London Calling, The Clash
May 31, 1980
By now, London Calling, the current album by England’s The Clash, is not only a critical success, it’s a commercial one as well. Last time I looked, it was moving up the charts at the bottom of the Top Forty, sandwiched between a country and a disco album. I’m not going to add much to the acclaim here,, except to say that it’s justified. Nation readers who last bought a rock album when Bob Dylan wasn’t a Christian and Mick Jagger gave clenched-fist salutes in concerts might think about buying this one. Not only are The Clash’s politics correct (that is, leftist) they’re also unpredictable and reflective enough to make interesting songs. At the very least, even if you don’t buy or listen to the record, its success is interesting in itself. The all-purpose qualifying phrase of the well-rounded, left-wing academic of the late 1970s—“or in rock, as with say Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen”— should probably now be amended to add “or say The Clash.”
In a sense, this problem–that rock since the late 1960s has increased in sales while declining in significance–has been central to the careers of both Springsteen and The Clash. But where Springsteen was (and is) the great rock traditionalist, loyal to his New Jersey working-class locale and cast in a sort of heroic male literary mold, The Clash were (and are) England’s greatest left-wing punk band, and with the collapse of the Sex Pistols, the best punk band period. Punks got a lot of their original energy from despising the idea of rock history, with its conventions, refinements and elder statemen. So it’s pretty remarkable that The Clash have been able to make a record that ranges so widely in mood and subject matter, including references to rock history (the cover deliberately echoes the cover of Elvis Presely’s first album), while maintaining their dramatic desperation and left-wing bite.
Emotionally The Clash’s apocalyptic onslaught-of-fascism outlook is closer to our Revolutionary Communist Party than to our Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee or the Sierra Club. In England, where white people under 30 are a lot worse off than they are here, connections between the punk-new-wave music scene and the left are common. On this side of the Atlantaic, however, The Clash’s audience is far more likely to share the band’s urgency about the state of rock-and-roll than about the state of the economy; or if it does share the politics, it is most likely already part of the hip left.
These contradtions between the band and their American audience are what make the success of London Calling so interesting. After recording two acclaimed but very punkish albums, The Clash have shown themselves capable of making a more “accessible” album without losing their original base. Cuts from London Calling are getting played on the influential mainstream rock FM stations which are normally hostile to punk. The Clash even have a hit single–“Train In Vain.” Will this be the opening for The Clash to break through to the disenfranchised white kids in this country who might resemble the ones they often sing about in their own? Or will the frightening level of success accorded rock acts here inevitably bend them into the sort of ritualized rebels who dominate much teen-age rock?
In the United States The Clash have no clear political connections or milieu to help them maintain definition in the face of success, but they do have one thing going for them. Their songs have political content. Another of England’s successful punks (or new-wavers) Elvis Costello, has gotten a lot of mileage out of being gifted and surly, but he faces a crisis of authenticity now that rock goddess Linda Ronstadt has covered three of his songs on her new album. Most Clash songs would hold their political pizzaz even if sung by Engelbert Humperdink in Las Vegas.
America’s greatest surviving punk band, The Ramones, have had the misfortune of releasing their “more accessible” album, End of the Century at the same time as London Calling. Originally an essence-of-rock-with-no-fringes band with simple-minded but ironic lyrics which depicted lower middle class Queens, The Ramones have turned here to rock”s original Wall of Sound producer, Phil Spector. This is not the first time the lavish Spector has been matched with pop music minimalists, and it’s also not the first time the combination has failed. Here the Spector sound adds nothing new, and for the most part The Ramones get caught recycling old ideas, occcassionally holding on to their irony, but more often than not slipping into hypocrisy or spite. Worst of all, this attempt at Big Sales hasn’t been a hit.
Hypocrisy, spite, and the reactionary politics The Ramones flirt with can all make great pop music so why don’t they here? Maybe because instead of expanding themselves, as The Clash have done, The Ramones have undercut themselves with this record. Their original conceits–dumbbell pillhead teenagers as observers, suspicion of 1960s counterculture pretensions combined with affirmation of its ecstasy, group image over personal identity and humor in the depravity of everyday life–all offered opportunities for new directions in the late 1970s. But when the Ramones failed to catch on despite constant touring, they experienced an irony I guess they didn’t enjoy: their “simple-minded” approach didn’t have mass appeal; it was too arty. Most kids preferred something with a little more pretense.
By stepping out on this record as plain old good-time high school Joes or sentimental (and not even tacky) lovers, they call the whole act into question. Hey,what about those lobotomized teenagers sniffing glue? And they sacrifice their self-deprecatory humor, which had the special virtue of getting closer to class feelings in this country than any amount of political rhetoric ever has.
In their prime, The Ramones produced one of the wittiest and most energetic concerts I’ve ever seen, but they moved at a frenetic pace they couldn’t maintain. And as The Clash have shown, although attitude usually provides the initial excitement in rock, over the long haul, ideas still offer more lasting power.
I’ll stand up for this review, over 40 years later, as a good snapshot from a lost moment. Taking the longer view, I marvel now at the staying power of the Ramones, how they remain vivid as punk pioneers and generous friends of oddballs, losers, weirdos, outcasts, and unhappy adolescents beyond the time and place of their active career, For more from that perspective, take a look at Why The Ramones Matter by Donna Gaines.
Tom Smucker 2022