UK and became a dance club hit over here in North America.

As energetic and ambitious as they were, even the Clash had their limits, it seems. After this it took them a year and a half to put out the next album, the single LP Combat Rock.

November 4 – Clash Album Didn’t ‘Cut’ It

Just like the life of a party who doesn’t know when it’s time to call it a night and head home, there’s always going to be a band or two that just don’t know when to say ‘Thank you and goodnight.” Enter The Clash who put out their final album (save for compilations) on this day in 1985, Cut the Crap.

There’s no denying that The Clash were a good, maybe great, and influential band in the prior 7 years. Their London Calling is widely viewed as the best “punk” album ever and on a plethora of “best of the ’80s” lists. Their Combat Rock had opened the door and ears of the mainstream American public to them and had them on the stage in front of 100 000 or more people at the US Festival in California, two years prior. But by 1985, things were a bit different. Singer/lyricist/driving force Joe Strummer was bored and grieving his parents who’d died recently. And he had gotten to despise his right-hand man, guitarist/composer Mick Jones. Strummer has likened having Jones around to dragging a dead dog around, and Jones says “our relationship was bad! The band was dissipating.” So Strummer suddenly fired Jones and set out to record this album with a few new members and turning over producing duties (as well as much of the music writing) to their manager Bernie Rhodes. Rhodes had done an admirable job of managing the group’s affairs, but he was no songwriter and didn’t know his way around the studio too well. As Strummer would later say, “I f**d off to the mountains of Spain , sobbing under a palm tree while Bernie had to deliver a record.” They attempted to make a straight-ahead old-fashioned punk record (thereby turning their backs on much of what made them special, ie their musical talent and ability to infuse various genres such as reggae and pop into their sound).

The result was almost universally panned. Although it did go gold in the UK and the single “This Is England” (which was regarded as OK and the album highlight) hit #24 there, the album tanked in North America and with critics. Rolling Stone at the time gave it a mere 2-stars, regarding it as “stiff and unconvincing” and noting that while they had previously been “a blueprint for the Eighties black-white crossover”, this one was the “sound of The Clash just blowing smoke.” Later allmusic would also give it 2-stars. That made it the lowest-scored album the band put out and while they note The Clash were the “most important punk band” and important provocateurs, they regarded this as something like a “parody of a classic punk band” and a “sad end to one of the greatest rock & roll bands.” In short, it wasn’t The Clash despite the lead-off track telling us it was.

Strummer would soon go on to other musical adventures including a band which carried on the eclecticism of London Calling and Sandanista-era Clash, The Mescaleros while Jones formed the well-received ’80s post-punk band BAD (Big Audio Dynamite).

September 20 – Pennie Got Luckier Than The Fender

This day in 1979 turned out to be a big day for another of the original Brit-punk bands, The Clash.

Although they didn’t necessarily think they were having a great day at the time. they were on their second North American tour and playing New York City for the third time, at the Palladium, and the crowd seemed subdued and unenthusiastic. Not only that, but bouncers at the venue kept anyone who was “into it” seated and stopped people from getting up and dancing. This ended up making bassist Paul Simonon mad and he ended up smashing his guitar. His trusty Fender bass, as well as his watch, was ruined…but photographer Pennie Smith captured the scene on film.

The image became the iconic cover of their next, and best, album, London Calling. Rolling Stone ranked it the fifth greatest record cover ever in 2011 (Sgt. Pepper topped their list.) Around the same time, Q called it the “greatest rock & roll photo ever.” The bass is now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the band apparently liked the photo. So much they got Smith to take their less-spontaneous photo for the cover of Combat Rock three years later. Smith however, didn’t like the shot, thinking she messed up because it’s not very in focus… she was moving around the stage at the time, shooting with a wide angle lens, and had to be darting around to keep out of their way and the way of flying guitar bits!

Simonon for what it’s worth, was usually the laid back one of the group and says he at least regretted ruining his favorite four-string. “If I’d been really smart,” he told an interviewer, “I would’ve got the spare bass out as it wasn’t as good!” Bad waste of an instrument, good photo, great album that lives on over four decades on.

August 23 – The Music Was Hot In Ontario 40 Years Back

By this time in summer, the average temperature in Toronto is only in the 70s, but this day 40 years back was a Heatwave“. That was the name of a major outdoor concert dubbed the “New Wave Woodstock” that took place at Mosport race track about 40 miles outside of the city this day in 1980.

The posters for the event (tickets- $20, $30 on day of event) called it “the 1980s Big Beat Rock & Roll Party” and advertised The Clash, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Rockpile and more. The event drew close to 100 000 and had a few glitches – The Clash failed to show (some reports suggest they couldn’t get through customs at the border), and the final 15 000 or so attendees got in free due to some radio stunt pulled by Dan Akroyd offering free admission. Nonetheless, the fans liked full sets from then up-and-coming acts like The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, B-52s, Talking Heads and locals Teenage Head and the Kings.

Surprisingly, although CFNY-FM played this music extensively in Toronto, the event was put together by American promoter John Brower who noted “I don’t think this show would sell anyplace but here…this is the strongest new wave market on the continent.” It was a success in many ways – attendance was great, it boosted the careers of several young acts and didn’t have any major problems or health concerns unlike the original Woodstock. But Brower ended up losing money on it, perhaps because of the obvious oversight. The festival wasn’t officially recorded and thus no albums or concert videos came out afterwards.

