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