August 21 – Punk’s Not-So-Ordinary Joe

Even were he around still, he’d be no “Young Turk.” Which is fine because I might guess that Rod Stewart song wasn’t likely Joe Strummer‘s favorite. Joe was born 68 years ago today, as John Mellor, in Turkey.

His Indian-born dad was a British diplomat and thus Strummer got to live in Turkey, Africa and Mexico before being sent to a boarding school “where thick rich people send their thick rich kids” at age nine. That experience and the experience of seeing so much of the world left a mark on the lad as did the suicide of his neo-Nazi brother; the decidedly left-leaning Joe had to go identify the three-day old corpse. Joe started to go to college for art but immersed himself in the music world instead, joining bands like Vultures and the 101ers, who were quite popular in London in the mid-’70s. “I know the 101ers were good, but they were just too old…” he said in 1977, after he’d joined Mick Jones in the London SS which soon became The Clash.

The Clash’s influence is well-known, what became of Joe after the band broke up not as widely. He soon made amends with Jones (whom he’d fired from the Clash) and helped produce Jones’ new band, Big Audio Dynamite‘s second album. He dabbled in acting roles, sat in for Shane MacGowan as singer of the Pogues on one tour and put out solo albums before starting the wildly-diverse sounding Mescaleros. Of them, he said perhaps prophetically in 2000, “this is my Indian Summer. I’m far more dangerous now because I just don’t care.”

Strummer died quietly at home at age 50 from an undiagnosed heart defect. Fender issued 1500 limited edition Stratocasters like he played for charity and his widow Lucinda helped organize the Joe Strummer foundation, a charity dedicated to helping people be empowered through music globally.

May 14 – Joe & Mick’s ‘Combat’-ive Personalities Clashed Well

Selling out or getting the message across better? Either way, The Clash hit it big with their fifth album, Combat Rock, released this day in 1982. The band which had become the critic’s favorite got their first taste of real North American success with an album that was partly recorded in, and largely written about America.

Not that their take on it was all positive mind you. “Rock the Casbah” reflected the hypocrisy and xenophobia on both sides of the ocean, with the American culture infiltrating the Middle East despite mutual mistrust. “Straight to Hell”, regarded now by fans as one of their best songs, is about kids American troops fathered in Vietnam then left behind. (“Sean Flynn” was also a Vietnam-themed song, Flynn being a journalist – son of Errol Flynn, no less – who disappeared on assignment covering the war.)

If nothing else, the Clash were hyper-productive at the time. Following in the footsteps of London Calling, a double album, and Sandanista, a triple, it meant the band had churned out six LPs worth of material in less than three years. And, to top that off, some members of the band wanted Combat Rock to be a double as well. Continue reading “May 14 – Joe & Mick’s ‘Combat’-ive Personalities Clashed Well”

February 29 – Bonus Tracks For Bonus Day

February 29th, “Leap Day”, is rather a bonus day, so how about some bonus songs for the day?

Generally to state the obvious, when you look at the back of an album cover, you either see a listing of all the songs on the record, or else cryptically nothing at all – let the buyer beware. But there are a few examples of hidden, or “bonus” tracks – songs not listed on the album notes but present for the patient listener who lets the LP or CD run to the end.

Take for instance, Crowded House. Their third album, Woodface, lists 14 songs. But the listener who was somehow preoccupied and didn’t get the album off the player when it “ended” found they were still there… with a part of a rowdy, drunken-sounding track called “I’m Still Here” following the official last song “How Will You Go?” after a 30-second silence. A 2016 reissue of the album had the entire 2:19” version of “I’m Still Here” at its end. go figure.

When R.E.M. signed with Warner Brothers, they wanted to change things up just a little from what they’d done with IRS Records previously. Apparently Michael Stipe told the others “not to write any more R.E.M.-style songs” for Green, their late-’88 debut on the big label. The result was a little infusion of mandolins, a record that was “a little more upbeat lyrically as well as musically” Mike Mills suggests and saw them break more ground into becoming a major international act with hits like “Stand” and “Orange Crush.” And it also saw them tease their fans with an almost unlisted song. The album back lists 10 songs, by track number, title and length, and a mysterious “3:15” listed after the tenth track.

That three-plus minutes was a very good little track with a catchy backbeat that opens with the upbeat statement “the world is big, but so are we” and Mike Mills adding a nice harmony to Stipe’s usual vocals. The song is quite good, but lacks an obvious chorus and is typically simply title “Untitled”, although Diffuser went a step deeper in their research and found the band had copy-righted it as simply “11.” Michael Stipe says of it, “at the time it was really cool to have unlisted, ‘hidden’ tracks for the fans.” Apparently that might have been the plan right from the get-go; Mike Mills told us at A Sound Day that he doesn’t remember them ever having even a working title for the song.

Probably the best-known example of the “hidden” track in rock though is the last track on The Clash‘s London Calling … a song which amazingly would go on to be their first North American hit single, despite not showing up on the album listing. “Train In Vain” was a danceable, hummable little track everyone liked … which is probably why it got added at last minute to the record. This wasn’t an obvious ploy to be cute by The Clash, mind you. The song had been cut and was supposed to be distributed as a bonus with the NME magazine, a great way to add sales to a publication But at the last moment the mag balked on it, citing some problems with cost and manufacturing a “flexi” single so it was an orphan. CBS Records and the band decided to add it to the pressing at last minute, but the covers had already been printed… without “Train in Vain.” If you have a newer copy of the LP or the CD, you likely will find the error has been rectified and it is no longer a hidden song.

So there you have it, three bonus songs for your bonus day! “Leap” to your collection and blow off the dust and maybe you’ll find even more examples yourself.